For over four decades, Czechs have at this time of year – once covertly but now openly – marked the death of Jan Palach, who on January 16 1969 set himself on fire in protest at society’s resignation in the face of the Soviet occupation that began five months earlier. This year one of the events commemorating Palach’s act of self-sacrifice has been the launch of a new website containing a wealth of material on the student’s life, death and much more.
Late last month the Czech literary world finally paid its due to Natalia Gorbanevskaya a Russian poet, translator and civil rights activist who in 1968 risked her life to voice her opposition to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. More than 40 years after her brave deed her book Red Square at Noon reflecting the events was finally published in Czech.
Czech singer Marta Kubišová has been awarded France’s Legion of Honour in recognition of her art as well as of her courage in standing up to communist oppression. One of the greatest pop stars of the time, she became a symbol of the Prague Spring of 1968. But when she refused to bow to the new regime established after the Soviet invasion, she was banned from performing, and could only return to the stage after the fall of communism 20 years later.
Czechs marked the 44th anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. A number of high-ranking politicians attended a remembrance ceremony on Tuesday at the main Czech Radio building in Prague, including speakers of both the upper and lower house and Prague mayor Bohuslav Svoboda. At least 15 people perished in front of the building as they tried to prevent Soviet troops from entering after the invasion on August 21, 1968. More than 100 people were killed across the country during the tragic days that followed the invasion.
In the course of 1969 and 1970 Czechoslovak Radio was transformed back into what it had been in the 1950s, a tool of hard line propaganda. In the process, over 700 radio staff were forced to leave their jobs. Those who stayed found their freedom of expression severely curtailed. To give an idea of the extent to which things had changed by August 1969 - the first anniversary of the Soviet led invasion – I will start with a short extract from Radio Prague’s broadcasts back in 1968, as the tanks rolled into the city. At the time the radio was playing
In last week’s From the Archives we followed the tragic last days of the student Jan Palach, who on January 16 1969 set himself alight in protest against growing apathy in the face of the Soviet invasion five months earlier. The whole country was in shock. Such a drastic and violent sacrifice had little precedent in modern Czech and Slovak history, and perhaps for just that reason Palach immediately became a symbol of the country’s lost liberty and a rallying cry for those who still hoped to save something of the reforms of 1968. Those in power
On the airwaves, 1968 ended very much as it had begun. For New Year’s Eve, Czechoslovak Radio chose the same format as the year before, with the light-hearted musical cabaret of the Semafor Theatre. But behind the scenes, the Soviet-led occupation in August had changed everything. The Soviets were only too pleased for the radio to give the impression of normality. A gradual, almost imperceptible drift back to hard-line communism was beginning. The process came to be known cynically as “normalization”, a word that was first used by Alexander Dubček himself
For the younger generation that had grown up after the end of World War II, the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 was traumatic. The Prague Spring had brought an atmosphere of optimism and genuine enthusiasm for change, and all these hopes were crushed overnight. In this week’s From the Archives, we’ll hear what students had to say at the time, as recorded by Czechoslovak and foreign radio stations as the occupation unfolded.
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