Photographer of Soviet-led invasion remembers events 40 years on

Photo: Libor Hajský

It was 40 years ago this Thursday that Warsaw-Pact troops invaded the former Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the hope and reform of the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. All this week, Radio Prague will be commemorating the invasion by broadcasting the testimonies of those who were there. For today’s programme, Rosie Johnston spoke to Libor Hajský, a junior photographer at the Czech Press Agency on August 21, 1968 – the day that Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.

Libor Hajský was 20 years old when the Warsaw-Pact troops invaded the Czechoslovak capital in the early hours of August 21:

“It was a shock for every Czech, because up until the last minute, we just had no idea. Though it is true that in the Czech Press Agency we had an inkling of what might happen, because we knew that Russian soldiers had been doing drill in the Czech forests since June. Some West German photographers had shown us images of the troops. But mere mortals had no clue that these soldiers had come to train and never left afterwards. But even then, for us, for everyone, August 21 was an absurd shock.”

As a press photographer, what was his job like that day?

“I started work at 5 in the morning. I lived five minutes away from the Central Committee of the Communist Party where overnight they had arrested Dubček, and so I took my camera and ran over there as soon as it was light. Around 8 in the morning it started to get a bit dangerous, soldiers started shooting at civilians, and I think two people died. The action moved towards Wenceslas Square, and the Czech Radio building, as tradition dictates. So by late morning, I was taking photos outside the radio building.”

And what did he see, not necessarily through his camera lens?

“Well personally, I was just lucky to stay alive, because perhaps two metres away from me stood a couple of people. I stepped away and a truck crashed into them, someone at the top of the hill had released the truck’s brakes. I took a photo of an overturned tram which was being used as a barricade, and the troops were shooting from behind this tram and right beside me, three people were shot dead. It was like a war zone, it really was.”

In Britain and America at least, some of the best known images of the invasion were taken by fellow photographer Josef Koudelka. In Libor Hajský’s view, do these famous images really reflect what happened that day?

“Josef Koudelka was ten years older than me, and was already a very established professional photographer. I was just a novice, while he was a mature professional – which shows in his photos. He had a really good camera at that time and the other thing was that he had no fear. I saw him sticking his head into tanks to take photos, he had no sense of self preservation.”

There are several different photo exhibitions running in Prague at the moment to commemorate the Soviet-led invasion. Libor Hajský’s photos have been on display at the J. Sudek gallery until recently, while Josef Koudelka’s photos of the occupation are currently being exhibited at Prague’s Old Town Hall until September 10.