50 Years After Prague Spring, Lessons on Freedom (and a Broken Spirit)

50 Years After Prague Spring, Lessons on Freedom (and a Broken Spirit)

PRAGUE — Could Soviet-style communism be reconciled with the dignity and freedom of the individual?

In 1968, the question was put to the test when the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, initiated a project of liberalization that he said would offer “socialism with a human face.”

What followed was a rebirth of political and cultural freedom long denied by party leaders loyal to Moscow.

The free press flourished, artists and writers spoke their minds, and Mr. Dubcek stunned Moscow by proclaiming that he wanted to create “a free, modern and profoundly humane society.”

A season when hope and optimism were in bloom, it became known as the Prague Spring.

But nearly as soon as the movement came to life, it was crushed under the treads of Soviet T-54 tanks.

The photographs of unarmed citizens confronting columns of heavily armed soldiers, pleading, “Ivan, go home,” made it clear to the world that this was an ideology that needed to be enforced at the point of a gun.

Many of the most famous images were taken by Josef Koudelka, who was on the streets with his Exakta camera loaded with film that he had cut from the end of exposed movie reels.

Mr. Koudelka’s pictures were smuggled out of Prague and published anonymously, credited only to “Prague Photographer.”

In their intimacy and vivid detail, putting viewers on the street with shocked and horrified citizens, they showed the propaganda flowing from Moscow — that troops were sent to restore order and had been welcomed by the people — as utter lies.

With the benefit of hindsight, it may now seem obvious that the countries that fell under the sphere of Soviet influence after World War II were doomed to fall victim to Stalinist oppression.

It was not an attempt to overthrow the communist regime, but rather one to transform it.

But Moscow viewed events in Czechoslovakia as something like a virus, fearing they would spread and infect other Warsaw Pact nations, according to documents unearthed by a committee of scholars with the help of the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental group in Washington, and published in “The Prague Spring ’68.”

Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, comes across as particularly incensed by the criticisms leveled at the Soviet system by a newly free and emboldened news media. Among the first targets of the invading troops were the Prague radio and television stations.

They had no weapons, only defiance.

As the chaos spread, some pleaded with the soldiers — many of whom were as bewildered as the people on the streets, as they had been told that they were to stop an insidious counterrevolution, only to be greeted with scorn.

The most violent episode took place outside the Prague radio station, the city’s only major fountainhead of defiance. In an attempt to keep broadcasting, protesters moved city buses around the building and set them ablaze. When Soviet tanks rammed the fortifications, several set themselves on fire.

Jirina Siklova, a sociologist in Prague who was a member of the Communist Party before the invasion, said that in the 1960s, she would frequently travel abroad and talk to curious students who viewed the socialist system as a possible cure to what ailed their own societies.

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