Thursday is the 46th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement, ushering in two decades of so-called normalisation. That traumatic event was commemorated at a ceremony at Czech Radio, scene of the most brutal repression in August 1968 – and comparisons were drawn with Russia’s actions today.
Senior officials and other dignitaries laid wreathes at the entrance of Czech Radio in central Prague in a commemorative event on Thursday morning. Czechoslovak Radio was a rallying point for the nation when the Soviet tanks rolled in, remaining one of the few sources of free information in the early hours of the occupation. A number of people were killed in fighting at and around the Radio building, including station staff.
Among the speakers at Thursday’s memorial ceremony was Jan Hamáček, chairman of the Chamber of Deputies. He was yet to be born on August 21 1968, so what does that date evoke for him?
“The then leadership of Czechoslovakia had almost absolute support from the population and all their hopes were crushed by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact armies’ tanks and boots. The first thing that comes to my mind is this tragic shock that came to all who expected a third way, Socialism with a human face, something that they hoped for – and all these hopes were crushed.”
Culture Minister Daniel Herman was five in 1968 and has clear memories of the start of the occupation.
“I was in the city of České Budějovice in Southern Bohemia and I can remember the Russian tanks and the whole atmosphere, because it was something like a tragedy. I think that after the Second World War it was the most complicated and hard situation in our modern history.”
In his address, Mr. Herman drew attention to the activities of Russia today– something he says he has a clearer perspective on thanks to his own childhood experience of invasion.
“I think that there are a lot of parallels. It’s a real occupation of Ukraine, of the territory of Ukraine in Crimea. I think the situation even in Eastern Ukraine is very complicated and there is no question mark over the influence of Russia. I think it’s something that’s really… targeting the whole of Europe or the whole free world. It’s a very important moment for all of us. We have to be very careful, because something like that is absolutely unacceptable for democracy.”
Among those to place a wreath in front of Czech Radio was former gymnast Věra Čáslavská, now 72. She protested the invasion at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by lowering her eyes when the Soviet national anthem was played and was subsequently banned from travelling or attending sports events. Her name raised the biggest cheer on Thursday morning.