Dubcek's terrible bargain

The Warsaw Pact's occupation of Czechoslovakia from 21 August 1968 shocked many in the west who had

The New Statesman

6 September 1968

In their optimistic moments, the people of Prague believe that the Russian invasion of their country has been a colossal mistake, and that victory now belongs to the Czechs. But Slav optimism has a quality such as would count for pessimism anywhere else, and in the next moment they begin packing their things for the last trip to Vienna. "Wait until the students return," older Czechs say hopefully, conjuring visions of a guerrilla movement beginning promptly on October 1. Then they remember: "This is a country of old people."

In every way it is an ambiguous occupation. The Russian tanks pulled out of the main streets and squares of Prague and the other major cities more than a week ago, and they remain in discreet quarters just out of sight; near Pilsen they hide in the pine forests and a few Russian soldiers patrol the sidewalks in front of occupied buildings, but they too are harder to find. Each night, during the unofficial curfew never ordered hut universally observed, more materiel is moved out of town and more locations are de-occupied.

The slogans and scrawled posters which covered every patch of wall space are rubbing off, washing away, or being torn down. In the middle of a busy road in the old quarter of Mala Strana, near Prague Castle, a section of pavement is marked off by chalk lines and decorated with flowers and cup-candles. There, in the first week of occupation, a young mother was gunned down by a Russian tank crew as punishment for sticking her tongue out at a soldier. People hurrying to change trams - as she had been doing - stop for a moment at the ceremonial spot.

Only at the base of the great equestrian statue of the sainted King Wenceslas can a casual visitor see a striking symbol of the occupation and the resistance to it. Beside an enormous bank of flowers, with candles, black bunting and various funeral tokens all around, an honour guard stands in tribute to the first martyr of the invasion, a 14-year-old boy killed "resisting" the Russian tanks. The guard, like the boy, is usually composed of long-haired, rather scruffy huligani, the kids who used to mill about the squares of downtown Prague at night. The Russian soldiers call them "Mensheviks", and think they believe in God. Before August, the Praguers had an unkinder opinion. Now the kids are called the "Children of Jan Hus".

After the first few days of horn-blowing, bell-ringing, wall-scribbling and general larking by the population, the expression of resistance has been internalised. There is no question that the entire population - to a degree perhaps unequalled in similar situations in this era of ideological invasions - is united against the occupation.

Despite the ambiguities of the leadership's position - or perhaps because of them - many Czechs are taking no chances. Most of the leading intellectuals are gone or going: one prominent scientist is helping the entire Czech scientific Establishment leave the country. "I consider myself Minister of Escape," he said. Every foreigner is stopped by strangers on the street and asked to write letters from abroad "inviting" a Czech to come immediately for some emergency or another. Presumably, the letter could help with an exit visa. But in fact, the Czech authorities - even the secret police - are clearing almost everyone who applies. Having averted a bloodbath in the summer, the government does not want one in the autumn.

As it seems to have happened, both the Russians and the Czech leadership have made more than anyone could have predicted of a terrible bargain. Rhetoric aside, the Russians never saw the Czech economic reform as the major issue: rather they were afraid that Dubcek's reforms might lead to political neutrality or association with Western European institutions. The occupation certainly forestalls any Czech strategic defection from the Russian imperial defence system.

For whatever short-term strategic gain, Russia has sacrificed its fondest dream of establishing a unified communist community in Europe under its leadership. The arrogance of imperial power takes its toll. Praguers are slightly (if grimly) amused to hear the words of support from the West: like everything else, they are too reminiscent of the events of 30 years ago. I was walking with a Czech this week when we saw "England supports Dubcek" in English, written on a wall. "Yes," he sighed, "with words."

If the diplomatic toing and froing of the past two weeks has done anything it has turned many Czechs - especially the youth - from a certain mindless pro-Americanism they used to affect. It was based mainly on fantasies of sports cars, rock and roll and pot, but it also fixed on to the promises of personal freedom which, until January, Czechs could not know in their own country. Now there are posters everywhere: "USA - Vietnam aggressor: USSR - Czechoslovakia aggressor." For the rest of Europe the lessons may be a lot harder. What is real now and too clear is that there can be no détente until the "German problem" is out of the way, until Nato ceases to terrify Russia, until the American "Atlanticists" stop insisting that their Europe must be in Washington's orbit just as the Russians insist their Europe must revolve around Moscow.

Selected by Robert Taylor

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession