Czechs and Slovaks remember 37th anniversary of Soviet-led invasion

August 1968

Sunday marks the 37th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, an event which is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it, but almost ancient history for the younger generation of Czechs and Slovaks. They must rely on their parents and grandparents' memories of August 1968, when Russian tanks rumbled through the towns and villages of Czechoslovakia to put down Dubcek's "socialism with a human face". We look back at the events of 37 years ago.

August 1968
August 21st, 1968 is a date which will live in infamy for those who remember the waves of Russian planes flying overhead and the sinister rumble of tank tracks over cobbled streets. This year, as every year, Czechs and Slovaks will gather for solemn ceremonies to remember the invasion. In Prague the ceremonies will centre around this very building - the headquarters of what used to be Czechoslovak Radio.

The building witnessed fierce clashes as Russian soldiers battled with ordinary citizens to shut down broadcasts condemning the invasion. Former Czechoslovak foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier was a radio journalist in August 1968.

"We broadcasted, and of course, lots of contacts were cut, so we couldn't listen to the foreign news. Mainly we just went to the windows and reported directly what's happening here. It was incredible, they were shooting in the windows here and so...But what was important, we then left the building and we were able to keep the radio on the air for the whole week from different places in Prague."

Jiri Dienstbier
Jiri Dienstbier, Czechoslovak foreign minister in the early 1990s. Someone else with clear memories of August 68 is Jaroslava Moserova, a member of the Czech Senate.

"I was in Prague, and we live on a hill, on the sixth floor, with a good view of the whole city. I remember the planes coming in, just over our roof. I remember what somehow felt was very frightening, that suddenly the hum of the city - which one doesn't normally register - stopped. Suddenly it was silent. One heard only the shots, and saw the shots, but the silence was frightening. Then of course the next day I went to work because it was obvious that there would be wounded here, by the broadcasting station, and our hospital is just around the corner. So we were getting the wounded, being the nearest hospital to the radio building. I remember how impressed I was how everyone ignored the Soviet tanks. The soldiers were shooting and people simply walked along, they didn't take shelter, they ignored them. It was marvellous."

Senator Jaroslava Moserova, remembering the battle for Czechoslovak Radio, in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded. The Soviet invasion, which ushered in two decades of hardline rule known as "normalisation", was also a life-changing event for foreign correspondents in Czechoslovakia. Among them was the late Alan Levy, who was expelled after the invasion but settled in Prague after the fall of Communism.

"I got dressed and went out with my sixteen year-old niece who was staying with us and we didn't see any Russians for a while until in Pohorelec a dozen tanks rolled down the ramp out of Strahov. They were lost. They couldn't find the Castle. They had a tourist map and nothing else. And, they started pointing guns at the crowd and nobody would tell them. When your life almost ends, when a man with his finger on the trigger points it at you is getting ready to shoot - in my case he was ready to shoot at a taxi he thought might be alerting the troops - you're on borrowed time."

Within hours the news began to filter around the world. On August 22, 1968, during a Democratic Party hearing on Vietnam, Representative Hale Boggs was handed a wire report announcing that Soviet troops had invaded Czechoslovakia.

August 1968
"We have here a bulletin which has just been handed to me by the press from Czechoslovakia, saying that Radio Prague announced Wednesday that Soviet troops have crossed Czechoslovak borders. The broadcast asked Czechoslovak citizens not to take any action against them. The broadcast came at 2am over the direct network of Radio Prague."

Over the days that followed newspapers across the globe carried detailed reports of the invasion, as resistance to the Soviet occupiers was gradually crushed. The Prague Spring was over. Twenty years of political and cultural winter had begun.