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Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia: 40 years later

Video 1: Pictures mostly from Prague. The sound features (otherwise patriotic) radio hosts who are telling the people that it makes no sense to resist physically because the invaders are far too strong - a theme about "adaptation" that we've known at least since 1938. ;-) So Czechoslovaks were at least trying to twist the traffic signs to confuse the foreign soldiers and inventing anti-Russian jokes: see another (moving) video. Prague became the most civilized city in the world to be occupied by tanks since 1945.

See also: Obama's 4-minute speech about the anniversary
Exactly 40 years ago, in the early morning of August 21st, 1968, the Warsaw Pact tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, occupied the country in a perfectionist Blitzkrieg operation, and ended the Prague Spring, a period of democratization, liberalization, and socialism with a human face.

I deliberately didn't say that it was the Soviet troops. Among the 200,000 troops, you could find 28,000 Poles - quite a huge percentage. The Russians were only a majority because they were a majority in the Soviet bloc, too. Besides the Soviet Union and Poland, the other countries that participated were Bulgaria, East Germany, and Hungary. Ceaucescu in Romania refused to send troops, and so did Yugoslavia and Albania (the former was the only country that mobilized, in support of Czechoslovakia, thanks a lot, while the latter left the Warsaw Pact because of the incident).

The utopia of democratic socialism

Around the middle 1960s, Czechoslovak communism started to "soften", in a huge contrast to the brutal executions and fundamentalism in the 1950s. Perestroika-like economic reforms were adopted: Mr Ota Šik of Pilsen was the architect of the new economic plans. In 1968, Mr Alexander Dubček [pronounce: Doop-Czech] of Slovakia was chosen as the new boss of the communist party and democratization began, too. Free press and hundreds of types of activities started to flourish. This year is referred to as Prague Spring.

You should realize that the Czechoslovak economy of the 1960s was still comparable to the Western economies and a smooth transition to capitalism - that could naturally follow from the democratic socialism - could abruptly return us to the Western world where we belonged for the previous millenium.

The "nice" communists were, of course, dreaming about the preservation of communism, just making it human, efficient, and so forth. Today, it is widely accepted that such an idea was a utopia. Socialism is inherently incompatible with democracy and freedom. Socialism has to mess up with basic mechanisms regulating a free society: it wants to create unnatural conditions. To do so, it must always adopt some totalitarian techniques, to one extent or another. But a democratic socialism could have been just the first step towards normal democracy and capitalism, of course.

In my opinion, Dubček was a decent, likable guy but a naive politician. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he was naturally a possible candidate for the president of Czechoslovakia. But there were all kinds of problems with him because his speeches still sounded like communist speeches, in a sense. When Dubček learned in December 1989 that Václav Havel was chosen as the Civic Forum's presidential candidate instead, he started to cry like a small girl. He was not ready for real competitive politics in a democratic country. A few years later, he died in a car accident. As a yellow cab driver in Boston once told me, he was killed by the "multi-nationals" :-) which sounds funny but what do I know?

Getting ready for the occupation

What happened before the occupation began? As we learned in the early 1990s when former President Havel was given some secret letters from the Russian government, five Czechoslovak communist traitors (Biľak, Švestka, Kolder, Indra, and Kapek) wrote a letter to the Soviet authorities claiming that
"... right-wing media [were] fomenting a wave of nationalism and chauvinism, and [were] provoking an anti-communist and anti-Soviet psychosis." It formally asked the Soviets to "lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal" to save the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic "from the imminent danger of counterrevolution."
Mr Biľak gave another version of the letter to some Ukrainian guys, during a meeting organized by KGB. Well, these were important enough communist puppets for the Soviet (and other) politicians to act. I kind of understand that they did. In this sense, I prefer to blame the Czechoslovak traitors more than the foreign communist politicians. But the very communist system was the primary reason why these events took place.

I will never accept the nationalist, anti-Russian interpretation of all these events. The Prague Spring and the occupation that followed were about the tension between the freedom and totalitarianism. The totalitarian ideology has been connected with all kinds of nations. Marx was German, Lenin was Russian, Stalin was Georgian, Mao was Chinese, and Che was Argentine. Czechoslovakia always had its own communists who were the key for the rise of hardcore communism both in 1948 and in 1968.

Moreover, Russia has done good things for us, too - including the liberation of most of the country from Nazism in 1945. In my opinion, currently fashionable inherently anti-Russian positions (that moreover judge two isomorphic situations very differently, depending on the role of Russia in these two situations) are analogous to the German anti-Semitism during holocaust: they are racist in essence and I am shocked that the people with those opinions don't realize it.

The defeated player in the Cold War was communism, not the Russian nation, and as soon as Russia adopted its kind of democracy, the "reparations" have been paid. There exists no justification for an additional "punishment" against Russia. I have a lot of respect for numerous people who enjoy their childish anti-Russian image but when it comes to wars (such as the recent war of Georgia against South Ossetia that backfired, as wars often do), it's just damn too serious if someone is not able to judge the situation fairly.
Pat Buchanan writes about the natural reactions of a provoked bear: I agree with him completely
But let's return to the events in 1968. After the invasion, freedom, optimism, and national pride were slowly dying away. A few smart students burned themselves to protest against the Czechoslovak defeatism. Some people were thrilled in January 1969 when Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union in ice-hockey and they destroyed some Russian interests in Prague. ;-)

Of course that the anger used to have anti-Russian dimensions, too - but one should appreciate that the sentiment was mostly against the Soviet establishment as it existed at that time, not necessarily against the Russian DNA (that we partially share, anyway). By the early 1970s, the period of the so-called "Normalization" - a return to neo-Stalinist conditions and nearly complete stagnation of the economy - was firmly in place.

The occupation was suddenly referred to as "fraternal help" while the Prague Spring became a "counter-revolution attempt". This vocabulary was summarized in the "Lessons from the crisis development in the party and the society after the 13th gathering of the communist party", a propagandistic text written by the same Mr Biľak, the party's ideologue. About 300,000 people emigrated from Czechoslovakia right after 1968 and most people connected with the 1968 events were fired from jobs and schools.

For me, the occupation itself is of course just a chapter from the history textbooks and a part of my "initial conditions". I can't really blame those communist guys because if they hadn't done what they did, I wouldn't be here. Gustáv Husák, the new (Slovak) neo-Stalinist president of Czechoslovakia, established many new (not always catastrophic) policies, for example new pro-population-growth policies (support for new kids) that led to the birth of many "Husák's children" around 1974. Your humble correspondent is one of them. ;-)

Comparisons with other events

Some people compare the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia e.g. to the recent Russian actions in Georgia. I find such analogies kind of insulting. While I have voiced some complaints against Mr Dubček, he was an extremely peaceful guy, a naive, grown-up kid. Unlike Mr Saakashvilli, he didn't occupy Ruthenia before the invasion of our "allies". No Russian citizens were threatened anywhere in Czechoslovakia. The 1968 invasion was an action of totalitarian countries meant to destroy a newborn democracy in another country while the recent events in Caucasus are just battles between several comparably democratic countries, driven by their territorial interests. These are huge differences.


The occupation has shown that socialism has no tolerance - and cannot really have any tolerance - for internal diversity of socioeconomic systems. In some sense, the communist guys had to act if they wanted to avoid an abrupt decay of socialism in Europe (that we saw 21 years later). Socialism is an inherently totalitarian ideology. The occupation showed that it is, of course, possible to use brute force to change the fate of a country for several decades. But when the system is not built by the local people, they will never consider it their own system.

I think it is not really possible to "export" political values by force. To some extent, I think that this comment holds for the export of democracy, too. Whenever democracy started to flourish (e.g. in West Germany after the war), it was in a place that has had some experience with it.

By the way, today, in Olympic female javelin, there were only two serious contenders (besides all the amateurs): Abakumova of Russia and Špotáková of Czechia. Abakumova was ahead of Špotáková throughout the game (by 10 centimeters only). But the last throw of Špotáková changed everything: over 71 meters, Europe's new record. She earned the golden medal. She said that she was thinking about the occupation, too. So far, she is the only one who both promised and earned the gold medal. It's the third Czech gold medal and the sixth medal in total at these games. One gold medal and one silver medal was earned by Mrs Kateřina Emmons, a fellow Pilsener who married a fellow shooter from the U.S., Matt Emmons.

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reader Vigilante said...

I agree with you and Pat Buchanan of Georgia vs. South Ossetia and how non comparable it is with August 1968. (I'll be commenting on that in a day or so.) Most emphatically. But the real reason I am commenting is to congratulate you on your blog's template. Again, most emphatically! (Love the slider applied to block quotes!)

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