Departure of Soviet troops officially marked for first time

Departure of Occupying Forces Day is having its debut this year. June 25 is being officially recognized as a ‘significant day’ in the Czech calendar for the first time this Saturday, marking the anniversary of the signing of the protocol that expelled Soviet troops from the territory of the former Czechoslovakia in 1991.

Russian soldiers in Czechoslovakia | Photo: Prague’s Military History Institute

On the night of 20 August 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in response to the series of liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring, introduced by Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček and his government. Although the invasion was intended to have a multilateral appearance, Soviet troops far outnumbered those from the other Warsaw Pact countries. By November 4 of the same year, the armies of the other participating countries had left Czechoslovakia, but Soviet troops, estimated at around 150,000 people, remained on Czechoslovak soil for the next 23 years. They were stationed in 33 locations around the country, with one of the most significant being Olomouc, in the east of present-day Czechia.

Historian Pavel Urbášek, archive director at Olomouc’s Palacký University and himself a native of the Olomouc region, says that Olomouc has a history as a garrison town and explains its strategic significance as a military base:

Departure of Soviet troops from Frenštát,  February 26,  1990 | Photo: Muzeum Novojičínska

“There were a lot of military facilities in Olomouc, so it became an important garrison town during the First Republic and also in 1945. Olomouc had strategic importance for the Soviet troops because it was roughly in the middle of Czechoslovakia in terms of its 1968 borders, and it was an important railway hub. Also, in 1949, a military training ground for the Czechoslovak army was established in Libavá, a few kilometres away, and that was probably another important reason for the stationing of Soviet troops there.”

Mr. Urbášek, who was nine years old at the time of the invasion and a young man in the years that followed, is also able to recall the period when Soviet troops were stationed in and around Olomouc.

Pavel Urbášek | Photo: Aleš Spurný,  Czech Radio

“I would characterize the relationship between the residents of Olomouc and the Soviet soldiers as contemptuous – the vast majority of people here saw the Soviets as occupiers. On the other hand, I think we all realized that for the people here, including the officers and family members, it probably wasn’t easy for them, leaving their homes to move to a foreign country where the locals resent them.”

Urbášek says that the people of Olomouc learned to coexist with the Soviet soldiers to some extent, and that during the 1980s there was quite a large trade between them.

Soviet officers offered fuel from military supplies for sale, and electrical appliances such as colour televisions. But the coexistence was not always peaceful. There were also problems. The most serious incident of all occurred in 1981, when a soldier ran down and beat a mother with small children with a hammer in the nearby village of Duchotín.

According to the news site České noviny, the expulsion of Soviet troops was the first significant post-Velvet Revolution success of Czechoslovak foreign policy. By mid-1991, a total of 73,500 Soviet soldiers and 39,000 of their family members had left Czechoslovakia. The last person to leave was commander of the Central Group of Soviet Forces Eduard Vorobyov on June 27.

Eduard Vorobyov  (left) | Photo: Military History Institute

Although the date of 25 June was chosen because it was the same date three decades ago that the protocol expelling Soviet troops was signed, the day is intended to commemorate not only the departure of Soviet troops, but the end of all previous military occupations of Czech territory.

The proposal to mark Departure of Occupying Forces Day was put forward by Czech legislators last year, which saw the 30th anniversary of the departure of Soviet troops, and the official amendment to the statute on public holidays was signed into law this year by President Miloš Zeman. With the adoption of the amendment, the number of significant days in the calendar now numbers 17. Unlike public holidays, officially recognized ‘significant days’ do not mean a day off work, although since this year the anniversary falls on a Saturday, it is, de facto, a free day anyway.