Politics

The Red Metronome: Prague’s Communist Past

Audrey Burns

A red metronome on the site of a former monument of Stalin often lies still, as if the weight of Prague’s history has given it too much baggage to continue the heartbeat.

Looming mournfully over the mismatched medieval roofs of Prague is a red metronome. Some think of the metronome as the slow tick of growing democracy in the Czech Republic, as it was erected in 1991 after the fall of communism over the ruins of a giant monument of Stalin. Ironically, the metronome often lies still, as if the weight of Prague’s history has given it too much baggage to continue the heartbeat. This is a source of constant amusement to the pessimistic Czechs. The story of the red metronome in Prague is the building of a new future that can’t possibly escape the old.

Stalin’s statue in Letná Park was no small feat in sculpting exercise. The monument took five and a half years to build and was reported to be the largest group statue in Europe at the time of its unveiling in 1955. The statue weighed 17,000 tons and was heavy with depictions of “good comrades” working together under the auspices of their leader, who was looking contentedly into the future as any good leader should. The design of the structure was to include room to host party events and, one day, house a museum dedicated to Stalin. Stalin had died two years before the monument was unveiled, so Prague did not become the jewel of Stalin’s eye as a result. “The meat queue” was the city’s nickname for the monument, as the workers lined behind Stalin reminded them of the interminable lines they waited in for everything as per the supply/demand equation of Moscow’s communism.

Otakar Švec's monument (photo from WikiMedia.org)

The monument was seeped with a dark stain from its beginning. Some stories are too poetic not to be true. The sculptor commissioned to build the statue, Otakar Švec, was born in 1892, and lived through not only the communist occupation of the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) but also the Nazi occupation. His works before the Stalin monument were considered decidedly modern (dubbed “futuristic”); bronze images of curving motorcycles, a face split down the middle, hollow inside. The fated artist of the Stalin monument was chosen in a contest Švec entered in a nonchalant wish to win second place. Winners always went to pre-fixed party members, after all. To his surprise his entry won, and Švec ended up directing hundreds of Czechs as they dutifully chiseled and hammered to bring the sculptor’s vision to life.

Švec lit the gas in his kitchen stove and committed suicide weeks before the monument’s unveiling. Švec’s suicide is attributed to political stress, or perhaps guilt, his wife had in fact killed herself in the same manner prior to his suicide. Radio Praha also reported the man who posed for Švec’s Stalin in the monument fell into alcoholism and died three years after the statue’s unveiling in 1955, he was unable to stand people calling him “Stalin”.

Stalinism had begun to fall out of favor even at the time of the monument’s unveiling. Communism still reigned supreme, of course, but communist leaders wished to back away from the cult of Stalin and the associated purges and gulags. In 1962, Nikita Krushchev was leader in Moscow, and although he had a lengthy bureaucratic career toeing the party line under Stalin, Kurshchev was eager to distance himself from the “man of steel”. Orders came from Moscow to get rid of the Stalin monument that watched over Prague.

On a temperate October day in 1962, Prague residents (“Praguers”) were told to stay indoors. It’s one thing to move a political party away from prior actions, it’s another to prostrate its mistakes full-fledged in the faces of its citizenry. Praguers remember it took many botched attempts to finally decimate the monument by dynamite. Over 1,763 pounds of dynamite were used and memories are full of smoke-filled streets, giant booms, and then the small freedom of one less man watching every move below and your personal use of ration tickets.

In looking at the destruction of the monument, the feelings of Praguers on that day make up the story of the red metronome just as much as the actual facts. So if Praguers remember the party chief being decapitated by the first explosion made from the dynamite and his head plopping into the Vltava River, or, before a full year had passed, the driver that had carted the debris of the monument off dropping dead, that builds the myth and importance of the story.

Two lone torches then remained of the monument that haunted Prague for a mere seven years. The Czechs finally eased off the yoke of communism from Moscow with the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the relatively peaceful transition from communism to democracy. The literary writer, Václav Havel, became the first democratically elected president. The “Velvet Divorce” split Czech and Slovakia in 1993.

The question of what to do with the site of the monument has been much debated in the city of Prague. For years the torches were solitary memories of what had come before. The now democratic officials of Prague tossed around many ideas for the paved space in Letná Park, including an aquarium. In 1991, Vratislav Karel Novák, a kinetic artist, designed and constructed a metronome on the spot of the monument.

The metronome is red and over 75 feet tall. The idea behind the metronome was to connect Prague’s past, present and future, with kinetic energy that would propel the metronome to expel its tempo as it details the steady tick of time. The choice of the color red cannot have been accidental, perhaps meant to represent the color of the communist party or the blood spilt by Czechs.

Photo by Audrey Burns

Again, the metronome has been known to lie still. Czechs refer to the purpose of the metronome as a “symbol of democracy”, and smirk when their eyes fall up upon the keeper of time sitting silent at one side. The Czechs have known a country’s lifetime of occupation, the Romans, the Nazis, the communists… so the intricacies of government folly are nothing new to them.

In fact, in a rousing display of capitalism, in 1996, Michael Jackson began a world tour in Prague, hyping the tour by erecting a statue of himself on the spot where Stalin once majestically observed the city. Today, graffiti coats the area of the red metronome. Skateboarders have made a skating park out of the paved pavilion and do tricks on the steps. The park curves from the metronome up to the Prague Castle and offers breathtaking views of the medieval city center and the river. The red metronome ticks, or it doesn’t tick. Time passes, regardless.

Audrey Burns is a writer currently working in the field of immigration. She is a graduate of Syracuse University's Writing Program and has conducted research in language acquisition at the University of Rochester. Her work has appeared in JEPPA, Children Churches & Daddies, Democrat and Chronicle, Literary Traveler and she served as editor on the publication Pro(se)letariots: The Writing of the Trans-Atlantic Worker Writer Federation.

Audrey Burns is a writer currently working in the field of immigration. She is a graduate of Syracuse University's Writing Program and has conducted research in language acquisition at the University of Rochester. Her work has appeared in JEPPA, Children Churches & Daddies, Democrat and Chronicle, Literary Traveler and she served as editor on the publication Pro(se)letariots: The Writing of the Trans-Atlantic Worker Writer Federation. Metrodome photos by Audrey Burn

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