PRAGUE: Fifty years ago, writers—including Milan Kundera—and a bizarre scandal helped spark a fleeting but heady spell of openness in communist Czechoslovakia before Soviet tanks rolled in to crush it.
The 1968 Prague Spring that brought “Socialism with a human face” to Czechoslovakia was personified by the smiling Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak who had become Communist Party (KSC) chief on January 5 the same year.
But according to sociologist Jirina Siklova who participated in the events, the short-lived breath of freedom in the Soviet bloc had deeper roots stretching back to the Czechoslovak writers’ congress the year before.
She believes that dissident writers like Kundera—whose 1967 satirical novel The Joke focused on totalitarianism—and Vaclav Havel, who decades later became Czech president, paved the way to greater openness by demanding the ruling Communist Party guarantee freedom of expression.
“The KSC started to split and it was clear something would happen,” Siklova, who was a Communist Party member at that time, told AFP.
“I thought that if we became more liberal, the Soviet Union would leave us alone because we’re so small. The expectations were immense,” she added.
Petr Pithart, also a communist at that time and later speaker of the Czech Senate (1996-1998 and 2000-2004), recalls that a clash between Czech and Slovak communists also snowballed, giving rise to change.
“The Slovaks wanted to live with the Czechs as equals, and they understood a direct attack was the only option,” said Pithart.
Slovak communists, who felt marginalized by the faraway Czech-dominated central government based in Prague, lobbied for a greater say in decision-making.
Their demands were met when Dubcek replaced hardline President Antonin Novotny—a Czech unpopular among Slovaks and Prague intellectuals—as KSC boss.
Dubcek’s charming smile and human touch set him apart from his dour-faced party peers.
“He went out to meet the people, he went to a public swimming pool and joined ordinary people to watch football or ice hockey,” Oldrich Tuma, a historian at the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Contemporary History, told AFP.
Facing popular discontent over the chronic shortage of everyday goods, the Dubcek-led KSC kicked off cautious economic reforms.
This was enough to raise eyebrows in the Kremlin, which grew increasingly angry.
Clover seed scandal
A colorful scandal erupted when top military officials were caught taking handsome bribes for the illegal sale of prized military stockpiles of clover seed to state farms.
One of the key suspects was President Novotny’s protegee, General Jan Sejna, who—facing prison—fled to Italy and then the United States, where he applied for asylum and got it.
Sejna’s high-profile defection finally toppled Novotny, who stepped down as president on March 22, 1968.
This opened the floodgates: Prague dropped censorship, allowing the press freedom demanded by writers—a first in the Soviet bloc.
“This was a top-class scandal and within two or three days, all barriers fell, the media suddenly wrote about everything,” said Pithart.
New non-communist organizations such as “K 231,” a club of former political prisoners, or the “Club of Active Non-Partisans,” soon promised to evolve into opposition parties.
“We believed the world could be better, that was incredible,” said Pithart, describing the sense of hope that swept through society as the borders opened for Czechs and Slovaks to travel west.
“People suddenly discovered a sense of solidarity, one would even say they were willing to sacrifice something. There was fantastic euphoria,” he added.
‘Russian imperial idea’
But it did not last long.
On August 21, 1968, tanks rolled in as the Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish armies invaded Czechoslovakia to “restore order.”
About 100 people died during the first days of the occupation.
In January 1969, student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague in the hope of triggering protests. But it was to no avail.
Dubcek was sidelined in April 1969 and Czechoslovakia set aside its dream of openness for two decades until the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 ushered in democracy. Four years later the country split in two.
In the wake of the August 1968 crackdown, Siklova and Pithart both left the KSC and were forced out of university.
Siklova spent a year in prison in 1981, four years after the persecuted opposition came up with the anti-communist manifesto called Charter 77, which both Siklova and Pithart signed.
Pithart believes that Soviet-imposed communism in Eastern Europe was merely a disguise for “the Russian imperial idea” that has taken different forms over the centuries.
“Communism is the past, but we should be afraid of Russia again, not because it is communist, but because millions of Russians are willing to sacrifice their lives for this imperial idea, and no other nation in the world can say this.”