Monument to “Russian peacekeepers” at Prague cemetery stirs controversy

Photo: CTK

A monument to fallen soldiers, recently unveiled at a major Prague cemetery, has provoked some strong reactions from Czech politicians and other public figures. The group behind the monument, which bears Russian and Czech inscriptions, says it is tribute to all soldiers who have died in modern-era peacekeeping missions. But some believe the memorial also celebrates troops who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Photo: CTK
The monument, in the form of a simple granite obelisk, was quietly unveiled at Prague’s Olšany Cemetery on February 15, the 25th anniversary of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Financed by Afghanvet, an obscure Prague-based association of Russian veterans of the Afghan war, the monument is dedicated, in Russian and Czech, to “soldiers killed in international and peacekeeping missions”.

Although not specifically dedicated to Russian soldiers, the language of the inscription as well as the fact it was paid for by Russian veterans, led many to believe it also glorifies Soviet troops who died during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

These allegations were rejected by the head of the Afghanvet association, Oleg Goncharov, who spoke to Czech TV.

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 | Photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
“We erected the memorial to honour all those who fell in modern-era peacekeeping missions and armed conflicts – in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq.”

Organisers told the news website that the Czech Senate and Defence Ministry had supported the project, a claim both have denied. Deputy Senate chair Přemysl Sobotka said the monument disgraced the memory of victims of the Soviet occupation.

Some MPs also criticized the fact that Senator Jaroslav Doubrava, a former member of the Communist Party, attended its unveiling, as did a one-time advisor to President Miloš Zeman.

Igor Zoloratev, who is Russian by origin, is deputy chair of the government’s Council for National Minorities. He has called for the removal of the monument.

“For us, the text on the monument brings to mind the thought that these were soldiers who provided the ‘international and brotherly assistance’ to Czechoslovakia in 1968, to Afghanistan in the 1980s, to Georgia in 2008, and to Ukraine today.”

Photo: CTK
The memorial was authorized by the cemetery’s administration, a section of Prague City Hall. They first rejected Mr Zolotarev’s demand for its removal, arguing it was not their job to profile whoever the monument was dedicated to.

However, on Wednesday, cemetery management backed down and admitted they had made a mistake. Meanwhile, the plaques with the inscriptions have been removed from the obelisk, although it is not clear who took them off.