The unfortunate legacy of the Prague Spring
(Written for the Scotsman)
Many people in Prague first learned about the Warsaw Pact invasion into Czechoslovakia from friends' telephone calls in the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 21st August, at the time when the Czech radio and TV transmitters had been temporarily switched off on the orders of some pro-Soviet collaborators in the communist party leadership. When we looked out of the window and saw Russian tanks in the street, the experience was distinctly surreal, especially after the previous weeks of negotations between the Russian and Czechoslovak leaders, which had allegedly resolved the tense situation.
The Russian soldiers sitting on the tanks in the streets of Czech and Slovak towns generally did not shoot, remaining passive even in the face of massive peaceful protests by Czechoslovak citizens. One Western commentator later argued that the Soviet leadership had actually misread the Czechoslovak situation, thinking that the Prague Spring was merely the work of intellectuals and that the invading armies would be welcomed by ordinary people in the streets. The Russians were stunned when this did not happen. The whole nation united in a glorious, euphoric act of defiance. The peaceful resistance lasted for a week, supported by the highly disciplined, professional and sensible Czechoslovak media. The unreal atmosphere of a film set was very strong indeed during that week.
Out of idealism, a large number of young Czechs had supported the communist takeover of 1948. Only a few years later did they realise that they had made a terrible mistake, helping to subjugate their country to Russia, a ruthless imperial power. Later on, in mid-life, they tried hard to undo their original mistake, and their liberalisation drive culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968. Unfortunately, even then they did not use strategic thinking. The Prague Spring of 1968 had a rather teenage, infantile feel. Petr Pithart, the current Speaker of the Czech Senate, later wrote about it: "'We are going to break something', the Czechs threatened in 1968. 'We do not know yet what it will be, but something it will be for sure.'" During his visit to Glasgow University earlier this year, Czech poet Miroslav Holub was quite unable to answer a student's question how come that the 1968 Czech reformers had not realised that for geopolitical reasons, the Russians simply had to invade.
Admittedly, it was very difficult during the Prague Spring not to speak publicly and emotionally about all the crimes of Stalinism perpetrated against ordinary people in the 1950s, once censorship fell in 1968. If the Russians were surprised in August 1968 that they had encountered a nationwide prodemocratic revolution, they certainly made up for their surprise later. The punishment for the few weeks of absolute freedom was harsh. From 1969, Czechoslovakia was thrown into a timeless, isolated, hysterical neo-Stalinist mode and remained motionless in this state of non-being well until 1989. The activities of dissidents made very little difference to the Communist behemoth. The post 1968 regime did not kill the body, it directly assaulted the soul. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs in 1970 for refusing to approve of the invasion. Four hundred Czech authors were banned. World classics (Beethoven's Fidelio) were proscribed. The media disseminated political propaganda almost on the North Korean model. Mediocrity was courted. Meaningful public discourse was impossible. For the twenty years, it was regarded as subversive to attempt to say publicly anything which did not imply one's "love for the Soviet Union and the Communist Party". You could not travel abroad. Unlike Hungary and Poland, which had semi-liberal regimes in the 1970s and the 1980s, Czechoslovakia was almost totally cut off from the rest of the world, stewing in its own juices.
It can be argued that the Czech Republic is still suffering from this terrible legacy. The Czechs have found it very difficult to understand the basic concepts of democracy after the fall of communism. Deep down, many Czechs are still primarily afraid of communism, "like a girl who has been raped, everyone assures her that it cannot happen again, and yet - ", wrote former Czech Deputy Interior Minister Martin Fendrych recently. Many are still governed by this fear much more than by any understanding of democracy. There has been very little serious public debate. In voting for the "Thatcherite" Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus in 1992, the Czechs embraced communism in reverse. The strong leader had simple, ideological solutions. If he was obeyed unquestioningly, he argued, he would bring prosperity to all.
Gradually, the black-and white post communist ideology has disintegrated. Klaus's economic miracle has proven to be a mirage. His economic reforms have failed. Last year, his government collapsed amidst a financial scandal. The Czech Republic has recorded negative economic growth. The Czechs are reeling from the experience of the past nine years, which is closely bound with their traumatic experience of the 1970s and 1980s. They know now they have to start again, although they do not necessarily know how.