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In Prague, a bleeding monument reopens old wounds

Monument to Marshal Konev splattered with red paint, and sprayed with the following words: “No to the bloody Marshal! We won't forget.” Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission

As Prague residents mark the 51st anniversary of the Soviet invasion of then Czechoslovakia, a new controversy has emerged following the defacing with red paint of a statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev in the municipal district of Prague 6.

The statue has been similarly vandalised before, but on the night from August 21 into August 22, a day after the commemoration of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, this time the red paint was accompanied by the words “Ne krvavému maršálovi! Nezapomeneme [ “No to the bloody Marshal! We won't forget.] and “45”, “'56”, “'61”, “'68”, clearly references the years 1945, 1956, 1961 and 1968.

The base Konev's statue defaced with the numbers '56, '61 and '68. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Following the defacing of the statue, the Prague 6 City Hall authorities have since made the following statement on their Facebook page:

“Koněv je zase pomalovaný…Abychom poškozování pomníku zabránili, už jsme toho udělali hodně a přestože desky vysvětlují, co všechno Koněv za svůj život „dokázal“, vox populi mluví jasně. Dejvice Koněva nechtějí. S ruskou ambasádou jsme v minulosti jednali o přemístění sochy a dokonce jim nabízeli, že si Koněva mohou odvézt na nedalekou zahradu velvyslanectví. O odstranění budeme jednat znova, a dokud nezačnou jednat konstruktivně, zůstane socha pomalovaná. ”.

“Konev is once again painted…We have already done a lot to prevent damages to the monument, and even though we have plaques explaining what Konev “achieved” during his life, the vox populi speaks clearly. We have in the past discussed with the Russian embassy the possibility of relocating the statue and offered them to take it to the nearby garden of the Russian Embassy. We will discuss it again, but until they don’t adopt a more constructive approach, the statue will remain painted”.

Konev's contested legacy

While some consider Konev a ‘liberator’ of Prague at the end of WWII, for others he is the mastermind of the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. The dispute has now gone international, as Moscow reacts to a series of events it perceives as denigrating the Soviet Union's role in recent Czechoslovak history.

Until the end of communism in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, and in 1991 in the USSR, the official narrative surrounding Konev was rather straightforward: twice awarded the highest distinction of Hero of the Soviet Union, he had liberated most of Eastern and Central Europe, and most famously Prague, from the Nazi occupation. He was celebrated as a hero in textbooks, films, monuments and children's books. He also symbolized the military and moral victory of the Soviet Union in WWII, as well as the price it paid in sacrificing an estimated 140,000 Soviet lives in Czechoslovakia alone. 

Marshal Konev entering Prague in May 1945. Photo used under CC BY-SA 3.0

But a fact previously known mostly to Czechoslovak and Soviet historians resurfaced publicly in the early 1990s: Konev was neither the first, nor the only liberator of Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1945. 

The first group to take up arms and strike back at the remaining Nazi German forces still controlling Prague was in fact the Vlasov army, a group of Russians who voluntarily joined Nazi Germany to fight the Soviet Union then turned against Hitler in 1945 while stationed in Prague, where they ended up fighting alongside members of the Czechoslovak resistance

Also downplayed or censored outright from Soviet and Czechoslovak textbooks and the official discourse was the role played by US forces who entered Czechoslovakia as early as April 19, 1945 weeks before Prague was liberated in May of that year. 

Both liberator and oppressor

Now a military star trusted by Stalin, Konev continued his career in two critical historical moments that helped Moscow secure its grip over Central Europe: he oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall, and headed the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising that sought to liberate that country from communist and Soviet influence. Several thousands died and an estimated 200,000 Hungarians fled their country in 1956. It also emerged in the 1990s that Konev had led reconnaissance work to facilitate the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

This led to an initial controversy when in 2018, the local authorities of the Prague 6 district decided to affix a new plaque to Konev’s monument, which was erected in 1980 in then Socialist Czechoslovakia. The text of the new plaque acknowledges Konev’s role in 1945, but also mentions his roles in the construction of the Berlin Wall and in Hungary in 1956. 

New plaque affixed to Konev's statue in 2018 by the Prague 6 municipality. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Decommunization 2.0

In Central and Eastern Europe, the fall of communism initially manifested a government-coordinated “decommunization” of the urban landscape: monuments, statues and other symbols were taken down; cities, squares and streets renamed to erase references to communism.

But citizens rapidly reappropriated urban space. One notorious example was the painting in pink of the first tank to have allegedly entered Prague in May 1945, by now world-famous Czech artist David Černý, who was then just 23. The monument was removed after protests from the Russian embassy and guardians of Konev's image in the Czech republic. 

Today, guerilla art tactics are amplified by social media. In Prague, the image of Konev has become a magnet for strong reactions to what opponents of President Miloš Zeman's pro-Moscow policy see as a growing and threatening Russian influence. 

Sign for Konev's Street in Prague 3.  Photo by Filip Noubel. Used with permission.

In July 2019, a debate was initiated by residents of Prague 3 district, where one of the main streets is called Koněvova (Konev’s street in Czech). Prague 3 City Hall took heed and is currently investigating the case to see if the street could be renamed, in light the controversy surrounding Konev's legacy.

Moscow's reaction

The sentiment in Russia, on the part of both the government and a large section of the public, is that Czech authorities are ‘rewriting history’ and thus insulting the memory of the Soviet people—and therefore the Russian people.

The Russian embassy in Prague tweeted photos of the splattered monument.

The tweet also links to a statement on Facebook saying:

Атака вандалов произошла на фоне решения мэрии Праги не возвращать на свое историческое место на Старомнестской ратуше памятную доску, посвященную освобождению города в 1945 г. подразделениями 1-го Украинского фронта под командованием И.С.Конева. Своими действиями пражское руководство напрямую способствует вытеснению из общественной памяти чешского народа правды об освободительной миссии Красной Армии в ходе Второй мировой войны, о том, кто на самом деле освобождал Чехословакию и спас Прагу от уничтожения.

The act of vandalism took place in the context of the decision by the Prague Mayor's Office not to return to its historical place on the Old Town Square City Hall the memorial plaque dedicated to the liberation of the city in 1945 by the troops of the 1st Ukrainian front under the command of I.S.Konev. Through such actions the leadership of Prague directly contributes to the elimination from the public memory of the Czech nation of the truth about the liberating mission of the Red Army during WWII, and about who indeed freed Czechoslovakia and saved Prague from destruction.

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