Lithuanians share their memories and regrets from the 1968 Soviet invasion

photo: Institute of Contemporary History

The international Mene Tekel project against totalitarianism began its fifth year on Monday. One of the focuses this year is on the Baltic state of Lithuania and the memories of Lithuanians who served in the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Christian Falvey has this week’s Czech History.

August 1968
Lithuanian Valentinas Mité is a reporter for Radio Free Europe, a long time resident of the Czech Republic, and indeed a patriot of two countries – in fact he says he would die for both. Such is the kind of passion that he brings to a topic that is not on the tip of many people’s tongues, namely that of Czech – Lithuanian relations.

“There’s a lot of information in Lithuania about the Czech Republic, but people know very little about Lithuania here, in the Czech Republic. We are from the same region, former communist countries, we have a lot in common. We should be more united, because we understand one another much better than the French or the Germans understand us. I want these two nations, which had very tragic histories, to come closer. I hope this book might help in a way.”

It is hard to foresee any eventuality in today’s world in which Mr Mité would have to die for either his real or adopted homeland, but then, it is not so much today’s world he has been thinking about lately. Since the spring of last year he has been working on “Okupanti táhněte domů” (Invaders Go Home), a Czech translation of memories and diary entries of eleven Lithuanian soldiers who, themselves from an occupied country, assisted in invading Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. The book was hailed in a forward by both countries’ foreign ministers, Andronius Ažubalis and Karel Schwarzenberg, and was introduced by the Lithuanian ambassador to Prague, Aurimas Taurantas, who told me of its significance as he sees it.

Aurimas Taurantas,  photo: Rimantas Lazdynas,  CC 3.0 license
“These were common people, and their memoirs, recorded some 25 years after the events, present their personal views. Put into one book, they show the absurdity and tragedy of a situation where people from another nation that was also invaded and occupied by the Soviet regime were forced to become invaders of another freedom-loving country. So I suppose it will be interesting for Czech readers to hear their point of view, how they felt, how they saw the situation here in then-Czechoslovakia and how they felt as invaders, though against their will.”

It is well known that many if not most of the Warsaw Pact soldiers who descended on Czechoslovakia in the early hours of August 21, 1968, were deceived over the reasons why they were there, confused about what they were doing and in many cases did not even know where they were. There are still Czechs today who would not have the least sympathy for them even in those circumstances. The eleven soldiers in the book though want Czechs to know that, for what it’s worth, the ordeal was dire for them as well.

Petras Algis Mikša, for one, was an anti-air artillery sergeant based in Děčín during the occupation. He was on hand at the book’s presentation and told Radio Prague through a translator how his time in Czechoslovakia had changed him.

“I can say that being a soldier in the invasion made a huge impression on me, in seeing the tremendous lie. I, like everyone else, experienced Czechs explaining to us that they don’t need us here and asking us to go home. Their cultivation and the great patience they had in explaining this to us left a great impression on us, and showed us what good people they were.”

There are a number of recurring themes in the memories of the Lithuanian soldiers, for example the numerous mentions of the higher standard of living and sophistication of 1968 Czechoslovakia. But foremost among them is the mood of the occupied Czechoslovaks. Each of them recalls the passive resistance they encountered, like in this extract by Juozas Melekis, a master auto mechanic who had been conscripted into the army:

“The first thing we noticed in Czechoslovakia were the traffic signs, most of which had been turned to point back to where we had come from. Anti-Soviet slogans were painted on to the roads and houses in towns and villages, like “Lenin, wake up, Brezhnev’s gone mad,” and “Your father was a liberator. You are an invader.” At the crossroads we would read “Moscow: 2000km”. Every morning at 9 o’clock sirens would wail and cars would honk in mourning. The national flags were tied up in black ribbon.”

Another theme that runs through all of the testimonies is the gravity of the situation, with some of the soldiers earnestly expecting World War Three, thinking they had been invited by the Czechoslovak government to save the country from a Western-led counterrevolution. Motor specialist Zenonas Juškelis was 29 years old when he was sent to Czechoslovakia with an anti-air artillery battalion to „protect socialism“.

“One of the most solid arguments justifying the occupation was the unfortunate ambitions of the imperialists. The fact that NATO divisions had already converged at the Czechoslovak and Western German borders and that the borders had been breached was being constantly drummed into our heads. Eventually, we too crossed that border: several metres of fencing with barbed wire, and functioning signal lights and electronics. But the most convincing evidence that we had not, in fact, been invited, came from the Czechoslovaks themselves. Not a single person came to pat you on the shoulder and say ‚good work!‘, only open dissent, and children and elderly in the streets with raised fists.“

Many of the testimonies in “Invaders Go Home” are those of lowly technicians, though some officers also give their accounts of how they felt. Romanas Stasys Kareiva was leading a paratrooper unit on August 21 towards Prague Castle when he heard the sounds of his colleagues blowing up Czech machinery and believed he was actually in a combat zone. Some of his unit were throwing grenades at anything that came into their path. His story is republished from his own book “Everyone Bears a Cross“.

“Aside from the anxiety, a growing feeling of shame was starting to seep in. I couldn’t understand why these normal automobiles had to be destroyed. As if with a stranger’s voice, I screamed for the soldiers to fall in; they never fulfilled a command so willingly. We arrived at our destination, the nearby seat of the government. My target was the boiler room. I opened the door and saw a lightly-dressed boiler man, and asked him if he was the only one in there. His hands were shaking, and in something between Czech and Russian he answered that there was one more person there. That person was laying on a bunk, as if nothing were happening; he simply lifted his head and said ‘Who the hell sent you here? You’re not welcome, and you can all go to the devil.

“I didn’t know what to say to the man. I sat down next to him and tried to quietly gather my thoughts. Then I explained to him that his country had asked for help, that his leaders were trying to lead the country astray by condemning the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The boiler man spat in my face, completely unafraid. He jumped up and screamed: “Get out of here, invaders! Go home!” And I, although brave, young and armed to the teeth, suddenly had nothing to say.”

Petras Mikša says it is hard to say how many of the Baltic troops truly supported the occupation, but he felt it was very few, especially in light of the feelings they had over their own country being “occupied”. With that kind of sentiment rife among the Lithuanian troops, how did their commanders know they could rely on them?

Petras Mikša: “The answer to that question is that from the year 1970 onwards they wouldn’t give the Lithuanian troops permission to serve anywhere abroad, because they didn’t trust them.”

Aurimas Taurantas: “In many cases they didn’t trust Lithuanians, and of course among the commanders – the real instigators of the whole affair – there were no Lithuanians; Lithuanians were only forced to be soldiers in this huge Soviet military machine.”

As Valentinas Mité told us in the beginning, people in the Czech Republic tend not to know a lot about Lithuania despite its kindred history. You had the Munich Betrayal, he says, which turned the country over to the Nazis, we had the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, whereby Lithuania was annexed by Russia in 1940. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence in early 1990, and no sooner did it do so than many a former soldier began writing down his memories and regrets, though few of those made it to Czechoslovakia, until now. Valentinas Mité again:

August 1968 in Prague
“It was a project I wanted to implement for one single, somewhat very personal reason: I live in Prague, I work for Radio Free Europe, and I would like to do something more than go to cafes and walk through the streets of Prague. I wanted to do something for Czech culture. This book is not only memoirs. With this book, I wanted to say ‘we are sorry’. Though we were your occupiers, we are really sorry.”