In Prague, officials see red over pink tank

A local artist revives a decade-old controversy with plans to exhibit a symbol of anti-Soviet sentiments.

It's big. It's pink. And it's causing a hullabaloo in the Czech capital.

"It" is a World War II-vintage Soviet tank. The debate over its updated paint job and place as public art has set off a politically charged tug-of-war between a controversial artist and government officials. Not for the first time, either.

While the tank is long past the days of opening fire on enemy troops, officials from Prague and Moscow say it has the potential to wreak more damage than the real thing, a measure of how sensitive relations remain a decade after the Czech Republic shook off Russian domination in a "velvet revolution."

Artist David Cerny wants to return the legendary T-34 to the central square - formerly known as the Square of the Soviet Tank Drivers - where it was placed nearly 50 years ago as a memorial to the forces who marched into Prague on May 9, 1945, ending Nazi occupation.

The 32-ton tank reputedly was the first to enter the city.

Mr. Cerny says the repainted military vehicle is meant to illustrate how far his country - which joined NATO in 1999 and is a fast-track candidate for European Union membership - has come.

But some authorities don't share his vision. Earlier this month, the Russian ambassador, Vasily Jakovlev, sent a protest letter to the district planning to exhibit the tank as public art. He condemned it as "disrespectful to the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died liberating Prague."

Then, Mr. Cerny received a letter from Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who said the project "is only an arrogant, ill-conceived demonstration of the mentality of the graffiti generation, who totally lack any empathy for history." Mr. Zeman's letter, Cerny says, "is a beautiful paper that illustrates the state of our society: Slavery to Russia continues."

Back in 1990, shortly after Communist rule toppled, Cerny seized a brush and painted the tank memorial pink. His reasoning was that a tank, as a weapon of war, was an inappropriate memorial to the Soviet soldiers.

The authorities at the time disagreed and painted it green again, charging the young artist with a crime against the state to boot. Infuriated by the arrest, 15 members of parliament repainted it pink. After complaints by the Soviet Union, which still had troops in then-Czechoslovakia, the tank was removed and placed in a military museum.

"Pink Tank" is just one of a string of provocative works by Cerny. His irreverent "Trabant on Legs" depicts the East German car on stiltlike legs, symbolizing the mass rush westward as cold war-era restrictions began to fall a decade ago. On a main boulevard named for St. Wenceslas, he portrayed the Czech patron saint upside-down, astride a dead horse.

But it was the rose-tinted tank that prodded then-Czechoslovak society to reexamine the events of 1945, and 1968, when Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces crushed the Prague Spring liberalization movement, an attempt to put a "human face" on Communism, according to Zdenek Zboril, a political scientist at Prague's Charles University.

"Defacing the statue, of course, was partly connected to events from 1968," he says. "But people here were frustrated, too, by the lack of prosperity, and they were looking for someone to blame. The Russians served that role."

Mr. Zboril agrees with the prime minister that the latest pink-tank project is a "joke of a joke that has stopped being funny."

Even ordinary Czechs don't seem to be in the artist's corner. Officials in Smichov, the district where Cerny wants his work displayed, say residents are flooding them with e-mails expressing opposition to the project. "Most of them say, is it really worth it to upset someone? And anyway, it's all in the past," says Smichov spokesman Vit Drbal.

While they initially backed the project, officials in Smichov changed their tune after Zeman weighed in. "There are many works of art in Prague that I don't like, but I would not argue against the worth of this design," says the district's mayor, Miroslav Skaloud. Still, he says, "We don't want the tank anymore."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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