Hot Pink Protest: Bulgarian Monument Repainted as ‘Artistic Apology’ for 1968 Czechoslovakian Invasion.
This week marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Overnight on 20-21 August 1968 a combined force of up to 200,000 Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops entered and occupied Czechoslovakia to crush the political liberalisation sparked by communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s reformist ‘Prague Spring’ and implement a period of ‘normalisation’. You can read more about the failure of the Prague Spring and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in a previous blog post here.
Of course, the 45th anniversary of the invasion was commemorated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Prague, several top Czech officials (including current Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, lower house speaker Miroslava Němcová and Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček) marked the occasion in a ceremony that took place outside the Czech Radio building that had formed one of the centres of resistance in 1968.
However, this year domestic remembrance was overshadowed by developments in Bulgaria, where anonymous artists spray painted a prominent monument to the Soviet Army pink with the accompanying slogan ‘Bulgaria Aplogises’ (written in both Czech and Bulgarian) indicating remorse for Bulgarian involvement in the invasion. Back in 1968 Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was the leading advocate of hard-line intervention to quell Dubcek’s reforms, and critics have since pointed out that Bulgaria was the first Warsaw Pact country to insist on military intervention in 1968 and the last communist-bloc country to formally apologise for their involvement, in 1990. This week, a Bulgarian blogger interviewed one of the anonymous artists, who confirmed that choosing pink paint was a deliberate nod to Czech artist David Černý, who famously painted a Soviet tank dedicated to the memory of the 1945 liberation of Prague pink in 1991, an act which sparked controversy and ultimately led to the tank’s removal to a military museum.
Photos of the freshly re-painted monument quickly spread around the world via social networking sites and the story was also picked up by several international media organisations. The Bulgarian authorities moved quickly to try to ensure damage limitation: the monument was cleaned the following night (an operation allegedly conducted by volunteers from the ‘Forum Bulgaria-Russia’), while the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia swiftly announced the launch of pre-trial proceedings against the (still unknown) perpetrators on charges of ‘hooliganism’ which could result in a sentence of up to two years in jail if pursued, although this seems unlikely unless they are identified. However, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the Russian government intend to formally request that the Bulgarian authorities take action to punish those responsible and prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents in future. His statement demanded ‘the adoption of effective measures to prevent the mockery of the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Europe from Nazism and Bulgaria, to identify and punish those responsible’.
This was not the first time that the Soviet Army monument in Sofia has been the subject of a controversial makeover. It has been subject to repeated graffiti, most famously in June 2011 when the statues were re-painted to resemble a collection of well-known Western pop culture heroes including Superman, The Joker, Captain America and Ronald McDonald, the flag held by the soldiers was painted with the US stars and stripes and an accompanying
slogan proclaimed that the makeover was ‘In Step With The Times’. I also wrote about this in an old blog post here. The Soviet monument has long divided opinion in Bulgaria – many view the statue as a symbol of communist repression, and there have been several calls for it to be destroyed, or at least moved from its current (prominent) location in central Sofia to the city’s museum of communism which opened in 2011. But these proposals are opposed by others who argue that the statue represents Bulgaria’s liberation from fascism in WWII and charge those who want the statue removed with ‘historical revisionism’. Of course, this debate is not just taking place within Bulgaria; over twenty years after the collapse of communism, the status of Soviet WWII memorials as symbols of liberation or oppression are still frequently contested throughout the former communist bloc. For more on this topic see my previous blog post here.
The latest ‘attack’ on the Soviet memorial in Sofia must also be understood in the context of growing domestic unrest in Bulgaria, where large-scale protests against the current government (which is dominated by the former communist party) have been occurring on a daily basis since June. Interestingly, photos of the on-going anti-government protests in Sofia following the controversial repainting of the memorial earlier this week show demonstrators brandishing a cardboard cut-out of Černý’s ‘pink tank’.
However, the Czechs have also experienced a summer of political turmoil, triggered by the collapse of Petr Necas’s government following a corruption scandal in June. Czech MPs recently passed a vote of no-confidence, dissolving parliament and triggering an early election this autumn that threatens to return the communist party to power. Some Czech officials used the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion earlier this week, to warn against the return of the communists to political power, with Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček commenting that:
“This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past … Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example”.
As some of you will already know (particularly those of you who follow my personal twitter feed, so will have seen some of the photos I’ve posted recently), I’ve spent the last few weeks in Central Europe on a research trip. I’ve largely been based in the Czech Republic and Poland with a quick trip to Ukraine (Lviv) thrown in! It’s been a really great trip, both in terms of gathering data for my current research which focuses on drug abuse in communist central Europe and in terms of laying some initial groundwork for the next major research project I want to undertake, which I’m very excited about, and will relate to the repression of women, initially focusing on communist Czechoslovakia.
I’m currently in Warsaw, on the final leg of my trip before returning to the UK next week. It has been several years since my last visit here and I’ve noticed a lot of changes, something which has been enhanced by the fact that Warsaw currently feels very much ‘under construction’ – the central part of the Metro system is closed this summer to allow for major rennovations (which means I’ve been doing a LOT of walking – just as well, given my excessive consumption of beer, borscht and pierogi while I’ve been here!) and it feels very much as though Warsaw is going through something of a metamorphosis, preparing to emerge as a leading centre of twenty-first century Europe. I read this article a couple of days ago, which sums it up pretty well, describing Warsaw as a ‘fascinating capital of many layers’, one of the reasons why I like it so much.
I also arrived a couple of days after the 1st August anniversary marking 69 years since the outbreak of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; the day when the Polish resistance took up arms in an attempt to liberate their city from Nazi control. Following 63 days of ferocious street fighting by the Polish Home Army, who were supported by the civillian population but failed to attract any substantial international support, the beleaguered resistance capitulated having suffered estimated losses of 16,000 resistance fighters and 150,000-200,000 civillians. Following the rising, the Nazis extracted revenge by systematically reducing most of Warsaw to rubble while executing and forcibly evacuating its surviving citizens – by the time Warsaw was ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, 85% of the city had been destroyed and from a pre-war population of 1.3 million only around 1000 people remained, hiding in the ruins. The defeat of the Home Army also removed any serious domestic resistance to Soviet control of the city, where a communist regime was swiftly imposed in the aftermath of the Second World War.
One of the things that has struck me during this visit, is how much more prominent the Warsaw Uprising has become in recent years. A recent poll found that today, a majority (34%) of those surveyed view the 1944 uprising as the most important insurrection in Polish history. 1st August is a major commemorative event in Warsaw: every year sirens are sounded at 5pm, marking ‘W hour’ (the official start of the uprising), followed by a minutes of silence in memory of those who lost their lives. Flags adorn the streets, flowers and candles are left at various memorials around the city and organised re-enactments are common. While I wasn’t in Warsaw during this year’s commemoration, my friends over at Crossing the Baltic have posted a short article with some photos, and when I arrived here a couple of days later the central monument remained bedecked with various tributes.
In addition, I discovered that the area around Rynek Nowego Miasta (New Town Market Square) was abuzz, as filming is currently underway for ‘Miasto ‘44’ (City ‘44), a new film about the uprising by acclaimed Polish director Jan Komasa. One of the streets nearby was cordoned off for the film crew, where barricades had been erected. I had a lunch meeting on the square one day earlier this week, and noticed several actors and film extras, who were wandering around and enjoying the sunshine whilst taking a break from filming!
Komasa has described Miasto ’44 as ‘a story of tragedy and heroism, sacrifice and terror, which will reflect modern issues and concerns’, claiming that the film will concentrate on the relationships between the (mostly young) men and women involved in the uprising. The screenplay has been approved by acclaimed historian Professor Norman Davies and former foreign minister and underground member Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, while Komasa has said that surviving veterans who participated in the uprising have also visited the film set to advise on various aspects. The film premiere is scheduled to take place on 70th anniversary of the uprising next year and will be shown in front of a crowd of 15,000 people at Warsaw stadium. I’ll be very interested to see this film when it is released next year!
More generally, while walking around Warsaw during the past week, I noticed that the uprising has become much more ‘visible’ in the city’s heritage. In addition to the central monument, numerous smaller plaques and commemorative memorials are scattered around the city denoting various significant locations and events, while the anchored ‘P’ (PW), the symbol most commonly associated with the 1944 uprising and the Polish underground, is a very common sight. This post-communist resurgence is unsurprising if you consider that for many decades after WWII the communist authorities attempted to suppress popular memory of the uprising: emphasis was placed on the role played by the Red Army in the liberation of Warsaw, while the leaders of the Polish underground were denounced as German collaborators and terrorists, who acted to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie and rich landowners. Any official commemoration of the uprising was forbidden, and it was only after the fall of communism in 1989 that the first monuments were able to be openly erected.
I had some free time this morning, so decided to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego) which opened in 2004 and was highly
recommended to me by a number of Polish friends. The museum, housed in a former power station, has done much to raise the historical profile of the uprising, and is currently involved in plans to commemorate next year’s 70th anniversary. The museum is packed with information about different aspects of the uprising and generally succeeds in their aim to strike a balance between ‘traditional’ displays (for example, the extensive collection of artillery that forms one large portion of the display) and interactive engagement, as visitors are invited to view images through binoculars, peer through a German guard post and crawl through a (less smelly!) replica of the sewerage tunnels used by the resistance to move around Warsaw during the uprising. Unsurprisingly, the primary emphasis of the museum is on exploring the organisation of the Polish resistance (which is fascinating, and it was nice to see the role played by women in the underground movement acknowledged) and the military aspects of the uprising, but there is also some more general information about Nazi occupied Poland, the Warsaw ghetto and the role played by the Church. Video footage of veterans talking about their experiences are displayed and two films are included: the first, compiled of footage produced by the Polish Home Army Propaganda Division during the uprising, is included in the cost of the general entry fee, the second – ‘Miasto Ruin’ (City of Ruins), is not, but I’d highly recommend paying the extra 2 Zloty fee to view it! Miasto Ruin is a short 3D depiction of a flight over the ruins of Warsaw at the end of WWII, and this really bought home the level of destruction suffered by the city for me, more so than any photographs I’ve seen (if you’re interested, you can view the film trailer here). I would have liked to have learned a little more about the role played by civilians and their experiences of living through the uprising (although, admitedly, the Home Army video footage did cover this in some detail), and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own research interests!) I’d also have been very interested to learn more about the persecution of the surviving Polish resistance leaders by the communists (such as the Trial of the Sixteen in 1945), which was limited to one brief display. But I’d definitely recommend a trip here if you visit Warsaw!
Polish friends have told me that while the post-communist period has led to the resurgence of the Warsaw Uprising in popular memory, the availability of new information has also sparked serious academic debate and critical analysis of various aspects including the motivations of the resistance leaders, the high casualty rate and the wider international context. Questions surrounding Soviet attitudes to the Uprising and the lack of British support for the Polish resistance remain. However, at present, there tends to be much less emphasis on the Uprising in Western historiography of WWII (with a few notable exceptions). There is still much that we do not know about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and to date, key intelligence files in both Russia and the UK remain classified.