Prague Spring 1968 as seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old

by Ján Čulík

2048px-10 soviet invasion of czechoslovakia - flickr - the central intelligence agency

The Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Image: The Central Intelligence Agency via Wikimedia Commons

Continuing our special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and Its legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018, Ján Čulík recounts the events before and after the Soviet invasion, which he experienced as a young boy.

I was 15 years old during the 1968 Prague Spring and it was on 20 March that I finally realised something unusual was happening. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was 7:30 in the evening, we had just had dinner and were in the kitchen of our Prague flat; my mother was washing the dishes and I was drying them. The transistor radio was on.

Radio Prague used to broadcast an information programme after the main evening news bulletin at 7pm. The series was called Co chcete vědět o… (‘What you want to know about…’). That evening, the debate was something like Co chcete vědět o současné politické situaci (‘What you want to know about the current political situation’). The panel of experts included the reformist communist politician Josef Smrkovský and the writer and playwright Pavel Kohout.

Within minutes, we were all stunned. The programme started voicing incredibly open questions about the Czechoslovak regime and the crimes of its recent Stalinist past. Like most of the nation, we listened with bated breath. It went on until 4 or 5am and we continued listening, not believing our ears, until an announcer apologised, saying the station had to prepare for its morning broadcast and terminate the live transmission from Holešovice. That was, for me, the beginning of Prague Spring. A complete recording of this remarkable programme is still available in the archives of Czech Radio.

Prague Spring was a media orgy, so it was fitting that it started with this unprecedented broadcast. No one did much: people just stood in the streets and passionately debated their past and possible future. The public debate overwhelmed the media. People would spontaneously gather in the park Na příkopech (where the Myslbek shopping centre now stands), or near the statue of St Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square and debate the problems of the day.

In a way, it all had an infantile, teenage feel – no wonder I was fascinated. Of course the nation was traumatised by the Stalinist and post-Stalinist abuse and injustice and people needed to publicly exorcise their grief. Everything was raw and unprepared. On television, victims of torture confronted their secret police interrogators: ‘Why did you tried to drown me in that bath?’ Some communist officials committed suicide. Often, the spontaneous debates were rather tragicomic. Ludvík Vaculík describes it eloquently in ‘Obrodný proces v Semilech’.


Squaring the reformist­-communist circle

On 22 March, the President, Antonín Novotný, resigned. Students vociferously supported the then Education Secretary, Čestmír Císař, as his successor, but the Communist Party (CP), which was fully in control, chose former general Ludvík Svoboda. It helped that he had been unjustly ostracised in the 1950s, but that hid the fact that he was an unreconstructed Stalinist.

The infantile media debating orgy continued unabated until the end of June, although some more concrete steps were taken. In February, censorship was abolished (the first real impact of which was felt with that special radio programme on 20 March). In April, the CP’s liberalising Action Programme was published. It was primarily the work of Zdeněk Mlynář, a reformist member of the Praesidum of the Party and a fellow student in the 1950s of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Law Faculty in Moscow. Mlynář, incidentally, wrote a gripping memoir about his experiences during Prague Spring, from the vantage point of a politician at the top of the decision-making pyramid. This was published in Czech as Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Index, Cologne, 1978; Mladá fronta, Prague 1990), and in English as Nightfrost in Prague (C Hurst, London, 1980). It was made into a dramatic film called Invasion by the UK’s Granada Television in the early 1980s.

Mlynář complains about the meetings of the CP Praesidium during Prague Spring. There was no set agenda or strategy and time was wasted by the unstructured ravings of various members. Thus, while the public believed the CP leadership to be real statesmen making important decisions about the future of the country, nothing could have been further from the truth.

The media, particularly in the West, built up Alexander Dubček into a larger than life political personality, a true leader of the liberalisation movement. But he was passive and hesitant. His unwillingness to use harsh methods of coercion and suppression meant that he allowed himself to be carried along by the media and intellectuals.

The problem with even the most liberal, reformist communists in 1968 was that they were profoundly attached to the cause of communism and sincerely believed it was right. Mlynář confesses that after he had fallen from grace and become a hated dissident in post-invasion Czechoslovakia, it took him two years to free himself of the notion that ‘my Communist Party is always right’. Dubček had spent his younger years in the Soviet Union, spoke Russian fluently and was in love with the Soviet Union and the communist cause. He saw the Soviet invasion in August 1968 as a personal betrayal by the Soviets whom he had totally trusted.

It was decreed during Prague Spring that a new, reformist Congress of the CP would take place in September. This would elect a new leadership and new regional and district officials. It was what the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact allies feared most – the Congress would legitimise the reformist, liberal strategy of the Czechoslovak CP and do away with the pro-Soviet conservatives. Hence, the invasion had to take place before the Congress could start.

The Czechoslovak reformist communists knew why the forthcoming Congress was so important. This is why, after the invasion on 20 August 1968, it was brought forward and took place during the occupation in one of the large industrial factories in Prague’s Vysočany district. The Congress condemned the invasion, gave democratic legitimacy to the reformist course of the CP and elected a new leadership.

It needed an ingenious move by the rising star of normalisation, Dr Gustáv Husák (who behaved like a Prague Spring reformer during the pre-invasion months), to neutralise this event. Husák had the 14th extraordinary Vysočany Congress of the Party anulled because, he argued quite correctly, it was not quorate. There were few delegates from Slovakia because, under the occupation, it was impossible for them to reach Prague.

While reformist communists wanted to introduce democratic elections, they did not have an answer to what would happen if they were voted out of power. Totally committed to the communist idea, they sincerely believed that this would never happen. How could they believe that the population would never become disaffected with the CP? Well, during Prague Spring, the CP was extremely popular, so it was easy to believe it would remain so. Leading reformers such as the Head of Parliament, Smrkovský, or Prime Minister Černík, relished the fact that they were at the top of popularity polls, and, as Mlynář records, deliberately shaped their public behaviour so that their popularity would grow.

Signs of official displeasure, warning that reforms were perhaps moving forward too fast, were appearing towards the end of the Spring. Under relentless pressure from the allies, Dubček tried occasionally to complain publicly that the reform was moving forward too quickly (he was criticised for it in the press). A serious problem for the CP leadership was the manifesto ‘Two Thousand Words’, written by Ludvík Vaculík and published in Literární listy and a number of other publications on 27 June. In it, Vaculík called for grassroots activity: ‘Let us set up our own civic committees for the solution of problems that no one wants to deal with. It is simple: a few people meet, they elect their Chair, they write proper minutes, they publish their findings, they demand a solution, they will not be silenced.’ The manifesto was signed by thousands of committed citizens and is said to have been the main cause of the Warsaw Pact invasion in August.


The cover of the satirical magazine Dikrobaz, May 1968. Dubcek examines the boiling pot of reforms while two voices shout 'Boil, pot!' and 'Stop boiling, pot!'. Image: University of Michigan via Pinterest

The freewheeling, uncensored media debate came increasingly under pressure from the allies. Dubček was invited to take part in a meeting of the Warsaw Pact allies in early July, but instead of privately responding to the invitation, the CP leadership gave the letter to the media to broadcast, and then broadcast its response – Dubček defended the reform programme and refused to go to Warsaw. The CP said that it had an inalienable right to solve the problems of its country on its own. More pressure from the allies followed, culminating with meetings between the Czechoslovak leadership in Čierna nad Tisou and Bratislava. July was full of tension and it did not help that some Soviet troops were on Czechoslovak territory already: joint Warsaw Pact military exercises had been taking place since May.

Czechoslovak society reacted with passionate, vociferous support for the CP leadership. Thus, in the final weeks of Prague Spring, the public debate degenerated into hugely emotional support for the Czechoslovak leaders. In an unwitting imitation of campaigns from Stalinist times, when workers’ collectives sent mass letters demanding death to traitors of Stalinism, in the summer of 1968, thousands of workers’ collectives sent resolutions of support to the leaders of the CP. The tension subsided after the meeting of the Czechoslovak leadership in Bratislava on 29 July–1 August. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and finally went on holiday.


Prague Spring’s final gasps

Tuesday 20 August was a hot summer night. The windows in our Prague flat were open and the family was watching a lyrical classic Czech film Řeka čaruje. We went to bed and were woken up occasionally by a strange noise – it was Russian aircraft flying over Prague and landing tanks at Prague airport. At 4am, the telephone rang: ‘We have been occupied by the Russians.’ Many people first learned about the occupation from these early morning phone calls.

The Praesidium of the CP learned of the invasion before midnight and quickly issued a declaration protesting against it. Prague Radio started broadcasting it just before the close of its night broadcast, at 1am, but only the first sentence was broadcast. Karel Hoffman, the director of Czechoslovak communications, ordered the Czechoslovak transmitters to be switched off. (In 2004, the 80-year-old Hoffman was sentenced to a four-year prison term for this act of ‘sabotage’.)

But the broadcasting of the radio and television network was quickly reinstated. All of us listened with horror to the famous radio presenters Věra Šťovíčková, Jiří Dienstbier, Sláva Volný and others from the Radio Prague building in Vinohradská Street in the morning of Wednesday 21 August. I still have the tape recordings. We heard the shots in the street and the goodbyes of the presenters.

However, they quickly managed to establish a clandestine network of radio studios both in Prague and across the country. Television also managed to broadcast, albeit with difficulties and for only a short period of time.

It was the radio journalists who became the real heroes of the first week of the Warsaw Pact invasion. They managed to broadcast without interruption, calming the public and providing vital information. Eventually, a nationwide network of studios was set up and programmes switched every 15 minutes from one studio to another. It was due to the coordinated, unifying, highly professional and factual work of the radio journalists that no major bloodshed took place during the invasion and there was little chaos.

The occupation quickly assumed the characteristic features of the previous weeks and months of Prague Spring: it was a media orgy in the best sense of the word. People had not lost their appetite for public debate and they passionately involved the Soviet troops sitting on their tanks in the streets of Czech cities, telling them that there was no ‘counter-revolution’ in Czechoslovakia. Shop windows and street walls were immediately plastered with hundreds of posters, slogans and cartoons, mocking the invasion. Weekly newspapers started being issued several times a day: vans filled with the new editions distributed the newspapers free throughout the cities. The nation entered a strange state of euphoria. Its unity, coordinated by the media, probably saved the lives of the CP leadership after it had been hijacked to Moscow. President Svoboda informed the nation that he was flying to Moscow to get the leaders back.

Before the leaders were allowed back to Prague, they were forced to sign the infamous, secret Moscow Protocol, in which they pledged to dismantle the Prague Spring reforms. (František Kriegel was the only member of the delegation who refused to sign this document.) In signing, the CP leadership was seriously out of step with the euphoric mood of the nation, which absolutely refused to accept any Russian demands. Rebellious voices were heard when it transpired on the Czechoslovak leadership’s return to Prague on 27 August that the CP leaders had capitulated to the Russians – but they were all neutralised by Alexander Dubček’s sobbing radio speech.

In my first year at secondary school, I experienced the nationwide university and secondary school strike against the invasion, which took place in November 1968. The post-invasion clampdown did not come straight away. It was now forbidden to use the expressions ‘occupation’ or ‘invasion’ in the media or to criticise the Soviet Union, but the nation remained united. Everybody nodded and winked. Television broadcasting at Christmas and during the New Year of 1969 was full of these nods and winks: ‘We are all unified as a nation in our unhappy lot, you all know against whom’ was the message. The slow clampdown had, however, started, and it could not be stopped by the self-immolation of Jan Palach in January 1969, which again unified the nation both on radio and television – his funeral was attended by a million people.

The final gasp of Prague Spring came in March 1969, when the Czechoslovak ice hockey team defeated the Soviet team twice in a row. This led to anti-Soviet demonstrations in Prague. The Czech secret police misused them and set fire to the Wenceslas Square offices of the Russian airline Aeroflot – this was intended to justify further clampdowns. Demonstrations against the Warsaw Pact invasion on 21 August 1969 were brutally suppressed by the Czechoslovak security forces – the order to do so was signed by Dubček.

After a short stint as an Ambassador to Turkey, Dubček was dismissed from government and Party service and retired to Bratislava where he worked for many years as a minor forestry clerk.

Husák started his normalisation with wholesale purges. Although no one could believe the Soviet propaganda, which was now newly reimposed, and Stalinist ideology had been thoroughly discredited by the open debate during Prague Spring, most people began regurgitating it, as was expected of them, in order to keep their jobs and professional positions. Husák did not mind what you did in 1968 if you were willing to denigrate yourself and denounce your previous pro-democratic stance. If you humiliated yourself thus, he rewarded you with consumerist benefits. I was lucky that I was only a secondary school student during the purges, so I was not subjected to them. But I remember my father, a non-communist, saying that in the first years after the defeat of Prague Spring, for the first time during his life under a communist regime, it was more comfortable to be a non-communist than to have been a reformist communist.

And this is how a deeply demoralising chapter in modern Czechoslovak history started – influencing the mentality of the nation to this day.

About the author

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Jan Čulík is a journalist and academic. He is Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow and the author of several publications in this field, including the first detailed study of Czech emigré literature, 'Books behind the Fence: Czech Literature in Émigré Publishing Houses 1971-1989'.
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