An Ordeal in Prague

A worker covers a statue of Soviet marshal Ivan Konev after it was removed from its pedestal in Prague, on April 3, 2020. (David W Cerny / Reuters)
The removal of a statue and what it entailed

Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ndrej Kolar was under police protection from April to July. He was also under police protection last year, in the fall. This year, he was in hiding for two weeks. Police detected threats to his life from the Russian government. There were also threats from Czechs — Czechs in sympathy with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, of whom there are a great many.

Kolar is a mayor of Prague. “A mayor”? Yes, there are 58 of them, in a sense: 57 district mayors and one overall mayor, or “lord mayor,” to use a British term. Kolar is mayor of the sixth district, known as “Prague 6.”

Three of the mayors have required police protection. In addition to Kolar, there is Zdenek Hrib, who is the overall mayor, and there is also Pavel Novotny, another district mayor (in an area called “Reporyje”). All three men have offended the Kremlin in some way.

What did Hrib do? The Prague City Council renamed the square in front of the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, with the mayor’s backing. Nemtsov was the main opposition leader in Russia, murdered within sight of the Kremlin in February 2015. Other capitals have a Boris Nemtsov Square hard by the Russian embassy as well — Washington, D.C., for example.

In addition to irking the Kremlin, Hrib irks the Chinese government. He has met with Chinese dissidents. He has established a sister-city relationship with Taipei. He has flown the Tibetan flag. And more.

Hrib is firmly in the tradition of Vaclav Havel, who was the leading Czech dissident under Communism, and who became the first president of his free country. In 2019, Hrib said, “I would really like us to be a country that wouldn’t steer away from the tradition of human rights. A country that would not turn away from victims of injustice, but one that offers a helping hand.”

Czech politicians such as Zdenek Hrib are in sharp contrast to the incumbent president, Milos Zeman. He is a former Communist — now a socialist and populist — who has warm relations with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the Chinese No. 1. We could, and should, discuss Zeman at length. But one detail may suffice for now: Two years ago, Zeman refused to participate in 50th-anniversary commemorations of the Prague Spring (that period of liberalization that was crushed by Soviet tanks on August 21, 1968).

What about Pavel Novotny, the district mayor for Reporyje? What did he do? He proposed a monument to the “Vlasov Army,” that controversial, checkered band of breakaway Soviet soldiers who helped the citizens of Prague overthrow the Nazis in May 1945.

All of these issues are highly important, and charged with emotion. They tell us something about Russia and the Soviet Union, and about the Czech Republic and Europe. Here and now, we will concentrate on Ondrej Kolar, the mayor of Prague 6.

He was born in 1984, the “Orwell year,” as some of us thought of it. Therefore, he was just five years old when Communism in Czechoslovakia collapsed. Does he remember anything of Communism? He remembers watching TV and seeing policemen beat demonstrators in the streets. And he remembers his parents coming home from those demonstrations and talking about them.

They were indeed anti-Communists. Yet Ondrej’s mother came from a strong Communist family. She was a rebel. His father, by contrast, came from a family in disfavor with the Communists. He was not allowed to study history at the university (Charles). He had to study other subjects. Afterward, he could not get work that might be suited to a college graduate. He carried bags at a railway station.

In the years following Communism, however, he became a diplomat. He worked with President Havel. And he served as ambassador to various countries, including the United States and Russia.

It was natural for the ambassador’s son, Ondrej, to be interested in history, politics, and international relations: the drama of the world. These were the topics of the Kolars’ dinner table.

Ondrej was elected district mayor in 2014. For 40 years — 1980 to 2020 — Marshal Ivan Konev was a resident of this district, Prague 6. That is, there was a statue of the marshal, one of the heroes of the Soviet army. The monument identified him as the “Liberator of Prague.” That was untrue.

So who did it? Who ought to get the credit? These historical issues are often touchy, and we will not pause for chapter and verse — but the consensus is that citizens liberated their city in the “Prague Uprising,” with the help of those breakaway soldiers in the Vlasov Army.

In any case, Marshal Konev liberated most of Czechoslovakia, undeniably. (We might debate whether the replacement of Nazism by Communism is rightly called “liberation.”) Konev died in 1973, age 75. His record is not all glory, from the point of view of freedom-lovers.

He led the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He was in charge when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. He helped prepare the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. And he brought more than soldiers to Prague, back in 1945.

This is a terrible episode, little known. Konev brought Soviet intelligence agents, who methodically hunted down people who had fled the young Soviet Union — Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians — and been granted citizenship in Czechoslovakia. The agents sent these hapless citizens to their deaths in Siberia.

“There are still people in Prague who remember all this happening,” Ondrej Kolar tells me. “Who saw their neighbors dragged away by the Soviet secret police, brought to the city by Konev.”

In the run-up to August 21, 1968 — when Soviet tanks rolled over the Prague Spring — “soft Communists” ruled Czechoslovakia. Then it was time for the “hard Communists.” This was the period known as “normalization,” when Czech rulers got in harmony with Soviet rulers. It was in this period that the statue of Ivan Konev went up — in 1980, 35 years after the end of the war, and seven years after the man’s death.

The erection of the monument, says Kolar, was “sort of an act of devotion” on the part of the Czech Communists toward the father party in Moscow.

When liberation came, in 1989, the Konev statue was repeatedly vandalized: splattered with red paint. Prague citizens knew who he was, or some of them did. In 1993, a commission was formed, to figure out what to do about the statue. Install a plaque, giving the sorry facts about Konev? Move the statue to a museum? Nothing came of these deliberations.

In 2006, a mayor of Prague 6 thought of building a parking garage underneath the square where Konev stood. He consulted the Russian embassy, saying, “What would you think of the removal of the statue?” The Russian attitude was basically one of indifference.

But again, nothing happened, and Marshal Konev — billed as the “Liberator of Prague” — remained.

Yet the issue always festered, and it broke out again in the mid 2010s. Mayor Kolar was against the removal of the statue, at least at first: He thought it should remain as a teaching tool. People in Prague had diverse views on the matter.

Once more, officials approached the Russian embassy, asking, “Would you guys like to take the statue and put it on embassy grounds? Or move it to Moscow, or elsewhere in Russia? What do you think? How can we resolve this stubborn problem?”

Strictly speaking, the Russians were not entitled to a say. This was a Czech statue, put up by Czechs, in the Czech capital. The Soviet Union no longer existed. (Neither did Czechoslovakia.) But Prague officials were consulting Russians as a courtesy.

The Russian attitude was now very different from that of the mid 2000s. Embassy officials were not happy at all. They accused Kolar and others of trying to rewrite history, and of being ungrateful to their Soviet, or Russian, liberators.

In 2018, Prague 6 renovated the Konev statue and put up three new plaques (at a cost of a million Czech crowns, or about $45,000). The plaques were in Czech, Russian, and English, and they told the story of the man on the pedestal, warts and all. That would be the end of the matter, thought Kolar and his colleagues.

But no. The statue was again vandalized — splattered with blood-like paint — and, worse, it became a meeting point, a rallying point, for Czech extremists: neo-Nazis and neo-Communists, waving their swastikas and their hammers and sickles.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” I remark to Kolar. “Yes, it does,” he agrees. Then again, the Nazis and the Soviets did start the war together, with their pact.

Kolar notes that the extremist demonstrators at the Konev statue had some interesting company, some interesting supporters: members of the Czech parliament; a spokesman for President Zeman; Russian diplomats.

Finally, in September 2019, having had enough, Prague 6 decided to remove the Konev statue and place it in a museum of the 20th century, to be built later. A monument to the Prague Uprising would go up in Konev’s place.

Russian officials reacted furiously, accusing Kolar and other responsible parties of reviving fascism. One Russian minister called Kolar a “gauleiter,” which is to say, a Nazi proxy or stooge. There was equal fury from Putin-friendly Czechs, who used the same language as the Russians.

Kolar was under police protection from September to November.

Owing to bureaucracy — an old tradition in this part of the world, says Kolar — it took until April 2020 actually to remove the statue. And when it happened, the fury and threats boiled over. Police moved Kolar into hiding. His whereabouts were unknown even to his family.

In the Czech press, there were reports of a Russian assassination plot against Kolar and the two other mayors: Zdenek Hrib and Pavel Novotny. The reports were of a poison plot, in particular. Weeks later, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, said that “the whole case was a result of infighting between staffers” at the Russian embassy. “One of them sent to our counter-intelligence service false information about a planned attack.”

The Czech government expelled the diplomats in question.

A mysterious case, to say the very least. Ondrej Kolar observes, “We all know what the Russians are capable of.” They have proven themselves unshy about poison. Also, Russian state television was full of alarming people, saying alarming things.

Officials repeatedly called for Kolar’s death — his “liquidation,” in the charming term from early Soviet days. One official said that Kolar should be dealt with “like Heydrich.” (Reinhard Heydrich was the SS general who was killed by Czech and Slovak soldiers in June 1942.)

And get this: After Prague 6 removed the Konev statue, the Russian government passed a law, making it a crime to “desecrate” Soviet military symbols. The law applies to foreigners, at least in the mind of the Russian government. Kolar and other Prague offenders were tried — in absentia, of course — and convicted. They were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Russia.

It’s one thing to be cursed and threatened — even prosecuted — by Russians, says Kolar. It’s another to be cursed and threatened by your fellow Czechs, in your own language. Kolar has received mail of the “rape your wife and kill your children” variety.

Through it all, President Zeman stood with the Kremlin and against the Prague mayors. He denounced the removal of the Konev statue as “ridiculous and miserable.” Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to his opinion. Yet Kolar makes an important point.

The president “never stood up for any of us,” he says. “He never said, ‘These three men are Czech politicians, elected in democratic elections, and you have no right to tell them what to do or to dictate to any of us.’” On the contrary, Zeman was in harmony with the Kremlin. Kolar fears that the country is in a new era of “normalization.”

Czechs are badly split, he says. On one side are people in the Havel tradition of freedom, democracy, and human rights; on the other are people who align themselves with Russia and a pan-Slavism. The latter group enjoys the upper hand. They are more numerous.

These people are often called “nationalist,” but that is a mis-designation — or flawed designation — given the deference of these people to Moscow and their taste for pan-Slavism. Nationalism surely entails a national pride.

“People in the Czech Republic were disillusioned by developments after the fall of Communism,” says Kolar. “They thought freedom would make them happy. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t have to do anything in order to have better lives. That everything would come to them freely.”

Whatever the case, they started to turn to populist politicians. These populists are now the dominant political force in the country.

Ondrej Kolar has endured threats, stark fear — the need to go into hiding. Did he ever think of quitting? Yes, naturally. “During the last four months, I’ve lost 20 kilograms from all the stress,” he says. (This amount equals about 45 pounds.) Kolar had his family’s safety to think about. His sons are seven and five.

At the same time, he was getting “huge support,” he says, not only from his fellow citizens in Prague, but also from people in cities, towns, and villages throughout the Czech Republic. “And I thought, ‘I can’t disappoint these people. They need someone who is actually able to stand up and speak up for their ideals and their principles.’”

Kolar points out that Czechs lost their democracy in the years after the war: 1945 to 1948. He and his allies are loath to see it slip away again.

Most Popular

The Consequences of Biden

If you have decided that another four years of Donald Trump would be intolerable, and the prospect of four more years of the dysfunctional Trump circus in the White House fills you with dread, fine. But approach the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency with clear eyes and no illusions. Electing Biden would move ... Read More

The Consequences of Biden

If you have decided that another four years of Donald Trump would be intolerable, and the prospect of four more years of the dysfunctional Trump circus in the White House fills you with dread, fine. But approach the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency with clear eyes and no illusions. Electing Biden would move ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More
Elections

Is the Biden Campaign Struggling?

On the menu today: a long, long list of Democrats warning that the Biden campaign may not be as strong as it looks in key states and among key demographics; another former White House staffer comes out and denounces the president, offering a hard lesson about how personnel is policy; and a long look at the ... Read More
Elections

Is the Biden Campaign Struggling?

On the menu today: a long, long list of Democrats warning that the Biden campaign may not be as strong as it looks in key states and among key demographics; another former White House staffer comes out and denounces the president, offering a hard lesson about how personnel is policy; and a long look at the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Enough of ‘Orange Man Bad’

The Trump era has brought its own unique vocabulary: Never Trump, anti-anti-Trump, Deep State, QAnon, “The Resistance,” Podbros, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and of course, MAGA, to name just a few. But by far the most useless phrase to emerge over the last few years is “Orange Man Bad.” If you follow ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Enough of ‘Orange Man Bad’

The Trump era has brought its own unique vocabulary: Never Trump, anti-anti-Trump, Deep State, QAnon, “The Resistance,” Podbros, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and of course, MAGA, to name just a few. But by far the most useless phrase to emerge over the last few years is “Orange Man Bad.” If you follow ... Read More
Media

How American Journalism Died

In 2017, the liberal Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University found that 93 percent of CNN’s coverage of the Trump administration was negative. The center found similarly negative Trump coverage at other major news outlets. The election year 2020 has only accelerated ... Read More
Media

How American Journalism Died

In 2017, the liberal Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University found that 93 percent of CNN’s coverage of the Trump administration was negative. The center found similarly negative Trump coverage at other major news outlets. The election year 2020 has only accelerated ... Read More