The Slavín Monument with its Slavín Military Cemetery is the high point of Bratislava – literally. It’s here people come to look down on the city, to get a feel for the landscape. From here you can see the mishmash of architecture that mirrors regime changes, from Brutalism back to the genteel elegance of the Gothic/Renaissance/Baroque mix of the Old Town Hall.
The soldier standing on the obelisk holds a flag in his right hand and with his left boot stomps on a swastika. Beneath him lie the remains of 6,845 soldiers of the Red Army who died while liberating Bratislava from the Nazis in April 1945. There are 278 individual graves and 6 mass graves, large rectangular mounds with stone facings and lawned tops. Some of the graves have flowers on them. They are remembered. People alive today knew them or knew of them.
Back in 2005, when Putin and Bush met in the city for the Slovakia Summit, the Soviet leader paid the Slavín Military Cemetery a visit. I wonder what those fallen Russian soldiers thought then and what they are thinking now. Fanciful I know. But perhaps it is possible to have passed from this mortal world and still have the capacity to think.
And then, back in the day, in 1945, when the Russians rolled into town to defeat the Wehrmacht, was any of what I’m sure was widespread relief tainted by a premonition of what was to come?
The memorial – and Soviet liberation – carries mixed memories for Slovaks. There is genuine gratitude for the sacrifice of the Russians and other Soviet peoples who defeated the Nazis in 1945. But the Soviet-backed Communist Party takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which unseated the popular Slovak leader Alexander Dubček, undermined its popular legacy.
Many years ago an Australian friend commented on the British occupation of Ireland saying that it could have been worse; we might have had the Spanish. Everything, they say, is relative.
Perhaps it’s because Bratislava wears its Soviet history so openly that current events weighed so heavily on my mind. The 6,845 soldiers buried here died while liberating a city. Thousands more Russian soldiers are dying today. And for what? These manicured mass graves bear little resemblance to those being unearthed in Ukraine. And yes, I know it’s apples and oranges but still, it’s frightening.
Trolley bus number 203 or 207 from Hodžovo námestie (in front of the Grassalkovich Palace) will get you there. The closest stop is Búdková. If you want to walk the whole way, it’ll take about half an hour. It’s also part of the Soviet Era Post-Communism tour with Authentic Slovakia.
PS. I found a video of the monument on YouTube if you’re curious to see it for yourselves.