Jan Palach's suicide remembered 38 years on

Tuesday marks the 38th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach, the young student whose suicide transformed him into a symbol of Czechoslovak resistance following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. Jan Palach would have turned 59 this year he not taken his own life. His legacy, however, lives on.

On January 16th, 1969, a 20-year-old student from Prague's Philosophy Faculty set off for Wenceslas Square, the city's busiest thoroughfare. The country was still under occupation by Soviet troops five months after the invasion. The purge of reformers within the ranks of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party - a purge which gradually fanned out to all areas of society - had begun. But worst of all, thought Jan Palach, Czechoslovaks were becoming apathetic and demoralised. To rouse them from their apathy, he decided to burn himself to death, in public.

The late Jaroslava Moserova, doctor, translator and politician, was among the first to treat Jan Palach after he was brought to hospital. His death three days later left an indelible mark on her life, and from that moment on until her own death last year, Jaroslava Moserova tirelessly carried Palach's legacy, carefully explaining to journalists, politicians and ordinary people what he had done and why he had done it. Here she is talking to Radio Prague in 2003.

"I was one of those who did the first aid, who cleaned the burned areas. Of course I shall never forget it, nor the days that followed. We were all very unhappy. Not only over his fate, but over the fate of the nation, because he did it for the nation. And I think that was clear for everyone from the very first. I wasn't with him when he was being taken upstairs to the intensive care unit, but one of the nurses that was with him said that he kept repeating - 'Please tell everyone why I did it. Please tell everyone.' The reason why he did it was quite clear. It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralisation which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralisation. The multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises. It certainly had a huge impact on young people, students. What I regret very deeply is that so many people seem to be forgetting the atmosphere of the time and what he did."

Jan Palach's funeral became a focal point for opposition to the occupation, as Czechoslovaks mourned not only a bright and talented student but their own lost sovereignty. A month later another student, Jan Zajic, burned himself to death on the same spot, and more suicides followed.

Historians are divided as to the effect of Palach's suicide. In January 1989 thousands of demonstrators gathered on Wenceslas Square to mark the 20th anniversary of his death; the regime's brutal crackdown of the protest was a dress rehearsal for the Velvet Revolution of November 1989.

Later on Tuesday a small ceremony will be held at the Philosophy Faculty, where former teachers and fellow students will remember Jan Palach - and what he did one day in January 38 years ago.