Margita Kollarova - Dubcek's address to the nation and a silence that spoke more than words

26-08-2003

For this week's Witness we return again to the events of August 1968. As Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring on the 21st August, the entire Czechoslovak leadership was spirited away to Moscow for what were euphemistically described as talks. Five days later, exactly 35 years ago, they returned, broken and bullied into signing a document that effectively legitimized the occupation of the country. The Communist Party First Secretary and leading force of the reforms, Alexander Dubcek, gave a radio address to the nation on the 27th August, immediately after his return from Moscow. He appealed for calm and understanding, but as the speech went on - in one of the most chilling moments of the entire period of August '68 - Dubcek gradually broke down. The speech was interrupted by long silences. This extraordinary and unnerving address was being recorded by Czechoslovak Radio's parliamentary correspondent of the time, Margita Kollarova. Here she remembers the moment.

"He had a sheet of paper - everyone had been advising him what to say - he had it all written down in note form, but it wasn't a written speech. He began to speak. We could see how exhausted he was and how he was trying to control his emotions. He addressed the nation, he tried to assure the nation that we would emerge from this crisis, but that we had to be reasonable, that we mustn't provoke, that we must work together to decide what to do next. At one moment, when he was talking about how they had treated him in Moscow, he suddenly went silent and stopped talking. There was a silence. I didn't know what to do, whether I should start saying something, to apologise to listeners, but that wouldn't have been the diplomatic thing to do, so I waited and I indicated to the people around that I needed a glass of water for Mr Dubcek. They brought the water. As I put the glass on the table in front of him, the sound it made brought him back to his senses. After quite a long time he began to speak again. There were tears running down his face. It was only the second time in my life that I'd seen a man cry."

26-08-2003