Half a century ago today, I watched as Soviet tanks rolled into my native Czechoslovakia to suppress the slight relaxing of the odious repression that was necessary to maintain a purported socialist paradise. “Prague Spring,” as the loosening of tyranny was called, ended before the summer was over.
The seeds of the Prague Spring 1968 sprouted at the Expo67 in Montreal. The Czech Pavilion was exquisite with long lines the entire time of the fair. The Czech artists, engineers and builders brought back the infectious freedom-bug to Prague at the end of 1967. The dawn of the New Year 1968 came in subdued pastel colors over the permanent gray in the Red paradise. Suddenly, there were changes in the dark Kafkaesque corridors of the still Stalinist Nomenklatura in Prague. The liberal communist A. Dubček and his team came to power. The people woke up from the imposed stupor and embraced the dystopian "Socialism with a Human Face." Very few people saw through it – though our family did, but our warnings were ignored in the general mass euphoria. The voices calling for Swiss-like neutrality were unrealistic utopians.
The Prague Spring of 1968 turned blue very quickly, though. Leonid Brezhnev and the ageing Kremlin Politburo were livid when Dubček's team opened the Iron Curtain a bit and allowed some freedom of the press and of assembly -- previously unheard of! My father, who had been sentenced to menial labor in 1958 as an Enemy of the State and the People for defiantly riding a 750 cc Knucklehead Harley Davidson through Prague, openly listening to Elvis when everything American including jeans and Mickey Mouse, was forbidden/verboten, received a passport. He traveled all over Western Europe and chose Switzerland chose as our goal for escape. After his return in June, he began to plan our exile.
Yours truly was then a student at the College of Geology and Mines, so I worked in August 1968 with several buddies at a stone-quarry east of Prague. During the night of August 20th, we were entertaining the locals with music during drinks and dinner. Around midnight, a loud banging on the cabin door and a hysterical voice shook us out of our sleep. It was the local girlfriend of my buddy: "The Soviet tanks are here!"
In an instant, we were cold sober and ran the half mile to the main highway leading to Prague. Before getting there, we could hear the low rumble of the tracks piercing the dark and shaking the ground. The stunned silent villagers lined the road as an endless iron caterpillar rattled West; a procession of tanks with the blood-stained red star on the turrets. About every ten tanks a sentry wearing a leather helmet stood in the hatch with a deadpan stare into the dark.
In a week, Prague, a city the size of San Diego, CA, was surrounded by tanks; downtown the bridges were blocked by tanks and armored vehicles as well. The Soviets burnt city buses, shot into apartments from the tanks or ran over the kids waving the Czech flag (Tiananmen Square 1989, anyone?)! However, when they shot up the facade of the National Museum with M50 machine guns, thinking it was the CZ Radio, we let them have it in Russian: "Can't you tell, you barbarians, that it is a museum?" The Radio building still is standing just a couple of blocks away from Wenceslas Square.