Jan Urban: I returned to Czechoslovakia a day before the 1968 invasion

Jan Urban, photo: Dominik Jůn

This August 21 marks the 49th anniversary of the Russian-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Wenceslas Square in Prague has been a pivotal location throughout Czech history, and that certainly applies to 1968, when Soviet tanks symbolically “conquered” Czechoslovakia by taking over this thoroughfare. Jan Urban is a journalist, teacher and author. He was just seventeen years old at the time of the invasion. He joined me at the bottom of Wenceslas Square to think back on those turbulent and painful days that marked the end of the Prague Spring.

Jan Urban, photo: Dominik Jůn
Jan, you have a particular story to tell when it comes to the events of August 21, 1968. You were just seventeen at the time...


Your father was a communist functionary in the reform-era before the invasion. Like many people at the time, you were able to travel freely to the West – a new freedom in the Alexander Dubček era. So you visited England, and returned to Czechoslovakia...

“The night before...”

And that was a coincidence, right?

“It was a coincidence. It was the last British European Airways (BEA) flight. Very tired, I woke up early in the morning the next day with tanks in front of our house. And I just wondered what the hell was going on. Then a friend called and said it was an occupation. So I went into the centre of Prague. There was no traffic. All the bridges were blocked by Soviet armed personnel carriers and tanks. I reached Wenceslas Square and saw armed personnel carriers with large machine guns that were firing at the facade of the National Museum. And then I went to a scuffle in front of the Czechoslovak Radio building nearby, where there were casualties and it was pretty emotional...”

That was an incident at the Czech Radio building, which is just behind the Museum building at the top of Wenceslas Square. And several people were killed there. I’ve heard stories that both sides didn’t really know what they were doing. The Warsaw Pact soldiers – Ukrainians and so on – who didn’t even know where they were, whom they were invading, or what was supposed to be happening. And Czechs had no idea either. What did people at the time think was going on?

“People just reacted to events. Because it was so surreal and irrational and Kafka-esque. Talking to those young kids in uniforms, you could see they were totally lost. They were told that West Germany and NATO were (preparing to instigate a revolution and prepare an invasion) and so they believed they were defending the country. The soldiers were so surprised that we were not welcoming to them.”

They were reacting to “fake news”?

August 1968, Prague, photo: Czech Television
“Yes. In today’s language. Definitely. And Czechs and Slovaks were just totally lost, because until then nobody publicly expressed that anything like this could be possible. The leaders of the country, the communist party, were at the peak of their popularity at the time. But they were nowhere to be seen or heard. They were detained by the Soviets. So this was a lost country without leadership, without any political system or economic system. I remember I spent two or three critical days just handing out potatoes because there was a panic that there would be a food shortage. Brave farmers from outside of Prague had come in using narrow backstreets to get to the centre of Prague. And we helped to hand out food. Whatever people wanted, they would get, say five kilograms. It was a beautiful two, three, five days of absolute solidarity.”

What was the degree of resistance? How many people just stayed indoors? How many people were actively coming out onto the streets? And how much violent resistance did you see?

“There were only very, very few incidents of violence, mostly provoked by Soviet soldiers. There were a few tanks burned – two, I think in front of the Czech Radio building. But otherwise people were telling each other ‘no violence’ and that we had to conduct peaceful, Gandhi-style resistance.”

As opposed to the violent Soviet invasion which quashed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – you would have remembered that, right?

“Definitely. And exactly because somewhere in the back of our minds we had that memory of what could happen. So the feeling was that the nation and its people are absolutely united – and this may seem ironic today – but united behind the Czechoslovak communist party. Little did we know [laughs]...”

Because at the time it seemed to be a pro-reform movement...

August 1968, Prague, photo: Czech Television
“Absolutely. They had abolished censorship, and there was an open debate about a multi-party system. So we felt free and we felt liberated from fear. And occupation was the last thing we could possible imagine.”

What was the national makeup of the invading soldiers? What percentage came from Russia, Ukraine, Poland etc.?

“There were only Soviets here in Prague. No-one else.”

So there weren’t any Polish or East German troops, for example? (Officially, the invasion was conducted by a Warsaw Pact alliance of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, with some participation by East Germany)

“No, no. They were left to take the outskirts of the country. They didn’t even come close to Prague. But, in terms of who they were, there were a great many Central Asian faces, which were not really Russian. But in terms of officers, definitely all of them were Russian.”

What was the aim of the invasion? It was a show of force, and then the government was supposed to abandon its reforms – what was the point?

“We learned the hard way that the Soviets knew our situation better than we did. They knew that they would have very strong support from within the traditionalist, pro-Stalinist wing of the communist party. And what we thought was a pro-democratic wing in the communist party was actually just an aberration. It was an exception to the rule. And very quickly – more with brutal persuasion than brutal violence – were able to create a situation which remains a great un-described shame to this day. Everything that came after the occupation was done via our hands – the Czechs and Slovaks.”

August 1968, Prague, photo: Engramma.it, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Meaning the normalisation era...

“Fifteen percent of the adult population were members of the communist party. 1.5 million people. And one-third of them were expelled, and also kicked-out from their jobs. It is said that somewhere around 900,000 people lost their jobs.”

Including your father, who was the Czechoslovak Ambassador to Finland, who was offered chance to collaborate with the new regime, but refused.

Both my parents... About 85 percent of these had at least a high school education. In a sense, after all the purges from the 1950s, after all that emigration – 400,000 people – Czechs and Slovaks as nations lost their elite once again. And it was Czechs and Slovaks who stood silently watching events unfold, waiting for the next twenty years until 1989.”

You mention the “waiting silently” part – it is perhaps an uncomfortable area to explore regarding the degree of Czech resistance in the face of occupation. In 1968, could or should there have been a Hungarian-style armed resistance?

“I don’t think that would have helped. Because they were prepared for that. You don’t send more than 400,000 troops to a small country like Czechoslovakia without being ready. (Armed resistance) would have been futile. But what I would have hoped for was peaceful non-cooperation. The way the Norwegians were able to resist the Nazis, supporting their teachers, creating home-schools, and really just creating a parallel society. But, no. We just bowed and an absolute majority just marched along repeatedly proving their loyalty by taking part in communist manifestations, and meetings, and later on attacking the dissident movement and supporting political trials and so on.”

Photo exhibition at Wenceslas Square, photo: Klára Stejskalová
In 1968, you had just come back from England, where you’d been living a carefree teenage life in the Swinging Sixties, listening the Beatles and so on. Then you are here seeing tanks on the streets. And after that you again left briefly form the West, but ultimately returned. A lot of people left and didn’t come back. Was it a difficult decision for you to decide to stay?

“Not really, because all of our family was outside the country at the time in Finland. And we were offered the chance to emigrate. I had a full Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) stipend on the table. But we decided that this was the time to be at home. Little did we know what was to follow. But I don’t regret it. I do regret the death of my father, because they really killed him in a way (Zdeněk Urban died in 1988, having been reduced to working as a hotel receptionist).”

Nine years later, you signed the Charter 77 document. I read that you mentioned you did this specifically because of your father – that because he had taken a stand, you felt compelled to do the same. It must have been a scary thing to sign such a manifesto, because you would know that your life would definitely change as a result...

“Yes, but at the same time it was liberating. Because the moment you decide not to hide anymore – sure, you become a target, but on the other hand it means freedom. You can look everybody in the eye. And you can say what you want. It was tough, but I am glad I did it.”

We are standing in Můstek at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. Photographic panels have been put up documenting some of the destruction of the 1968 invasion. There is an armoured tank, which has been placed on display here. Not far from us is a big screen playing period newsreels from the time. There is also going to be a concert here on August 21. So Jan, why is Wenceslas Square such a key location? Because the government isn’t here. The president isn’t here. They are both up on the other side of the river...

“It is a proverbial place where everything happens. The worst and the best moments of our modern history happened here. It is the biggest open place in Prague, and it is the real centre of the centre, so to speak. The biggest demonstrations of 1989 or 1968 happened here. Pro-Nazi loyalty demonstrations in the 1940s (when the country was occupied) were held here. The birth of the Republic was announced here in 1918.”

National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square, photo: © City of Prague
And when the tanks were here in 1968, was that a symbolic victory for the invaders? Being here meant they had won. Or did they then continue up to Prague Castle?

“Yes, but they were not allowed in. The entrances to the castle were blocked by the Czechoslovak army. I remember the columns of armed vehicles here in the square. And when the armed personnel carriers came with a clear propaganda task to smash the facade of the Museum building at the top of the square, which is visible from a great portion of Prague. I remember seeing the (Russian) officers smiling. And that really made me angry.”

Because they felt like they had done a good job...