Friday, February 18, 2011

Monument in Kopčany, Slovakia

This monument is in the village of Kopčany in south-west Slovakia, near the border with the Czech Republic. It commemorates the Russian soldiers who died during the liberation of the village from the Nazis on April 10, 1945. It lists the name, rank and date of birth of each soldier, and at the bottom it also mentions nine more soldiers who could not be identified because they were not carrying papers. It is unusual to find such a monument in Slovakia which is only written in Russian, usually the captions are written in both Russian and Slovak. The most interesting part of the inscription is the line at the bottom, which reads "Sleep peacefully in brotherly ground". Therefore the brotherly Slavic relations between Russians and Slovaks were called upon to show that the Russian soldiers were not buried there in foreign soil, but died in the cause helping a fellow Slavic, socialist country.

Monument in Nová Lehota, Slovakia

This monument is in the small rural village of Nová Lehota in western Slovakia. It is dedicated to the Slovak partisan soldiers who fought the Nazis in 1944 as part of the Slovak National Uprising. The red star affixed to the top makes it clear that the soldiers were fighting for the establishment of communism in Slovakia, though this was not entirely the case. Some partisans were connected to communist organizations, but certainly not all of them. The communist leaders of Czechoslovakia sought to portray the Slovak partisans as fighting solely for the reunification of Czechoslovakia in a socialist state and any issue of Slovak independence aspirations or political systems other than communism were not represented publicly.

Wall Mural in Svidník, Slovakia

This wall mosaic is on the side of a building in the centre of Svidník, a town in north-east Slovakia. It shows three soldiers carrying the red flag of socialism who are ready to defend Czechoslovakia, or perhaps they are meant to commemorate the Russian and Czechoslovak forces who helped to liberate the town from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War. Fierce battles were fought to reclaim Svidník, and most of the town was completely destroyed in the fighting. Therefore the appearance of Svidník today is dominated by structures from the socialist period, in other words it's a sea of grey concrete. Several other murals adorn the walls of the city, mostly with a military theme.

Train Station Murals in Kolín, Czech Republic

These murals can be seen in the main hall of the train station in Kolín. They depict a bucolic scene of agricultural labourers in the countryside, clearly working together on a collective farm. The mural on the right also shows miners resting outside a mine shaft. Such pastoral images of labour are still common in many parts of the Czech Republic, since they contain few direct references to communism that would warrant their removal. Sometimes such murals have been altered to remove any visible Soviet/socialist symbols or references.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wall Mural on the National Museum in Tirana, Albania

This mural is found above the entrance to the National History Museum of Albania in the capital, Tirana. It dominates the city's central square, making it one of the most recognizable images of Tirana. The mural portrays proud and strong Albanians defending the territory of their country against foreign invaders during every period of the nation's history, including the ancient Illyrians, the resistance to Turkish rule led by Skanderbeg, the partisan fighters of World War Two and the communist era under Enver Hoxha. The only change that has been made since the end of the communist period is that a red star has been removed from the flag. The museum itself is equally fascinating and makes a great introduction to the complexities of Albanian history. A number of important artifacts were looted during the 1990's, but there is still an impressive collection of exhibits on display.

Monuments to the Soviet Liberators in the Dukla Pass, Slovakia

The fight for the Dukla pass on the border between Slovakia and Poland was a major battle of the Eastern Front in the Second World War. German resistance was stonger than anticipated, and the advance of the Russian and Czechoslovak forces was held up for many months with over 70,000 casualties on both sides. Following the end of the war and the establishment of a communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1948, it was decided that the liberation of the country by the Red Army should be commemorated with the greatest possible fanfare. Cities and towns across the country erected statues and monuments to the Russian liberators, usually inscribed with the date that the settlement was freed from German forces. The Dukla pass was particularly important as the spearhead of the advance into Czechoslovak territory, and hence an enormous monument was erected there to honour the bravery of both Russian and Czechoslovak troops. A valley near the pass which saw intense fighting during the conflict became known as the "valley of death", and many abandoned military vehicles and tanks remained there following the battle. Many Russian tanks in the valley were restored to their original condition and then returned to the position where they had been found in the valley, some sitting frozen in the middle of advancing through a farmer's cornfield, others appearing to emerge from the forest to press the German defenses. Around a dozen Russian tanks remain spread through the fields and forests in the region today as memorials to the Russian liberators. At the peak of the Dukla pass on the Slovak-Polish border sits a lookout tower intended to allow visitors to view the full extent of the battlefield area. The nearby town of Svidník was almost totally destroyed in the battle, and today another large war memorial to the Soviet troops is a dominant feature of the town's layout.

The Dukla pass is easily reached by one of several daily buses to and from Svidník; Svidník is most easily reached by bus connection from Prešov or Bardejov. In Svidník, the Hotel Rubin is an inexpensive and reasonably comfortable place to stay.

Hammer and Sickle Sgraffito, Prague, Czech Republic

In the Royal Garden next to Prague Castle, not far from the Royal Summer Residence, you will find the Royal Ball Game Hall. This building dates from the 16th century and was used by the king's courtiers for sporting activities. The structure was damaged by fire in May 1945 during the last stages of World War Two, but it was fully restored in the 1950s. Along with the many mythological deities that were carefully restored on the facade, a small addition was made that remains as a quirky reminder of the communist period. A figure unfurling a scroll meant to be a five-year plan with a hammer and sickle was included in the design, together with the letters 'ČSR', for Czechoslovak Republic. This is a detail that you have to look closely to find (it's along the top row of the facade near the roof), so be sure to stop and take a closer look if you are visiting Prague Castle.

Train Station Murals in Piešťany, Slovakia

These murals are found on the walls in the main hall of the train station in Piešťany, Slovakia, a town north of Bratislava in the western half of the country. The town has the largest health spa complex in Slovakia, built on an island in the middle of the Váh river. During the socialist period, factory workers were given several weeks of holidays to spend at spa resorts like the one in Piešťany, so a mural depicting the healthy lifestyle promoted by the spa makes an appropriate theme for visitors who have just arrived in the town by train. The spa's importance as a place of healing for various illnesses is also a major theme seen here. Note the stance and position of the man in the centre of the top picture, with hands upraised in greeting and proclaiming his health and satisfaction with life to the world.

Wall Mural on the Hall of Culture in Mtskheta, Georgia

This colourful wall mural is found on the cultural hall in the centre of Mtskehta, a town of great historic significance as the former capital of Georgia. It tells the story of the mythological founding of the city and its importance as the centre of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the cradle of the Georgian state. It does not contain any of the typical images of socialist-realist artwork, but the style of the mural is clearly linked to that era of idealist expression.

Metro Station Mural in Prague, Czech Republic

This mural is found inside the Anděl metro station on the west bank of the Vltava river. The station was originally called Moskevská (Moscow station) and was built in partnership with Russian designers who also constructed a station for the Moscow metro which was named after Prague. In early 1990 the name was changed to Anděl after the district the station is found in. The station also features several mural panels on the walls of the station beside the platforms, with typical Communist themes ranging from world peace to Cosmonauts. These panels were removed in 1990, but within a few months they were returned to their places in the belief that not all reminders of the Communist period should be eradicated. In the vestibule at the top of the escalators of the northern entrance there was a large mosaic of the skyline of Moscow, a symbol of the common socialist friendship between the cities. This mural was finally removed in the year 2000. The mural seen in this photo is still in place in the south entrance hall, and continues to commemorate the friendship of the people of Prague and Moscow, while reminding passers-by of a historical period that shouldn't be forgotten. The district of Anděl has historically been a working class area with left-leaning political tendencies, and the citizens who lived there during socialism were some of the most loyal to the regime. Communist murals have been removed in almost all other parts of Prague, but these few remnants of the past have been left untouched in Anděl station, likely because residents of the district have resisted their removal.

Statue of Lenin in Kiev, Ukraine

A statue of Lenin still stands in front of the Besarabsky Market in central Kiev, and remains a point of intense controversy among the city's residents. Many see it as a symbol of unwanted Russian influence in Ukraine, and a monument to the communist system that killed millions of Ukrainians. In the country's western regional capital of Lviv, the city's Lenin statue was pulled down and replaced by one of the national poet Taras Shevchenko. The Kiev statue of Lenin was damaged on June 30th 2009 by protesters who smashed the nose and the left hand of the monument. It was restored with funding provided by the Communist Party of Ukraine, and unveiled to the public later that year. During the ceremony the statue was hit with red paint by political activists who demanded its removal. The debate continues, and Lenin continues to stare down on the citizens of Kiev.

Wall Mural in Dresden, Germany

It is becoming harder and harder to find traces of the old GDR in today's modern Germany; the old Trabant and Wartburg cars have all but disappeared, the socialist housing blocks in the cities have been modernised and given a fresh appearance, and the few traces of The Wall still left have been carefully protected as historical monuments. However, a number of mural paintings have been preserved for their artistic and historical significance - this mural is found right in the historic centre of Dresden on a side wall of the Palace of Culture, a concert theatre built by the socialist government in 1969. The mural features the old state seal of the GDR along with a large red star, and many other common socialist themes such as the role of teachers and the might of the working class. Both peasants and the proletariat raise hammers, sickles and weapons to symbolise their united strength and faith in the socialist cause. The woman at the centre of the mural holding the red flag is a particularly powerful image, representing the resilience and unbreakable spirit of Dresden's citizens when it came time to rebuild the city from the ruins of World War II.

Wall Mural in the Main Train Station, Bratislava, Slovakia

This mural is found in the main hall of the central train station in Bratislava; most passengers pass quickly beneath it on the way to the platforms and don't pause to glance up and see it on the wall above.
The mural contains many of the classic hallmarks of socialist thought. Looking from left to right, on the far left the viewer can see three 'capitalists' in their business suits being driven away by the moral superiority of the group standing to their right beneath the red banner of socialism with doves flying above their heads. One of the capitalists is dropping a gun to the ground, suggesting both cowardice and that their aggression towards socialism will be defeated in the end. A worker from the capitalist system (dressed in white) is being freed from the chains of the three capitalist masters so that he can come to join the group on the right. The group beneath the red banner has three dominant figures, a proud steel mill worker holding tools, an intellectual holding a book, and the flag bearer who stands above them providing the foundation for the development of the new society that labour and learning will develop together in partnership. The group standing in a circle at the centre of the mural is composed of women from different countries around the world, implying that socialism is the system that will unite the world in peace and unity. On the right-hand side the viewer can see the symbols of technology and learning that will make the socialist utopia possible; at the top we can see a rocket and a satellite (which looks like Sputnik) representing the scientific advances that socialism has produced ahead of the capitalist world. Below these we see the scientists who have produced these ideas, as well as the students learning from them who will develop the technologies of tomorrow.

Train Station Murals in Hunedoara, Romania

Over the years I've photographed many socialist-realist murals throughout the region. They are still commonly found in train and bus stations, schools and universities, museums and other public buildings. Some have been destroyed as modernisation processes have taken hold, and there is often little interest or care for them shown by the local citizens, so I think it's important to document these fascinating works of art before they disappear.
This pair of photographs are of the murals found in the train station in Hunedoara, Romania. They face each other on opposite walls of the ticket hall. The first mural shows a group of workers in the steel mills, a hive of productive, purposeful activity. The three workers in the centre are all cooperating on a common goal, representing the socialist ideal. The second shows the workers enjoying the happy life they have built together, represented by a nature scene with a group enjoying a picnic. In the background it's possible to see the steel mills of Hunedoara with smoke rising from the chimneys, the source of the prosperity for those at play in the foreground.
The train station building is also unique, it has a tall spire on the roof with a red star attached, representing the city's importance as a major hub of communist industry and production. Nowadays, most of the steel mills and factories have closed, but the train station murals remain as images of its former glory days.