Accessibility links

Breaking News

Discovering The Freedom Of An Unarmed Man

Muhammad Solih (left) in Bratislava in 1968, as a Soviet soldier taking part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In April 1968, I was drafted into the Soviet Army. I ended up in Hungary, in the Southern Group of Forces, a member of my division's reconnaissance battalion, stationed in the city of Szekesfehervar.

At the end of May, my division was moved to a town on the border with Czechoslovakia. We were told the move was made in connection with a upcoming exercises involving the Southern Group of Forces. We remained in that town until August 20. There were no exercises.

But we guessed that we were poised to cross into a country that was rising up against the socialist system. On August 19, my entire battalion was reequipped. Our old Kalashnikovs were replaced by modernized ones. Each soldier was given a silencer, two F-1 grenades, and three full magazines of cartridges. We were told to be prepared to kill and to be killed. We were told were going to save our Czech and Slovak brothers from the intrigues of the Western bourgeoisie.

We were young and in our hearts we were glad to be going to war. Not because we thought we were carrying out the noble mission of saviors, but because going to war made us significant. War made us powerful against our direct oppressors -- our sergeants and officers. On August 19, our officers stopped pretending in front of us and the sergeants began speaking to us in polite tones.

I was 18 1/2 years old when I first experienced the strange freedom of a man carrying a gun.

Czechs In Their Nightshirts

We left town at 9 p.m. and crossed the border into Czechoslovakia about midnight. We passed two Hungarian soldiers standing at the border crossing. As our column of APCs entered Slovakia, the Hungarian soldiers waved and shouted. They were the same age as us. That day, it seems, they forgot how the machine guns of Soviet tanks had mowed down their older brothers on the streets of Budapest in 1956. At 4 a.m. we entered Bratislava. People in their nightshirts came out into the streets and couldn't figure out who we were. We approached the bridge across the Danube and a rumor ran through our APC that the Slovaks had mined it. I naively thought I could jump from the vehicle into the river if the bridge blew. It didn't.

Muhammad Solih
We drove into the luxurious Bratislava Castle. Someone said that Napoleon Bonaparte had once stopped there. Now, on August 21, 1968, the headquarters of our division and the soldiers of the recon battalion were stationed there. Within minutes, we had destroyed the green lawns of the castle grounds.

We slept in that castle -- on the floor, on long, antique tables, on pianos. And we awoke to the sound of machine-gun fire. The "rebels" were firing from a clock tower near the castle. We all grabbed our weapons, but the firing soon stopped.

The order to eat breakfast came soon after and we ate on the ground outside. We heard a local broadcast say that Bratislava had been "occupied" by "Bondarenko's band." That is, us -- our division commander was named Bondarenko.

Helmets On, Weapons Ready

My unit commander, Lieutenant Malyshev, was summoned urgently to battalion headquarters, where he was ordered to "capture" the television-broadcasting center.

When we emerged from our APCs in front of the building -- our helmets on and our weapons ready -- not one of us doubted that we would fulfill our duty. But we were dismayed to find that the only person there to meet us was an elderly cleaning lady, trembling with fright.

The lieutenant ordered me to secure the second floor of the building. I made my way up the stairs, but there were no signs of resistance. The building was empty. No one had come to work.

We spent the whole day wandering around the building. Bored.

The next day we were sent out to patrol the city. This was more interesting. We were supposed to warn people who gathered on the streets downtown and disperse spontaneous demonstrations that sprang up. At one point someone in a crowd threw a Molotov cocktail at our vehicle and one of us opened fire in response. A girl was killed and for quite a while afterward her body was paraded through the streets of Bratislava as a symbol of the bloodlust of the Soviet soldier.

People had written in huge letters on the streets, "It is XXX kilometers to Moscow! Bon voyage!" But there was no open aggression from the Slovaks. Some cadets from a local artillery school approached us and handed out leaflets asking us to end the occupation of sovereign Czechoslovakia. Young men and women walked up to us and asked, "What have you done with our Dubcek?"

We didn't know what to say. Of course, we had no idea that Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek was already in Moscow at that moment, a guest of the Soviet KGB.

Young, Sentimental Soldiers

Long-legged girls in miniskirts gave us leaflets that said we had been deceived by our commanders, that we were not liberators but occupiers. They called on us to go home to our families and friends. They appealed to our consciences, urging us not to take up arms against unarmed people. They were really unarmed.

And this disarmed us -- young, sentimental soldiers who had come from afar, leaving behind our families just like they said in the leaflets.

Our daily encounters and arguments in broken Russian brought us closer to the Slovaks. They started bringing us beer. Our officers warned us that the beer might be poisoned, but we drank it all the same.

And that is how the Soviet propaganda about the "rebels" slowly lost its force. What we had heard did not match what we could see with our own eyes.

At the time, we did not know about the handful of Russian intellectuals who demonstrated on Red Square against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. But we shared with them the same view of Soviet propaganda -- we didn't believe it.

Different Kind Of Freedom

My unit remained in Czechoslovakia for three months, during which I made quite a few friends and gained vast experience for a 19-year-old. We returned to Hungary in November 1968.

The suppression of the "counterrevolution" in Czechoslovakia has passed through my mind in many ways.

I learned that an unarmed person can stand against an armed one. I felt a kind of freedom that is different from the one felt by a man with a gun. It was the freedom of an unarmed man.

It was an ancient feeling, one coming straight from Adam himself, who was driven from Paradise. Adam was released on this Earth with a feeling of guilt before God and before endless freedom. And this feeling reeducated me. The feeling of guilt and freedom -- this is the combination that has been the source of my indomitable optimism in the face of the world's hypocrisy. And it remains that source to this day.

Muhammad Solih is a longtime dissident from Uzbekistan and the leader of the Uzbek opposition party Erk (Freedom). He is the author of more than 20 books and the founder of the National Salvation Committee, an umbrella organization of Uzbek opposition groups. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Prague Spring Video

End Of Prague Spring
Eyewitnesses To Invasion

On the 40th anniversary, two Czechs and two then-Soviet soldiers remember their parts in history. Play