photo from the Russian newspaper Kommersant on the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
(This blog was posted on the website of the Conference of the Defence Association Institute at https://cdainstitute.ca on 23 August 2018.)
For four months in 1968, I was an intern in Prague, the capital of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, a city of incredible beauty and grace despite the unbearably heavy weight of twenty years of communist rule.
In theory, every day I was to go to my place of work – a research institute attached to the chemical industry – and contribute to its ongoing debate about how to translate the economic reforms proposed by a market-oriented economist, by the name of Ota Šik, into more effective decision-making for what was a very important sector of the country’s economy.
In practice, I spent most of my time taking in what was going on politically in what came to be known as the Prague Spring. I went to rallies. I started conversations with Czechs and Slovaks whenever an occasion presented itself. I limped my way through the Communist Party newspaper Rudé Právo.
This was an electrifying time, full of hope that the dreary and oppressive days of communist rule were numbered and that out of the Spring a new and better reality would be born.
It was not to be. On 20 August 1968, Warsaw Pact forces led by those of the Soviet Union occupied Prague and other key metropolises. In the wake of the invasion, democratic debate in the country was to die for the second time in two decades.
I well remember 20 August 1968. I was at the airport waiting for my brother to fly in from the UK when at around nine in the evening, the arrival display panels suddenly went blank. All the airport personnel could tell me was that flights to Prague had been cancelled.
I returned to the university residence where I was staying and went to bed. Around midnight, a roommate woke me up crying “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”. (I am not making this up.) From the window of our dorm, I looked out onto to a street full of tanks, not just Soviet ones but from all other communist countries of the Warsaw Pact organization save Romania, which at this point was trying to profile itself as a dissident member of the bloc.
Later that night, I crossed Prague on foot, trying to stay out of the way of the invading soldiers and their war machines, determined to visit a Czech family that had adopted me shortly after my arrival. I knocked on their door about three o’clock in the morning. Hanka, her brother Jiri, and their parents were awake, all glued to the BBC. A month later, Hanka and I would end up in Munich together, with countless other Czechs and Slovaks, but that is another story. Altogether, some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled their country in the wake of the invasion.
This experience has left me with a number of lessons.
One is that revolutions take time. The Czechs and Slovaks would have to wait another twenty years before the aspirations of the Prague Spring would be realized. And it would have taken even longer had Washington not decided to redouble its efforts in the 1980s to contain Moscow. Yes, the Soviet ship was sinking but it was containment that sealed its demise. But even now, the serving Czech President, Milos Zeman, together with the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Urban, whose country was also invaded by Warsaw Pact forces in 1956, are two of Vladimir Putin’s staunchest friends in Eastern Europe. I would like to see their bank accounts.
So, the proponents of the Arab Spring of 2011, however tragic its outcome, can still have hope. Within a generation or so, there will be another democratic revival in their geopolitical space. That said, its fortunes will depend to great degree on the posture taken towards it by the world around it, in particular that of the West.
A second point is that what seems to be is, much more often than not, not what it is. So, from 29 July to 1 August 1968, Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander Dubcek and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev met in Čierna nad Tisou, a small town in Slovakia. The meeting sparked hope that the Prague Spring would be allowed to take its course. Three weeks later some 250,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers were on the move (apparently, most of them not knowing to where or why).
In retrospect, I tend to think, however. that the meeting in Slovakia focused not on the whether of the invasion but on the how. Dubcek was a hero in his country, and remains so. He was identified with the slogan “Socialism with a Human Face”. He came to power in January 1968 when Czechoslovakia was ripe for change.
I expect, however, that Dubcek saw his role primarily as trying to control this process in the interests of the Party, rather than championing a path towards a democratic system. In this, he was not dissimilar to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, who wanted to transform the prevailing communist system, not destroy it.
My third take-away is that a people needs to know its past if it is going to be able to cope with its present, let alone its future. So, according to a survey carried out by the relatively independent Russian polling agency, Levada, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, roughly only fifty per cent of the Russians polled knew what had transpired in 1968. This is not a number that inspires confidence.
August, by the way, is the favourite month for invasions and other geopolitical skullduggery. When democratic governments are on vacation, authoritarians play. So,the putative putsch against Russia’s first democratic leader, Boris Yeltsin, took place in August 1991. The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 started in August of that year. World War I got seriously underway in the same month of 1918. There are plenty of other examples.