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By Sallie Baliunas - September 12, 2006 12:00 AM

But I like the giant metronome.

It's a gigantic kinetic sculpture (for which outsize proportion matters) beckoning the city from its massive, gray plinth atop Letná Hill north across the Vltava River. The body is shaped simply to present a black isosceles triangle in obsidian contemplation. The tempo of time, though, is chased by a thin but graceful, extended orange-red wand.

My guidebook (Eyewitness Travel Guides Prague, pub. 2005, p. 161), agreeable in many ways, denounces the metronome, "Nobody likes the metronome any more than they did Stalin['s statue previously on the site]," perhaps not meaning anything more than an argument of taste.

Because I like the gigantic metronome I informally asked several Prague residents whom I do not know their opinion. If, as the guidebook so definitively stated, "nobody liked it," I wanted to find out why the public sculpture was so disliked.

I asked those who had lived in Prague prior to the metronome's unveiling in 1991. The age of participants ranged from two decades to many. I asked their opinion after first stating that I like the metronome. They all liked it, too. To place the context of the responses, though, requires an outline of the timeline of the two statues - Stalin's and its successor, the metronome.

The colossal sculpture on Letná Hill honoring Communist dictator, Iosef Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Josef Stalin 1879-1953) was erected in 1955. It measured 15 meters high and capped a 15-meter pedestal, a darkly inescapable domination of the sky even from across the Vltava. Stalin was depicted leading four of the laboring proletariat: a worker, woman, farmer and soldier.

By the time the statue had been unveiled Czechoslovakia had been brutalized by seven years of Soviet-orchestrated terror and misery that had emerged from the period of chaos during Nazi occupation and through Western victory. A long-standing Bolshevik leader in Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, first led the Czechoslovak Communist Party then stepped in as president of Czechoslovakia in February 1948 after a stunning political manipulation called the bloodless coup.

Gottwald is notorious for his 1929 reply after his election to the Czechoslovak National Assembly to the allegation that the Czechoslovak Communist Party marched to Moscow's orders. Klement not only confirmed the charge but outlined his vision for a Soviet Bloc Czechoslovakia:

And you know very well why we go to Moscow: we go there to learn from the Russian Bolsheviks how to wring your necks. You all know that the Bolshevik Russians are past masters of the art)

Thus did the Státní bezpecnost (State Security) find many outlets to violently repress enemies of the state. In late 1949 the ongoing purges brought from Moscow a Soviet advisor, Mikhail Likhachev, with grim news:

Stalin sent me to set up trials, and I don't have any time to waste. I haven't come here to discuss things with people, I have come to Czecholovakia to cut off heads [svolchit golovy]. I'll kill 150 people with my own hands before I get into trouble.

Another wave of purges and mass deportations followed. "Re-education" forced-labor camps (tábory nucené práce) near the uranium mines (Jáchymov) and coal mines (Ostrava) voraciously fed on slave labor to support the Soviet economic model. The Black Book of Communism estimates that for its population of 12.6 million, the Soviet apparatus created approximately 200,000 political prisoners and 422 forced labor camps and prisons.

Stalin's death in 1953 left a small committee governing the Soviet Union until 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev consolidated power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev that year also denounced Stalin and what Khrushchev termed the cult of personality. As a result, Prague's Stalin statue was destroyed with 800 kilograms of explosives in 1962.

Perestroika in the mid-1980s allowed rising demonstrations against Soviet control of Czechoslovakia. Civil disobedience culminated with the bloodless overthrow of the Soviet regime in the period 19 November-29 December 1989, called Listopadové události, or November events (sometimes called the Velvet Revolution, a term less favored by Czechs). In 1990 free elections resumed after having been outlawed for 40 years. In 1991 the giant metronome gazed from the plinth last occupied by Stalin's monstrous, dark statue.

Back to the present, and the opinions of a few Prague residents concerning the metronome.

A young man thought fondly of the metronome, which had been visible from the classrooms of his school. It serenely kept time and attention as he stared at it during "boring classes." Yes, he and his classmates knew that a statue of Stalin had once stood there.

A woman agreed, "Ano [yes], I like it. It works most of the time, except in high windiness or when the city is broke [runs out of money to pay the electricity costs]." The surrounding area is a park, and the pedestal has broad steps. "Although," the woman continues, "boys skateboard there and," she gestures resignedly with the pantomime of inhaling the smoke of a marijuana cigarette.

Another woman remembered a Michael Jackson visit to Prague in September 1996. On the metronome's plateau Jackson had placed a 10-meter, sliver and blue statue of himself, where it was enormously visible from his room in the Intercontinental Hotel across the Vltava.

A long-time Prague resident remembered learning Russian as a schoolboy in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the Soviet regime. "The language of the future, we were told." As for the ugly massive statue, "There was nothing for many years after the Communists blew apart the statue of Stalin leading people," an apt image of the bleak period. The metronome marked for him the breath of freedom. "My daughter used the internet, located a job in America as an au pair. She traveled there without difficulties. That astonished me. She told me that she even drove a car. It is hard for me to believe it - she was allowed to drive in New York. Me? I never learned to drive a car. There was no need for me to learn."

The giant metronome welcomes Prague back to the sweep of time and into the future. No wonder the locals like it, as do I.


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