Recalling the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

Jorge Dalton*  (Café Fuerte)

At the Wenceslao Plaza with my brothers Roquito and Juan José (first and second from left), and our neighbors – Aurora Ferrari a girl from Argentina and Claudia Delgado, a Colombian woman. May 1st, 1967- nine months before the Prague Spring.

HAVANA TIMES — For some August 20 is just another day. For me it’s a date that’s been marked forever as the end of the period known as the Prague spring.

It was on this fatal day that 200,000 soldiers from the Warsaw pact, principally from the “Glorious Red Army of the Soviet Union”, equipped with 2,300 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, one of the most beloved sites of my childhood and one of the most beautiful countries in the world. They used their entire war machine to crush the socialist government of Alexander Dub?ek, perhaps the only opportunity there has ever been on this earth for a true “socialism with a human face.”

The invasion was set in march under the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, named in honor of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who was the first to declare it publicly. Brezhnev was the one chosen by the radical Soviet communists to recover and re-implant Stalinism, following the sad period of Nikita Khrushchev.

A sinister Communist leader

Brezhnev, a sinister Communist leader, also took on the task of assuring the power of loyal dictators such as Jasnos Kadar in Hungary and Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland by the pure force of the hammer and sickle. He helped establish the power, still being wielded today, of the old Cuban communists, the majority from the Popular Socialist Party, who all were and will be until the end of their days, devoted Stalinists. Their mission was to finish off the Cuban Nationalist Revolution which lasted about as long as a meringue pie in a schoolroom doorway.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was applied during the decades of the 60s and 70s, until it was replaced in the 80s by the Sinatra Doctrine under the regimen of Mikhail Gorbachev. Happily, this put an end forever to that entire regime of terror.

In 1968 I had been on earth for seven years. We had to leave Prague, where we had been living since 1965, for Havana, as a result of some very grave events. My father had been attacked and seriously wounded, our Soviet school had been shut down and there was great instability in the country. When we disembarked in the José Martí airport, we left behind “our Soviet years” during which we assumed an entire culture as our own, under the direct supervision of the Soviets and KGB agents, to the point that all relations with the Czech citizens were off limits. We were only allowed to spend time with Soviet personnel and the Latin American families, all members of the Communist parties that were accredited in Czechoslovakia. Our best Cuban friends in Prague were the family members of the writer Heberto Padilla and those of the photographer Salvador Corratgé.

When I arrived in Cuba

When I arrived in Cuba, I didn’t know how to read or write in Spanish and some children ironically called me “the little Russian”. Patricia Belatti was the little Cuban girl, charged with the task of teaching me not only Spanish but also “the Cuban language.” I remember that her mother was one of the members of the “D Aidas” quartet during the 60s. I became a Cuban forever and in truth I liked being Cuban much more than being Soviet; also, as we know now, being Cuban is eternal while being Soviet meant forming part of something that was to disappear in a few years. The grey days of the “Cold War” were in progress, but since we were children we had no notion that the world was at the point of exploding.

During those first days in Cuba, I didn’t understand anything that was happening there; everything seemed to be a huge scene. The decibel level was too high for me and on top of that it took a lot of work for me to understand the way the Cubans talked. At recess in my primary school called “Nguyen Van Troi”, the boys would get into fights and a big circle would form around them. While the brawl went on in the middle, the other boys and girls would yell incessantly: “la galleta” (the cookie!) the cookie! the cookie!”, accompanied by rhythmic clapping. I got home totally frustrated, and said to my mother: “Mama, I don’t understand how the kids can be hitting each other while at the same time the rest are asking for cookies …and the worst thing is that I never see anyone bringing out any boxes of cookies to share. I don’t get it at all! And then I would begin howling and crying because I wanted to go back to Prague.

I still thought that our stay in Havana would be transitory – for a few weeks or perhaps months. I missed my neighborhood friends, my teachers, my school, the snow, my neighborhood, the Prague Castle, the Museum of Technology, Jirry Trinka’s puppets, the magic lantern and everything about my world in Czechoslovakia that was like living in a Hans Christian Andersen story.

I remember that a speech by Fidel Castro termed the events in Czechoslovakia “an imperialist conspiracy to put an end to the socialist desires of the Czech people”. According to this speech, the Warsaw pact and the socialist system “had no other alternative except the use of force to frustrate the plans of the CIA and of imperialism”

Fidel Castro knew it well

Effectively, it was all an “imperialist conspiracy”, but Fidel Castro was the first to know that it was a conspiracy of Soviet imperialism, as they were not willing to tolerate anything that had anything to do with democracy.

And in the West, they cared not a hoot for the Czech socialist reforms. So the brutal crushing and repression was doubled, not only on the part of the Soviet tanks, but also through the West’s ignorance. The celebrated writer Milán Kundera, a key intellectual figure in all that socialist upheaval, was not of the least interest to the West in those days. It was definitely “a fight between radical Soviet socialists and democratic and reformer socialists”. All that at the time seemed foreign to the West.

The brutality and the criminal instinct of the “glorious” soldiers of the Red Army were made evident by the images filmed on August 20, 1968. That same instinct had imposed itself in 1956 in Hungary, and would raise its head again in Afghanistan, Chechnia, and finally in the Ukraine. The Russians, like the Chinese, the English, the French, the US and the Japanese, have always been imperialists. The Russians were imperialists long before the tsars, during the long and dark period of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and they continue to be so in the Putin era.

I thought that I would never again return to Prague and in fact almost four decades had to pass before I did so. I was there two years ago visiting my castles and kingdoms: what had been my neighborhood, my house and all those childhood surroundings. Everything was as intact as if I had left there only three weeks before. My memory helped me not to feel that anything was strange or unknown. Prague continues to be, of course, one of the most beautiful places on earth, a city that I consider even more beautiful than Paris.

I’m glad to know that there’s a type of law that prohibits in fascism in a definitive way, and that at the same time Communism and Stalinism are also severely prohibited. Both systems are now museum pieces. I believe that that’s the best and healthiest thing that can happen to a nation in the 21st century.

*Cuban-Salvadoran filmmaker, son of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton (1935-1975). Jorge Dalton grew up in Prague and Havana, settling finally in San Salvador where he currently lives and works as a filmmaker.

4 thoughts on “Recalling the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

  • The communist party at large can best be described as a crime against humanity. Czechoslovakia was not alone in being crushed by such inhumanity, Hungary suffered it earlier and all those countries of eastern Europe which were evenually liberated by the implosian of the USSR. Stalin was responsible for more deaths than even Adolph Hitler and Mao Tse Tung for even more than Stalin. In Mao’s case those over twenty million were his fellow countrymen. Then there were the killing fields of Cambodia. All this carnage in the name of communism carried out by the communist party. If that doesn’t earn a place in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, even God would be amazed.
    There are those defenders of such an evil doctrine who will say that such actions were not adhering to ‘true’ communism. Humanity has to deal with the reality no with theoretical double talk.

  • Interesting to find most Czech still consider themselves as victim of oppression from USSR. However the fact of being at the receiving end of oppression, that seems never stopping them from forming those right-wing neo-nazi parties (like “Workers’ Party of Social Justice”) or participate in those parties!

    Now Czech republic is truing itself into one of the most active Neo-Nazi breeding beds for racism and nazism, in Eastern Europe! well done Czech!

  • In either the Czech Republic or Slovakia, I don’t remember which, the Communist Party was outlawed. Is that still the case ?

  • Thank you Jorge for sharing your
    personal memories, which are very relevant beyond the personal.

    The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia
    right after the liberation from the Nazis.was once the largest
    communist party in Eastern Europe winning the last competitive
    elections in Czechoslovakia. Then came the oppression of
    non-communist parties and the Slanski trial and his execution. Slowly
    hope returned in the 1960s when he was rehabilitated.

    These days the communist party is
    virtually non-existent in Slovakia and never gets more than 15% of
    the vote. The 20th of August 1968 effectively killed the hope of
    democratic socialism in Europe for a very, very long time.

    Cuba supported the Soviet invasion. All
    that talk of solidarity and national sovereignty sounding ever more
    hollow. How can you claim the right to national sovereignty for your
    own country and not grant the same right to another and still say
    ‘long live international solidarity?.’

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