21st August 1968: Remembering Resistance

By Jiřina Vojáčková

The Sixties brought a significant loosening of control in most aspects of life. Censorship eased and it became easier to visit the ‘West’ and to publish books that were previously banned (Čapek etc.). Despite this, everything was still governed by the Communists, but now, briefly, ‘with a human face’; and so, for our family, no member of which ever joined the Communist Party, there seemed to be very little fundamental change.

The invasion and subsequent occupation were, for most people (including our own politicians), something of a shock. In the morning of the 21st August, very early (at perhaps four a.m.), our phone rang. It was an old family friend. He told us in some agitation that during the night the Russians had come to occupy our country. We were aware of a great din, of many aeroplanes flying very low and, on the embankment we could hear the rumble of tanks and armoured cars. No shots or explosions could be heard.

Early that morning I went out into the street. Vláďa (my husband) took Petra (our daughter) and a few of her classmates in our car (an Aerovka) to Smíchov train station, from which they were meant to leave for the compulsory annual ritual of hop-picking. It was one of the traditions to dress eccentrically and, even this time, the students put on whatever they could find. One of them wore an old Russian uniform, another one looked like a British soldier from colonial times. The small car made its way among the surprised Russian soldiers peeking out of the tanks. The hop-picking trip was obviously cancelled. The whole of (the then) Czechoslovakia was occupied.

When people heard the Russian tanks were approaching, they swapped or removed street names and house numbers, as well as directional signs, and the soldiers wandered around quite lost, unsure how to get to the centre of Prague. Some of them were convinced they were in Paris. They were hungry (no shopkeeper sold them anything, not even a crust of bread - their own mobile kitchens had been caught up somewhere and delayed), exhausted through lack of sleep and startled by their Czech reception. No wonder: they had been told they were about to liberate a nation, without even knowing which one. Instead of a welcome, they were greeted by raised fists and insults. For example, a large gathering of tank crews stood on Mariánské námĕstí, then known as Vackovo. They were surrounded by enraged Prague citizens.

Another group occupied Staromĕstské (Old Town) Square and Václavské (Wenceslas) Square. Here, the soldiers were again confused. Their tanks were aiming at the Baťa Palace, thinking it was the Czech ‘Pentagon’. They even begun to fire on the National Museum, convinced this was the Parliament, where the Government was having an important meeting.

Soldiers from the Baltic Republics were accommodated on Národní třída, in the U Topiče Palace. Immediately news of their presence spread and the Czechs visited and befriended them. They were equally occupied nations. Meanwhile, one part of the army remained at Novotného lávka (just outside our house). They slept on the ground and defecated in corners. When they left the area, they swept everything into the river.

In a way I felt sorry for them, the ordinary soldiers. Like a herd they had marched into Czechoslovakia. It was different in the case of the officers. They were mostly unapproachable and convinced that their actions were justified.

There were of course tragic moments. Dozens of people (especially the young) were shot, usually by mistake. The Russian soldiers had an order not to shoot, but some of them panicked and ended up firing. I saw a group of young people with a bloodied Czechoslovak flag – the boy who carried it had been shot. Desperate individuals attempted to stop the tanks or set them on fire. One actually did catch fire, which greatly pleased the bystanders.

I should add, however, that the majority of Czech people took things with good humour. Little rhymes sprung up immediately in shop windows, as well as humorous quotes ridiculing the whole situation. A favourite involved the domestic pest, the beetle Rus (Russian), which later had to be officially renamed.

Unfortunately, the majority of our politicians disappointed again, in the same way that they had during the occupation by the Nazis. They were forced by the Russians to go to Moscow to sign a document stating their agreement with the Occupation. Everybody signed in the end, apart from the brave Kriegr. Despite his refusal, nothing happened to him.

‘Normalisation’ happened progressively. With time people adjusted, some emigrated and many of the Communists ‘with a human face’ became dissidents, forced to leave their political positions and lucrative jobs, presenting themselves then as victims while forgetting that in the Fifties they did the same to those who refused to join the Party. Of course there were others, who had fought against the regime since 1948, but they were few. They were constantly imprisoned, without the chance of a decent livelihood and position, and their children weren’t allowed to study at university.

Some of this people don’t like to remember.

Jiřina Vojáčková is an artist. She lives in Prague.