Russia casts long shadow as Czechs mark 50 years since invasion
Pro-Kremlin president will not make a speech in memory of the Prague Spring
Protesters and residents standing on and around a Russian tank on a Prague street, August 1968. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images
For Ondrej Neff, a young journalist in communist Czechoslovakia, the bold liberal experiment of the Prague Spring ended with a phone call in the dead of night.
“I remember it exactly. A colleague from Radio Prague called me at 2am and told me what was happening. I got up and rushed to our headquarters,” Neff, who was then 23 years old, recalled last week.
“The first thing I noticed when I got outside was Russian planes without lights, very dark planes, flying at very low level towards Prague airport over the centre of the city. It was absolutely extraordinary.”
In the early hours of August 21st, 1968, Soviet forces deployed troops, tanks and aircraft in an invasion of Czechoslovakia that would claim more than 100 lives and crush all hope that the Kremlin would tolerate “socialism with a human face” in its satellite states.
It would be another two decades before Czechoslovakia ousted Soviet puppets from power, in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that was led by dissidents who had suffered repression after 1968.
This year, however, the anniversary of the invasion finds Czechs pondering the legacy of the Prague Spring, under a new government that depends on communist support, a prime minister who allegedly worked as a secret agent of the regime, and a president who revels in his close ties to Russia.
Five decades ago, Czechs met the might of the Red Army with a barrage of mostly non-violent resistance – protests, strikes, sabotage actions and a blizzard of anti-Soviet leaflets, posters and graffiti, which are now remembered in exhibitions and other events around the country.
Dubcek and allies eased restrictions on travel, the press and independent political groups, and advocated closer ties with western Europe and the introduction of elements of the free market and even democratic elections, with the proviso that his party retain its “leading role” in Czechoslovak society.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev suspected Dubcek’s reformists imperilled Kremlin control of eastern Europe, however, and finally ordered an invasion on the pretext of crushing a western-backed “counterrevolution” in Czechoslovakia.
“The invasion wasn’t a surprise for us . . . but it was a shock even though we were expecting it,” says Neff. “Up until August 21st there had been so much tension. Now the tension broke and it was very dramatic and we were also in a kind of euphoria.”
The Soviets swiftly cut Radio Prague’s access to its transmitters and Neff recalls the station’s technicians switching to broadcast via telephone lines before Red Army troops stormed its headquarters a few hours into the invasion. “They chased us out of our building but our technicians found a solution to keep broadcasting. So Radio Prague was on air practically without interruption from the first day of the invasion, and I kept working as a journalist.”
The Prague Spring was at an end, however.
Dubcek and his allies were seized and flown to the Soviet capital, where almost all of them signed the Moscow Protocol, agreeing to reinstate censorship, sack certain officials and suppress opposition groups.
The defeated reformists were flown home on August 27th. The following April, Dubcek was replaced as party leader by Soviet-backed loyalist Gustav Husak, marking the start of almost two decades of “normalisation”.
“The late 1960s were a splendid era,” says Neff. “Suddenly it ended, suddenly there was darkness everywhere. Until Brezhnev’s death [in 1982], they were really disgusting and desperate years.”
For Neff, now best known as a science-fiction writer, “normalisation” meant being fired from Radio Prague and working in a department store and as a photographer, before returning to journalism after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
For sociologist Jirina Siklova, it meant quitting the Communist Party, being sacked from the philosophy faculty of the prestigious Charles University and working instead as a cleaner in a library and the geriatric department of a hospital. “I was told – not as a joke – that I was free to work there because their patients were half-dead already,” she tells The Irish Times.
Siklova, who was 33 in 1968, also started spiriting the work of banned authors into and out of the country. “The smuggling was very dangerous, of course, but I think it was very important. I smuggled plenty of manuscripts abroad and these books were published in the West,” she recalls.
“I was arrested in 1981 and sentenced to 10 years but ... thanks to the influence of important people from the West, like [former Austrian chancellor] Bruno Kreisky, like Mrs Thatcher and others, I was released from prison.”
Siklova and Neff are among hundreds of people whose stories of the invasion and its aftermath make up the Memory of Nations project run by the Post Bellum organisation, which opened a special 1968 exhibition in Prague this month.
In a recent poll commissioned by Post Bellum, 46 per cent of 18-34 year olds surveyed knew nothing about the events of 1968, a finding that Michal Smid, the administrator of the Memory of Nations collection, calls “alarming”.
The Czech Republic’s historical awareness seems to be dwindling just as its attitudes to the communist period and to Moscow return to the political fore.
Despite taking fewer than 8 per cent of votes in elections last year, the Czech Communist Party is now crucial in providing a majority for the government of prime minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who has so far failed to quash allegations that he acted as an informer for the Czechoslovak secret police.
At the same time, Czech president Milos Zeman is perhaps the most pro-Kremlin leader in Europe, paying regular visits to Russia, urging the West to drop its sanctions on Moscow and retaining top aides with close business ties to the country.
“Until recently,  was not at all controversial in our national discourse. The vast majority of people agreed that the Soviet occupation was a barbaric act which had badly affected the development of the country in the next two decades,” Mr Smid says.
“However, it can be expected that with the upcoming 50th anniversary, some voices will attempt to downplay and question the seriousness of the occupation, as the Communist Party chairman Vojtech Filip has done . . . absurdly trying to absolve Russia from its past deeds.”
While Babis has denounced the invasion and will speak on its anniversary, Zeman does not plan to make any public comment on Tuesday.
“There will be no speech,” tweeted Zeman’s spokesman Jiri Ovcacek. “The president was brave at a time when courage was not cheap. And that’s much more valuable than a thousand speeches 50 years later.”
Several senior Czech politicians have criticised the attitude shown by Zeman, who narrowly won re-election against a liberal challenger in January. “It is the 50th anniversary and the president should say something,” says Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague.
“Everyone suspects that he may not want to make a statement because he would have to strongly condemn the Soviet invasion,” Pehe explains.
“Zeman has been so pro-Russian lately that it would not go down well with the Russian leadership. So he prefers to be silent.”