Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a Soviet tank was driven onto a plinth in Prague to celebrate the city’s liberation. In April 1991, a young Czech artist by the name of David Černý painted it pink as a protest. He wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser: just someone who’d grown up to see the Soviet Union not as a liberator, but an occupying force. Over the next three months, the tank was repainted and revandalised several times, until the authorities decided in July to take it off its pedestal forever.
I lived in Prague back then, and wasn’t sure what to make of the arguments. Soviet tanks had gone on to do very unheroic things in postwar Czechoslovakia, but honouring the memory of soldiers who’d risked and given their lives fighting Nazism seemed obviously important. The questions played on my mind for a long time, and I eventually decided to track down the tank. I found it in the suburbs, alongside rusting missiles, armoured personnel carriers and fighter jets in a poorly guarded military hardware hospice.
Thirty years on, it turns out that David Černý wasn’t just a political prankster. As Communists used to insist about themselves, he had history on his side. On a recent trip to Prague, I went back to the square where the pink tank used to stand and found that it’s been replaced by a fountain – but on the other side of the road, Černý has been at work again. Soon after Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014, he sunk another tank into the ground, and after its most recent invasion, he painted it in the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine.
The long and the short of it is that, after wondering for quite a while what Russian tanks really mean, I’ve finally made my mind up. My conclusions are here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/…/a-murder-weapon-not-a-memorial. Tanks for reading!