Remembering 1968: Russia's invasion of Czechoslovakia

Forty years ago, in August 1968, I persuaded Donal O'Donovan, then features editor of the Irish Times, to commission me to visit Eastern European countries and write about them. By Vincent Browne

It was my first journalistic assignment, aside from a UCD Notes column I used to write for the Irish Times. Eastern Europe was especially interesting that summer. Romania, Hungary and, particularly, Czechoslovakia, were in ferment with signals that the communist regimes in these countries were about to fragment.

On the way, I stayed with my friend, Sean Whelan (later Irish ambassador to Turkey, where he died four years ago) who was then a graduate student at Oxford. I had arranged to fly to Vienna from London on 21 August and just as I was leaving Oxford that morning, Sean told me the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia overnight.

On getting to Vienna airport later that day I hired a car, a Volkswagen beetle, and drove to the border with Czechoslovakia that night. I stayed that night in a farm guest-house, just on the Austrian side of the border, and the following morning I drove to the border crossing, where, initially, I was refused entry. I persisted with the local border guards and to get rid of me and my incomprehensible gibberish (I spoke to them in Irish) I was allowed through and drove to what I think was Cesky Krumlov, an old town with a magnificent castle, now a UNESCO heritage site. I don't think I knew where I was at the time and my memory is only of a large square adjacent to a bridge, and Russian tanks entering the square just as I arrived. I parked my Volkswagen Beetle near the bridge and went into a hotel and from an upstairs room I phoned RTE — or tried to — while looking over the square. As I was doing so, I could see one of the Russian tanks driving over the front of my Volkswagen. I ran down to protest but to no avail. I hired another car and drove to Prague, getting there in darkness. I found a hotel in the city centre, the Interhotel Flora, and booked in. There were several other journalists staying there. I tried making contact with the Irish Times but communications were cut off.

The following day I made arrangements to see someone who could tell me of the background to what was happening, a history professor. And to get to this person I had to walk through the main part of the city, through Welcenclaus Square, a long rectangular arena, sloping downwards, dominated by the neo-classical Czech National Museum.

It was a warm summer morning. There were about 20 Russian tanks in the square and thousands of Czech protestors, who climbed on the tanks, screamed at the bewildered and frightened Russian troops, who remained entirely passive. The place was seething with energy but I walked on, to meet with the history professor, who talked to me for several hours about the history of Czechoslovakia, while history was being enacted right outside the professor's front door.

I then walked back through the teeming crowds and serried tanks on  Welcenclaus Square and found a telex machine somewhere, from where I sent the Irish Times a history article, making no reference at all to what I had seen and what was then happening.

I became friends with a Swedish journalist, also staying in the hotel and bit by bit he convinced me that I should be writing about what was happening on the streets of Prague.

That night or the following night, we (the journalists) drank in the hotel bar. There was a curfew so we could not leave the hotel. There was a bit of noise outside but, for the most part, we were oblivious to it. The Russian tanks had attacked the nearby radio station, which had continued to broadcast defiant Czechoslovak resistance to the invasion. Some local troops and police resisted the assault on the station for a while but, eventually, to no avail.

The night of the invasion or the following morning, the leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, including the Secretary General, Alexander Dubcek, Presidium member Josef Smrkovsk˘ and the country's President, Ludvík Svoboda, had been arrested by Russian troops and had been taken to Moscow.

It was a few days after the invasion that news of the arrests broke and then rumours abounded about them having being murdered, tried and sentenced to death, brainwashed, drugged, beaten.

There the most extraordinary confrontation of modern history took place: Dubcek and his colleagues being berated and interrogated by the Soviet leadership, led by Leonid Brezhnev. They did not wilt. Because of their defiance and the massive popular uprising in Czechoslovakia itself against the invasion, Dubcek and the others were allowed return to Prague. They had been ill-treated all right but not beaten or drugged or brainwashed

I was present in the Prague Opera house the night Alexander Dubcek, Josef Smrkovsk˘ and Ludvík Svoboda returned. I don't recall why we were there or what the occasion was but I recall them coming into a theatre box near the front of the house and the audience standing, cheering and applauding for what seemed like a half hour. Dubcek and Smrkovsk˘ seemed uncomfortable with the adulation. Svoboda, who was an old man, seemed oblivious.

It seemed then that the popular resistance had won; that the tanks would roll back that the reforms of the “Prague Spring” — more press freedom, freedom of speech, the possibility of multi-party elections, a freer economy,  freedom to travel — might continue. But as the weeks went by and as winter closed in, Prague Spring was replaced by an austere Prague Autumn. The tanks rolled back , but the Soviet army remained (incidentally, it was not just the Soviet army that invaded it was all the countries of the Warsaw Pact, bar Romania).

I became friendly with a lovely man, a chess grand master Ludvík Packman. He had been a member of the Central Committee of the communist party and knew several of the leadership well, particularly Josef Smrkovsk˘, who I remember as a lively, open, vigorous, smiling man. Packman was deeply pessimistic from the outset, believing that the whole Prague Spring initiative would be reversed by the Soviet Union and the reinstallation of the liberal leadership was merely a temporary device to soften the Warsaw Pact embarrassment over the invasion, which they claimed at first was at the invitation of the Czechoslovak authorities and then had to acknowledge this was false.

I left Prague in November promising to return (I did not do so until 1999 by which time Prague had been transformed and Interflora Hotel had been closed). But by the time I left it was obvious the Prague Spring had been crushed.

In April 1969, Dubcek was replaced as first secretary by Gustáv Husák, who had collaborated with the invaders right from the beginning. “Normalisation” was completed. Dubcek was expelled from the Communist Party and given a job as a forestry worker near his home town, Bratislava.

Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged 20 years later that Dubcek was the author of glasnost and perestroika. With the fall of the communist bloc, Dubcek became chairman of the federal assembly under the Havel administration. Many were disappointed he had not become President then.

I think I learnt then the falsehood of optimism. That the belief of inevidable progress towards democracy, freedom, equality, fairness and justice was unfounded. And not just in Czechoslovakia.