Neal Ascherson - fascinating memories of the Soviet invasion and much more

The British journalist and author Neal Ascherson is widely regarded as one of the UK's leading experts on central and eastern Europe, and has experienced some of the key moments in the region's recent history at first hand. When he visited Prague recently, I asked Neal Ascherson where his interest in this part of the world had come from.

1968, August1968, August "The interest first came, I mean my interest in central and eastern Europe, really when I was a boy in Scotland. We were suddenly exposed to Polish soldiers, the Polish Army were in Scotland during World War II.

"As a small boy I was completely amazed by these people, because they were so other. They had their own language, their dramatic appearance, their tragic stories, their exotic uniforms and cloaks and hats and everything.

"And I became interested. I felt that this was a quite alternative Europe which we knew nothing whatever about. And that remained with me; I remember as a schoolboy I managed to pick up a pamphlet on a barrow about Polish history and realised that Polish history was trying to talk about the same European history that we were taught, but it talked about it in an entirely different way, completely different emphasis, and I thought - that's the history I would like to know."

When did you first come to this part of the world? I mean central Europe.

"The first time I came here was in 1957, when I was very young, and I was working at the Manchester Guardian at the time; I'd just joined as a junior reporter.

"They wouldn't even pay the fare, so I had to pay my own fare, and I got myself to Warsaw by train eventually, and had a wild time for about three weeks, because I had some black market currency, so I lived like a king really on...I think I had 300 Canadian dollars, which on the black market enabled me to live like an emperor for three weeks.

"I never forgot it; I made so many friends, I fell in love twice simultaneously, I was intellectually fascinated by all the people, editors and intellectuals that I met, and it was thrilling. From that moment on I was hooked."

Tell us about the first time you came here to Prague, which was then in Czechoslovakia of course.

"I first came to Prague in 1965. I was based in Berlin as a foreign correspondent. Actually, I came here with a communist journalist called Alan Winnington, who was then the correspondent of the old Morning Star, the communist daily newspaper, and he was their correspondent in East Berlin.

"And the first thing we saw walking along the street, I think it was on Narodni, was students who were actually carrying posters saying 'we want more freedom in the student hostels' and 'we want less censorship', and things like this.

"I was completely amazed, and my friend - the communist journalist -was appalled, he pretended not to have seen this, and said 'I think it's some misunderstanding, or provocation or something - pay no attention'. But I thought something is going on here, as indeed it was."

1968 - Czech Radio1968 - Czech Radio How did Prague, Berlin and, say, Warsaw compare in those days? I know it's a huge question.

"Warsaw was still in a condition, which it really remained, of completely ineffectual pseudo-totalitarian government, which didn't stop people saying exactly what they thought. And attempting to live a normal life, even a normal collective diplomatic life in the world.

"East Germany was by contrast quite dead. Everybody behaved like puppets. I remember they had a book fair - they were quite unselfconscious - they had a book fair in East Berlin, of which the great slogan on all the banners all over the city, and all over the German Democratic Republic was the word L-I-E-S, which of course in English is 'lies'.

"But in German it means 'read'. But it hadn't occurred to the East German authorities what this word actually said. So the rest of the world was rocking with laughter and they had no idea, and that was typical of them.

"Czechoslovakia, as it then was, was very different, in that when I came to it it was already beginning to heave; the structure was beginning to give way. And you could meet people, excited people - particularly then in the late '60s economists, who spoke really openly.

"And you could the sense that they were moving, they were trying to break the system open to a greater degree of liberty, and a greater degree of actual experiment in the social and economic structures of communism, a more open communism with a market element and all the rest of it. So, that was going on; it was quite an exciting country to visit."

Is it the case that you were here during the Prague Spring?

"Yes, I was. I wasn't here the whole time; I came and went all the time. But yes, I was, and I was here also of course during the...invasion, in August."

What is your strongest memory of that time?

"Foot clouts...well, there are several memories, many memories, obviously. But the thing I suppose I remember most is the sight of these big groups of tanks in the little parks in the middle of Prague. And the discovery that Soviet soldiers didn't wear socks.

Alexander DubcekAlexander Dubcek "Instead they wore these strange bandages around their feet called foot clouts, which they use to wash, so that all around these tanks there were these strange, almost merry, celebratory white ribbons waving in the August breeze as they dried their foot clouts after washing them."

Did you think that communism was inevitably going to collapse?

"No. I thought communism would adapt itself and change radically. I thought that what was inevitable was that freedom of discussion and a much freer press would enter.

"I thought the communist systems could accommodate open discussion; I thought they probably would never accommodate true political pluralism, but I didn't think they would collapse, particularly the east European systems - not the Soviet Union - I thought they would change out of recognition, but would remain one party systems; although perhaps enlightened, livable one-party systems. So I didn't foresee until really very, very late in the process that it was just going to collapse."

You've been here many times over the years - have you made strong contacts with personalities our listeners might know? For example Vaclav Havel.

"Well, I met Havel but I wouldn't say that I knew him. I knew some of the writers: I knew Vaculik and Klima. I met Prochazka, before he died of course, and I remember watching him in 1968 and some of his great speeches. And Kohout. And...politicians, no, not really; I used to talk to some of them but I wouldn't say that I knew them.

"But they were wonderfully approachable, of course. (Laughs) I remember after the presidential elections - in which unfortunately they elected President Svoboda, little knowing what he would turn out to be - and going to the great reception in the Castle.

"We all poured in, western journalists, everybody wandering around. And I looked around and there was this little guy on a chair up against the wall, rather away from the crowd, with a plate on his knee and it was Dubcek. And you could just walk up to him and say 'hello...listen...Sasha'(laughs), you could ask him a question.

"It was all absolutely open; an extraordinary informality, which actually was Czech, it was very Czech - I loved it."

I read in one of your articles a description of the Czech nation as "unheroic". Some of our listeners maybe won't agree with that - what do you mean when you say that?

"A few days before the invasion I remember there was a kind of spontaneous meeting of people, which happened a lot in those days, at Mustek, at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. And I remember somebody making big speeches, saying 'the Russians are threatening us, but we're not afraid of Brezhnev, we're not afraid of this kind of threat, are we?'"

"And a voice at the back of the crowd said 'yes, we are, we are afraid. We are afraid, yes'. And a lot of people nodded wisely, in agreement. And I thought, that's great. I really like that, because that's part of Czech humanism, not to talk bombastic crap. Of course they were afraid, who wouldn't be?

"They were prepared to stand up to this threat in different ways, but yes, they were honest about it. I like that."