Prague 1968: Reforming A Soviet Communist Regime In Prague, the year 1968 began with a bold attempt to reform and liberalize its creaking Soviet communist regime from within, 50 years later, authoritarianism is again on the rise in Eastern Europe.

Prague 1968: Reforming A Soviet Communist Regime

Prague 1968: Reforming A Soviet Communist Regime

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In Prague, the year 1968 began with a bold attempt to reform and liberalize its creaking Soviet communist regime from within, 50 years later, authoritarianism is again on the rise in Eastern Europe.


This year, NPR is looking at the events of 1968 that continue to shape our world. Fifty years ago today, Czechoslovakia's parliament under duress approved a treaty sanctioning the occupation of the country by Soviet troops. The Soviet Union had already invaded the country, ending what came to be known as the Prague Spring. Here's NPR's David Welna.


DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was April 1968, and a band calling itself Olympic was belting out this tune in Czechoslovakia. Ever since Alexander Dubcek became Communist Party chief at the beginning of the year, he'd loosened the political reins. And people were amazed.

JAN CULIK: It was impossible to believe what was happening.

WELNA: These days, Jan Culik teaches the Czech language at the University of Glasgow. But back in 1968, Culik was a 15-year-old in Prague gorging himself on a daily news media orgy.

CULIK: You had brilliant journalistic stuff, interviews on television between victims and the secret police interrogators. Why were you drowning me in that bath - this kind of stuff.

WELNA: University College of London's Sean Hanley is a scholar of the Prague Spring.

SEAN HANLEY: The whole idea of the Prague Spring was that they were going to create a form of socialism which was more democratic, more liberal and more in keeping with the country's traditions.

WELNA: They called it socialism with a human face. Another scholar of the Prague Spring, Drake University's Kieran Williams, says hard-line Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev did not see it that way.

KIERAN WILLIAMS: Brezhnev says to Dubcek, what is all this talk about socialism with a human face? Do you really think we're not human, that we don't have human faces?

WELNA: What irked Brezhnev the most, says Williams, was Dubcek's decision to lift press censorship.

WILLIAMS: When Brezhnev would be haranguing Dubcek, over and over it came back to itemizing all the things that were in that week's Czech and Slovak newspapers that offended him and alarmed him.

IGOR LUKES: And Dubcek says, yes, yes, comrade, I will take care of it, and then nothing. He does nothing.

WELNA: That's another Prague emigre, Boston University's Igor Lukes. He says Dubcek, whatever his intentions, was unable to stop what he'd started.

LUKES: He also fell in love with the love that he started feeling from the public that believed that he was somehow making them free or giving them freedom.

WELNA: In the summer of 1968, Dubcek and others met with Soviet leaders at a border town. Jan Culik says via Skype that that encounter was prematurely declared a success.

CULIK: They said, it's been sorted. They actually understand us. It'll be all right. And everybody breathed a sigh of relief and went on holiday, and then they invaded.


WELNA: In the middle of the night on August 21, 1968, Soviet tanks with no warning rolled into Prague. Igor Lukes was 18 at the time.

LUKES: It was initially unclear what it was. Then we discovered that this was the Russian armor sort of slowly making its way to the center.

WELNA: The invading troops had been told, according to Jan Culik, that they were there to put down a counterrevolution led by only a small group of intellectuals.

CULIK: Their task was to paralyze the media, but they failed badly in this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Czech).

WELNA: With Soviet forces surrounding and firing on the state radio station, Radio Prague defiantly kept broadcasting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Czech).

WELNA: "We want socialism," says an announcer, "but humane socialism."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Czech).

WELNA: Another voice adds over the sound of gunfire, "we believe we'll be able to have our own Czechoslovak socialism." Despite scores of people lying dead in the streets, Jan Culik says a giddy black humor was in the air.

CULIK: There's a really strange euphoria of unity amongst the nation. So you actually were following this endless gallery of comments, jokes. And actually you walked through the streets and laughed. It was a kind of tragic laughter, but nevertheless it was laughter.

WELNA: The White House wasn't laughing.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: The excuses offered to the Soviet Union are patently contrived. The Czechoslovakia government did not request its allies to intervene in its internal affairs.

WELNA: President Lyndon Johnson denounced the Soviet invasion. But he was not about to go to war over Czechoslovakia, and the Soviets knew it. As the invading forces stayed on, says Jan Culik, every adult had to go before loyalty boards set up across the nation.

CULIK: You were asked, comrade, what happened in August '68 was fraternal help, wasn't it? And if you said, no, you bastards, it was a foreign invasion, you were sacked. The really demoralizing and humiliating thing is that the majority of the nation basically said, yes, it was fraternal help and continued with their jobs.

WELNA: Among those sacked - Communist Party chief Dubcek. It was all part of what was called normalization, a return to conservative orthodox communism carried out by Czechs. Frustrated with his fellow countrymen, a decade later, Igor Lukes would go into exile.

LUKES: I fear that after they had become free and after they had enjoyed their freedom, the Czechs immediately started looking for some new authority to whom they could surrender it.

WELNA: In 1989, the communist regime crumbled with the Velvet Revolution followed by a Velvet Divorce as a single nation became two - Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The yearning for a strong leader has persisted. The Czech Republic now has a former communist official named Andrej Babis as its prime minister, an anti-immigrant billionaire whom Professor Hanley says some call the Czech Donald Trump.

HANLEY: I guess for many people, particularly his detractors, he is very much a sort of product of the kind of repressive, bureaucratic communism that existed after 1968.


WELNA: On the 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, Prime Minister Babis tried speaking outside the radio station Soviet forces had once surrounded, but he was drowned out by cries of shame and secret police informer. As Igor Lukes says of the Prague Spring that ended so abruptly...

LUKES: It was tragic, but something beautiful came out of it. And it didn't last.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News.

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