‘A mockery of memory’ Prague erects monument to Nazi collaborationist army, despite protests from Russia's Foreign Ministry
On April 30, a monument and a memorial plaque commemorating soldiers from the Russian Liberation Army (ROA) was installed in Řeporyje, a district on the outskirts of the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague.
According to the memorial, ROA soldiers helped participants in the Prague uprising liberate the city from Nazi Germany's army in May 1945. The plaque claims that it was in Řeporyje that the leadership of the ROA’s first division decided to assist the uprising (several Czech historians dispute this, while others cast doubts on the importance of the ROA soldiers' role in the rebellion). In the battle for the liberation of Prague, 300 soldiers in the Russian Liberation Army died.
At the same time, the plaque includes an ambiguous assessment of the ROA's historical role fighting on behalf of Nazi Germany. The bottom-right corner of the sign includes a quote in Russian from writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “Did all the Czechs figure out after, which Russians saved their city?”
The accompanying monument takes the form of a three-meter pillar, topped with a miniature tank resembling a T-34 (a Soviet medium tank), which is covered with a German military helmet. According to district head Pavel Novotný (a former journalist), the monument was a gift from a well-known artist. But he did not reveal the artist's name. Local outlet iDnes.cz wrote that it could be the famous Czech sculptor David Černý. Many of his works — for example the fountain at the Franz Kafka museum — have become tourist attractions in Prague. Nevertheless, the individual behind the idea for the monument, as well as the name of the artist, remains unconfirmed. Presumably the German helmet was mounted on a miniature T-34, because ROA soldiers wore these helmets, but were also armed with Soviet tanks.
The Řeporyje district council approved the installation of the memorial plaque in December 2019. The decision drew criticism from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, which called it a “mockery” of the memory of Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of Czechoslovakia. “On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Victory [in World War II], we regard this as a mockery of the memory of those tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers, who gave their lives in the name of peace on Czech soil,” said Oleg Tyapkin, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Third European Department.
The Russian Embassy in Prague also opposed the memorial: it considered the installation of the plaque a possible violation of the results of the Nuremberg Tribunal, according to which there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Following this statement, Novotný sent a letter to the Russian Embassy, saying that he is not going to discuss his plans to install a memorial plaque with Moscow.
The comment from Czech President Miloš Zeman was less radical: “Here there were several days when, objectively speaking, the [Vlasov soldiers] really helped Prague. This cannot be denied. And, seemingly, 300 of them died. On the other hand, there is the history of the Russian Liberation Army, led by General Vlasov, which in all armies of the world qualifies as treason. In all armies of the world, military traitors are executed.”
Novotný himself stated that the monument is not meant to commemorate ROA soldiers, but rather to recognize their fight against the Wehrmacht for Prague. He also underscored that he would never erect a monument to Andrey Vlasov himself.
Earlier, Pavel Novotný wrote that the monument’s official opening ceremony was set to take place on May 5. However, due to the Czech Republic's quarantine restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, there is a ban on mass events. Novotný also purchased surveillance cameras to monitor the area around the monument. All total, installing the memorial plaque cost the district budget a little more than $6,000. Meanwhile, Novotný himself is now under state protection, and whether this is related to the installation of the monument is unknown. Prague Mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, and the head of Prague’s sixth district, Ondřej Kolář, are also under police protection, due to an alleged Russian poisoning plot.
A monument to the Soviet general, Marshal Ivan Konev, was removed from this district on April 3, following a decision by the local authorities. In response, the Russian Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case for the alleged rehabilitation of Nazism. Within the Czech Republic itself, President Zeman condemned the decision. Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, then sent a letter to the Czech Defense Ministry, requesting that they hand over the Konev monument to Moscow. The Czech Defense Ministry’s spokesperson, Jan Pejsek, said that the agency cannot help Russia with this matter, because “the statue is not ours.”
The Czech officials in question, Zdeněk Hřib and Ondřej Kolář, were placed under protection after the Czech investigative weekly Respekt published reports that a Russian diplomat had arrived in Prague in early April on a mission to poison the Czech officials responsible for dismantling the Konev monument with the deadly toxin ricin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that this information is impossible to believe, since a person carrying poison simply would not have been allowed into the country.
“If you found a lethally poisonous substance in any passenger’s briefcase, how did you miss this person? And how do you allow him to continue to stay on your territory? This is simply, in my opinion, unthinkable,” Lavrov said, adding that none of the Russian Embassy’s staff arrived in Prague during the period in question.
Translation by Eilish Hart