Tuesday, August 26, 2008

from Saturday's Daily Mail

The Kremlin's invasion of freedom-loving neighbour Georgia is strikingly similar to Prague exactly 40 years ago...

By Edward Lucas

They called it a night frost in the height of summer. But what struck Prague 40 years ago today was no freak of weather.

It was a change in the political climate that shaped a generation.

For seven precious months from January to the Soviet-led invasion of August 21, 1968, Czechs and Slovaks had tasted freedom - to speak, to travel, to publish - of a kind they thought they had lost for ever.

In the undivided and largely peaceful Europe of today, it is hard to imagine that nations such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, now so familiar to millions of British holidaymakers, were under the ice-cap of the Soviet empire.

Every facet of life, from education to travel, was controlled by the Communist party and their secret police henchmen. Private enterprise was banned; loyalty to the Soviet Union was mandatory; any contacts with the capitalist West, suspect.

And then in a few heady months, the political landscape seemed to have changed.

After 20 years of hardline communist rule, the reformist leader Alexander Dubcek seemed to be offering the impossible - the social justice and welfare promised by communism, with the freedom enjoyed by the West.

That was a tantalising prospect not only for those behind the Iron Curtain, but for millions elsewhere impatient with the capitalist system's shortcomings.

Dubcek called it 'socialism with a human face'. But those brief months of optimism are known today as 'the Prague Spring'.

Yet on the night of August 20-21, it all came to a sudden and dramatic end.

On Kremlin orders, 2,000 tanks and 200,000 soldiers rolled into Czechoslovakia, offering what in the topsy-turvy world of communist jargon was called 'fraternal assistance', but which amounted to an invasion.

As the tanks ground through the Czech countryside, Soviet troops seized Prague airport.

An elite snatch squad burst in on an emergency government meeting and arrested at gunpoint Dubcek and his colleagues.

They were deported to Moscow and forced to sign documents retrospectively 'inviting' the invasion.

After humiliatingly undoing his reforms, Alexander Dubcek was assigned a lowly job as a forester.

He was not to return to public life until he unexpectedly addressed a demonstration in Wenceslas Square in Prague November 1989.

The gasp that met the announcement of his name, I wrote at the time, was 'as if people had been holding their breath for 20 years'.

If that sounds a touch melodramatic, then it is with good reason. It was the crushing of the Prague Spring that sparked my childhood interest in - and lifelong enthusiasm for - Eastern Europe.

I still remember the anguished atmosphere on August 21 at breakfast in our Oxford household as my ashen-faced parents discussed the unspeakable news from Prague.

A few years later, I remember watching my father, a philosophy don, packing a suitcase with forbidden texts such as Plato's Republic and the New Testament.

Like many of his Oxford colleagues, he had responded to an appeal from the underground university in Prague, to lecture about Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in secret seminars, to an audience of once-distinguished colleagues now reduced to jobs as street-sweepers and stokers.

It deeply impressed me that my father was risking his freedom to bring these dusty tomes to people who were risking theirs to read them.

The thought that freedom of thought could create a chink in the Iron Curtain was as romantic as it was tantalising.

And ten years later it was my own turn, as the only Western newspaperman based in communist Czechoslovakia, to hear the wistful echoes of the Prague Spring and its tragic aftermath in the back alleys of the crumbling baroque city.

My best friend among the dissidents was Jan Urban, once the country's top Byzantine historian.

The authorities had told him to sign a declaration condemning the opposition; when he refused the secret police told him that his children would be educated only as manual workers if he persisted in his defiance.

Other friends included an Englishwoman who had married her wartime sweetheart, part of the exiled Czechoslovak air force that fought side by side with the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

When they returned after the war, the communists jailed him as an enemy of the people.

When I myself was beaten senseless by riot police, I was proud to count my bruises among the far more grievous injuries inflicted on the Czechs and Slovaks by their alien masters over so many decades.

That is why I am so alarmed that the lessons of those grim years appear to have gone unheeded.

Through political complacency and public apathy, we in the West have allowed a resurgent Russia to once again interfere in the political progress of its neighbours.

Today it is Georgia that has been the Kremlin's target, with the conflict in South Ossetia demonstrating how President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are as determined to halt the spread of Western democracy as the Soviet chiefs of old.

This week's anniversary of the Prague invasion should serve to remind us all that we cannot allow tyranny to succeed, and how courageous are those who fight for the cause of political liberty.

Certainly, it is easy to forget how breathtaking the scope and speed of the reforms pushed through by Dubcek and his colleagues were in that heady Prague Spring of 1968.

His 'action programme' in April that year turned communist orthodoxy upside down.

After two decades of tight control, Czechs and Slovaks had freedom to travel, to discuss, and to run their lives without the leaden interference of the Communist bureaucracy.

Dubcek even hinted that after a ten-year transition period, Czechoslovakia could become a multi-party democracy.

In the excitable atmosphere of the time, when students in Paris were marching under the slogan 'Demand the impossible', even that ambition seemed too mild.

Pressure groups mushroomed, long-suppressed anti-Soviet material appeared in the newspapers.

But events were spiralling out of control. Communist rule in Eastern Europe required a life-support mix of paranoia, lies and tight secret police control.

Public discussion was lethal. So was any suggestion of friendliness towards the West.

By freeing travel restrictions, Dubcek had allowed hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks to see that countries such as West Germany, France and Britain were not hotbeds of reaction and injustice, run by slavering warmongers, but prosperous free nations.

Most serious of all was talk of free elections.

For all their bombast about the historical inevitability of their victory, the communist ideologues were by the 1960s already well aware that their system was fatally flawed, and survived despite, rather than because of, popular will.

Their fear was that Dubcek's reforms may spread far beyond Prague and into the wider Soviet Empire. He had to be stopped.

After increasingly peremptory warnings went unheeded, it was time for the tanks to roll. They met little resistance.

A few Czechs and Slovaks took up arms - trying to defend the radio studios in Prague, for example, where a desperate-sounding announcer told the world 'when you hear the national anthem playing, it's all over'. It soon was.

Military resistance against the Kremlin's war machine was futile. It was that sense of frustration that led the student Jan Palach to burn himself to death - an event that became an instant taboo for the newly docile media to report on.

In despair, Czechs and Slovaks turned inwards. For some it was the pleasures of private life, such as startlingly promiscuous sex. Others simply chose the bottle.

Only a tiny handful of exceptionally brave men and women, such as the playwright Vaclav Havel, chose the lonely path of open resistance.

In 1977 they launched the Charter 77 opposition movement, whose leaders were jailed, beaten, harassed and even murdered.

For a decade, their efforts seemed as heroic as they were fruitless.

Only when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally dumped the doctrine of his predecessors did history finally sweep away the concrete-faced apparatchiks installed in Czechoslovakia after 1968.

If there is one comforting lesson from all this, it is that 'truth will triumph' - the moving historic motto that now graces the national emblem of the Czech Republic.

Czechoslovakia won its eventual freedom in a heady two weeks of demonstrations in November 1989, dubbed the 'Velvet Revolution' for its lack of violence and ease of transition.

Soviet tanks went home, unlamented. Now, Czechs and Slovaks are citizens of Europe, their security protected by Nato.

As it turned out, the crushing of the Prague Spring was a Pyrrhic victory for the Kremlin.

It countered the threat of reform of communism for another two decades, but the cost in credibility was colossal.

Like so many other crimes and blunders in the history of communist power, the events of 1968 destroyed any hopes that the Soviet Union had of becoming a country worthy of trust or admiration.

Even the most soft-headed Leftist could hardly believe the cause of peace was promoted by tanks crunching through the streets of Central Europe's prettiest city, with bewildered conscripts (some of whom seemed to believe they were fighting West German invaders) sullenly brushing aside the impassioned pleas of mini-skirted girls who tried to put flowers in the barrels of their Kalashnikovs.

The vindictive 'normalisation' that followed the invasion had a similar effect. The brightest and best Czechs and Slovaks were hounded from their jobs for political unreliability and forced to work as stokers and window cleaners.

That epitomised the senseless viciousness of communism in its declining years.

But 1968 also has a darker lesson: that the West's capacity for self-delusion is matched only by its disunity and cowardice.

It is astonishing that, after 50 years of Soviet misrule, many in the Left still look back on that political doctrine with something akin to nostalgia.

Moreover, the parallels with the present are as disturbing as they are thought-provoking.

Then as now, the United States was weakened by ill-planned and costly overseas adventures. Back in 1968, Vietnam had destroyed America's moral capital and will to fight, just as George W Bush's 'war on terror' is sapping them now.

Then as now, Europe was distracted and timid. In 1968, it was hot-headed students and silly hippies who derided our institutions and eroded our sense of purpose. Now it is corruption in politics and the cynicism and apathy that it breeds.

Perhaps more sinisterly still, the invasion of 1968 highlighted Western impotence - just as Russia's occupation of Georgia has done now.

No European country is prepared to cut their lucrative trade ties with Russia, particularly in energy, in order to prevent the dismemberment and destruction of Georgia, any more than the West was willing to go to war with the Soviet Union for a captive Czechoslovakia struggling for its freedom.

Then as now, we bleat but do not act. Then, as now, the message to the Kremlin is clear: we have lost the will to stand up for our values.

• Edward Lucas is the author of The New Cold War, How The Kremlin Threatens Both Russia And The West (Bloomsbury, £18.99).


Timothy Post said...


Your knowledge of history is impressive but misplaced.

Russia currently has no expansionist plans. If, as you contend, Moscow were interested in occupying its neighbors then why didn't they just push on through to Tblisi on August 12th.

The reason is that Russia believes that it has an interest in South Ossetia and Abkazia which warrants their involvement.

However, this is dramatically different than suggesting that Russia is "evil" and will use its military to take-over other countries.

Please give us an example of post-Soviet Russia expanding abroad. The facts are exactly the opposite.

By the way, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia held referendums where they overwhelmingly voted for independence.

If you truly want to stand up for your values you should support today's declaration of independence.

Scaremongering has no place in intelligent discussions about complicated topics.

Anton said...

"The Kremlin's invasion of freedom-loving neighbour Georgia is strikingly similar to Prague exactly 40 years ago..."

With all respect Mr.Lucas, but wasn't expecting such an absurd historical comparison from you.

As you mentioned yourself, 68 was a fullscale Soviet invasion, which resulted in change of regime, occupation and oppression. Where's any of that in Georgia today?

As far as I'm aware, Saakashvili is still running the show, the Russians have pulled out, well and NATO is recreating the Spanish Armada by the coast of Georgia.

Greig said...

I'm wondering if Edward Lucas is longing for a scrap with Russia - that appears to be the underlying sentiment lurking in the final para.

It's pure serendipity that Georgia's attack on South Ossetia and Russia's over-extended retaliation has taken place (kind of) close to the 40th anniversary of the Prague 68 invasion. This piece is of a piece with most of mainstream western media comment - the bastions of which are being mocked in the internet's side-streets. "Russia defies the west" is the meme rattled out across Guardian, C4 News, you name it - just think about that word "defy", it's what a child does to its "responsible" parents. On BBC Newsnight last night, the Russian Ambassador points out that re-negotiation of the status of the breakaway republics under international mediation had been removed at the specific insistence of the Georgian president - cue incoherent disbelief from Kirsty Wark and the gathered "western" guests.

You can be emotionally scarred by communism, but it's no excuse for essentially dishonest, sabre-rattling analysis of what is going on. Fair play to the FT for publishing this last week: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c65798bc-6ec6-11dd-a80a-0000779fd18c.html

Of course, the FT has run a Medvedev broadside today, so its offices are clearly surrounded by high cheek boned individuals bearing polonium....

Giustino said...

My father was on the German-Czech border in '68. His US army unit was dispatched there and given live ammunition should the "situation" spread beyond Czech borders.

He sent me an e-mail last week saying that the current events in Georgia bring back those memories. So the author isn't alone in his comparison. I wasn't even a gleam in his eye at the time, so I'll take his word for it

JP said...

Edward, how is it that "Plato's Republic and the New Testament" were forbidden texts in the Eastern Bloc? My relatives in Bulgaria studied Plato at school (there was an academy of classical literature in Sofia) and the New Testament was everywhere (there is still a seminary in Sofia, it didn't close). Perhaps transporting these books (in English) was a favour, but you offer it up as ideological warfare.