Friday, February 3, 2012

Communist murals and monuments (with a few updates/additions!)

One of the things that immediately caught my attention on my first trip to Slovakia were the Communist monuments scattered around the landscape, found in both urban and rural settings. A lot of these monuments are blatantly (if benignly) propagandistic and patriotic, many of them displaying an aesthetic that can only be described as distinctly communist. They lend a unique and distinctive layer to their settings, and have no real parallel in Western Europe, apart from any fascist structures in Germany or Italy that are still standing. A lot of these monuments date from the Stalin years, and Stalinist architecture looked very grandiose and fascist. Like Mussolini and Hitler, Stalin had a thing for a kind of angular, stark, and streamlined (and very pretentious) take on Italian neoclassical. "In this period buildings took on the traits of fascist style: classic Italian architecture stripped of most details and set to monumental effect." ( 

Many monuments form this period take the form of sculptural reliefs on the facades of government offices and schools, and walls of public buildings like train stations. They typically feature angular, dutiful, muscle-bound farmers and workers; doctors or scientists with expressions of unflagging determination; ernest nuclear families representing the foundation of society, etc... all doing their part to further progress and socialist ideals, and to illustrate the supposed strength of the Soviet bloc. These reliefs became a common sight during the Stalin years, and were part of a movement he foisted onto everyone known as "socialist realism." According to Slovak architect Peter Zalman, "today they are grotesque, these images of a worker or farmer. We laugh about them today but they are an image of the period." (

Respect your local postal worker!

Then there is Slavin, a memorial and military cemetery which was built by the Soviets in the late 50s to honor the vast numbers of Soviet troops who died liberating Slovakia from the Nazis in WWII. In late 1944 and the first half of 1945, there were grueling, bloody, protracted battles scattered about the country, and it took the Soviets (with help from the anti-Nazi Slovak partisans) many months to beat the Nazis back. The Soviets chose for this memorial one of the most prime pieces of real estate, on the highest point in the hills of Bratislava's Stare Mesto. Slavin consists of a spacious park and cemetery which are spread out on top of the hill, but its focal point is the angular and Stalin-esque tower/monument/statue, which you can see from all over town below. The Soviets clearly chose this location for Slavin as a symbol of their dominance. They wanted locals to be constantly reminded of who saved them during the war, and of who was now calling the shots.

Note the "socialist realism" style of the reliefs. 

As a park it's a bit spartan. Aside from the great views, there's little in the park that could distract from the purpose of the memorial. The foliage consists mainly of drab juniper, shabby-looking pines, and the well-manicured lawn that surrounds the soldiers' headstones. It's all very somber. The Soviets didn't intend for this to be a lush, happy, fun-time park where couples make out and families have picnics. It is partly a cemetery, after all.

The monument itself epitomizes Stalinst architecture with its stark, no-fuss angularity, cold greyness,  and lack of ornamentation or detail. Despite the slender tower, the whole thing manages to look a bit clunky. To me it kind of resembles those pictures of viruses you see in high school biology text books. And while commemorating these soldiers is clearly a nice gesture, I wonder if locals harbor a little ambivalence toward Slavin due to the unpleasantness they were subjected to by their liberators for the 4+ decades following the war. And, that those liberators chose such a primo spot to leave their mark. But, it's better that it's set aside as some kind of public space as opposed to it being covered by those ugly, sterile new houses that have been sprouting up in the hills over the past decade.

Next up is this huge, crazy mural in Bratislava's train station. There's a lot going on here, but it's typical of the kind of Communist idealism these things were intended to evoke. In what appears to be a utopian vision of Socialist harmony, you've got stoic workers, ambitious scientists, rockets and orbs flying through the sky, studious students, slaves rising up (against their capitalist captors?) with broken shackles, and a big cluster of women communing in the center of it all. The ethnically mixed and harmonious group of women (ironic given Bratislava's relative non-diversity) mostly seem to be wearing some kind of traditional peasant robes, and some of them are with little kids. Children messing around with doves likely represents peace and hope. This mural has it all: scientific progress, racial harmony, peace, education, freedom, and healthy and productive workers. Not the most realistic depiction of life behind the iron curtain, but it's clearly how somebody was encouraged to render it.

This is one of several mosaics to adorn Bratislava's technical university. This one appears to have a rocket ship and maybe a space station? I really like these.

Finally, this isn't an ideological monument, and was designed well after (and bears no trace of) the era of socialist realism, but it at least looks *very* Communist: the outdated sign in front of Bratislava's main bus depot. I say outdated because the letters stand for Cesko-Slovenska Automobilova Doprava. I don't know what lies in store for this thing, since the unified country of Ceskoslovenska hasn't existed for over 20 years, but I hope they keep it around if only to appease us history geeks. I love its datedly sleek and futuristic look and the way it conveys a sense of forward motion. The bus station itself is undeniably drab, depressing, and dingy, but this signage is wonderful.

These are just a few examples out of a slew of Communist monuments that are out there, but I'm sure I'll come across more in the coming months. 

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