The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia through the eyes of Soviet troops

La Place Venceslas

August 21 marks the anniversary of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and other communist countries. The occupation crushed an attempt to reform the communist regime, and drove the country into two decades of hard-line rule. What that all meant to the people of Czechoslovakia has been looked at many times. In our special programme today, we look at August 1968 from another perspective: that of the occupiers.

The armies of the Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria crossed Czechoslovakia’s borders just before midnight on August 20, and by the next morning, the streets of all major cities were full of invading troops – and Czechs and Slovaks arguing with them about what on earth they were doing here.

But the debates in the street did not lead anywhere. Soviet soldiers had been told that they were going to save Czechoslovakia from an impeding counter-revolution. If the Soviet Union and other communist countries did not intervene, the enemies of socialism were going to let NATO forces occupy the country instead.

One of the soldiers was V. A. Shmelev, a paratrooper with the 7th Airborne Division that occupied Prague. He recalled years later the atmosphere on the Prague-bound plane during the invasion.

“We were flying; we kept silent and were immersed in our thoughts… I thought of Moscow, of my parents, my girlfriend. Then someone sighed: “And mom thinks that I’m on holiday!” The joke fell flat. Everybody was thinking about one thing: what awaits us in Prague?

“What awaited us after landing seemed misty, but our imaginations were working overtime: we expected some pitiful group of counter-revolutionaries that we would quickly defeat … Then the delight among Czechs and Slovaks…flowers flying under the tracks of our tanks, just like in 1945… And then back home as victors!”

The soldiers’ ideas of how they would be received were very different from what really happened. Once Czechs and Slovaks realized what was going on, they tried to persuade the troops that‘brotherly aid’ was neither needed nor welcome, as Soviet paratrooper Shmelev wrote in his memoirs.

“There were tanks and other military vehicles all over as we drove to the centre of Prague. And then suddenly, all the sirens from the factories began to sound, like in films about the October Revolution.

“The faces of the people in the streets of Prague hardened, and their curiosity took another course.

‘Why’re you here?’ they asked, examining our equipment and glancing into the muzzles.

‘To defeat the counterrevolution’, members of the invasion force answered.

‘But you see: we live happily here and there is no counterrevolution.’

‘Well yes’, we say, ‘but you deviated from socialism, and don’t see that yourselves’.

‘You say we deviated? We have the same socialism as in your country, and we will deal with our problems ourselves.

“How could you? Why are we here then?’

‘Go home. We can deal with things ourselves.’”

Another Red Army soldier who took part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia was Gennady Gladyshev, who was a member of a tank crew which rolled across the border in eastern Slovakia.

“As soon as we crossed the border, and then everywhere our column drove, we were accompanied by Romany children. They ran onto the roadway without fear of falling under the tracks of our tanks, and made ‘give us cigarettes’ gestures! We threw them our cigarettes and the children deftly threw apples into the hatches of our tanks. This was a unique kind of military road barter.”

Later, the unit arrived at the town Michalovce, where, just as very much everywhere else, people flocked to the troops and demanded an explanation.

“On the outskirts of the town, a crowd of people stopped our battalion. Tanks pulled over by the curb, and the battalion commander ordered to wait for further orders. Meanwhile, the people approached us and began talking to us:

‘Why did you come here?’

‘To help you out in difficult times!’

‘We’re good without you. Go home!’

‘Don’t you know about an attempt at a counter-revolutionary coup? Do you want to lose your freedom?’

Historian Daniel Povolný
‘Svoboda and Dubček – that’s our freedom! But you - occupiers, you’re repeating Munich! You gave to us freedom in 1945, and now you are taking it away!’”

Historian Daniel Povolný works at the Military History Institute in Prague. He has been studying memoirs of veterans who took part in the invasion, and says soldiers from all countries that participated in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia had been psychologically and ideologically trained before they went into action.

“There is no study that would analyze the memoirs of Soviet soldiers who took part in the invasion. They are mostly short accounts of what was happening, and it’s difficult to arrive at some general conclusions. Some of the soldiers understood that the invasion was not the right thing to do but still agreed with the reason – that there was an impending world war and that Czechoslovakia was going to leave the Eastern Bloc, which would reverse the balance of power. So they still thought they came to help, but they did so in a wrong way.”

Historian Daniel Povolný says most veterans refused then and refuse to this day to acknowledge that occupying an allied country was wrong.

“There are very few veterans who truly condemned the Soviet ideology. There are many more former soldiers who claim they were right in doing what they did and that they did save socialism in Czechoslovakia. It’s also possibly more an issue of finding the courage to publish such opinions, and it’s also possible that a more detailed research would lead to different conclusions, but these are the conclusions based on what we know.”

An example of this kind of approach can be found in the memoirs of Gennady Gladyshev who published his story in 2008.

“Under the conditions of the ‘Cold War’, the stability between the two major powers could only be preserved if the political systems were stable. The Soviet government certainly expected negative public reaction to the invasion, both in Czechoslovakia itself and in the entire world.

“But the ideology of internationalism did not allow another interpretation of the ‘mutual aid’ among communist countries. Any other solution could lead to the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, and this would hardly happen without military action by nuclear powers.”

But others, such as the commander of the Soviet 7th Airborne Division, General Lev Nikolayevich Gorelov, believed the use of force was unnecessary.

“From a purely human point of view, I will say that it was possible to manage without the operation. It seems to me that it wasn’t necessary to bring the troops in; I believe it was possible to reach an agreement. You see, we want to solve everything by force. Was it not possible to settle things in Chechnya peacefully?

“I stayed in Czechoslovakia for almost three months … We met with them all, officers, generals. And I do not think that they agreed with the invasion. I carried out my orders and did everything to prevent losses. But as to whether we should have come in…I think we shouldn’t have. It was possible to deal with the situation peacefully.”

According to a Czech urban legend, the troops which invaded Czechoslovakia in the first wave had to be later replaced by reserves because they found out that no counter-revolution was taking place. Legend has it that the fresh troops were then told that the counterrevolution had been successfully stifled. But Daniel Povolný says no relevant information can confirm this.

“This cannot be confirmed because we do not have enough information. What we do know is that the Soviet army soon found out that they could not effectively control the entire Czechoslovak territory and they brought in reinforcements. At the same time, some of the troops were replaced so the soldiers could rest after the stressful moments of the invasion.

“They also closely monitored the morale and the psychological state of the troops, and we cannot exclude that they realized that some of the soldiers were no longer immune to what the people in the streets were telling them and so they might have been replaced for this reason as well.”

The invasion was deemed a success by the Soviet military command. Although Soviet generals soon thought it was necessary to bring in reinforcements, the military success of ‘Operation Danube’ was beyond doubt. The Czechoslovak army put up no resistance, and neither did any large groups of civilians. Some 100 Czech and Slovak civilians were killed by the invasion forces between August 21 and the end of 1968. During the same period, 12 Soviet troops were allegedly killed in action. Daniel Povolný again.

“According to unofficial Russian figures, Czechoslovak citizens allegedly caused the deaths of 12 Soviet soldiers. But I have looked into the matter in detail and I cannot say that any Soviet soldier was murdered beyond doubt. The Soviet authorities published a list of names of soldiers who died here but they do not say anything about the cause of death.

“Another thing is that in these cases, the Czechoslovak government demanded investigation but the Soviets refused to cooperate, did not provide any evidence so these are pure allegations.”

When I asked Daniel Povolný from Prague’s Military History Institute about the conclusions the Soviet leadership made from the successful invasion, he points out once again that the archives in Moscow are still closed, and will be for at least eight years to come.

“The Soviet leadership of course did come to some conclusions resulting from the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but there again, we have very little information as to what they were. The only thing we know is that some Soviet generals realized the negative reaction of the local population, and realized the necessity to be prepared for operating in a hostile environment. They later opposed the invasion of Afghanistan where they knew the situation would be much worse.”

By coincidence, one of them was general Gorelov, who later became the head of the Soviet military intelligence service, and served as the chief military advisor to the Afghan government. But the Soviet leaders would not listen – just like soldiers in the streets of Prague in August 1968.