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 named after Ukrainian war hero Vitaliy Skakun, who died on the day the invasion began, 24 February, when he blew up a bridge in the town of Kherson to prevent the advance of Russian troops.

Since then, the local-history commission has also received proposals to rename all Russian-related names, such as I.P. Pavlov square. It has resisted the pressure, arguing that people who lived in Russia in the 19th century have nothing to do with Putin. Passions have also been aroused by attempts to name more places after Václav Havel. He is a symbol of the post-Soviet transformation, but the period in question was also one of terrible hardship for a section of the Czech population.

Every new naming is an act of power

Given the number of “renaming waves” in recent history, the current distaste for ideologically motivated names is understandable. But the question remains as to what extent the unpolitical names are truly neutral.

“Of course, any name can be ideologised. Depending on the context, an innocent name can become a political symbol,” points out ethnologist Přemysl Mácha. He cites the example of Těšín, where the presence of a significant Polish minority means that the right to bilingual names applies. Even names that are hundreds of years old are being fought over because they symbolise different ethnic identities.

Academic Tereza Jiroutová Kynčlová agrees, citing the example of the streets in Prague’s Vršovice district named after former Soviet republics, whose names now sound “innocently geographical” to us. “Every new name is an act of power. And we want to remember the people who created the world around us. To think we won’t rename is absurd. We’re going to rename – and if we don’t, it will mean we forget,” she explains.

We still forget about women

As Jiroutová Kynčlová reminds us, there is one bitter (and ideologically tinged) reality that is universal: in the search for new names we still forget the importance of representing women. Outside Czechia, gender disparity in street names is a regular topic of public debate. In Italy, for example, guerrilla groups rewrote street names to honour women. In Berlin or Oslo, some municipalities have even committed to naming new places exclusively after women until the ratio is equalised.

According to Ledvinka, the Prague local-history commission is trying to “accentuate” the names of women. Examples of that include the Barrandov neighbourhood, where in May 2020 eight of ten new street names were taken from actresses. In the emerging Smíchov City district, new streets are set to commemorate women who took part in the fight against totalitarianism. The main street will be named after Madeleine Albright, while others will honour the art collector Meda Mládková, the painter Toyen, the dissident Jiřina Šiklová, and the philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Yet, among the nearly 600 new names of public spaces adopted since 2010, there are only 28 that commemorate women. “What does that say? That we live in a patriarchal society in which all values are tailored to men, including the way we look at the past. In a public space – to which women had limited access for much of history – it is men that are still being celebrated and commemorated,” Nečasová says.

Ukrainian Heroism’s street

As Jiroutová Kynčlová points out, the patriarchal attitudes of society also influence the way we perceive the significance of historical figures: “We more often associate historical significance with the public sphere, where we are taught to look for male figures more often. In our society, women are associated with the domestic sphere and the reproductive role. No matter how much society could not exist without these functions, they are considered less prestigious.”

She cites the renaming of part of Coronation Street to Ukrainian Heroes’ [male] street as an example of the patriarchal understanding of historical significance: “I really welcomed the renaming of the street. But I regret that it is not ‘Ukrainian Heroism’s’ street. The Ukrainian army was already about 20 percent female before the outbreak of the Russian invasion. Moreover, the heroes are not only those in the army, but also women who have decided to protect their children and parents by finding them a home and a job abroad, for example in our country.”

“The masculine gender in the street name suggests that heroism is a purely masculine quality best demonstrated on the battlefield. However, naming it ‘Ukrainian Heroism’ would give us the opportunity not only to think in this traditional way, but to see and acknowledge other acts of heroism, without in any way diminishing the merits of the Ukrainian army.”

In politics, science, and the arts, there have been many women who deserve their own street and still don’t have one. However, we need to take the initiative in seeking them out because, due to structural barriers, their names and work are less well known than those of men. Our newspaper once compiled a list of six women who deserve a street of their own. In the Smíchov City district, a park at least will soon be named after one of them, Alice Masaryk, and her sister Anna.

And, as illustrated by the examples of Anna Politkovská’s promenade in Stromovka, or the 2019 naming of the promenade of Pavel Adamowicz (the murdered mayor of Gdansk) in Riegrovy Sady, if we want to commemorate someone in the public space, we do not necessarily have to rename or build a street to do so. Women can also be honoured in the form of busts, monuments and memorial plaques.

However, as Jiroutová Kynčlová puts it: “We should not be content with simply ‘adding’ women and their names to the public space. We should also discuss the systemic and structural flaws that for so long caused our society to decide not to name streets and spaces after women.” 

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