Eyewitness to the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

Half a century ago today, I watched as Soviet tanks rolled into my native Czechoslovakia to suppress the slight relaxing of the odious repression that was necessary to maintain a purported socialist paradise. “Prague Spring,” as the loosening of tyranny was called, ended before the summer was over.

The seeds of the Prague Spring 1968 sprouted at the Expo67 in Montreal. The Czech Pavilion was exquisite with long lines the entire time of the fair.  The Czech artists, engineers and builders brought back the infectious freedom-bug to Prague at the end of 1967. The dawn of the New Year 1968 came in subdued pastel colors over the permanent gray in the Red paradise.  Suddenly, there were changes in the dark Kafkaesque corridors of the still Stalinist Nomenklatura in Prague.  The liberal communist A. Dubček and his team came to power.  The people woke up from the imposed stupor and embraced the dystopian "Socialism with a Human Face."  Very few people saw through it – though our family did, but our warnings were ignored in the general mass euphoria.  The voices calling for Swiss-like neutrality were unrealistic utopians.

The Prague Spring of 1968 turned blue very quickly, though.  Leonid Brezhnev and the ageing Kremlin Politburo were livid when Dubček's team opened the Iron Curtain a bit and allowed some freedom of the press and of assembly -- previously unheard of!  My father, who had been sentenced to menial labor in 1958 as an Enemy of the State and the People for defiantly riding a 750 cc Knucklehead Harley Davidson through Prague, openly listening to Elvis when everything American including jeans and Mickey Mouse, was forbidden/verboten, received a passport.  He traveled all over Western Europe and chose Switzerland chose as our goal for escape. After his return in June, he began to plan our exile.

Yours truly was then a student at the College of Geology and Mines, so I worked in August 1968 with several buddies at a stone-quarry east of Prague.  During the night of August 20th, we were entertaining the locals with music during drinks and dinner. Around midnight, a loud banging on the cabin door and a hysterical voice shook us out of our sleep. It was the local girlfriend of my buddy: "The Soviet tanks are here!"

In an instant, we were cold sober and ran the half mile to the main highway leading to Prague. Before getting there, we could hear the low rumble of the tracks piercing the dark and shaking the ground.  The stunned  silent villagers lined the road as an endless iron caterpillar rattled West; a procession of tanks with the blood-stained red star on the turrets.  About every ten tanks a sentry wearing a leather helmet stood in the hatch with a deadpan stare into the dark. 

I couldn't help it with all the rage and fear boiling over and raised my fist.  My buddy's petite gal hung on my biceps: "Are you crazy, they will shoot you!" I didn't feel her weight at all.

Early next morning we took the bus to Prague and talked about how we could poke the Russian bear in the eye.  It was already happening all over the country.  People along the main highways were taking down or switching the road signs; the same was done in Prague, plus taking down the metal plaques with the street names high on the walls.   Young and old, when asked by the ignorant Russkies, sent them the wrong way.  It was delicious to see the ensuing chaos,  the invaders riding in circles in the countryside or in the narrow, cobblestone streets in Prague.  Alas, it lasted but a week.

Very few people anywhere know the following.  We were forced to learn Russian from 4th grade on. We hated it but it backfired in 1968.  The Soviet soldiers were told by the Kremlin that there is an anti-Soviet, anti-socialism uprising in the CSSR instigated by the CIA.  We told them the truth in Russian: "Can't you see the entire country is peaceful?"  The soldiers were our age, about 19 years old. Many told us this: "Going through the bigger cities, especially, Prague, we thought we had pushed too far west and were in West Germany."  We kept demoralizing them thusly: "Hey, Ivan, you're 2000 miles from home, are you sure your Natasha is faithful?"  All this worked like a charm.

A young Prague resident talks to a Soviet Soldier

Photo credit: National Archives)

Then, we saw the raw power of Big Brother. The Central Committee got wind of it and pulled out the roughly 100 000 mostly European troops and sent in about 300 000 mostly Asian  brutal Soviets; all within 24 hours! These new guys didn't talk to us and shot everything that moved.  The stone-quarry workers used the same WWII Russian ZIL truck as the invaders and we were stuck in the endless columns of the same trucks, tanks and armor; one heading east, the other west. In the middle of the road were MPs, and the soldiers weren't allowed to even look at each other. The Red Army was based on brutal terror, and it fell apart ten years later in Afghanistan.

In a week, Prague, a city the size of San Diego, CA, was surrounded by tanks; downtown the bridges were blocked by tanks and armored vehicles as well.  The Soviets burnt city buses, shot into apartments from the tanks or ran over the kids waving the Czech flag (Tiananmen Square 1989, anyone?)!  However, when they shot up the facade of the National Museum with M50 machine guns, thinking it was the CZ Radio, we let them have it in Russian: "Can't you tell, you barbarians, that it is a museum?"   The Radio building still is standing just a couple of blocks away from Wenceslas Square.

We began to fight back with Molotov cocktails, big construction machinery, and anything else at hand. 

(Photo credit: Central Intelligence Agency)

(Photo credit: National Archives)

My then-13 year-old brother blew up a tank with a Molotov cocktail.  He got caught, locked up  beaten up. Within a week, he escaped from the juvenile reeducation prison.  But he was caught within a week, put in a dungeon for incorrigible youth and brutally beaten.  In a month, he escaped again. 

The Czech KGB caught him in three months, threw him into an adult criminals prison and tortured him.  He escaped within a week.  It went on for two years, but then he escaped from a top security prison and got caught in six months.  The torture was so brutal (It was said that the KGB trained the Gestapo before WWII), they broke him; he was but a shell.  It took him 15 years to drink himself to death.

The buddy whose gal hung on my bicep that fateful night was shot to pieces two weeks later by a machine gun on a tank for waving the Czech flag.  Another friend was shot at close range by a soldier with a Kalashnikov on a crowded commuter bus; his girl next to him almost had a heart attack.  The reason: he refused to take down from his lapel the red-blue-white tricolor with a black beam across.  Three more friends were murdered in a like fashion for similar “high crimes” against the Big Red Brother.

The Soviet government called the invasion  "fraternal assistance" against the efforts of the evil CIA and “subversive” Czech elements trying to overthrow the peace-loving Red dictatorship!

My father escaped to Switzerland via Austria in May 1969.  I followed in June 1970, five days after my graduation in geology, through Yugoslavia.  The entire '1970s were an era of repression, called “Normalization.”  People who didn't sign their fealty to the “brotherly” help of 1968 lost their jobs or were thrown into prison.  A friend of mine, who got 20 years in the uranium mines,  survived.

Lastly, a memo to the foolish  misguided Millennials following as if in a trance the old greedy crook Bernie (who never had a real job in his life!), the supremely ignorant and vacuous Ocasio-Cortez airhead:  Communism and socialism murdered 100 - 200 million innocent civilians in peace time; only God knows the exact number!  Do you really want to live like this or be a part of the “elite” doing the killing?  The choice is yours, for now, because you live in the greatest, most generous and brave nation ever!  Better dead than Red -- take my word for it. We have the graves and the scars.

Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance,  the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery. -- Winston Churchill

Robert of Prague "Rather Free in Want than Rich in Servitude" is a grateful, proud and un-hyphenated US citizen

Half a century ago today, I watched as Soviet tanks rolled into my native Czechoslovakia to suppress the slight relaxing of the odious repression that was necessary to maintain a purported socialist paradise. “Prague Spring,” as the loosening of tyranny was called, ended before the summer was over.

The seeds of the Prague Spring 1968 sprouted at the Expo67 in Montreal. The Czech Pavilion was exquisite with long lines the entire time of the fair.  The Czech artists, engineers and builders brought back the infectious freedom-bug to Prague at the end of 1967. The dawn of the New Year 1968 came in subdued pastel colors over the permanent gray in the Red paradise.  Suddenly, there were changes in the dark Kafkaesque corridors of the still Stalinist Nomenklatura in Prague.  The liberal communist A. Dubček and his team came to power.  The people woke up from the imposed stupor and embraced the dystopian "Socialism with a Human Face."  Very few people saw through it – though our family did, but our warnings were ignored in the general mass euphoria.  The voices calling for Swiss-like neutrality were unrealistic utopians.

The Prague Spring of 1968 turned blue very quickly, though.  Leonid Brezhnev and the ageing Kremlin Politburo were livid when Dubček's team opened the Iron Curtain a bit and allowed some freedom of the press and of assembly -- previously unheard of!  My father, who had been sentenced to menial labor in 1958 as an Enemy of the State and the People for defiantly riding a 750 cc Knucklehead Harley Davidson through Prague, openly listening to Elvis when everything American including jeans and Mickey Mouse, was forbidden/verboten, received a passport.  He traveled all over Western Europe and chose Switzerland chose as our goal for escape. After his return in June, he began to plan our exile.

Yours truly was then a student at the College of Geology and Mines, so I worked in August 1968 with several buddies at a stone-quarry east of Prague.  During the night of August 20th, we were entertaining the locals with music during drinks and dinner. Around midnight, a loud banging on the cabin door and a hysterical voice shook us out of our sleep. It was the local girlfriend of my buddy: "The Soviet tanks are here!"

In an instant, we were cold sober and ran the half mile to the main highway leading to Prague. Before getting there, we could hear the low rumble of the tracks piercing the dark and shaking the ground.  The stunned  silent villagers lined the road as an endless iron caterpillar rattled West; a procession of tanks with the blood-stained red star on the turrets.  About every ten tanks a sentry wearing a leather helmet stood in the hatch with a deadpan stare into the dark. 

I couldn't help it with all the rage and fear boiling over and raised my fist.  My buddy's petite gal hung on my biceps: "Are you crazy, they will shoot you!" I didn't feel her weight at all.

Early next morning we took the bus to Prague and talked about how we could poke the Russian bear in the eye.  It was already happening all over the country.  People along the main highways were taking down or switching the road signs; the same was done in Prague, plus taking down the metal plaques with the street names high on the walls.   Young and old, when asked by the ignorant Russkies, sent them the wrong way.  It was delicious to see the ensuing chaos,  the invaders riding in circles in the countryside or in the narrow, cobblestone streets in Prague.  Alas, it lasted but a week.

Very few people anywhere know the following.  We were forced to learn Russian from 4th grade on. We hated it but it backfired in 1968.  The Soviet soldiers were told by the Kremlin that there is an anti-Soviet, anti-socialism uprising in the CSSR instigated by the CIA.  We told them the truth in Russian: "Can't you see the entire country is peaceful?"  The soldiers were our age, about 19 years old. Many told us this: "Going through the bigger cities, especially, Prague, we thought we had pushed too far west and were in West Germany."  We kept demoralizing them thusly: "Hey, Ivan, you're 2000 miles from home, are you sure your Natasha is faithful?"  All this worked like a charm.

A young Prague resident talks to a Soviet Soldier

Photo credit: National Archives)

Then, we saw the raw power of Big Brother. The Central Committee got wind of it and pulled out the roughly 100 000 mostly European troops and sent in about 300 000 mostly Asian  brutal Soviets; all within 24 hours! These new guys didn't talk to us and shot everything that moved.  The stone-quarry workers used the same WWII Russian ZIL truck as the invaders and we were stuck in the endless columns of the same trucks, tanks and armor; one heading east, the other west. In the middle of the road were MPs, and the soldiers weren't allowed to even look at each other. The Red Army was based on brutal terror, and it fell apart ten years later in Afghanistan.

In a week, Prague, a city the size of San Diego, CA, was surrounded by tanks; downtown the bridges were blocked by tanks and armored vehicles as well.  The Soviets burnt city buses, shot into apartments from the tanks or ran over the kids waving the Czech flag (Tiananmen Square 1989, anyone?)!  However, when they shot up the facade of the National Museum with M50 machine guns, thinking it was the CZ Radio, we let them have it in Russian: "Can't you tell, you barbarians, that it is a museum?"   The Radio building still is standing just a couple of blocks away from Wenceslas Square.

We began to fight back with Molotov cocktails, big construction machinery, and anything else at hand. 

(Photo credit: Central Intelligence Agency)

(Photo credit: National Archives)

My then-13 year-old brother blew up a tank with a Molotov cocktail.  He got caught, locked up  beaten up. Within a week, he escaped from the juvenile reeducation prison.  But he was caught within a week, put in a dungeon for incorrigible youth and brutally beaten.  In a month, he escaped again. 

The Czech KGB caught him in three months, threw him into an adult criminals prison and tortured him.  He escaped within a week.  It went on for two years, but then he escaped from a top security prison and got caught in six months.  The torture was so brutal (It was said that the KGB trained the Gestapo before WWII), they broke him; he was but a shell.  It took him 15 years to drink himself to death.

The buddy whose gal hung on my bicep that fateful night was shot to pieces two weeks later by a machine gun on a tank for waving the Czech flag.  Another friend was shot at close range by a soldier with a Kalashnikov on a crowded commuter bus; his girl next to him almost had a heart attack.  The reason: he refused to take down from his lapel the red-blue-white tricolor with a black beam across.  Three more friends were murdered in a like fashion for similar “high crimes” against the Big Red Brother.

The Soviet government called the invasion  "fraternal assistance" against the efforts of the evil CIA and “subversive” Czech elements trying to overthrow the peace-loving Red dictatorship!

My father escaped to Switzerland via Austria in May 1969.  I followed in June 1970, five days after my graduation in geology, through Yugoslavia.  The entire '1970s were an era of repression, called “Normalization.”  People who didn't sign their fealty to the “brotherly” help of 1968 lost their jobs or were thrown into prison.  A friend of mine, who got 20 years in the uranium mines,  survived.

Lastly, a memo to the foolish  misguided Millennials following as if in a trance the old greedy crook Bernie (who never had a real job in his life!), the supremely ignorant and vacuous Ocasio-Cortez airhead:  Communism and socialism murdered 100 - 200 million innocent civilians in peace time; only God knows the exact number!  Do you really want to live like this or be a part of the “elite” doing the killing?  The choice is yours, for now, because you live in the greatest, most generous and brave nation ever!  Better dead than Red -- take my word for it. We have the graves and the scars.

Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance,  the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery. -- Winston Churchill

Robert of Prague "Rather Free in Want than Rich in Servitude" is a grateful, proud and un-hyphenated US citizen