RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Forty years ago today, the people of Czechoslovakia awoke to find their country occupied by half a million troops. They were under the command of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet answer to NATO. The invasion put an end to what was known as the Prague Spring, a brief season of political and cultural freedom. Moscow feared Czechoslovakia's Communist Party's embrace of democratic reforms would infect the rest of the Soviet sphere. As part of occasional series, Echoes of 1968, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Prague.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: At 2:00 a.m., as Russian soldiers surrounded the state radio building, an announcement was broadcast.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: This act is contrary to the principles of international law. We appeal to all citizens to remain calm and to offer no resistance.
Mr. JIRI DIENSTBIER (Former Radio Reporter): It was big shooting, and it was dramatic, you see, when they came to the studio and stopped from our broadcasting.
POGGIOLI: Reporter Jiri Dienstbier's voice was well known to the radio audience.
Mr. DIENSTBIER: We succeeded in informing the population and the world, not only that there is an invasion, it was clear, but that it was refused and condemned.
POGGIOLI: Before dawn, tens of thousands of people were in the streets, surrounding tanks and arguing with the soldiers.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
POGGIOLI: How could you do this to us, this woman wanted to know. Is this what friends do? Ivana Dolezalova was 18, the same age as many of the soldiers occupying her country.
Ms. IVANA DOLEZALOVA: I realized that they had no idea where they are, why they are here. They were told, of course, they had to crush counter-revolution, but they were at such a loss.
POGGIOLI: Party secretary Alexander Dubcek was arrested and flown to Moscow. But within a day, the remaining leaders held a party congress at a factory guarded by workers' militias. Zdenek Zboril, a student leader in 1968, was in Wenceslas Square when an official car drove by.
Mr. ZDENEK ZBORIL: There are the delegates of party congress and all Wenceslas Square applauding them. It was the first time in history somebody applauding to the communists, yes.
POGGIOLI: The applause for Czechoslovakian communists was so great that the Soviets were unable to prop up a puppet government, despite the presence of one occupying soldier for every 20 inhabitants.
(Soundbite of marching)
POGGIOLI: In the country of the anti-authoritarian Good Soldier Sveik, people resorted to artful sabotage: Street and directional signs disappeared or were misplaced. Russian convoys headed for Prague ended up on the Hungarian border. Walls were covered with anti-occupation poems and cartoons. Information flowed through an improvised network of amateur radio buffs. Jiri Pehe, director of the New York University Program in Prague, says the Soviets underestimated how deeply the Prague Spring democratization process had transformed society.
Mr. JIRI PEHE (Director of New York University Program, Prague): It was much more than that. It was really a huge outburst of creativity in culture, in arts. Civil society was being revived at a very fast pace. So it was a one-party state, but with many different centers of independence.
POGGIOLI: In the 1950s, Stalinism was imposed on the Czechoslovak Communist Party through brutal show trials and the execution of 11 party leaders. A few party apparatchiks held all decision-making power. Most party-appointed company managers had little more than an elementary school education. For this highly industrialized country - the only democracy in Eastern Europe during the two world wars - Stalinist central planning was an alien and brutal imposition. The turning point was the Czechoslovak Writers Congress in June, 1967.
Mr. IVAN KLIMA (Author): From this tribune, you could hear the really strong criticism of everything: censorship and the party bureaucracy.
POGGIOLI: Ivan Klima is one of the best-known Czech novelists. The most devastating critique came from his colleague, Ludwik Vaculik.
Mr. KLIMA: He criticizing the whole regime as a lie and as collection of mistakes, and so on and so on. His most famous sentence is that this regime didn't solve even one human problem, and that he should be grateful if we are patient still.
POGGIOLI: The speech was immediately circulated as a samizdat in thousands of copies. As many times before in Czechoslovak history, says Jiri Pehe, intellectuals were the vanguard of political reforms.
Mr. PEHE: Society got infected, so to speak, with this virus of freedom, and people realized, OK, now it's our turn.
POGGIOLI: Within months, a bevy of associations sprouted. Many harked back to the civil society network of the inter-war period of democracy: sports and women's groups, Boy Scouts, river fishermen and choruses. Others were new: trade unions, student associations and human rights groups. Borders were opened, and people traveled abroad.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Jude")
Mr. MARTA KUBISOVA (Singer): (Singing) Hey Jude…
POGGIOLI: And Marta Kubisova, the country's most popular singer, could finally record long-banned Western hits.
Mr. KUBISOVA: (Singing in foreign language)
(Soundbite of music)
POGGIOLI: Sociologist Jan Hartl came from an anti-communist family, but he, too, embraced the Prague Spring of the communist reformers.
Mr. JAN HARTL: I was provoked by the situation of openness, free discussion. It helped to orient my life. It had a clear civilizing, open-minded effect. To me, we all were formed by 1968.
POGGIOLI: The year was ushered in by the election of the 47-year-old Slovak Alexander Dubcek. Timid and awkward, he had studied at party schools in Russia. Under Dubcek, the party's action program abolished censorship, allowed a free press and freedom of association, and it promoted degrees of market economy. Dubcek would often say his main goal was to help the Soviets reform communism. Cestimir Cisar - one of the last living members of Dubcek's governing circle -recalls a man who emitted optimism.
Mr. CESTIMIR CISAR (Member of Dubcek's Governing Circle): (Through translator): For him, all this political debate was not only acceptable, but also necessary. His playing and smiling face became the beacon of the new and better society. That's why it was called socialism with a human face.
POGGIOLI: When the attempt to blend communism and democracy was brutally crushed, Cisar says Dubcek cried: How could they do this to me? The invasion was a military success. Yet widespread resistance made it a political failure, and Moscow had to reinstate Dubcek. But the country's sovereignty was restricted. And less than a year later, Dubcek was ousted. The military intervention was widely denounced by European communist parties. Novelist Ivan Klima:
Mr. KLIMA: This invasion destroyed the international communist movement, which was, I must say, the main merit of this Prague Spring.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: There's some pretty dramatic black-and-white footage of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, plus photos of Czech demonstrators throwing burning torches as they try to stop those tanks at npr.org.
This is NPR News.