Thirty-eight years ago on August 21, 1968, Czechoslovak citizens woke up to find that the country had been invaded by Warsaw Pact forces. It was the beginning of the end of the so-called Prague Spring, a period of reform communism ushered in by Alexander Dubcek, who is known for wanting to create "socialism with a human face." Yet this experiment involving freedom of the press and the opportunity to travel abroad was not looked upon kindly by the Communist Party leadership in Moscow, nor by the leadership in neighbouring socialist states. The solution to the problems posed by Czechoslovakia's experiment with reform communism was a mass military invasion during the night of August 20-21, 1968.
Karel Srp, from the Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism describes just how much people in Czechoslovakia knew in the very early hours of the invasion on August 20, 1968:
"I would say that the population throughout the country wasn't informed at the same rate. In larger cities people knew what was happening, in other places they had no idea, and the radio frequencies were blocked. Basically people were informed systematically, as the armies arrived in each particular region. So when they actually crossed the borders into Czechoslovakia—between 21:00 and 22:00 on August 20th, the first to know were obviously citizens living in the border areas near East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, which is where the troops came from and there were some minor incidents."
When Soviet planes landed at Prague's Ruzyne airport at about 2:00am on August 21, 1968 Czechoslovak Radio was the first to announce the event. Several hours later, at about 7:25am the Czechoslovak Radio building on Vinohradska Street—from which we still broadcast today—was recognized as a strategic target and Soviet tanks rolled in to secure control as journalists continued to broadcast uncensored news. The battle over the radio building is remembered as one of the most important events of the invasion, and over 25 civilians were killed in the street trying to protect the building.
"This aspect [of the invasion] is not historically documented and hasn't been studied seriously, and it's also probably impossible to do so. I only know from my own experience at the time that the more rural regions of the country were far less informed about what was happening. The people saw the armed forces and noticed their movements, but in the first hours and days the armed forces did not stay in the rural areas. They did not occupy villages and small towns, but focused on the largest cities in the country, and on what were considered the important military and political targets. Then when the special issues of newspapers and journals started to appear, again these originated in Prague and Bratislava and were distributed to other areas of the country, but even these reached the far corners of the country with much delay."
Thirty-eight years later we know quite a lot about the events of August 21, 1968, though Russian archives still hold information that could shed new light on specific details. I asked Karel Srp about the degree of access and openness to Russian archives that's afforded to Czech researchers today:
"Our general experience is such that whether we're talking about a request for access to Czech historians, or for us as an investigation unit affiliated with the police, the results are basically zero. The Russian side usually responds by saying that a given piece of documentation doesn't appear in their archives, or we've also had the response that it is not in the interest of the Russian Federation to allow access to particular documentation. Unfortunately, we've also had this experience concerning materials that are 50 years old—for example during our investigation into the death of Jan Masaryk. This closed-door reaction also occurred in relation to the so-called letters of invitation from 1968. The Russian archives are opening very slowly and cautiously, and generally they are releasing materials that are already well-known, but the most interesting documents—especially concerning the intelligence units—will probably remain closed-off in Russian archives for a long time."