Letna Park

I took a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic over the holidays in 2004, partly to see the path the student demonstrators took the night the Velvet Revolution started. (I’ve written about the Velvet Revolution here before). But I also wanted to see Letna Park, mainly because that’s where the protests which brought down the Communist regime were. But also because it was the former home of a mammoth statue of Stalin the Czech Communists built.

Apartment buildings around Letna Park
Apartment buildings around Letna Park

It’s a big park in a residential district, leading up to a cliff which faces the old city of Prague across the Vltava river. The apartment buildings which flank one part of it looked very familiar to me, like places I’ve driven through in Cleveland and Montreal: rectangular and non-descript and anonymous, but not badly kept. The design you need for snow is apparently similar architecturally. The park itself is a bit of a hike to get through, but it was a pleasant day for early January…and much, much warmer than I’d planned for. I brought my full Arctic survival gear, not really trusting my ability to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit or that average temperatures in Central Europe in January are that mild. I would have been fine in a light jacket. At the height of the protests, over a million people packed into the park. That’s well over ten percent of the population of the country. Even a dictatorship can’t stand up to that kind of pressure for long.

Stalin statue, before
Stalin statue, before

 

The statue of Stalin was intended to be a monument and a warning, and it was built on Sovet scale, which is to say, shockingly unbelievably unnecessarily massive. So massive that they completed it a few years after Stalin fell out of favor. So massive that when they decided they needed to get rid of it they discovered that they couldn’t budge the concrete with tools. So massive that they ultimately ended up dynamiting it in the middle of the night.

Stalin statue, after
Stalin statue, after

 

When I was there the plinth the statue sat on was still implausibly huge, and it had a giant metronome sitting on top of it. The metronome was a public art project, and it had been a working sculpture during the Czech Republic’s very close referendum on joining the European Union–I was told it was a running joke that the metronome represented “Yes” and “No” on the referendum.

Metronome and plinth of Stalin statue
Metronome and plinth of Stalin statue

From the plinth you can see all the major sites of Prague from a different and lovely angle: The Castle, Charles Bridge, the old city, the river. It’s gorgeous, and a short tram ride from all those places. And the hotels in that neighborhood are also pretty inexpensive. Worth a side trip.

Vltava River and Charles Bridge viewed from a cliff
Vltava and Charles Bridge from Letna Park
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Important sights in Prague


Wenceslas Square


Plinth of the Stalin Statue. That is, everything on the flat space and more you can’t see used to be hundreds of tons of stone statue of Stalin; it was finished shortly after his death and was difficult to remove when the winds changed under Khruschev. Ultimately they had to use dynamite. In Letna Park, where the demonstrations which brought down the regime happened.


John Lennon Wall. The US Ambassador put this under his personal protection in 1989. Peace and freedom-themed graffiti from every part of the world.


Secret police prison. Now a hostel. If you ask for the Presidential Suite you get Vaclav Havel’s 8 x 8 cell.

Velvet Revolution

When I was in Prague in 2005 I went for a walk, following the route of the protesters who were ambushed by the police on November 17th, 1989.

The protest started out as a legal assembly in honor of a Czech student who died during the German occupation in World War II, at the Visegrad cemetery just outside of town. This is the cemetery where Czech heroes like Smetana are buried. The group decided to head to Wenceslas Square (that’s “Vaclav” in Czech) to demonstrate for democracy. Most of the group of students walked down to the Vltava and along the river, but other groups went in different directions. Map of routes—I followed the green route.


View of Prague from cemetery


Smetana’s gravesite


Down the hill


Cobblestones by the Vltava. Prague Castle is on the hill at top right.


Railway bridge over the Vltava


When the students got to the National Theater they turned downtown


Narodni Street


When they got to this intersection they realized the police had surrounded them. Hundreds were injured when the riot police attacked them with clubs.


Memorial


A few doors down is a jazz club, which President Havel took Bill Clinton to when he visited in 1994.