What do Prague’s street names say about us?

Of the Prague streets named after famous people, less than 5 percent bear the names of women. Diversity is also lacking in terms of the nationalities represented and the periods in which the personalities lived. These days, the city’s local-history commission encourages neutral names – but neutrality is an illusion.

Published On: March 6th, 2023

Street name in Prague (© Taras Lazer/Shutterstock )

“We live in a more colourful world than our surroundings suggest.” These words, of historian Denisa Nečasová, might sum up a recent analysis of street names in Prague. The survey is part of the international project Mapping Diversity , in which Deník Referendum is the Czech participant.

The analysis shows that less than 5 percent of all streets in Prague are named after women. There is similarly little diversity in terms of national origins, and even of the historical period in which the individuals lived. 70 percent of them were born in what is now the Czech Republic, the vast majority are of Czech origin, and most lived in the 19th century. Only 1.5 percent of them were born outside Europe, most often in the United States – three American presidents have their street in Prague.

The most popular figures

Not only in Prague but also in the rest of the country, streets are typically named after patriotic artists who made their mark during the national revival. These include Karel Havlíček Borovský, František Palacký, Josef Dobrovský, and Jan Neruda. Prague and every major Czech city has its own public space dedicated to Jan Amos Komenský, Jan Žižka, and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

In addition to artists, war heroes are also well represented. There are generals and pilots, as well as anti-fascist resistance fighters and victims of the Second World War – often from the ranks of the working class. A significant number of streets are named after scientists, especially doctors. Compared to other countries, a relatively small number of streets in Czechia are named after aristocrats. Among the women after whom streets are named, writers, actresses and resistance fighters predominate. The single woman with the most streets in the country is Božena Němcová.

Public spaces in some neighbourhoods are named after a thematic group of personalities. For example, streets in Barrandov are named after actors; a section of Černý Most bears the names of World War II airmen; and streets in the Modřany housing estate are named after Bulgarian revolutionaries active in the anti-Turkish resistance.

After each political upheaval came new names

Václav Ledvinka, from the Prague city archives – one of the authors of book Pražský uličník (Prague’s Streetwalker) – points out that since the 19th century, i.e. the very beginning of systematic street naming, the nominations have had an ideological function. “At first streets were named mainly after rulers, such as the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef. After 1848, when civil society began to assert itself more, patriotic names entered the public space,” he explains.

However, the intrusion of ideology into place naming meant that with each political upheaval, some names became undesirable. Hence the repeated “waves of renaming” that swept across today’s Czech Republic during the 20th century.

The more important a space is – usually based on its size and proximity to a city’s centre – the more the authorities have tried to assert control by renaming it. In the case of the most well-known avenues or waterfronts, the gender disparity of street names is even more skewed: in Prague, the only important space named after a woman is Milada Horáková Avenue.

The authority to name public spaces was delegated to municipalities by decree in 1921, just after the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia. It also became forbidden to name places after Habsburg monarchs or rulers of enemy states. However, republican and anti-German names were replaced by German ones less than twenty years later, after the occupation by Nazi Germany. These lasted only until the end of the Second World War, after which the places usually reverted to their original appellations.

The next wave of renaming was not long in coming. With communism came the banishment of names associated with religion, the bourgeoisie, the West, and capitalism. In their place, the public space was flooded with other names that celebrated the Soviet model. Often these had no close relationship to the places in question. For instance, Masaryks or Benes Streets were renamed after Stalin or Lenin. Stalin’s presence, however, declined after 1956 due to official criticism of the ‘cult of personality’.

The last mass wave of renaming took place after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. The first changes happened spontaneously: people took to the streets and crossed out the Bolshevik names themselves. For example, Krasnoarmeytsy Square became Jan Palach Square overnight.

“During each wave, more was renamed than was necessary”, comments Ledvinka, the archivist. “After 1989, many working-class figures disappeared from the public sphere. Only some resistance fighters, especially those who had been tortured in concentration camps, survived. However, names such as Julius Fučík, Jan Šverma, and Jožka Jabůrková were so abused by communist propaganda that even they were removed, but in fact those people had virtually nothing to do with the communist regime.”

When a hockey or football player dies

Soon after the Velvet Revolution, a place-name commission was established to put checks on the renaming process. To this day, the commission must approve all new place names. Suggestions for names usually come from the municipalities, property developers, or civil society.

Each wave of renaming means an administrative burden for both the state and local residents, as people living in the renamed place have to change their documents. “Today, the local-history commission is promoting neutral names that will last, such as ones related to nature or geography,” Ledvinka says. Less than a quarter of Prague’s streets are named after people, which is relatively low compared to the rest of Europe.

These days it is rare for public spaces to be renamed for ideological reasons: more often, new names are chosen to settle problems of duplication, which is explicitly prohibited by law. The law also stipulates that public spaces may not be named after a living person. “The public usually demands a new name when a football or hockey player dies. But places are still named after Churchill or De Gaulle when appropriate,” notes Ledvinka laconically.

Political gestures towards Russia

In recent years, however, there have been several highly political renamings that have delighted some and outraged others. The most blatant examples relate to Russia. In 2020, Pod Kaštany (Chestnut) square was renamed Boris Nemtsov square, after the assassinated Russian opposition leader. This was on the anniversary of his murder, and the renamed square was not chosen by chance – it is the seat of the Russian embassy.

On the same day, one of the promenades in Prague’s Stromovka Park was named after the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Both changes, initiated by a citizens’ petition and approved by the local council of Prague VI district, were presented as “a political gesture towards Russia and an expression of solidarity with the Russian opposition and human-rights movement”. They angered, among others, Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesman for then Czech President Miloš Zeman, who described them as “a classic example of a small, dirty Czech attempt to beat someone up and then hide behind a beech tree.”

Another heavily politicised renaming took place in spring 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The part of Korunovační ulice (Coronation street) that connects to Boris Nemtsov square, where the Russian embassy stands, was renamed Ukrajinských hrdinů (Ukrainian Heroes) street. And the adjacent railway bridge was n