Russia casts a long shadow because Czechs mark 50 years after the invasion

For Ondrej Neff, a young journalist in communist Czechoslovakia, the daring liberal experiment of the Prague Spring ended with a phone call in the middle of the night.

"I remember exactly, a Radio Prague colleague called me at two o'clock at night and told me what was going on, and I got up and hurried to our headquarters," Neff said, then years old, last week.

"The first thing I noticed when I came out were Russian airplanes without lights, very dark planes, which flew to the Prague airport at a very low level over the city center, and it was absolutely extraordinary."

In the early hours of August 21, 1968, Soviet troops 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 take another two decades before Czechoslovakia would expel the Soviet dolls from power, in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which was led by dissidents who had been oppressed after 1968.

This year, however, commemorates the Czechs invasion of the spring legacy in Prague, under a new government dependent on communist support, a prime minister who reportedly worked as the secret agent of the regime, and a president who shares his close ties with Russia .

Five decades ago, the Czechs met the power of the Red Army with a barrage of mostly non-violent resistance – protests, strikes, sabotage and a blizzard of anti-Soviet flocks, posters and graffiti, which are now being remembered in exhibitions and other events throughout the country .

Alexander Dubcek

"We were all supporters," says Neff about the support of his colleagues at Radio Prague for Alexander Dubcek, who in January 1968 was head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Soviet troops marching through Prague, September 1968. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images

Soviet troops marching through Prague, September 1968. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images

Dubcek and his allies limited the 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, on the understanding that his party's "leading role" in Czechoslovak language keeps society.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev suspected that the Dubcek reformers would jeopardize the Kremlin's control over Eastern Europe and eventually ordered an invasion on the pretext that he had a counter-revolution & # 39; in Czechoslovakia would destroy.

"The invasion was no surprise to us … but it was a shock, although we expected it," Neff says. "There was so much tension until August 21. Now the tension broke and it was very dramatic and we were in a kind of euphoria."


The Soviets quickly cut off Radio Prague's access to his channels and Neff remembers the station's technicians who switched to telephony broadcast before the Red Army's troops stormed the invasion for a few hours. "They drove us out of our building but our technicians found a solution to keep on broadcasting, so Radio Prague was virtually uninterrupted from the first day of the invasion and I continued to work as a journalist."

However, the Prague spring ended.

Dubcek and his allies were confiscated and flown to the Soviet capital, where nearly all signed the Protocol of Moscow, agreeing to restore censorship, releasing certain officials and repressing opposition groups.

The defeated reformists were flown home on 27 August. The following April Dubcek was replaced as party leader by the Soviet-backed loyalist Gustav Husak, marking the beginning of almost two decades of "normalization".

& # 39; Darkness everywhere & # 39;

"The late sixties were a beautiful 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, "normalization" meant that he was fired at Radio Prague and worked in a department store and as a photographer before returning to journalism after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Jirina Siklova. Photo: Memory of Nations project

Jirina Siklova. Photo: Memory of Nations project

For sociologist Jirina Siklova, it meant stopping the Communist Party, being fired from the philosophy faculty of the prestigious Charles University and instead working 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," she says. The Irish Times.

Siklova, who was 33 years old in 1968, also began to inspire the work of forbidden authors in and out of the country. "The smuggling was obviously very dangerous, but I think it was very important, I smuggled a lot 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, such as [former Austrian chancellor] Bruno Kreisky, like Mrs. Thatcher and others, I was released from prison. & # 39;

Siklova and Neff belong to hundreds of people whose stories about the invasion and its aftermath are the Memory of Nations project of the Post Bellum organization, which opened a special exhibition in Prague in 1968.

In a recent poll commissioned by Post Bellum, 46 percent of those surveyed aged 18-34 did not know anything about the events of 1968, a finding that Michal Smid, the manager of the Memory of Nations collection, & al; # 39; is.

Historical consciousness

The historic consciousness of the Czech Republic seems to be declining, just as the attitude towards the communist period and Moscow return to the political front.

Despite the fact that less than 8 percent of votes were elected last year, the Czech Communist Party is now crucial to provide a majority to the government of Prime Minister Andrei Babis, a billionaire businessman now the accusations that he acted informant for the Czechoslovakian secret police.

At the same time, Czech President Milos Zeman is perhaps the most pro-Kremlin leader in Europe, who regularly visits Russia, and urges the West to withdraw his sanctions against Moscow and to keep top assistants with close business ties. with the country.

"Until recently, [1968] was not controversial in our national discourse at all. The vast majority of people agreed that the Soviet occupation was a barbaric act that had greatly influenced the development of the country in the next two decades, "Smid says.

"However, it is to be expected that with the coming 50-year jubilee, some voices will try to downplay and question the seriousness of the occupation, as Vojtech Filip, the chairman of the Communist Party, has done … trying absurdly … to release Russia from its former deeds. "

While Babis has indicted the invasion and will speak about her anniversary, Zeman is not going to make public comment on Tuesday.

"There will be no speech", tweeted Zeman & # 39; s spokesman Jiri Ovcacek. "The president was brave at a time when courage was not cheap, and that is much more valuable than a thousand speeches 50 years later."

Critical attitude

Several leading Czech politicians have criticized Zeman's attitude, which in January just won re-election against a liberal challenger. "It is the 50th anniversary and the president should say something", says Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.

"Everyone suspects that he may not want to make a statement, because he should forcefully condemn the Soviet invasion," Pehe explains.

"Zeman has been so pro-Russian lately that it would not go well with Russian leadership, so he prefers to remain silent."

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