Thursday, 18 September 2008

August 21st 1968 - Russian Invasion

This year the Czechs remembered that day forty years ago when the tanks of the USSR and their Warsaw Pact allies rolled into Prague to reverse the liberalisation of the Prague Spring. Of course the timing of the anniversary has led to comparisons with the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia. The Prague Post has had a number of interesting pieces on the subject. Another comparison also comes to my mind - that with the events of the Velvet Revolution, when the Russian tanks did not roll in, but this does not seem to be much remembered in the current climate.

As a Brit I have pondered for some time what, if anything, I can say of value on the subject. I was only 10 at the time of the invasion and have a hazy memory of the BBC news coverage at the time - of people pleading with stony-faced Russian troops and my parents' reaction of sorrow. But more importantly I am aware (as I am always aware) of the very different pasts of the country of my birth and of my adopted home.

As a Brit I am supportive of any nation' s aspiration to democracy and the shaking off of tyranny. A child in the 60s we played Nazis and Brits in the playground and I remember still being taught how to draw spitfires by the big boy in the hospital bed across from mine, when I was having my appendix out. Only 2o years after the end of the war I watched with pride as the veterans marched down our street and then I stood with head bowed in the two-minute silence at the war memorial in the town square. "They died that the world could be free", I was told. Only in 1968 the people of Czechoslovakia were not free, and we could do nothing about it.

The invasion of Georgia coming at the time of the 40th anniversary has led to the Czechs expressing their fear that their current freedom will be shortlived. This fear expresses itself in support for the siting of US radar stations in the Czech Republic and it expresses itself in opposition to them. For many Russia remains the enemy, the threat of its aggression hangs over the former members of the "evil" empire.

It will perhaps come as a surprise to my Czech readers that I understand something of the Russians' position. It seems to me that they are suffering from a trauma arising from the rapid loss of empire. The Russian Empire goes back centuries to the great Russian rulers of Peter and Catherine the Great - it was the second largest empire in modern times. And who better to understand what the Russians are going through with its loss than a scion of the largest empire. In my primary school the map on the wall still had much of the world coloured pink- the Empire (and later the Commonwealth) on which the sun never set; besotted by history I devoured the tales of Empire - of David Livingstone, Clive of India, General Wolfe, and Captain Cook. And so I learnt not just about Britain defending freedom but also taking it, and as a child I was proud of both and saw no contradiction in my position.

No, I am sorry, my Czech friends, I am a child of Empire. I cannot know what it is to have been subjected by an imperial power. But I do know what happens to a people who have lost a great empire, one that had defined their identity for centuries. We are at a loss, we hurt. We tell ourselves stories - that the Empire was the price we paid for the defeat of Hitler or that the collapse of the empire was amicable - and we are angry and hurt by those former subject states that challenge the stories. Of course none of this excuses imperialism nor the actions of post-imperialist powers, it merely goes some way to explaining it.


Anonymous said...

Re your reporting that the Czechs might be welcoming the proposed US army bases on their territory - this needs to be clarified: it is the government that seems to be welcoming these; the majority of ordinary Czechs (consistently around 86 percent by the past and the current polls) are against them. Just in the 20th Century their republic, freshly free from having been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were occupied by the Germans, then by the Russians.and the thought of allowing the US army to set up their army bases here, with all the security implications etc etc, is, to them, tantamount to another foreign 'big-brother' occupation. What's more they see this bi-lateral arrangement as the US trying to use the post-communist countries as a wedge to be driven into Europe. Too complex a subject to go into in this space, but at least a short reminder that democracy isn't always what it dresses up to be. Despite the public opinion, no referendum has been allowed, or any other way of debate. Democracy or a US driven post-regime change dictartorship?

potok said...

I thank Anonymous for this clarification. I never suggested that the Czechs as a whole welcomed the bases - I talked about both support for and opposition to them. See my previous post on the subject. I welcome the information on the percentage of support either way.

AS J K Galbraith pointed out empires are not simply based on political, or military but cultural and economic as well. The British Empire had its beginnings in the activities of its merchants and arguably it continued to be driven by their interests.

Back in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution and the emergent democracy Vaclav Havel talked about
the new democratic country being independent of any super power. Now he is a vocal supporter of the US bases - what happened? What happened to the vision of a state, worthy of a Greek philosopher, run by artists, writers and popstars along new lines.

Was it that a writer who becomes a political leader becomes a polician and loses his writer's idealism? Or was it that he still sees Russia as the greatest threat? Or was it a recognition that small countries (whether the Czech Republic or the UK) are never truly free in a world where there are great powers. Maybe that is the sad lesson of Czech history.


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