Muscovites faced with powerful 1968 invasion testimony

Czech born Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka’s unique collection of photographs documenting the 1968 Russian-led invasion of Czechoslovakia opened at the Lumiere Brothers Gallery in Moscow on Friday. At the exhibition’s opening the photographer said he hoped the unique testimony would help dispel the myth that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was an act of solidarity with its people.

In August of 1968 Josef Koudelka an aviation engineer who longed to be a photographer witnessed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. During those fateful August days, Koudelka roamed the streets of the Czech capital documenting the crushing of the Prague Spring. He used up some 260 films, taking over 7,000 pictures. The photos were later secretly smuggled to the United States and on the first anniversary of the invasion published by the Magnum agency as the work of an unknown photographer –in order to protect Koudelka and his family behind the Iron Curtain. The now famous photographer fled Czechoslovakia in 1970 and soon after joined Magnum Photos. His unique collection of photographs documenting the invasion has appeared in books magazines and exhibitions around the world – with one notable exception - Russia.

Late last week that final taboo fell. Josef Koudelka attended the opening of his exhibition at the Lumiere Brothers photo gallery in Moscow telling reporters he never thought he would live to see the day.

Josef KoudelkaJosef Koudelka In an interview for Czech Television he shared his expectations.

“I hope the exhibition will draw young people and that some of them will recognize the faces of their fathers and grandfathers and will realize what those soldiers realized when they invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 – that they were unwelcome, that they were an occupying army.”

More than 40 years on, Josef Koudelka says he bears no resentment –his photographs portray the tragedy of the times.

“There is no hatred in me against those Russian soldiers who were just a bit younger than I was at the time. There is just a feeling of great sadness over the tragedy of those times. Because I realize that this could have been me. I too lived in this system. I too was a soldier. I too could have been woken up in the middle of the night, put on a plane and the next thing I knew I could have been in Budapest or Warsaw with a gun in my hand. I could have found myself in exactly the same circumstances.”

The exhibition which opened on October 7th and runs until December 4th is accompanied by a number of side events such as the screening of documentaries relating to the invasion and debates with the public on the invasion in the context of present-day relations. Josef Koudelka says he has no illusions about the impact of his powerful testimony of the times.

Photo: The Lumiere Brothers photo gallery in MoscowPhoto: The Lumiere Brothers photo gallery in Moscow “I have no illusions about Russia –or that this exhibition could bring about any significant change. If it turns out to be an eye-opener for a few dozen young people then Thank God for that. But in all honesty how significant is 1968 in the history of Russia? A small blot - at the most. Their history is full off such incidents and worse. For us it is different. But I do not really expect them to show humility or regret. That’s unrealistic. That is my take on things at least.”