Saturday, June 11, 2011

Slavín

Today I took a morning run through the hills overlooking Bratislava with the aim of checking out a monument I had seen from afar.

Slavín is a memorial to the Soviet and Slovak soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. It is a giant pillar situated on the highest hill overlooking the city, and considering the size of Bratislava, it's pretty hard to miss. An itch to go for a good run plus a healthy dose of curiosity soon found me running up the switchback streets in a very wealthy neighborhood, climbing the steep hill to the monument.

Lucia has told me that the end of communism and the economic chaos that came with the transition to a capitalist economy still lives in the memories of Slovaks, and there's still a suspicion of many who have money and nice homes - the implication being that they probably got it through shady dealings during the transition and privatization of the economy in the 1990s. I'm sure this neighborhood, with giant glass mansions and luxury cars parked out on the road, contributes to that idea.

When I finally reached the top, I was taken aback by how somber and quiet it was. Despite the panoramic view, on a beautiful summer Saturday afternoon, there were only two or three people walking through the monument area, which is surrounded by a cemetery.


I'm not sure if it was the Stalinist design, or the somber mood, but Slavín really made me think about how foreign this side of World War II is to Americans like me. Statues of soldiers of the Red Army helping to liberate the Slavs of Bratislava from Nazi oppression just don't fit very well into the narrative we receive about the end of World War II. For the peoples of eastern and central Europe in 1945, six years or war, famine, genocide and tragedy had ended in the most violent way, and I can only imagine that they looked to their communist liberators with a mix of thankfulness, triumph and apprehension about the future. That liberation in 1945 began a half-century of communist rule, the results of which can be seen from Slavín's panoramic viewpoints. Historic central Bratislava is surrounded by Europe's largest communist-era housing block, Petržalka, which takes up most of the southern skyline from Slavín. To the east of Petržalka, you can see a forest of smokestacks belonging to Bratislava's communist-era factories, some of which have successfully made the transition to the free market, and some of which lay silent.

After some time for reflection, I turned around and completed the second half of my run loop. My running feet quickly crossed the pavement, underneath which lay six mass graves and 278 individual graves of 6,845 Soviet soldiers who fought in the bloodiest war in history.