Thirty years after the collapse of communism, the fate of a Prague district’s iron-gray statue to Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev, the commander of Soviet troops who helped end the city’s Nazi occupation, is proving a source of tension between the Czech Republic and Russia.
General Ivan Konev, commander of the 1st Ukrainian Army, pulled into Prague on May 9, 1945, one day after Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies. A two-time Hero of the Soviet Union, he went on to become the commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact.
In 1980, when then-Czechoslovakia was under communist rule and a member of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact, Prague erected a statue to Konev as a liberator from the Nazis.
But that official honor is one many Czechs would like to forget. The statue has become a frequent target for vandalism by those who see the marshal more as the representative of yet another authoritarian regime.
On September 12, the council of Prague 6, the city district that contains the Konev statue, voted to remove the monument and replace it with a remembrance of all the fighters who, between May 5-9, 1945, liberated Prague from more than six years of Nazi rule. In turn, the marshal would take up residence in a museum.
In response, the Russian embassy declared itself “outraged” over the decision and warned that local officials “will bear all responsibility for the developing situation.”
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek stated on September 18 that the statue would not be moved unless a “worthy” location is found for it, Radio Prague International reported. He claimed ignorance of any planned Russian retaliation over the Prague district council’s decision and emphasized that the statue’s relocation would not violate the country’s friendship agreement with Russia.
Terming the decision a “crude” violation of that treaty, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky had likened Ondrej Kolar, the Prague 6 mayor who had proposed the statue’s removal, to a regional official of the Nazi Party -- a remark that, prompted the Czech Foreign Ministry to advise Russian Ambassador Аleksandr Zmeyevsky that the statue debate “is an internal affair of the Czech Republic.”
Critics hold Marshal Konev responsible for the introduction of the Stalin-era secret police, who are deemed responsible, among other abuses, for the post-war disappearance of Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian migrants with Czech citizenship.
Konev, who died in 1973, went on to play roles in some of the more notorious moments in Soviet foreign policy. He served as commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact during the Soviet Union’s 1956 military crackdown on Hungary and was commander of Soviet forces in East Germany during the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall.
Some Czech historians charge that a military delegation Konev led to Czechoslovakia ahead of the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 invasion of the country gathered intelligence about the Czechoslovak ability to resist such an incursion.
Nonetheless, other Czechs hold an altogether friendly view of the Red Army general.
In a desperate attempt to preserve the monument, one man, the grandson of a World War II veteran, recently tied himself to the statue for the night. A Facebook page for statue supporters has 1,271 followers.
Czech President Milos Zeyman, an advocate of close ties with Moscow, has termed the attempt to remove the statue “a shame.”
“If they take this statue away, then, it’s possible that Mr. Mayor will start to build underground garages on this site,” he speculated on September 12 to TV Barrandov, a Czech outlet.
Zeyman instead expressed support for a proposal that the statue be taken to the park of one of the “military installations” located in Prague 6, RIA Novosti reported.
Prague 6's Kolar had proposed that the statue go into a garden at the Russian embassy, but, in an interview with Current Time, Marshal Konev’s daughter, Natalya Koneva, rejected such ideas as inappropriate.
“[H]e wasn't liberating the embassy ...” she said.