or, From the meat queue to the metronome to an aquarium
One of the geographical features of the city of Prague is the small plateau of Letna, containing a public park and situated north and across the river of the Old Town and east of the Prague Castle. If you stand at the Old Town Square, you can see the edge of this plateau rising at the northern end of Parizska Street. Some say this view - and the way it was changing during the 20th century - illustrates quite well the changes of Czech society.
The Great Urban Renewal - Progress Through Scientific Advances
At the end of the 19th century, the Prague City Council had decided to demolish the entire Jewish Quarter, which was basically an inner-city slum with an impossible tangle of ownership problems attached, and to build a modern city quarter with straight streets and large, modern houses, inspired by the streets of Paris. This they did; Parizska Street was one of these new streets, the name meaning Paris Street. Only the demolition of the ghetto, the first part of the Great Renewal, was accomplished before the World War I started. When it did, there were more pressing matters than following through with the plan - fortunately for the look of the city: there were plans to bulldoze a boulevard from the Wenceslas Square to the Old Town Square, continuing through the Parizska Street, over the river and through a deep ditch through the Letna plateau. As the events unfolded, after the war the Renewal effort ran into a shortage of funds and disapproval of the general public; thus the view of Parizska Street remained unchanged until the 1940s.
Djugashvili, his Meat queue... - To A Better Tomorrow With The Soviets
In the 1940s, the government of Czechoslovakia had decided to erect a giant statue in honor of socialism and Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, a.k.a. Stalin. The plateau of Letna in continuation of Parizska street was chosen for it. The foundation stone was laid in 1949 and in 1955, the sculpture was unveiled. The sculptor, who designed it, commited suicide about a week before the unveiling - most of his friends started ignoring him when they found out he was creating the largest homage to Stalin in the world.
The sculpture depicted five people: Facing the city was Stalin (in the classical posture of Napoleon, with his right hand inside his coat), behind him was a worker (wielding a flag), then a woman, a farmer, and at the back was a soldier (turned back from the others, facing north-west, symbolising the alertness of the People). To say that the public didn't embrace the thing wholeheartedly would be an understatement - it was big and (even for its time) ugly as hell, giving rise to the supposedly first political jokes under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia:
"Why does Stalin have his hand inside the coat? He was about to pay for the sculpture, but turned to stone when they told him the price."
"What's that thing up at Letna? It's a meat queue: Stalin, of course, leads the People everywhere, whereas the soldier is about to leave the queue and go home empty-handed."
The sculpture was enormous, the biggest one in Europe: the plateau of Letna has been leveled, catacombs built underneath it (for structural reasons - the ground wouldn't settle quickly enough to support a 17 000 metric ton beast) and the statue built upon a pedestal. The statue was 12 meters (30 feet) wide, 22 meters (72 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) tall, with another 15 m of the pedestal; Stalin's head was about 80 m (260 ft) above the river.
To give some perspective: the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro is 30 meters (100 feet) tall and nowhere near the city centre, the Statue of Liberty in NYC is 152 feet (47 meters) tall (305 feet/102 m ground-to-top) and also quite removed from the city. Stalin was one big mofo right in the middle of the city, where one couldn't but look up to it, stressing its size even more.
It is rumored that Stalin & al. was to be a counterpart to another large statue, to that of Jan Zizka, a 14th century warrior, who has been depicted riding the largest horse in the world (9 meters/30 feet high) on Zizkov, a hill opposite Letna. Zizka's statue has been unveiled in the 1920s, but it has one thing Stalin lacked: distance, Zizka being on top of a hill and removed from the city centre. Zizka was still where he was in the 1920s the last time I checked.
...and his downfall - Unfreezing The Russian Winter
In 1953, while the sculpture was still being erected, Stalin has died (with the Czech Communist Party leader and Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, following suit within a week - it is rumored he drank himself to death, not being able to bear the loss of the beloved Leader). In 1956, just one year after the sculpture was finished, Nikita Khrushchev, then the leader of Soviet Communist Party, publicly denounced Stalin's cult of personality in the (in)famous 20th Party Congress Address. Stalin thus fell out of favour, yet the Czechoslovak Communists, being hard-core Stalinist veterans, kept the sculpture until 1962, when it was covered with wooden panels and under Secret Police supervision blasted to pieces during the course of several days.
Rubble and potatoes, large piles of - The Timeless Times
Since the statue was so large, it became very hard to transport the rubble away - the catacombs underneath the pedestal thus got a new use: a large part was used for storing the rubble from the statue. Apart from this, there were no attempts to re-use the pedestal, the Letna plateau, or the catacombs. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the catacombs were (and I'm not making this up, although RACECAR suspects so) used as a potato storage facility, something like the National Potato Reserve for the Czechoslovak capital (yes, one million kilos of potatoes. Those catacombs are enormous).
Radio Stalin and the metronome - A New Hope
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which has removed the Communists from power, the catacombs under Letna were put to various uses for relatively short periods: the Radio Stalin was broadcasting from there, later a music club and an art gallery were in the catacombs. Since about 1994, the catacombs have been abandoned and are only used for wires of telecommunications companies and by the homeless as a shelter from the elements.
Above the ground, there have been some changes: in 1991, a giant electric-powered metronome has been installed there as a symbol of new era, and it is there to this day. Originally, it was on all the time, even chiming every full hour, but the City Council thought it was too expensive to run and the local residents complained about the noise, so now its operation is somewhat unpredictable - at one time, it would be running, on another not.
Happily ever after? - Free Market Solves All
Apart from the metronome, there haven't been any major changes - only in 1998, before the elections, Vaclav Klaus, then the leader of Citizens' Democratic Party (ODS) had a billboard with his face posted next to the metronome (yeah, he definitely does have those "I Am Your Great Leader" tendencies. Btw he's the Czech president as of 2005), causing some discussion.
The pedestal itself is a godsend to skateboarders, since it's a large, publicly accessible, smooth and flat surface, so various skate ramps and similar have been set up around it.
At present, there is some discussion whether to build a high-capacity garage or a sea aquarium underground in place of the catacombs, but the outcome is yet to be seen.
And yeah, the place is still commonly referred to as "At the Stalin" pretty much by everybody, regardless of the age group. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
A course for tourist guides by Prague Information Service, http://www.pis.cz/
Physical dimensions, sculpture authorship: Totalita.cz - a site dedicated to memory of all who've lost their lives to the Communist regime http://www.totalita.cz/50/50_pomnik_02.php - has photos of the sculpture
Catacombs dates: Nautilus.cz - Society for exploring the Earth http://www.nautilus.cz/stal.html - includes photos of the catacombs
Folk tales - the story of Gottwald drinking himself to death