ACTIVISM ARCHIVES

Report From Prague: Viewing a Disaster

“The Russians had done more than in­vade Czechoslovakia — they had sent their damn tanks crashing into our skulls, they had invaded the hopes of socialists all over the world.”

by

What follows is a simple eye­witness account of two days in Prague under Soviet occupation. This is a report, not an analysis or a commentary. It is because I know that every “Cold War­rior” welcomes the events in Prague that I must note simply that bad as the invasion was it does not compare to the United States actions in Vietnam where a million or more have died. Prague and Saigon are linked, symbols of the contempt great powers have for the right of smaller nations to self-determination. Let all those who so easily demand immediate and complete Soviet withdrawal apply that same standard to the situation in Vietnam.

I had gone to Europe to attend two working conferences, one in Vienna (War Resisters International) and the other in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia (International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace). Between the conference was a space of four days and I chose to spend that time in Prague as vacation. I arrived there on Saturday evening, August 17. I was due to leave early Wednesday morning, August 21.

Other American radicals in Prague spent their time to good advantage, seeing student leaders, liberal writers, political figures. I simply wandered aim­lessly, having fallen under the charm of the city, the most beau­tiful I’ve seen in Europe. I stood in church on Sunday morning listening to the chants and smelling the incense. I visited the old Jewish cemetery, the most tragic graveyard I’ve ever seen, filled with thousands of tombstones leaning on one another for comfort in their eternal sorrow. Graveyards are places where the living come, the sons and daughters and the grandchildren, to honor their ancestors. Graveyards fascinate me, for they are not a symbol of an end, but proof of beginnings — here we stand, observing the gravestones, and there lie the ancestors from which we have sprung. Between the living and the dead there is a silent communion. But in the Jewish cemetery, carefully enclosed by high old walls, there was the chilling knowledge that only death was there, for those who should have come to lay flowers had perished in the death camps. The ancestors lay there beneath the stone tablets and only tourists visited, stran­gers to the family. I wept twice in Prague and the first time was when I spent an hour wandering through this silent field of graves.

I roamed through the National Museum, drank beer in small cafes, and walked out on the Charles Bridge to take pictures of the chalk drawings done by the long-haired young rebels­ — slogans in English against the war in Vietnam and slogans in German against Ulbricht. I walk­ed down the broad main street, Vaclavske Namesti, watched stu­dents in Wenceslas Square, and stood listening to debates in the “Hyde Park” of Prague, a little square off Na Prikope.

And in this way I spent my time. I had some contacts through Allen Ginsberg but they were never home when I phoned. By Tuesday night, my last night in Prague, I felt sharp pangs of guilt that I had not been more “responsible” and ” political” in looking people up. I wandered Prague late Tuesday night, until it was a city asleep and moving toward dawn. (At 11 p.m. invasion forces crossed the frontier). I got to bed at 2:30 a.m. (At that hour Russian air­craft had landed at Prague air­port.) I slept fitfully, waking once at 5:30 a.m. to the roar of jets. I slept again until 6:30 a.m. when I had to get up to catch my early flight to Yugoslavia. I went down for coffee and sensed a crisis in the air — Rude Pravo, Communist Party daily, had appeared with large headlines and printed on only one side of the sheet. At one point the Czechs in the room stood by the window and I joined them to watch tanks roll by in the streets below. Still groggy with sleep I took it for granted they were Czech tanks (who else would have tanks in Prague?). I finish­ed my coffee, packed, and then, a thin edge of anxiety working through my mind, went down to the main lobby to make sure the airport was not affected by what­ever crisis had brought Czech tanks into Prague at 8 a.m. There at the front desk I found this note:

American Embassy advises (5:50 a.m.) American citizens to stay where they are. Listen to the Voice of America at 1200 KC (if you were foresighted enough to bring a radio). Stay off streets.”

It was now just after 8 a.m. Wednesday, August 21.

I went out in front of our hotel, the Hotel Flora on Vino­hradska Street, about 12 blocks from the center of town. I watched tanks and troop carriers roll by. Czechs stood weeping openly on the streets, gathered in small quiet groups. And now, for the second time in Prague, I wept. I had profoundly identified with the Czech experiment in “Communist democracy.” The Russians had done more than in­vade Czechoslovakia — they had sent their damn tanks crashing into our skulls, they had invaded the hopes of socialists all over the world.

There was an unreal quality to the invasion. The troops were all in trucks or tanks, not on foot. The sidewalks belonged to us, where we stood silent and unmoving. The streets belonged to the tanks. Tanks are ugly things. They were filled with young Russians, men who had been told they were going on maneuvers and found out they were invaders of a socialist country. They were frightened. The troop carriers had machine guns mounted on the front and men with automatic rifles watching the windows and roofs of the buildings they pass­ed. In the distance one could hear the harmless toyish sound of automatic weapons being fired — a kind of “pop—pop—pop.” People moved along the streets, lining up at food stores — which were virtually the only stores open. The streetcars were not running and few cars were on the streets. I had shot my last frame of film Tuesday evening and had to hike for several blocks to find a drug store open where I could buy some film. I came back, then, having seen Russian troop carriers lining the road all the way toward town, as if they were in a traffic jam. I shot some tanks with a telephoto lens from my hotel window.

Perhaps it was because we were motionless on the sidewalks, while the Russians sped by in trucks and tanks, that the invasion was like a dream. The tanks were motorized images, with which the population was not interacting, only observing. It was not yet noon but the resist­ance was beginning, as a car moved down the street throwing out mimeographed copies of Rude Pravo. Then it was noon and the first organized resistance began. A young man pulled his bicycle into the street and block­ed traffic — which consisted, actu­ally, of a single Czech truck which pulled over to one side. Horns began to blare for a two­-minute general strike. At that moment, with the kid in the street and the horns blaring, a Soviet troop carrier came shoot­ing down the street. The kid held his ground, perhaps paralyzed with fear or courage, but it would have made no difference to the troop carrier which wasn’t even slowing down. At the final moment, as most of us nervous­ly pulled away from the corner, fearful of gunfire or seeing the boy run down, an older man moved out from the crowd, put his arm gently around the boy and the bike, and guided him to one side of the street. The troop carrier shot by without ever having paused.

A student walked past our hotel, moving away from the center of town, holding a large Czech flag.

Radio Prague went off the air early, and Radio Pilsen began broadcasting. It used German, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Polish as well as Czech — it was beaming its appeal to the invading Warsaw Pact troops, explaining there was no basis for the invasion, that socialism was safe, the invasion illegal. It was also urging the population not to provoke an incident but simply not to cooperate. Radio Pilsen went off the air while I slept in the afternoon out other stations then came on and the Russians, having forgotten to bring tracking equipment with them, could do nothing.

The dream quality came back at dinner, for the Flora is a first class hotel with an excellent restaurant presided over by an imperious head-waiter. We all went to our tables, ordered cocktails or wines and our dinner as if nothing had happened. People chatted in the muted luxury of the Flora, they ate and drank quietly. Outside, somewhere, Czechs were organizing. Some were dying. Some were already dead.

All night long there was the buzzing of motorbikes back and forth through the city. The students were organizing. The underground papers were now being printed, having found presses. About 9:30 p.m. I took another walk toward the center of town, and found out why the line of Russian troop carriers had been backed up earlier in the day.

The Czechs had built up a barricade about 10 blocks from the hotel and two blocks from the National Museum, trying to stop the tanks from getting to the radio station. When I got there I saw a fantastic tangle of burned out streetcars, buses, trucks, and debris — including at least one Soviet truck half blown up and hurled into a side street. This was where the firing had been coming from in the morning and some had been killed — no precise figures. (Note — in fair­ness to the Russians, they generally fired into the air and no estimate of the dead exceeded 30 for the first day, about par for an American riot.) Hundreds of people were milling around the barricade, while the Russians were staying discreetly in their trucks a block away. It is report­ed that at least one Russian tank was set on fire during the morn­ing at this barricade area.

The milling of so many people made me nervous and I went back to the hotel and it was about 11 p.m. when, looking out my window, I saw fireworks coming from the area where I had just been. Beautiful orange rockets going up in the air. I didn’t understand why fireworks should be going off and went to the window for a closer look. Suddenly the crowd in the street below me broke and ran as if a heavy summer shower had hit them. I leaned farther out to see why they were running for shelter when I heard a “flick” against the building near my win­dow and realized the fireworks were tracer bullets and they were falling in our area.

Suddenly my window, large enough in any case, seemed to fill the whole wall, offering the entire room as a target. I scrambled for the side of my bed where I stayed for perhaps two minutes when I realized that even though the firing was getting closer (the gentle almost lazy “pop—pop—pop” had shifted to a a harsher “tat—tat—tat”), with tracer bullets you could see which way the fire was going. I edged back to the window and standing at one side watched the tracers climb into the sky. I had never realized before that bullets had a “finite speed,” that you could see the graceful blazes of orange climb slowly like Roman candles, and, like Roman candles, wink out.

So Wednesday came to an end. The Czech army had put up no resistance, on direct orders of the party. The only real fighting anywhere near us had occurred around the makeshift barricade 10 blocks away. But it was already clear that non-violent resistance was taking place. When I woke up Thursday it was clear at once that the Russians had made three mistakes. First, they had waited eight months too long. The Czechs, once the most docile of Communist populations, had enjoyed eight months of genuine press and radio freedom. Free­dom, like tyranny, can become a habit. Second, the Russians had assumed they would have some support from within the country and, as it turned out, they had no support at all. Third, they let the first 24 hours pass without any decisive action.

The Russians may well have assumed, having seized the radio and tv, the airport and the train station, and having surrounded the National Assembly, arrested Dubcek, and sealed off every large area that might have been used for demonstrations, that they had “won.” Certainly their actions had been decisive, total, overwhelming. They had encoun­tered no effective or organized resistance. They had occupied the city. But it became obvious they didn’t know what to do with a population that “refused to re­cognize them.” They had failed to shoot the occasional flag­-carrying student on that first day. They had not counted on the underground radio and tv.

They had not, it seems, thought about the problems of suppress­ing illegal papers, and Thursday one could see that manifestos and leaflets and papers were every­where in evidence. Posters had gone up on all buildings. Trains had ”SVOBODA — DUBCEK” chalked on their sides. Trucks and cars had posters draped over their fronts. Signs in Russian were everywhere telling the troops to leave as well as signs in Czech urging no support for collaboration and no cooperation with the traitors Moscow was seeking to install as a provisional government. The national flag began to appear in apartment windows. Half the people on the streets were wearing bits of rib­bon showing the national colors. Police cars (Czech police) carried large Czech flags. A spe­cial appeal to the occupying ar­my had been printed up. The Czechs were also churning out short leaflets in French, English, and German to make sure the tourists understood the situation. Their radio was still on the air, and this gave the citizens hope. People grouped themselves around little portable radios. People appeared on the streets with petitions and other people stopped and signed the petitions.

An ambulance corps had been organized, and civilian cars flying red cross flags shot up and down the streets. The people were beginning to give a loud whistle when the tanks clanked past (this being something in the nature of a hiss). The Russians had taken Prague but they had not managed to capture its people.

I went for a long walk Thurs­day afternoon, at one point walk­ing directly under the gun of a Soviet tank, to get down to the National Museum and see if — as rumored — it had been burned out. (It hadn’t been, although along with a number of apartment buildings that I saw, its facade had been heavily raked with machine gun fire, breaking most of the windows.) What I did see, and found incredible, was that every Russian tank and every Russian troop carrier was sur­rounded by groups of Czechs. Whatever spontaneous spitting or rock throwing may have occurred early Wednesday was gone — the crowds were arguing, pleading, explaining. I remember one tank on which a student was perched reading some manifesto to the two Russians sitting in the tank. If the image the West has of the Hungarian uprising in 1953 was a youth throwing stones at a tank, the image from Prague was one of dialogue and verbal confronta­tion.

(I learned that on Wednesday night all the bars had been closed to prevent anyone from getting drunk and charging at tanks. The radio broadcast steady appeals for calm, for no provocation and no cooperation.)

I walked into Wenceslas Square and found the main street leading into it filled with thousands upon thousands of persons. As I watch­ed, two truckloads of Czech stu­dents drove up waving flags and headed straight for a Soviet tank which, somewhat to my sur­prise, yielded the right of way.

My time in Prague was draw­ing to an end. I walked back to the hotel, realizing that I under­stood at last what a student had meant when I asked him, early in my stay, what would happen if the Russians invaded. He said, “For us they will not be here.” Shortly after 5 p.m. the Ameri­can Embassy notified us of a special train leaving for Vienna. We got taxis and boarded the train. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2020

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