An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
30 October 2020
Prague is a city of postcard-perfect architecture: from immaculate works of Gothic beauty – like St. Vitus Cathedral and the 13th century Old New Synagogue in Josefov – to the statue-lined Charles Bridge, or the monumental neo-Renaissance building of the National Museum looking out across Wenceslas Square. It is not a city that most would associate with industrial decay… however Prague’s former palaces of industry are no less grand, even while history is in the process of burying them.
The Praga Car Factory – known as ‘Pragovka’ – on the city’s eastern edge was once the beating heart of the Czechoslovak manufacturing industry. It played a significant role in the city’s 20th century history, but it was here, too, that one of Prague’s darkest days was set into motion. In 1968, workers at Pragovka sent a letter to the Soviet Embassy requesting support in the fight against liberalisation – and this letter, published in Pravda, would then be used as justification for the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Some time ago I published an article here about Soviet-era heritage sites in Prague – but I left out Pragovka, as I felt this place deserved a deeper investigation. Abandoned since the turn of the 21st century, the Pragovka complex is now a sprawling ruin, its extravagant factory halls succumbing slowly to time and nature. So in 2017 I went back, to explore what was left of it.
A Brief History of the Praga Car Factory
The Pražská Car Factory was founded in 1907: a manufacturing site in the eastern suburbs of Prague, with just 30 employees. Two years later, its parent company adopted the name ‘Praga’ – the car brand used the Latin form of the city’s name in the hope of sounding more international. During WWI the Praga factory (then known as the First Czech-Moravian Machine Factory) supplied the Austro-Hungarian army; then after 1918 and the independence of Czechoslovakia, it began to focus more on passenger cars.
In 1927 Praga was incorporated into the new ČKD (Českomoravská Kolben-Daněk) group, one of the largest engineering companies in Czechoslovakia. Among other vehicles (including tanks, locomotives, tractors, motorcycles and metro cars), ČKD produced cars under the Praga, Škoda and Tatra brands, and was famous for making the Tatra T3 tramcar – a design which would sell almost 14,000 units, and become an iconic sight on the streets of socialist cities from Sarajevo to Tashkent. Meanwhile as many as half of the taxis on Prague’s streets had rolled out of this factory.
The manufacturing site in Prague – now called the Praga Car Factory – grew to have more than 3,500 employees, many of them living in blocks on and around the site. They called the place “Pragovka.” The complex was expanded between 1931-33, including the addition of a new building known as E-Factory, designed by architect Josef Kalous, which would serve as a warehouse for the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs.
During WWII the Pragovka factory made aircraft, and as a result it was targeted by severe Allied bombing raids in March 1945 – destroying many of its buildings. When Czechoslovakia was brought into the Soviet sphere after the war, rebranding as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Pragovka was rebuilt by the ČKD and nationalised by the communist government.
Czechoslovakia regained its democracy after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and in January 1993 was dissolved into separate Czech and Slovak Republics. The government of the Czech Republic privatised ČKD in 1994, but as its former trade deals with the Soviet Union and other Central and Eastern European countries began to fall apart, business dried up, and by the early years of the 21st century this former manufacturing juggernaut ground to a halt. Praga produced fewer than 120 vehicles in total for the years 2001-03. The Praga Car Factory – Pragovka – was closed down, and for years it would sit in a state of ruin, an industrial scar on the city’s edge.
In recent years, the Pragovka complex has been recognised as a heritage site and some of its spaces have been developed into an arts district. There is a retro-themed ‘Pragovka Cafe,’ and the place hosts film screenings, concerts and festivals. Reportedly as many as a hundred local artists have studios now on the former factory grounds, while the large E-Factory building has been converted into a gallery space. There’s talk of building apartments here too in future, a trendy new community rising up amidst the industrial decay. A large part of the complex remains off-limits for now though – and it was here that we entered.
I was visiting Prague briefly, for just a day, in 2017; and was fortunate enough to be offered a tour of its best ruins, courtesy of my friend, the local photographer Katka Havlíková. She led us around the back of the factory where we scrambled up a slope of rubble to reach a promontory at the corner of the former yard. Ahead of us lay a sea of green. Thick vegetation hid the concrete courtyard, with only the occasional street light, rising like drowning hands from water, to suggest that anything unnatural lay beneath. The main buildings, those still standing, were just visible through the trees… and so we cut a path down through the overgrown wreckage towards the old factory halls.
After poking around in a few of the outer buildings that rise now out of bushes and debris, we made it finally to the main manufacturing halls of Pragovka. It was strange to see a building this grand left to ruin. The complex was built back in a time when factories and power plants were temples of the people – places of pride, not merely function, their spaces defined with grand architectural flourishes. This main hall could have been a train station, not a car factory. Natural light illuminated the hall from floor-to-ceiling windows (much of their glass still intact), while pillars supported an arched ceiling high above.
We didn’t see the new arts district at all – a fact indicative of just how large this complex was – but it was hard to imagine how any small business or community project could successfully take over a space like this. The factory halls were beautiful, but built on such a scale that maintenance and repairs would be an extraordinary burden (particularly after all these years of decline). To make this place safe now for workers, artists, visitors… well, it’s hard to imagine any business here considering it worth the cost to do so.
The seeming inevitability of this factory’s ruin cast a melancholy mood over the few hours we spent wandering the halls of Pragovka. Right now, like this, with the warm sun slicing in sideways through the dirty glass windows, and the greenery of nature’s scouts – along with bursts of bright graffiti – lending fresh colour to the otherwise muted palette of pastel-painted walls and pillars: Pragovka might never look this good again.
The Ninety-nine Praguers
When Pragovka falls, much of its history will be buried with it; and perhaps for some, that might be for the best. Pragovka is remembered not only as the heart of the Czechoslovak manufacturing industry, but it is also a place where the communists made their stand – forever linking these buildings with a historic victory for the pro-Soviet movement.
In 1968 the Soviet Union and its allies led an overnight invasion of Czechoslovakia – to suppress the ‘Prague Spring,’ a growing liberalisation movement under First Secretary Alexander Dubček. Although history remembers the event as an act of totalitarian foreign aggression, that invasion was not, in fact, universally unwelcome. Numerous workers’ unions in Czechoslovakia supported Soviet intervention in their country, and one of the key triggers of the invasion was a letter of invitation, that was written here, at the Praga Car Factory.
In 1971 the Czechoslovak journalist Josef Maxa authored A Year is Eight Months, which recounts the events of the Prague Spring and leading up to the invasion. “Moscow’s Pravda published a letter from ninety-nine workers in the Pragovka factory in Prague to the Soviet Embassy,” he wrote. “The letter denounced the Czechoslovakian enemies of socialism and of the Soviet Union.”
That document was known as the “Letter of the Ninety-nine Praguers,” and it warned the Soviet Embassy how: “the manifestations of the democratisation of society in our republic threaten the building of socialism and in so doing, attack the blood-hardened friendship between the Czech and Soviet peoples” (as paraphrased by Martin Půlpán). The letter claimed that all “honest citizens” of Czechoslovakia felt safer in the presence of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops occupying their country.
When Pravda printed the letter, on 30 July 1968, along with all ninety-nine signatures, the document would be used as justification for the swift invasion that followed in August. The incoming “normalisation” government that subsequently took charge of Czechoslovakia would valorise the authors of that letter – raising a memorial plaque at the main entrance to Pragovka, that read: “In the revolutionary tradition of this great workers’ nation, a letter with ninety-nine signatures was sent to the USSR in the critical year of 1968, requesting support and assistance in fighting anti-socialist forces.”
Nowadays that plaque is long gone. The gates of Pragovka stand barred, and the halls where the letter was written are lost to a maze of rubble, weeds and graffiti. The factory’s decline today is an inevitability – it is a temple to a lost industry, a relic displaced from its time and no longer fit for purpose in the new industrial landscape of the Czech Republic. Though Pragovka’s political history likely doesn’t help to endear these halls to the citizens of contemporary Prague – and it’s hard not to read some level of symbolism as this celebrated factory, once enshrined like a victorious battlefield in Czechoslovakia’s communist historiography, is slowly carved up, and crushed, by the oncoming future.