Layers of an anniversary
This past week marked the 38th anniversary of a key event in 20th century Czech & Slovak history: the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. I'm too young to have witnessed the event, but still it's part of my consciousness and a milestone that changed the lives of many people I know.
They are the ones whose names are attached to place and cause, though there are many others who deserve to be remembered too. From time-to-time, when I pass by Prague's Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the bottom of Petrin Hill in Mala Strana, there are flowers. That was the case on Monday evening too—on the day of the anniversary of 21 August 1968. I placed a bouquet there as well. As I sat on a bench beside the memorial, several people stopped to read the numbers etched at the base of the 2002 sculpture created by Olbram Zoubek: 240 people were killed by the communist authorities between 1948 and 1989, over 26 000 were imprisoned, and another 200 000 were arrested and interrogated on suspicion of 'crimes' against the state. And that was just in Czechoslovakia.
So I sat there and thought about what happened in this place, in the country I write about, a place with so much living history. My thoughts were interrupted by a middle-aged couple walking their dog; they are complete strangers to me, but what they said struck a chord. Their conversation included some general remarks about Olbram Zoubek's talents as a sculptor, but then the man was keen to dismiss the memorial because, as he said, "today it serves to honour mainly those who suffered after 1968, but were themselves once enthusiastic young communists." He was referring to a large portion of the 1970s and 1980s Czech and Slovak dissident community. Of course the man was partly right, but his remarks were also a distorted simplification.
Only I doubt I succeeded in convincing the man with the dog. He told me about the horrors his own family suffered in the 1950s, and these were left overshadowed on the anniversary of 1968.