A monument to fallen soldiers, recently unveiled at a major Prague cemetery, has provoked some strong reactions from Czech politicians and other public figures. The group behind the monument, which bears Russian and Czech inscriptions, says it is tribute to all soldiers who have died in modern-era peacekeeping missions. But some believe the memorial also celebrates troops who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.
A new exhibition dedicated to Jan Zajíc is set to mark the 45th anniversary of his self-immolation in response to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led troops and the “normalization” period that followed. Entitled The Story of Jan Zajíc, it will open at Prague’s Carolinum on Monday as part of the Mene Tekel festival, before moving to the town of Šumperk, whose grammar school students put the exhibition together. Aged 19, Zajíc set himself on fire on 25 February 1969 as he felt a similar move by Jan Palach had failed to shake the indifference and apathy of Czechoslovak society.
One of the last key figures of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, Vasil Bil’ak has died at the age of 96 in Bratislava. Bil’ak was the last surviving of the five leading communist party hardliners who sent a notorious letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev expressing concern about the ‘counter revolutionary’ reforms in their homeland and calling for a military intervention. The letter served as a pretext for the invasion by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact countries at the end of August, 1968. Bil’ak later played a leading role in the post invasion clampdown, or so-called normalisation.
In related news, leader of the Czech Communist Party and lower house deputy chair Vojtěch Filip said the late Vasil Biľak’s role in the build-up to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia could not be denied. However, today’s views of the letter asking the Soviet Union to interfere were “varied”, according to the Communist leader. Mr Vojtěch’s comments sparked controversy among Czech politicians; the opposition Civic Democrats said they would initiate a motion to vote Mr Filip out of office in the lower house.
Former Czechoslovak Communist party ideology chief Vasil Bilak, the last surviving hardliner who sent a letter of invitation to Soviet leaders, officially justifying the Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968, has died in Bratislava at the age of 96. Bilak was charged with high treason in 1991 but the case was later closed for lack of evidence. I asked prof. Jan Rychlik, who specializes in Czechoslovak history, how Vasil Bilak will be remembered.
For many Czechs, Russia’s Natalya Gorbanevskaya was nothing less than a hero, one of eight people in 1968 who protested on Red Square in Moscow against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. All of the protesters were arrested and as punishment she was sent to a psychiatric hospital. A few years after her release in 1972, she emigrated to France where she continued to work as a poet translator and human rights activist up until her death at the age of 77 last week.
Fascinating panoramic photos of abandoned Siberian Gulag camps have just appeared on the Czech website www.gulag.cz. The pictures were taken on the third trip deep into the Taiga by the association Gulag.cz and capture long overgrown labour camps along an uncompleted stretch of railway – a construction project that saw thousands of prisoners, including Czechs, die in appalling conditions. The founder of Gulag.cz, Štěpán Černoušek, explains the thinking behind the unique virtual tour.
In a chilling echo of the past, Russian police on Sunday arrested a group of human rights activists commemorating the 45th anniversary of a 1968 protest against the Russian-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although the protesters were reportedly detained for taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration and soon released, the move has evoked widespread condemnation in Prague.
Ten people were detained by the police at Moscow’s Red Square on Sunday, after a small commemoration of a demonstration held at the same place exactly 45 years ago in protest of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Around a dozen people held up a sign with the same slogan as was used in 1968: “For your and our freedom.” The demonstrators stood silently for approximately 10 minutes, after which they were led away by the police. The only person who was not detained was Natalia Gorbanevskaya, who was among the protesters 45 years ago. On August 25, 1968 eight people who held up signs with slogans on the Red Square in protest of the Czechoslovak occupation were arrested after only a few minutes. Seven of them were sentenced to years in prison, internal exile or forced psychiatric treatment.
This week the 45th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia was commemorated in this country. What some may not realize is that many of the iconic images from the tumultuous August of 1968 appearing in the media belong to one person – Josef Koudelka. A world renowned photographer whose career spans almost six decades and across all of Europe, Mr. Koudelka decided six years ago that he wants his life’s work to have a home in the Czech Republic.
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