Natalia Gorbanevskaya visits Prague to launch Czech version of her book Red Square at Noon

Natalia Gorbanevskaya, photo: Dmitry Kuzmin, CC 3.0 license

Late last month the Czech literary world finally paid its due to Natalia Gorbanevskaya a Russian poet, translator and civil rights activist who in 1968 risked her life to voice her opposition to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. More than 40 years after her brave deed her book Red Square at Noon reflecting the events was finally published in Czech.

Natalia Gorbanevskaya,  photo: Dmitry Kuzmin,  CC 3.0 license
On August 25th, just four days after Russian tanks rolled through Prague to crush the Prague Spring reform movement, eight brave Russians gathered in Moscow’s Red Square to protest against the invasion, unfurling banners that read “Hands off Czechoslovakia!” and “Shame to the Invaders!”. They were academic Konstantin Babitski, student Tatiana Bayeva, philosopher Larisa Bogoraz, poet Vadim Delone, manual worker Vladimir Dremliuga, mathematician Pavel Litvinov, critic Viktor Faynberg and Natalya Gorbanevskaya a young mother of two pushing a pram with her 3-month-old-baby and waving the Czechoslovak flag. Their protest was short-lived. The square was full of secret police in plainclothes – paradoxically in expectation of the then Czechoslovak government delegation which had been summoned to the Kremlin. They cracked down on the group and Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the only one of the dissenters who was later released because of her children. In a letter that was later smuggled to Czechoslovakia Gorbanevskaya recalls hearing the police blow their whistles and then they were upon the group knocking Faynberg’s teeth in and beating Litvinov over the head.

As a young mother Natalya Gorbanevskaya was not tried with the others but continued to agitate on their behalf and wrote an account of their trial in a book called Red Square at Noon. In it she explains what drove the group to protest against the invasion, the treatment they received at the hands of the police and the trial that followed.

Photo: Czech Television
In an interview for Czech Television last week Gorbanevskaya said she herself had been driven by a sense of shame for her country that she could not ignore.

“I was driven by a sense of shame. And I can tell you that there was never a moment in my life when I regretted my decision. For five minutes of freedom on Red Square we were ready to spend years in prison. That was a sentiment we all shared.”

Since the others were locked up in prison or psychiatric institutions Natalya Gorbanevskaya used her freedom to speak on their behalf, compiling a testimony of what happened with the help of friends and relatives who attended the trial and collected newspaper clippings. The book was finished shortly before her own arrest in December of 1969. Natalia Gorbanevskaya was sentenced, found to be mentally ill and placed in a psychiatric prison hospital—first in Moscow, then in Kazan where she was kept on drugs.

In the meantime another brave woman, a young student from Czechoslovakia, helped smuggle the manuscript to Prague. Now a journalist, Jana Klusáková recalls how she managed to do that.

“I was wearing this big maternity skirt that had large pockets and I had slipped the microfilm into the pocket of my skirt.”

Russian tanks in Prague in 1968,  photo: Dušan Neumann,  Wikimedia Commons
From Prague the book travelled undercover to Germany thanks to documentary film maker Jan Špáta.

In 1972 Natalia Gorbanevskaya was released and three years later she emigrated to Paris where she wrote poetry and articles that focussed on the human rights situation in the former Soviet Union.

In 2008 she visited Prague to attend the Prague Writers Festival and was presented with the Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression. She also became close friends with Jana Klusáková who smuggled the manuscript of her book to Prague. Last week the two embraced as old friends with Gorbanevskaya insisting on giving Klusáková her due for smuggling the book out of Russia. She signed the first copy of the Czech version of her book for her friend adding a message of love and gratitude for her courage.

The Czech version of Red Square at Noon called simply Poledne (At Noon) has come out twenty-three years after the Velvet Revolution and more than 40 years after it was published in the West. Critics say the 23 years it took to get the book published is in sharp contrast with the speed with which it was smuggled from Russia to Czechoslovakia in 1969. Asked whether she feels bad about that Natalya Gorbanevskaya told Czech Television the book had fulfilled its purpose.

Jana Klusáková,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“You know the important thing is that the book was smuggled from Russia to Czechoslovakia in 1969. Jana Klusaková smuggled it out on a micro film and then it was smuggled to the West. The same goes with regard to a letter I wrote about our protests against the Russian led invasion. We felt ashamed of what Russia did and it was very important for us to know that people in this country knew that, that not all Russians approved of what happened. The message reached Czechoslovakia then and that was of the utmost importance. Of course now there are young people who know little about those days and I am glad that they too can now read this testimony.”

Today Natalya Gorbanevskaya lives in Paris but makes frequent visits to Russia. Although she is vocal in support of freedom and human rights around the world, the situation in her homeland remains a primary concern. Most recently she has led calls for the release of the jailed activists from the Russian punk group Pussy Riot.