Soviet-led invasion of 1968 remembered

21-08-2002

August 21st is the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, without question one of the bleakest days in the country's history. The invasion marked the end of the tentative reforms of the Prague Spring - which had given hope to so many - and the beginning of many years of stultifying repression by the Communist regime. Ian Willoughby has the story.

The chilling sound of gunshots drowned out a presenter on Czech Radio on the morning of August 21, as Soviet soldiers finally succeeded in penetrating our building here on Vinohradska Street. Tens of thousands of people had gathered outside from the early morning to try and protect what was then the last outlet of uncensored news about the invasion; a plaque on front of the the Czech Radio building attests to the fact that 15 of them paid for their bravery with their lives. Dozens of bullet holes are still visible on the facade of a building across the street.

At the traditional memorial ceremony on Wednesday morning, wreathes were lain in the entrance to the Czech Radio building. A crowd of mostly older people gathered to hear speeches from senior politicians, who expressed both the importance of defending free speech and the need for people to work together in times of crisis. Among the ordinary citizens of Prague who attended the ceremony was an old man called Vladimir Kulicek. He explained why he believes such memorials are of great importance.

"Thirty-four years have passed since that time, and two new generations have grown up who did not experience the events of 1968 themselves, and its very hard for them to understand what happened at that time. An anti-reform period set in and those decades were a really dead time. After 1989 it was possible to explain to young people what exactly happened in those days, but it is still hard for young people to understand."

The chairman of the Senate, Petr Pithart, was one of the speakers at Wednesday's ceremony. He told me he believed that Czech people were still learning how to remember the past, and that remembering history was a sign of a mature society. Mr Pithart himself was in Israel when the Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital, and I asked him if it had been hard to follow events at home from such a distance.

"In Israel we were terribly isolated and the news from Prague from the Israeli perspective was - if it is possible - even worse than the reality. The next day we organised an improvised embassy, because there was no Czech embassy at the time, to help hundreds and thousands of the first Czech visitors of Israel. After a month I think most of us returned to Czechoslovakia, some of us stayed in the west."

21-08-2002