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.
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.
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.
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.
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.