Ten years ago last Russian soldiers left Czechoslovakia

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Ten years ago the last Soviet soldiers left Czechoslovak territory, 23 years after Warsaw Pact troops entered the country by force in August 1968. Their departure was celebrated with a joy comparable to that with which they were greeted in May 1945, when the Soviet army liberated the major part of Czechoslovakia from Nazi German occupation. Olga Szantova reports.

Soviet troops had not been on Czechoslovak territory ever since 1945. Czechoslovakia was the only East Block country where they did not stay on after the war. All the more reason for the resentment felt by Czechs and Slovaks when Soviet troops returned on August 21, 1968, heading the Warsaw Pact forces that crushed the Prague Spring. This marked the end of Czechoslovakia's experiment with reform, the attempt to introduce what the reformers called "Socialism with a human face".

At the time the Soviets announced they were staying only temporarily and throughout the 23 years of their presence that promise was the source of numerous Czech and Slovak jokes connected with the relative definition of the word "temporary". After the Velvet Revolution one of the first aims of the country's new rulers was, not surprisingly, to bid farewell to the Soviet army. But negotiations were extremely complicated and the Russian side was in no great hurry to leave. One of the reasons was very down to earth. The more than seventy-three thousand conscripts, eighteen-and-a-half thousand officers and their families, as well as the more than forty-four thousand civilian employees were living under very good conditions, with a standard of living they certainly could not expect back home. One of the many places where they were concentrated was the small town of Milovice some 40 kilometers from Prague.

Soviet Army barracks in Milovice,  now abandoned,  photo: Tiia Monto,  CC BY-SA 4.0 International
Jitka Novakova is an English teacher in Milovice: "Everything that is here, all the buildings were built for them."

Milovice had been an army town ever since the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the first barracks were built there. Those had also been used by the Czechoslovak army - until 1968, when the Russians took over, moving their soldiers into the barracks and building a huge prefabricated housing estate for the officers and their families. When the Russians finally moved out, ten years ago, the site was left vacant for years, with the buildings gradually falling apart. What to do with all those buildings has been, and still is, a real problem.

"All of them were sold and now the owners don't know what to do with them."

But that problem is gradually being solved - mostly by young people like Jitka Novakova.

"We decided to move here because we've got family near here and because near Milovice there is nice nature. And, of course, it's near Prague, so it's possible to commute there or for the children to study there."

But it will take years before the consequences of the Russian army's presence are fully overcome.

"There are lots of empty buildings here and many of them have been reconstructed. There are lots of problems, it is not easy to reconstruct the whole town. More people are coming to live here, but new flats have to be prepared. Nearly all people who live here must commute to Prague, or to Nymburk, because they cannot find a job here. So it's very difficult."

Author: Olga Szantová
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