(Jsem přesvědčen, že svět, v němž by byl slyšen hlas Guatemalců, Estonců, Vietnamců, či Dánů neméně než hlas Američanů, Číňánů či Rusů, by byl lepší a méně smutný svět.)
Český Úděl (The Czech Fate), 19 November 1968
The following is a continuation from my previous entry of Aug. 21. This time I reflect on the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the movements in Czechoslovakia that led to the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, as well as observations from my travels in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Russia.
The occupation was denounced by a Communist Party congress as the tanks were prowling. But within days, Dubcek was forced to sign “Moscow Protocols” reversing much of his reforms. While he was allowed to remain in power for several months more, he and Svoboda were eventually replaced with hard-liners.
Then followed a period of “normalization,” a return to a stricter, more old-fashioned socialism. A third of Party members were purged. Intellectuals were forced to renounce the declarations they’d signed, censorship was restored. Dubcek briefly worked a diplomatic stint in Turkey—where he would be out of the way—but soon after was expelled from the Communist Party and went to work for the Forestry Department.
Despair overwhelmed much of the populace. No one captured the sensation better than Czech folk singer Karel Kryl, who composed Bratricku, zavirej vratka (“Little Brother, Close the Gate”) the day after the invasion. Kryl soon put out an entire album in this despondent mood, which was banned shortly after appearing on store shelves in early 1969. (You can see my performance and translation, created especially for this anniversary, below.) Kryl soon emigrated to West Germany, where he began working for Radio Free Europe.
Other artists who left include film director Milos Forman, who came to the U.S. and went on to direct Hair, Amadeus, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among other hits. Author Milan Kundera moved to Paris. And the list goes on.
Of course, others stayed behind. Playwright Vaclav Havel was kicked out of the writers’ union after ’68, meaning he could no longer publish. At one point he worked in a brewery, which inspired his play Audience. He agitated for human rights, especially as a founding member of Charter 77, which called on the government to observe its obligations under the Helsinki Accords. His activities landed him in prison – and made him the country’s leading dissident.
Just two days after the tanks came rolling in, singer-actor Marta Kubisova recorded a song written for a TV series which had begun the previous year. “Song for Marta,” It was aired on the radio in a playlist that had been previously determined – with the note that it had nothing to do with events of the time. Yet it brimmed with the sentiments of the population: “May peace remain with this country. May hatred, envy, fear, grudge, and strife cease.” The song’s near-quote from educator-clergyman-philosopher John Comenius had a strong enough note of self-determination that it quickly became a form of quiet resistance against the occupation: “When your lost rule over things returns to you, people, it returns to you.”
Yet Kubisova was banned from public performance and, much like Havel, went on to relatively menial work. Kryl’s songs were copied, passed around, and sung quietly by rebellious students – who didn’t dare rebel too openly in what was now one of the East Bloc’s most repressive regimes, by many assessments topped only by Romania and Albania.
In November 1989, Havel was the center of attention at meetings held in theaters to discuss the positions dissidents were to take in ongoing negotiations with the government – until the Communist Party leadership resigned in December. Marta Kubisova sang her song from a balcony overlooking Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Dubcek returned from obscurity and joined Havel to the cheers of demonstrators, whose numbers had grown to hundreds of thousands.
By coincidence, while all this was going on, Karel Kryl returned to Czechoslovakia for his mother’s funeral. On December 3, just four days after the Party had agreed to renounce its “leading role,” he appeared onstage at the “Concert for All Decent People.” It was a surprise to the crowd, who hadn’t been aware of his arrival in country. With teary eyes they sang along, songs they’d played to themselves quietly at home for years, and swayed, many with sparklers in hand.
I saw the film version of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being while in college, and that gave me a sense of the air of freedom, of open debate, that came with the Prague Spring. But I got a much deeper experience (obviously) when I went to Czechoslovakia in autumn 1990. One of my students gave me a home-copied cassette of the Little Brother album. And soon I was having late-night discussions people who’d kept mum about politics for two decades. One friend had nearly defected while traveling to Italy with a folk-dance ensemble – but balked when reminded of the likely repercussions for family members back home.
With Dubcek back on the political scene, I had a chance to see him in Slovakia in 1992 when he was campaigning with the Socialists. I didn’t care what party, just wanted to see the humble giant of a man. But I sang in a choir that had a performance elsewhere the day he came to town. The group had shown great friendship to me, a foreigner, and I felt duty-bound to keep the date. Besides, I thought, I’ll be back soon enough, and I can see Dubcek then. The following spring, while studying in the U.S., I got the news that he’d died in a car crash.
My first encounter with Russian misconceptions of ’68 came in St. Petersburg, when I was taking language courses in summer 1995. One Saturday afternoon, I visited the nearby Peterhof palace with Czech friends. Outside the gates we met a WWII veteran wearing a jacket loaded with medals and ribbons from his service. He heard us speaking Czech and wanted to express his solidarity with fellow Slavs. “We really wanted to help you.” My friends just looked on blankly, too polite to tell him that’s not how they saw it.
That encounter lends a lot of truth to one scene in the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A Russian official tells Czech character Tereza the invasion was to protect her people. “Protect us from what?” is her incredulous response. This exchange, oddly, is not found in the novel; it was, rather, apparently inspired by Kundera’s introduction to his play Jacques and His Master (Kundera hated the movie version of Unbearable and has refused to allow any more cinematic renditions of his works), in which the author relays his experience of leaving the country. He was driving through Southern Bohemia, when his car was stopped by a Russian officer who explained to him that the Russians loved the Czechs—if only they could appreciate it!