Prague Spring Ignored In Post-Communist Society Tourists in the Czech Republic are not likely to find a plaque commemorating the failed democratization process known as Prague Spring and the generation of 1968. Critics say people want to forget there was a period of communism in Prague.

Prague Spring Ignored In Post-Communist Society

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Forty years ago this week, Soviet-led troops invaded Czechoslovakia, clamping down on the freedoms of the Prague Spring. Czechoslovakia had undergone a period of reform dubbed socialism with a human face.

The 1968 invasion ended that and resulted in a long period of repression that still haunts the society. As part of our occasional series Echoes of 1968, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on how people in Prague view that tumultuous period now.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Nearly two decades after the fall of communism, Prague is a sophisticated European capital. The central Wenceslas Square - where 40 years ago Soviet troops clashed with citizens - is now lined with elegant shops and pricy restaurants.

But the brief season of freedom known as the Prague Spring appears distant and irrelevant to young people like Teresa Otava.

Ms. TERESA OTAVA (Resident, Prague, Czech Republic): I live this time and I think about nowadays problems and not very often about the past.

POGGIOLI: In recent weeks, there was just one tiny exhibit on the violent end of the Prague Spring. Tucked away behind a garden, yellowed newspaper clippings, photos and cartoons hang from a clothesline, while a tape recorder spouts the audio of the invading planes and tanks.

(Soundbite of planes and tanks)

POGGIOLI: Curator Karel Srp remembers that night 40 years ago.

Mr. KAREL SRP: Everybody was surprised because nobody believed that the Russians will come, absolutely no. And the morning was half million soldiers and many thousand of tanks who were in Prague, in Czech Republic, and it was occupation.

POGGIOLI: After the invasion, Srp lost his job as a chemist but he found his calling in the underground. He created a club that published clandestine books and organized jazz concerts. Srp was arrested but was given a relatively short two-year jail term, thanks to vocal international support from the likes of John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, who denounced the suppression of cultural freedom.

At 71, Srp says, an entire generation that had embraced the new freedoms was marginalized by two decades of repression.

Mr. SRP: Nobody believed that 20 years it will continue, believe me. I think maybe five years, maybe six years, of course, but not 20. Believe me, nobody. I was young and I was old, that's all.

POGGIOLI: In 1968, the people of Czechoslovakia and their leaders were convinced they could blend socialism and democracy. They were emerging from a long period of harsh dictatorship. The country was rediscovering its traditional democratic values - people could travel abroad, censorship was lifted, and freedom of association was introduced. People started socializing again.

(Soundbite of noisy street)

This street is called Na Prikope. It's now one of the city's most stylish. For a brief time in 1968, it became a central gathering point. People who used to rush home from work in factories and offices started coming here to share their excitement for the changes brought by the Prague Spring. For the first time in two decades, they could speak freely. Friendships were resumed as neighbors long divided by fear clarified misunderstandings and overcame mutual suspicions.

But for the hard-line regime in Moscow, the Prague Spring was an infection to be eliminated.

(Soundbite of Czech folk song)

Mr. KAREL KRYL (Czech Folk Singer): (Singing) (Czech Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Folk singer Karel Kryl, then 24 years old, wrote this song to protest the invasion. The lyrics are an ominous warning of the bleak times ahead: Close the door, little brother. The wolf wants to get hold of the sheep. This will be a long night.

The period of repression was given the Orwellian-sounding name normalization. The purges were massive. Every citizen was subject to political screening, and more than half a million people were expelled from the Communist Party. Teachers and professors had to work as bathroom cleaners and garbage collectors. Their crime: refusing to sign a statement approving the so-called brotherly help brought by the Soviet-led invasion.

Ms. IVANA DOLEZALOVA: Which meant that your life is pretty much ruined and that, of course, will ruin your children as well because then they were not allowed to study at universities and they also had to do menial jobs. And it was a kind of total punishment.

POGGIOLI: Ivana Dolezalova now teaches modern Czech film and history. But four decades ago, she was ostracized as the daughter of reformers and her job applications turned down. But joblessness was also a crime.

Ms. DOLEZALOVA: If you didn't have a stamp in your identity card that you are working someplace, you were called a parasite of society, which meant that you could be put to prison just for not working. So, you had to have some job and it was rather difficult if nobody wanted you.

POGGIOLI: In 1968, the internationally known novelist Ivan Klima was forced to take menial jobs. His novel "Love and Garbage" was based on his work as a trash collector. Klima also worked as an orderly in a hospital where he observed one way the regime kept people quiet - by letting them fill their pockets in any way they could.

Mr. IVAN KLIMA (Novelist): They really tried to steal everything. They were repairing the radiators from central heating, they needed to change maybe 50 but they had to ask for 100 because 50 disappeared. They were stealing even the beds. And so during the night, they took the bed. They are stealing everything, medicine and everything.

POGGIOLI: During the normalization period, playwright Vaclav Havel and the other founders of the human rights group Charter 77 were repeatedly imprisoned. Yet there were no executions, and people were even allowed to own summer cottages.

But Jiri Pehe, director of the New York University program in Prague, says everyone had to pay their dues.

Mr. JIRI PEHE (Director, New York University Program, Prague): The entire society had its public face, which lasted from Monday to Friday morning in which people would go along and they would participate in the rituals, they would behave as people who have no problem with the Communist system. And Friday, they would all leave for their summer houses. In private, with their friends, they would be free to say what they think and so on. So it was a totally schizophrenic society which was created.

POGGIOLI: Sociologist Jan Hartl says Czech society has not yet recovered from the trauma of normalization.

Mr. JAN HARTL: It seems that everybody wants to forget that there has been a period of communism here because of bad conscience. They feel uncomfortable with compromises they had to do.

POGGIOLI: The Prague Spring, the Warsaw Pact invasion and the repression that followed are absent from school textbooks and all but ignored in today's post-Communist society.

(Soundbite of bell)

Today, Prague is a primary stop on the grand European tour. Throughout the year, millions of visitors wander through this jewel of Medieval, Baroque and Art Deco architecture. But tourists are not likely to find any plaque commemorating the generation of 1968. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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