“Planes were landing every 50 seconds”: The Finnish friends who got caught up in the 1968 invasion

Pentti Avomaa and Markku Pekonen in Prague on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the invasion, photo: Ian Willoughby

Finns Pentti Avomaa and Markku Pekonen were students when they visited Prague in August 1968, keen to learn about Communist Czechoslovakia’s liberal reforms at first hand. However, soon after their arrival they found themselves caught up in a Warsaw Pact military operation to crush the Prague Spring. Now in their early 70s, the pair have come back to Prague to take part in events marking the invasion’s 50th anniversary.

Pentti Avomaa and Markku Pekonen in Prague on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the invasion, photo: Ian Willoughby

Avomaa: “We came, I remember, about three days before the invasion.

“The situation here was rather interesting. After work people gathered and talked and talked about what the future of Czechoslovakia would be, and what kind of socialism, or communism, they wanted.”

“They weren’t fighting, but talking [laughs].”

Was there a sense of optimism, or did you feel that people were afraid?

Pekonen:“I think there was more a feeling of optimism.”

Avomaa:“We were a little bit afraid that something might happen, I think.

“Because in the spring there had been some military exercises and they continued and continued – they didn’t stop.”

Where were you when you found out that Czechoslovakia had been invaded?

Avomaa:“At about 2 o’clock in the morning we came to a night club at Strahov.

Pentti Avomaa  received this pin from Czechoslovaks protesting the invasion in 1968, photo: Ian Willoughby
Avomaa: “We came, I remember, about three days before the invasion.

“The music stopped and at first I was a little bit angry. I was going, You should be open – why have you stopped [laughs]?

“Somebody came to explain to us, in English, that Russian troops had come.

“Of course we at first thought that it wasn’t true. But they took us outside this night club and we saw heavy airplanes landing; after every 50 seconds another plane came.

“Then we understood it was true, that the invasion had begun.”

What was your reaction to this incredible news?

Pekonen:“At least for me, the first feeling was that this sounds very improbable, that it was a huge mistake that will now happen.

“I felt that now the Russians wished to turn the wheel of history backwards.”

What kind of things did you see here on the street of Prague? I guess you would have seen crowds and tanks.

Avomaa:“We took a taxi from Strahov in the early morning and drove to the centre of the city.

“We thought that there could be some fighting. More and more people knew what was happening.

“We came to the centre and more and more people were gathering.

Foto: CIA, Flickr, Public Domain
“Somebody was carrying a Czechoslovak flag. A demonstration began and we marched to the headquarters of the Communist Party and there was saw the first Soviet tanks and troops.”

Did you see actual violence?

Pekonen:“Yes, we did. The major thing was actually the events at the Radio building.

“The Czechs wished to keep control of the media, I think, and there were a lot of people in the Radio building who refused to come out.

“It was at the top of Wenceslas Square, very near there. The Russians were using loudspeakers and saying, Come out – and if you don’t we will use military violence.

“Which in the end they did. They started shooting and just watched when whole buildings started to go on fire and people were coming out.”

Avomaa:“The first violence was when this group of demonstrators arrived in front of the Communist Party.

“The soldiers began to shoot but upward, not toward people, and then we also had to run.”

How long did you stay in Prague? When did you actually leave?

Pekonen: “I don’t remember exactly, but it was around two or three days later.

“The authorities announced that all foreigners needed to be evacuated.

“They had arranged train transport for all these foreigners, and there were thousands of them.

“There were a lot of Americans, of course Germans, and Nordic students like us.

“We chose the train that went to Nuremberg, Germany and continued from there back home. The other train went to Paris, I remember.”

Today, how do you look back at that short period in your lives?

Pekonen: “We certainly think it was a quite unique experience.

“In a way we were grateful to be here, but of course they were extremely tragic events and had lots of repercussions in the whole of Europe.”

Avomaa:“Moscow said in those days that they had to take these troops to Czechoslovakia to save socialism.

“But it is a paradox – I think what happened here destroyed socialism.”

What does it mean to you guys to be back here today, 50 years later?

Avomaa:“Just today we walked near the statue of St. Václav and remembered these days.”

Pekonen: “We’ve had a life of quite many upheavals and today we feel that it’s a very important memory in our lives.

“That’s why we wanted to come here also, to respect the events and the victims, to share these events with Czech people.”