As we look up Revoluční to the south, we soon see the arched windows and crenellations of what is today the Palladium shopping center (then Josefská Kasárna, barracks for the Czechoslovak Army). Further around, other familiar buildings pass by, as Prague’s many famous turrets and spires can be seen through the haze. The twin gothic spires of the 13th-century Church of Our Lady before Týn float past, and far in the distance on a light gray hilltop is the Petřínská rozhledna of 1891 (a lookout tower inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris), which marks the hill of Petřín. After the second rooftop television antenna, we see what is probably Prague’s most identifiable landmark, the Prague Castle, Hradčany. Then, we come to a mystery.
What in the devil’s name is that?
Those familiar with today’s skyline will no doubt remember that atop the hill at Letná (the red arrow in the photograph), which overlooks the city from one end of the bridge named for Svatopluk Čech, stands a monumental kinetic sculpture resembling a metronome. In 1959, however, something very different stood there. We can see, in the picture above, the rather dim outline of a fat slab of rock, but from this indistinct image taken from afar, we cannot decisively make out what it was.
For reference, this is what stands there now.
The kinetic sculpture entitled Stroj času (“Time Machine”), by the sculptor Vratislav Karel Novák, is popularly known as the “Prague Metronome,” although the mechanism is completely different from the familiar metronome invented by Mälzel. It was erected in 1991 to mark 100 years of industrial exhibitions in Prague, and reflects that theme in its use of industrial forms and materials. It was intended to be temporary, but, as we will see, the temporary can unintentionally become permanent, while things intended for permanence may endure only for a shockingly brief time.
And, as we will further see, this post will end with a bang.
A Monument for the AgesIn 1948, soon after the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia, a decision was made to honor Stalin for his 70th birthday with a large monument for a prominent location in Prague. But the internal politics of various planning committees and other forms of political oversight virtually guaranteed that the project would take longer than expected. Much, much longer. It was over a year before a competition for the design was officially announced in 1949.
The artists of Czechoslovakia were invited to volunteer their visions for the monument, one of which would be selected for construction on the hill at Letná, a high vantage point that overlooks the city center. It was widely understood that, if you were a sculptor of any prominence, your voluntary submission was, in fact, mandatory.
The story is told that the artist Otakar Švec, a recognized sculptor who had created a noteworthy body of work during the interwar period, sat down over a dinner of goulash with a painter friend, and asked him to sketch a design. Švec liked the sketch, made some adjustments, worked it into a proposal, and submitted it, probably believing the matter closed.
Švec did not anticipate winning the competition. He had simply assumed the outcome would be politically fixed, and was quite surprised when he found out that his design had been selected from among the 90 works submitted. The casual manner by which it was designed (apparently his friend had sketched it on a napkin) suggests that he did not really care to put a great deal of thought into the project.
Švec was suddenly trapped. The competition bureaucrats subjected him to an unending series of official visits to his studio with nitpicks and small adjustments with which Švec really had no choice but to comply. As the delays accumulated, it became clear that a simply large monument wasn’t enough; it would have to be gigantic. In fact, what started as a napkin sketch morphed into the largest monument to Stalin anywhere in the world, and the largest group statue in Europe.
It would represent Stalin at the front of two lines of figures, the ones on the left representing the Soviet Union, and on the right, Czechoslovakia. It was to be more than 15 meters high and 22 meters long. Alone, Stalin’s head would weigh 52 tons; the entire work, 17,000 tons. A team of over 600 people, artists, builders, stonemasons, were employed working on the monument. With an understructure of reinforced concrete and an outer cladding of high-quality Czech granite, it would be monument built for the ages.
Сталинский закон. Пётр Киричек, дуэт с С. Хромченко
The following eight photographs of the Stalin monument were taken from the Fortepan online community (fortepan.hu), a continuously growing Hungarian archive of private photographs shared voluntarily by their owners. They are published here for the first time outside of the Fortepan site.
The unfortunate Švec probably knew that he had given birth to a monster, and entertained doubts that it could ever be constructed. He believed, perhaps hoped, that not enough high-quality granite could ever be found, but eventually, matching granites were found in two places. At the time, no crane existed in Czechoslovakia that could manipulate such massive pieces of stone, and so German „Panzer“ tanks, spoils from the war, were used to move the stone blocks. Pressure from the Kremlin seems to have been strong. To accommodate the transport, roads into Prague had to be widened, and bridges strengthened, all at great expense.
The construction phase began in earnest on 25 February 1952, an official holiday called „Soviet Army Day“, when the first blocks of granite were laid. Stalin was dead within a year, but the work, of course, continued. It was too late to back out now. Švec apparently became increasing mortified at his involvement in the project. Once the small napkin sketch was enlarged to such epic proprortions, its deficiencies became glaringly obvious. Švec solved some of the design problems by simply putting flags in the figures’ hands to obscure empty surfaces not accounted for in the original sketch. One account states that he was humiliated one day when a taxi driver pointed out that the third figure on the Czech side of the sculpture, depicting a woman, seemed to be reaching for the crotch of the man following closely behind her.
The monument was finally dedicated on 1 May 1955. The verdict of Comrade Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev: “Too big, too late.” Local wags dubbed the monstrosity “fronta na maso” – the waiting line for meat, a none-too-subtle reference to food shortages under centralized planning. The artist, Otakar Švec, was not present at the ceremony. He had commited suicide a few weeks before, possibly due to the earlier suicide of his wife, combined with his remorse over the monstrosity he had created, perhaps in combination with the pressure of constant surveillance by the secret police.
The precise date of Švec’s death has seemed, until recently, difficult to pinpoint, and has enjoyed something of the quality of legend. Some sources have casually declared that he died the day before the dedication of the monument on 1 May, as if to state that the sculpture itself was the overriding reason. But the Czech Wikipedia entry on Švec marks the date as 4 April, while the English Wikipedia entry puts it on 3 March, a month earlier. The latter date seems to be a result based on Czech archival sources, uncovered as research for the book Gottland, by Mariusz Szczygieł, published in 2008, and so seems the most credible.
An Eternity of Only Eight YearsOn 25 February 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev addressed the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. with a report entitled, О культе личности и его последствиях (“On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”). It was a sharp denunciation of Stalin and the cult of personality that had formed around him. From that day on, the Prague Stalin monument’s days were suddenly numbered. It had swiftly been transformed from a prestigious and very public project into an outright embarrassment to the Communist Party. It would have to go.
Much as they no doubt would have liked to, the Party could not destroy such a massive structure in secret. Instead, they chose to undertake demolition of the monstrosity in a quick, cataclysmic manner using dynamite. In November, 1962, eight hundred kilograms of explosives were used to blow it up. Although the blasts were no doubt heard clearly throughout the vicinity of Letná, on this matter, the Czech press of the time were entirely silent. It was officially forbidden to document it photographically, but some images were created, nonetheless.
It took about a year to clear the platform of the pieces of the monument that remained after the detonations. The platform then stood embarrassingly vacant for the next 29 years, until the “Prague Metronome” was finally found its place there.
A Reservoir of Public MemoryAnother film gives us a look at the what happened after that. Made in 1963, not long after the demolition of the Stalin monument and after all the rubble was cleared away, the film Postava k podpírání (“A Character in Need of Support”), a Czech film that presaged the coming New Wave, was produced in Prague. The filmmakers Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt made prominent use of the vacant platform in a significant image near the end of the film, going so far as to overdub the sound of a man falling down some stairs while carrying a boiler tank (extending the sound from the previous scene) at precisely the moment when the stone Stalin, now gapingly absent, should have made its appearance.
This image seems to proclaim a change of polical weather; a loosening of the contraints, a thaw. The main character’s futile search for the elusive bureaucrat Josef Kilián, in an effort to free himself from the burden of a rented cat, was inevitably described as “kafkaesque” by foreign critics, and marked a fresh tolerance by the censors for implicit criticism of the workings of the state. Freed from Stalin’s stony panopticon gaze that once looked directly into the heart of the city from on high, the sun finally came out. The Czechoslovak New Wave would then blossom, and after it, a Czech Spring, born of optimism at the promise of a new “socialism with a human face.” We all now know of course that that optimism was, tragically, premature.
Interestingly, the public memory of the Stalin Monument has been much more resistant to destruction even than granite and reinforced concrete. There are people in Prague who still say “meet me at Stalin,” instead of “meet me at the metronome.” The site is a reservoir for public memory, and its vibe has been exploited again and again since the Velvet Revolution for politics and publicity. In the early 1990s, the pirate station Stalin Radio operated out of the chambers under the platform. In 1996, an effigy of Michael Jackson was placed there to promote a concert tour. During parliamentary elections in 1998, a billboard promoting Václav Klaus’ candidacy appeared there.
In honor of Švec’s work, and to commemorate the 51st anniversary of his suicide, the Czech artist Martin Zet in 2006 prepared the exhibition Osud národa - sochař Otakar Švec (“The Fate of a Nation - The Sculptor Otakar Švec”), including images of Švec’s earlier work. The venue for the exhibition was Artwall, the outdoor gallery mentioned in this post, and which lies on the riverside face of Letná hill.
In 2011, as part of the Prague Quadrennial festival, the words “The Tears of Stalin” appeared in six-meter-high white letters in front of the metronome, likely in part a reference to “Stalinovy slzy” (Stalin’s Tears) a brand of vodka sold in Prague tourist traps. Most recently, on the first day of the 2013 parliamentary elections held in October, a huge poster depicting Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, costumed as a Stalin-like dictator, was raised on the site by a group seeking to warn against the threat of a return to a communist government in the Czech Republic.
There was once a common saying in the Eastern Bloc, sometimes stated in earnest, sometimes with bitter irony, “Пока Сталин живёт, всё будет хорошо” (“As long as Stalin lives, everything will be all right”), which, these days, can be heard paraphrased thus: “So long as the metronome stands, all is well in Prague.” The Prague Stalin Monument is long gone, but none the less, the site atop Letná hill holds a strong political charge, still vivid in public memory, that has yet to dissipate.