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Conquered ground

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This story is part of an occasional series of articles from the Prague Wanderer, a webzine created by New York University students in Prague. Learn more about the Prague Wanderer here.

With shaggy ear-length hair peeking out from under backwards hats, some shirtless, some red-faced and panting, skateboarders focus on their gravity-defying antics.

In front of them, the giant red arm of the Prague Metronome juts into the air above Letna Park, but the skateboarders don’t glance up. Kissing couples and tourists holding guide books move around the spot for a comfortable place to sit or for the best look at the expansive view of the Vltava River and Old Town Square, ignoring the sculpture towering over them.

“Everyone comes to Stalin Square,” said Cliff Karlsson, an 18 year-old skateboarder visiting from Sweden for a week.

In 1991, the metronome, over 75 feet high, replaced the neglected concrete pedestal where a General Josef Stalin monument once loomed over the city.

For Karlson, the former communist-themed square is simply a skateboarding mecca. They have come in order to firm their skills on the clearing’s smooth granite tiles.

A group of teenage girls huddle on the edge of the skate area, talking amongst themselves. Each balances on a skateboard or holds one on a hip and under one arm.

“The boys come here every day, so we try to come when we can,” said Maria Miceva, 18.

The metronome’s red arm points at an angle into the sky. A twisted wire railing around it leans over, almost to the ground, and weeds grow over the crumbled cobble stone at its base. Chips of broken glass and empty beer bottles sprinkle the entire area.

Tangled graffiti bubble letters and stenciled text crawl up the stairs leading up to the park and onto the metronome’s base, while messy free-handed paintings sneak onto the actual structure.

The cult of skateboarding has replaced a more odious form for forced worship.

The stone tribute to the murderous communist dictator was the largest statue in Europe until it was dynamited in 1962 amid the Soviet Kremlin’s admission that Stalin’s “cult of personality” was a strategic error.

Historians estimate that Stalin was responsible for the death of three to 9 million people in the former Soviet Union who were executed as political prisoners, sent to gulags, starved or forcibly resettled.

Radio Stalin, a pirate radio station, broadcast counter-cultural music and other art from bunkers under the foundations of the destroyed statue after Communism fell in 1989, and the site was later home to Pone of Prague’s first post-communists rock clubs.

In recent years plans for further commercial development of the site have fallen through. Instead, the city’s youth have claimed it as their own.

“We don’t care that it was here,” Miceva said of the Stalin statue, clutching her board. She feels the history of the place belongs more to the older generation. “We shouldn’t forget about what he has done, but him? His statue? We can forget about it if we want.”

Most of the skateboarders were barely born when Communism fell, and certainly none remember the Stalin monument. The young people see little reason to think about what some in the country tried to put behind them with the transition to democracy and capitalism.

Without looking up from video footage of tricks playing on his camera, Karlsson said, “It’s all about the skating.”

Roxanne Emadi is a third-year student at New York University studying journalism and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. She is from Seattle, Washington.

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