President Pavel on 1968 invasion: Russia has not changed

Petr Pavel

August 21 marks the 55th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops. The crushing of the Prague Spring dashed people’s hopes of democracy and ushered in a long period of political and moral decline. More than 130 people died during the invasion and thousands fled the country in the years that followed.

Millions of people were glued to their radio receivers in the small hours of August 21, as enemy tanks rolled into the country. Czechoslovak Radio, just above Wenceslas Square, was the scene of fierce clashed with the invaders, as unarmed civilians gathered outside the station to try to prevent enemy troops from taking control. Bullet holes from the dramatic struggle still remain on the building’s façade and a plaque at the entrance bears the names of 15 people who lost their lives in the valiant attempt to defend the building. On the 55th anniversary of the invasion, the country’s top officials gathered outside Czech Radio to honour their memory.

Speaking at the ceremony, President Petr Pavel said that more than half a century after the invasion the lesson to be learn from 1968 is more pertinent than ever.

"For the vast majority of people in this country the 1968 invasion was a time of lost dreams and lost dignity. We should remember what it felt like. Because Ukraine only wants what we wanted at the time. They want to determine their own path. Russia hasn't changed since then –the country has a different name, but its foreign policy, its values are the same.”

A memorial service in front of the Czech Radio building  (Markéta Pekarová Adamová and Petr Fiala on the right) | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

The president said that that he had been only seven years old when the tanks rolled into Prague and he had found it hard to understand why the Russians, who had liberated the country from Nazi oppression, were invading it. He said understanding came much later –and warned against Russian propaganda.

"Just because someone helps you to regain your freedom doesn't mean they want you to keep it. Or, it means they have a completely different idea of freedom than you do. Back then –according to Moscow -they came to “free us from ourselves”, their propaganda line was that they were helping us to beat the counter-revolution”.

In her own address, the Speaker of the lower house of Parliament Markéta Pekarová Adamová cited a famous phrase used by a 1968 Czechoslovak Radio announcer as the building came under attack “we are with you, please be with us”.

“The best way to honour the memory of the victims of past tyrannies is to persevere in supporting those who are fighting against present tyranny. The Ukrainians are with us, let us continue to be with them.”

Prime Minister Petr Fiala said that one of the lessons from 1968 was that the concept of “socialism with a human face” had been unrealistic from the start –because you either have freedom and democracy or you don’t.

“He who does not respect freedom in its entirety will always be tempted to violate it. Let us protect our democratic state. Let us cherish the rights it guarantees us, so that what we lived through and the sacrifices our compatriots made were not in vain. Either we will have freedom in its entirety, including all the risks, inconveniences and trials that it entails -or we will not have it at all."

Events marking the 55th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion –including concerts, exhibitions and debates - are taking place around the country.

Photo: Martin Samek,  Czech Radio