HEROES, VILLAINS and SPIES The cold war heats up in Prague

Prague © Wikicommons

Years ago, I went to Budapest to make a television programme about two men still being punished for their rôles as spies for NATO during the Soviet era. While I was there, I went to visit what is now called Memento Park (I think it was still called ‘Statue Park’ back then). It was – and still is – a remarkable collection of statues and memorials that had once adorned (if that’s the right word) the streets of Budapest in celebration of how the Soviet Union had liberated Hungary from the Nazis. They were, well, rather peculiar, as I recall, with one I didn’t understand looking remarkably like Mary Poppins in her Julie Andrews guise. I was unaware of anything remotely magical taking place there in Hungary’s recent history, even if there are still some unexplained matters concerning the 1956 uprising and the way in which Russia brutally suppressed it so quickly, its tanks already on the way well before the uprising. Back then, when I visited, various mementoes of the Communist past were still available to buy, if you knew where to look. My Hungarian cameraman kindly bought one thing from a street market on my behalf because, being Hungarian, he would get a better price than I would have got as a foreigner.

Bust of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov better known as Lenin © Edm

I paid him back, of course; I think it cost US$5. It is a small bust of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known, of course, as Lenin, a casting from an original by the Hungarian sculptor István Kiss which probably sat on the desk of some minor bureaucrat in Communist Hungary. It still sits above my desk to this day, needing just the occasional bit of buffing up with metal polish. It is a piece of history, albeit not really mine.

But statues are dangerous things because of their symbolism. Think of poor old Ozymandias, the Greek name for Rameses II, the 13th century BCE pharaoh whose shattered statue (or quite a lot of it), found in the trackless Egyptian desert, was acquired by the British Museum in 1817. It inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to compose a poem to show how a great monarch of antiquity had almost disappeared from history, virtually forgotten. He quoted the supposed inscription to underline the futility of present power and pride: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Of course, today’s ‘mighty’ can easily glance at the statue, if they’re in London, but they may not despair. No-one in power ever really appreciates the brevity of their time in the spotlight; all that effort to climb the slippery pole only for the next generation to forget their names and what they did. Very few are ever remembered with affection and in many cases not at all, so commemorative statues are supposed to keep them in the public mind, if not always in the public heart.

Take for example the sculpture commemorating the defeat of the Nazis that stands in Victory Park, in the Latvian capital, Riga. Its official title is the “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders” (In Latvian it reads “Padomju Latvijas un Rīgas atbrīvotājiem no vācu fašistiskajiem iebrucējiem”).

The Victory Memorial to Soviet Army in Riga, Latvia © Wikipedia

It has become a matter of some controversy because some nationalist Latvians see it as celebrating Soviet rule over their country, which was often harsh and seldom welcomed. Similarly, Tallinn’s ‘Bronze Soldier’ was erected by the Soviet era rulers of Estonia in 1947 to commemorate the war dead, but in 2007 the Estonian government moved it to the less prominent Defence Forces Cemetery, along with the bodies of some of the fallen who had been buried near its original location (some of the bodies were reclaimed by relatives and shipped back to their homeland) but it was considered a terrible insult in Moscow. Crowds rioted outside the Estonian embassy there and there were cyberattacks on a variety of Estonian institutions and government bodies. Tensions were raised between East and West; both remember the war, the massive death toll and celebrate the overthrow of the Nazis. But they remember things differently.


It’s worth remembering that Germany had organised the most powerful invasion force in history to invade Russia in Operation Barbarossa. The Hungarian army, for instance, joined those of Italy, Finland, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia, not to mention 152 divisions of the German army, in Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. Hitler had ordered a ‘Vernichtungskrieg’, as he called it – a war of outright destruction with the aim of causing maximum damage and casualties, leading towards the rapid seizure of Moscow. The Soviet Union, after initially losing vast swathes of territory and hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians, fought back harder than Hitler had expected or his intelligence services had believed possible.

Marshal of the Soviet Union Ivan Stepanovich Konev © Wikipedia

Even so, the Soviet ‘liberations’ of Eastern Europe may not have been seen that way on the ground by everyone. One of those who led the Red Army was Ivan Stepanovich Konev, a Marshall of the Soviet Union in charge of the Eastern Front. He was the one who led the victories in much of Eastern Europe, seizing countries that had fallen to the Nazis (or were initially sympathetic to them) but not necessarily giving them the sort of freedom they may have hoped for once the swastikas had been removed. Now the removal of a memorial to Konev has led to claims of death threats and to media stories that sound more like the elements of a John Le Carré novel.

The statue of Marshal Ivan Konev © Novinky.cz

It has also led to the expulsion from the Czech Republic of two Russian diplomats over what is now being described as a “hoax poison plot”.

The removal of the statue was ordered by Ondrej Kolar, Mayor of Prague’s Sixth District, and it was bound to provoke a reaction from Moscow, bearing in mind what happened in Tallinn and Riga. In this case, the Czech media, police and secret service suggested that Moscow had sent an assassin to kill Kolar, using the poison ricin which, the stories claimed, the assassin had brought with him in his suitcase. Another district mayor, Zdenek Hrib, supported the idea and has subsequently received death threats. A third mayor, Pavel Novotny, has also been warned that his life may be in danger for wanting to erect a memorial to the so-called ‘Russian Liberation Army’, a division of Soviet prisoners of war integrated into the German army who fought to liberate Prague. Moscow considers them to be Nazi collaborators.

Enter Andrei Konchakov, at which point the storey enters the realm of the surreal. Konchakov is the head of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Prague, but a Czech television channel and other media are claiming he is a Russian intelligence officer working undercover. The Russian embassy in Prague claimed on its Facebook page that Konchakov (whom it did not name) was the victim of an anti-Russian ‘slander’ campaign and that the embassy had been obliged to request police protection for him. Czech media claims that Konchakov brought the poison ricin, a toxin that occurs naturally in the beans used to produce castor oil, in his suitcase when he arrived in Prague on 14 March. When asked about it, he told Czech media that he had been carrying a bottle of antiseptic and some confectionary. Unsurprisingly, Konchakov is one of the diplomats being expelled.   We may never know if his bag contained ricin or antiseptic.

It may all be a media scare story in the febrile political atmosphere of the Czech Republic, but the problem is that Russia has form when it comes to using deadly poisons on its perceived enemies.

Alexander Litvinenko dying from polonium poisoning

 In 2006, the victim was Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who had fled to England and begun working for the British intelligence agency, MI5. It’s now thought he may have been poisoned twice or even three times after his first dose of radioactive poisoning with polonium-210 merely made him very ill. The two men accused of the killing, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, both of whom deny it, travelled to London three times before Litvinenko’s death, leaving a radioactive trail wherever they went, according to investigators. The judge who presided over the inquiry into the murder at the Royal Courts of Justice, Sir Robert Owen, has said there is prima facie evidence that the Russian state was behind it.

Then we move forward to 2018 and the attempted murders of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.

Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia

The weapon of choice on this occasion was the Russian nerve agent Novichok. The Skripals survived – narrowly – but it was a clumsy attack, leaving considerable evidence at or near the scene. Seven miles north of Salisbury, in Amesbury, a man found what looked like a perfume bottle in a litter bin and gave it to the woman with him, Dawn Sturgess. She sprayed it on her wrist to try it out and died fifteen minutes later. The two suspected of carrying out the attack and named by police were later revealed in reality to be senior officers in Russia’s main intelligence service, the GRU, and with different names and ranks. It’s interesting that although Russia always denies murdering its citizens abroad, it always leaves a hint that its agents may, indeed, have been involved, just to frighten anyone else who might be thinking of speaking out against the Kremlin. Putin likes his citizens overseas to be frightened, to remember that his enemies have a habit of dying.    And that he knows where they live.


Prague was the home, of course, of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking writer of short stories and novels, such as The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis, many based upon the idea of an over-complicated bureaucracy and the impossibility of finding a way through the maze of rules, departments and faceless bureaucrats. His works gave rise to the expression ‘kafkaesque’, meaning the helplessness of the individual, crushed by authority in an authoritarian world. If you ever go to Prague you can still visit his tiny house, very near the castle, which was a bookshop when I was there. I bought a book there about golems, which have long links with Prague and the Jewish faith. They were animated figures, made from clay and, in the stories, brought to life with holy writings. Some were good, some bad, and of indeterminate gender. They are most closely associated with the 16th century Rabbi of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who is supposed to have created a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks and from pogroms. Kafka would have appreciated, perhaps (or at least not been surprised by) the widening rift between the Czech Republic (part of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in his day) and Russia over something as seemingly trivial as a bronze statue. The entire affair fits the word ‘Kafkaesque’ rather well.

Ondrej Kolar, Mayor of Prague during the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for the monument to Maria Theresa in the park on the Powder Bridge in Prague © David Sedlecký/Wikicommons

The first time I went to Prague was not long before the Czech Republic joined the European Union. I had hired a local camera crew (cameraman and sound recordist) and I had to visit the new European Union representation there, where a reception was being held for the great and the good of Prague, the country’s political people, hosted by the EU’s administrative people. As we pulled up at the address, my cameraman uttered an exclamation of surprise. “What’s up?” I asked. He told me it had been the Cultural Centre of Russian arts and sciences in the Soviet period and that he had filmed there many times before. We entered, he filmed a lot of Czech politicians sipping sparkling wine (I don’t think it was real champagne but it could have been) with their European Union hosts before the background of a large sculpture featuring a rippling European flag. In other words, one that looked as if it was flapping in the wind but which was, in fact, rigid, hanging, it seems, just where a large Soviet flag had once been. We spent some time there, I interviewed a few people and then we left. “Well,” I said to the cameraman, “has the place changed much?” The cameraman shrugged. “The flag’s a different colour,” was his only answer.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wladimir Putin © kremlin/ru

Konev, though, is a divisive figure. Yes, he helped drive the Nazis out of the places they had seized in Eastern Europe and he was deputy to Marshall Georgy Zhukov in the capture of Berlin. But as far as many Czechs are concerned, he didn’t bring them liberty, just an alternative form of occupation and foreign domination, albeit less ghastly than the Nazis. He was also involved in suppressing the Hungarian uprising against Russian rule in 1956 and for preparing the suppression of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968, not to mention assisting with control in East Germany during the building of the Berlin Wall.

A hero of Soviet Communism, then, but not of the West, at least once World War II was over. Not hugely admired, either, in the European countries that became part of the Soviet power bloc, as my cameraman commented when I asked what it was like in the days of Soviet rule. He thought for a moment, then said “My father was forced to learn German when the Nazis were in charge. I was forced to learn Russian when their people took over. I want to make damned sure that my son speaks Czech.”

Protestors encircle two Soviet tanks, during the first days of the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia in 1968 © Wikipedia

The statue to Konev, erected in 1980, had been vandalised repeatedly and daubed with graffiti, which is theoretically why it was proposed to move it from the leafy and relatively wealthy residential District 6, home to several embassies, to a less central (some might say less visible) place. Opinion about the Soviet era is much divided in the Czech Republic, as it is in many other supposedly ‘liberated’ countries. Moscow, however, saw the move as ‘vandalism’ which would “not remain without an appropriate response”. Russia may be a very long way philosophically from its Communist past but it’s determined to see the heroes of the Soviet Union honoured for ever, even if they’re turning in their graves at what Russia has become. Today’s outraged oligarchs and United Russia apparatchiks and party members would probably have appalled Konev and Zhukov, both of whom were devoted Communists who attended regular political refresher classes throughout their lives, even – in Zhukov’s case – when he was out of favour with the Kremlin and in internal exile. Zhukov’s statue, an equestrian one, is situated appropriately in Red Square, near Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin. It has been erected since I was last in Moscow and no-one would seriously challenge the suitability of its existence or positioning.


But let’s get back to the Czech statue problem and Andrey Konchakov who, though born in Moscow, has been working in the Czech Republic for several years, according to the media, only being granted diplomatic status last year. He has denied being a spy and that he brought ricin into the country, but then he would, wouldn’t he? He graduated from the National Research Nuclear University and would appear to an academic with wide interests that don’t appear dangerous. However, his arrival in Prague flashed a warning light with the Czech security service, the BIS, which warned the Czech police that he could be a danger to local politicians. How did they know? No-one is saying, but the mayors remain under police protection, as does Konchakov, who, according to the Russian embassy, also feels under threat. What he has become is a symbol of Russia’s determination to hold sway over those countries that were once its satellites and also of the deep political divide in the Czech Republic itself.

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman © hrad.cz

The President of the country is Milos Zeman, a controversial populist who wants to break away from the human rights-based foreign policy inherited from the first post-Communist President, Vaclaf Havel, and move instead towards strengthening ties with Russia and China, instead of with NATO and the European Union. Zeman opposed the moving of the statue and his spokesman criticised the operation taking place during the coronavirus crisis. Prague authorities said it was the ideal time because there would be fewer people in the streets and less risk of protests or violence. There is supposed to be a form of lockdown in Russia, too, but that didn’t prevent attacks by masked nationalist extremists on the Czech embassy in Moscow or its consulate in St. Petersburg. The Kremlin remained silent about the attacks, during which violent demonstrators called the Czechs “whores” and who threatened that Russian tanks would again roll through the streets of Prague, saying “Russia is everything, the rest is nothing,” which makes even Stalin’s proclamations seem mild. They also accused the Czechs of “justifying Nazism”.

Dissident leader-turned-president Vaclav Havel confers with Alexander Dubcek, by then parliament speaker but former leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, during a 1990 visit to Prague by late Pope John Paul © vhlf.org

Indeed, rather than denounce the violence, the Kremlin rushed a law through the Duma to say that the destruction or damage of Russian military graves or war memorials would be punishable by a massive fine or up to five years of forced labour. How exactly they intend to impose this extraterritorial legislation is left unsaid. Perhaps the thugs who threatened Prague with Russian tanks know more than they’re saying. Meanwhile, the Russian embassy wrote a letter to the Czech authorities, accusing them of trying to worsen Russian-Czech relations through this act of “vandalism” which “would not remain without a response”.

One assumes that Russia knows that the whole issue with the statue is to do with internal Czech politics and nothing to do with insulting a famous Russian or trying to affect relations. Russia, however, seems to find the prospect of turning such things into a patriotic ‘cri de cœur’ irresistible. Russia likes to be scary and its attempts at imposing its will extra-territorially is what lies behind problems on Moldova’s northern border and in Eastern Ukraine. Of course, it has its allies, usually well organised, throughout its former sphere of influence. The Czech Communist Party, for instance, described the removal of the vandalised statue as “brutal and amoral” and that to do so during the coronavirus lockdown was “cowardly”. That view has been shared and much publicised by President Zeman, although the decision to move the statue was passed by the local council in September last year. The plan was to install it, safe from vandalism, in a new “Museum of the Twentieth Century”, planned for next January. Where the statue formerly stood, the idea is to erect a Prague Liberation Memorial. As if to pour oil on the fire, however, Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib is to rename the square where the Russian embassy stands after Boris Nemtsov, anti-Putin opposition leader who was murdered in the streets of Moscow. Putin’s way of dealing with his opponents is not what you would call political, unless arguments come out of the barrel of a gun. As long as Russian politics is, as Mao might have put it, “politics with bloodshed” (he wrote that politics is war without bloodshed and war is politics with bloodshed) then we can’t really expect more grown-up politics from its neighbours. But it would seem sensible to douse the flames, rather than poking Russian pride with a sharp stick.

U.S. President Barack Obama signing the Magnitsky Act into law in the White House’s Oval Office in December 2012 © Larry Downing


The unfortunate affair has prompted criticism from afar, especially over Russia’s claim to extraterritorial jurisdiction. As the Washington-based German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) put it, “People acting in good faith and in line with the jurisdiction of their own country could still be punished in Russia under it”. It advises caution for anyone travelling to Russia or a Russia-friendly country in case they are arrested. The new law, it argues “is also inappropriate in light of the way Russia treats war memorials and graves of other countries on its own territory.” GMF points out that despite an agreement between Russia and the Czech Republic signed in 1999 over the mutual maintenance of war graves, those of Czech legionnaires killed in Russia during the First World War are untended and “in the highest state of deterioration”.’ The GMF wants to see the Magnitsky Act applied by more countries, and more fully, to punish those who abuse and breach their own and international law. It was signed into United States law by Barrack Obama in 2012 and the EU is in the process of imposing it in Europe, too, although the coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly delay it. Sergei Magnitsky, you may recall, was a senior accountant working for a British firm as an auditor who, in 2008, found evidence of a $230-million (€213-million) corruption scandal with links to the Kremlin. While he was still investigating, he was accused of tax evasion, imprisoned without trial for a year, denied his medicines and regularly beaten by prison guards. He died in his cell in 2009. Nobody linked to his death (which many categorise as murder) has ever faced justice in Russia but a few have been promoted.


Sergei Magnitsky © Wikipedia

 Russia still wants to rattle its sabres, although Russia’s central bank has been forced to cut its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point to 5.5% as the economy suffers from the double blow of a collapse in the oil price and a slump in demand for other commodities. Meanwhile its death toll from the coronavirus has reached more than 10,000 a day. One of those who has tested positive is the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin. Its room for manoeuvre may be shrinking, but that won’t stop the jingoistic rhetoric and threats. It has no legal jurisdiction in the Czech Republic or anywhere outside its own borders, of course, but it continues to act as if it does. Why use the subtle art of persuasion when a threat of violence does the trick and has the added bonus of stirring up another country’s domestic politics?

Czech Defence Minister Lubomir Metnar © army.cz

But back to the row over a statue. Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu has now called on his Czech counterpart, Lubomir Metnar, to give the statue back to Russia, with the Russians generously picking up the tab for transporting it.

 Metnar, however, has reported that he cannot override the Prague municipal authorities; it’s their statue to dispose of as they see fit. Handing it back to Russia does sound like a sensible solution, if the various civic figures can be persuaded. At least back there it won’t (presumably) suffer regular vandalism. Konev’s daughter has also expressed a wish for the statue to be returned. Russia is justifiably proud of its war record and of its soldiers, whatever they may have done after the war was won. Russia lost more of its troops – around twenty-six million – and it also killed more Nazi soldiers than any other allied nation. My own father mainly served in East Africa as a Military Policeman but my father-in-law, who was a British ‘Tommy’ fighting across Europe always said that in his opinion, and in the opinions of his fellow-soldiers, it was Russia that won the war, more than any other nation. It paid the highest price but it also achieved the most in putting an end to the obscenity of Nazism.

Russian diplomat Andrei Konchakov © gov.ru

Konchakov himself has not been helping to dampen the anger that the moving of the statue has caused, posting on his Facebook site fairly provocative photographs of the boards around the original site with pro-Russian protesters waving flags. He has also appeared in photographs taken before the statue was removed, posing with the Russian motorcycle gang the Night Wolves in front of the Konev statue. Russia has more diplomats in the Czech Republic than in any of its other former satellites and Prague believes as many as 40% of them could be spies. Of course, there’s no way to know if that’s true. Meanwhile, the vandalism continues. The boards erected around the plinth where the statue stood now bear the words “Koněv = vrah”, which means Konev = assassin, hardly a friendly message. Society and opinion in the Czech Republic, always divided, seem to be fracturing further, but that, of course, plays into Moscow’s hands. The Kremlin seems to subscribe to the Biblical claim that “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (St. Mark, Ch. 3, v. 25). And it will continue in its endeavour to make the division deeper, presumably hoping that if it does fall, it will fall Moscow’s way.

Miloš Zeman a Vladimir Putin © ČTK

Konev undoubtedly did rout the German forces from the Czech Republic, with or without the help of others. But he replaced one lot of external control by a foreign power with another. In any case, it seems unnecessary and somewhat extreme to threaten to go to war over where Konev’s statue stands. It’s history. Over-reaction on either side can only serve to destabilise things further. The Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) warned that “Force, unaided by judgement, collapses through its own weight”. That could be a useful aphorism for Putin to take to heart, though it’s highly unlikely that he will. But if Konev had been a liberator who went on to ensure the Czech Republic’s continuing freedom, instead of enforcing its continuation under Soviet rule and then later helping to suppress an attempt to escape from under it, the people would have loved him and kept him in their collective memory, regardless of statues. He could himself have quoted Horace with confidence: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” – “I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze”.

Jim Gibbons

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