Ukraine invasion brings back memories of Prague Spring

Soviet tanks and armored cars during the first hours of occupation in Prague, 1968.


Mondadori via Getty Images

The invasion of Ukraine revived my stark memories of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Four Warsaw Pact armies invaded my small country under Soviet orders, putting a bloody end to the hopes and reforms of the Prague Spring.

I was 14 when I saw Russian tanks in the streets of Prague, Russian soldiers in the park near my house. I had to walk past their stinking latrines on my way to school. We mocked the soldiers by pretending to photograph them until they confiscated our fake cameras: a matchbox with a pencil drawing inside saying “Ruskies go home”.

But they stayed. Less than a month before the invasion, Soviet and Czech delegations met for so-called friendly talks in Čierna nad Tisou, a small Slovak town near the border with Soviet Ukraine. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev assured Czechoslovak Communist Party Secretary Alexander Dubček and President Ludvík Svoboda that their “socialism with a human face” would be allowed to continue, sealing the deal with a mafia kiss on the cheek. I remember watching the news with my parents and saying to my dad, “I think they’re lying.” He replied, “You begin to understand politics.

The Prague Spring was a bold, perhaps utopian experiment in transforming a communist regime into a democratic system. Free press, open borders, these are freedoms that no other country in the Soviet bloc could even hope to have. It was hardly surprising that this made Moscow and the hardliners of the Czechoslovak Communist Party extremely nervous.

The official pretext for the invasion was to free Czechoslovakia from the dangers of Western corruption. The Soviet soldiers were informed that we wanted them there. The Czechoslovak army is not allowed to mobilize (painful echo of the lack of military resistance when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939), but the unarmed civilian population tries to resist by demonstrating and surrounding the tanks. The crucial battle to defend the main radio station took place minutes from my house. The civilians tried to block the soldiers by burning tanks and throwing rocks.

The most effective part of the first resistance proved to be confronting the individual Soviet soldiers in Russian, explaining that their mission was based on a lie and that Czechoslovakia had not asked to be liberated.

Many became demoralized and were fired, but the occupation went as planned. It crushed the democratic freedoms and reforms gained during the promising months of the Prague Spring. He restored Czechoslovakia as a key Soviet satellite state. The international reaction was an outpouring of sympathy for occupied Czechoslovakia and a warm welcome to its great wave of refugees. We received sympathy, not support. Condemnations of Brezhnev’s act of aggression did nothing to prevent the Soviet Union from violating Czechoslovakia’s right to determine its own destiny.

My family emigrated to Germany two years after the invasion. By the time we left, I had understood the meaning of a Soviet occupation. With Russian troops came “normalization,” to use the new regime’s official term, which meant the de facto rape of the country and silencing of free speech. When Czechoslovakia defeated the undefeated Soviets in the 1969 Ice Hockey World Championship, thousands took to the streets in what was part celebration and part political protest, unstoppable on the day but eventually led to political repercussions. My father took me to experience it. Looking back, I think there was a sense of helplessness in all that euphoria.

Truly justified joy did not come until 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain. I never imagined that I would see my country liberated in my lifetime. Post-Soviet freedoms have become the norm. I struggled to explain to my children what it was like to grow up in a world that no longer existed.

Yet Mr. Putin’s demagogic justification for the attack on Ukraine as an act of liberation from non-existent threats was taken straight from Brezhnev’s playbook of 1968. When this new invasion began, I saw so many of similarities that I could not imagine a different result. The Ukrainian woman confronting the Russian soldier with words, the man blocking the tank with his own body, the displacement of families, the trauma, individual and collective.

But my feeling of reliving my own invasion disappeared as soon as it became clear that the Ukrainians were fighting back fiercely with their own army and their own armed civilian resistance. We are witnessing a heroic battle for freedom far beyond Ukraine’s borders. At a time when democracy has become an empty word in many parts of the world, Ukrainian citizens are sacrificing their own lives to preserve it. Unlike 1968, many countries and international institutions are trying to stop Russian aggression rather than appease Moscow. Whether we are doing enough remains to be seen.

I watch the horrific scenes on our television screens – peaceful Ukrainian towns turned into war zones overnight – and I think of the individual lives and stories all changed by this bloody conflict. History is what we are today.

Ms Lappin is a British novelist and journalist and author of the memoir “What Language Do I Dream In?”

As Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, Western markets resist, but Russia’s financial system takes a hit. Meanwhile, Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy complicates the West’s strategy. Images: Reuters/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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