The Consequences of the Prague Spring

On the 23rd of August, 1968, the Russian dissident Natalia Gorbanevskaya, together with nine other members of the opposition, was in Moscow’s Red Square to protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian troops, which had taken place two days earlier. In one hand, Natalia was holding a placard that demanded the immediate withdrawal of the troops, while her other hand was gripping the pram holding her one year old son. Before they were arrested by the secret police, Natalia happened to see a black Volga as it left the Kremlin and crossed Red Square. Inside this official car the leader of the Prague Spring, Alexandr Dubček, sat slumped, defeated and overpowered. The Volga was taking him to the airport in order to send him back to his country, with crystal clear instructions to put an immediate halt to his policy of reforms. When she saw the Czechoslovak leader’s face, Natalia realized that nobody would pay any attention to her placard and was sure that she and her companions would end up like Dubček. Both them and the whole of Czechoslovakia.

In front of me I have two photographs of Alexandr Dubček; I remember having seen them in the Czech press when I was a girl who had just turned ten, living in Prague. In one of them, taken in 1968, the Czech leader is leaping off a diving board into a swimming pool. In the other one, there is a trace of a smile on his timid, indecisive, candid face. Both photos seem to me to foreshadow what happened during the Prague Spring. Dubček, the most powerful man in the country, dove into the pool without bothering to see if it was full or empty: he promoted fast-tracked democratic reforms that were certain to displease the Soviet leaders who held sway over Czechoslovakia. He couldn’t hold back the unrestrained demands of a people that longed for democracy and an end at last to the totalitarianism which had presided over the country for nigh on two decades.

I grew up in the middle of this ethos of peaceful popular rebellion that marked the 1960s. The Prague Spring started with a symposium on Franz Kafka, an author hitherto banned by the Communist authorities. I remember that my parents and their young friends discussed the books of Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal, saw Václav Havel’s plays and Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzels’ films, which were no longer censored: the Prague Spring was a movement that began with culture. What is more, my parents and their friends talked about the highly influential ‘2000 Words’ manifesto, in which the writer Ludvík Vaculík asked for a thorough reform of the system. On spring walks through the city with my grandmother, in the squares in the Staré Město district I got used to seeing people queuing up to sign petitions for more openness and transparency.

On August the 21st of that same year, my brother and I were woken up by a thunderous noise in the small hours. We ran to the window and saw there was  a nightmare down in the street. Soviet tanks were rolling along our avenue, Francouzská, making an enormous racket.

After the Spring had been curtailed, it became clear that things couldn’t be done by halves: you can’t untotal totalitarianism or democratize a non-democracy: the movement collapsed under the weight of its own paradoxes. The Prague that had been invaded by Soviet tanks was now full of disagreement about what had happened; one such disagreement was between two prominent writers, Havel and Kundera. With uncharacteristic pathos, Kundera spoke of the tragic destiny of the Czechs and of the universal meaning of this destiny for posterity: an object lesson on the essence of real Socialism. Disdainfully pragmatic, Havel affirmed that that the invasion had been the result of bad organization and a lack of experience of the leaders of the Prague Spring, and of their inability to foresee the consequences of a policy of snap reforms. In other words, Kundera claimed that our disgrace would make things clear to the world, whereas Havel maintained that we hadn’t been able to manage things properly and these were the consequences.

I believe that both of them were correct. The immediate future proved Havel right: Czechoslovakia would once again be under the aegis of the Soviet Union and would become a country whose soulless atmosphere was broken only by the Charter 77 dissident movement, led by the philosophers Jan Patočka (who paid for it with his life) Ladislav Hejdánek, as well as Havel himself.

Kundera was also right, because, just as he had foretold, the coup de grâce against the Prague Spring turned out to be a huge setback for the Western Left. Reeling from the impact of the Soviet invasion, which shook the entire world, western Communist parties had to distance themselves from their intransigent, pro-Soviet party lines. Communist parties everywhere had to reinvent themselves from top to bottom because if they’d shut their eyes when the Soviet Union crushed the 1956 Budapest revolt with blood and tanks in the post-war period, they couldn’t do the same thing twelve years later. Moreover, two decades afterwards, Mikhail Gorbachev took inspiration from that Spring when he implemented his perestroika; he didn’t have any luck with his reforms, either.

Natalia Gorbanevskaya’s foreboding on Red Square turned out to be correct. Brezhnev ordered Dubček to retire from politics, and replaced him with Husák, an apparatchik who took his orders from Moscow, paralizing all aspects of life in Czechoslovakia for the next twenty years. Most of the great cultural figures went into exile in the West, including Kundera and Forman, among others. Louis Aragon described the new cultural scene as a spiritual Biafra. The KGB sent Natalia’s fellow protesters to the Gulag, and sentenced her to forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital or psikhushkain which the brains of the most dangerous dissidents were destroyed by chemical medication. Locked away in the psikhushka, Natalia didn’t know that Joan Baez sung a song with her name in it at her concerts, helping the world to become aware about what was happening in the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

When I spoke to her not long before her death in 2011, Natalia confessed that if Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had deployed Warsaw Pact armies to ensure that Czechoslovakia – and Hungary before that – didn’t get away, Putin would have done everything possible to hold on to the countries which had been satellites of the Soviet empire. By accepting former Communist countries into its club, despite their being irascible, insubordinate members, the European Union put paid to Putin’s dream of extending Russian rule into the West.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)