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'Forty Years After Prague, It's Georgia's Turn'

Viktor Fainberg
Viktor Fainberg
PRAGUE -- Forty years ago, eight Russian human rights activists went to Red Square in Moscow to protest the Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia. The activists were promptly arrested and sentenced.

Two of the participants in the Red Square demonstration, Pavel Litvinov and Viktor Fainberg, traveled to Prague for the 40th anniversary of the invasion on August 21.

Fainberg, who spent five years in a Soviet psychiatric ward following the Red Square protests, notes that in the last 40 years, little has changed. "History has played another cruel joke on us," he says. "Forty years -- what has changed in that time? Almost exactly 40 years after Prague, it's Georgia's turn. The same scenario and the same reaction -- which smells of Munich" -- the 1938 Munich conference at which Western powers agreed to allow Hitler to occupy part of Czechoslovakia.

"And the hopes are the same," Fainberg continues. "Back then it was called 'Prague Spring,' while now it is called 'New Europe,' the part that lived through totalitarianism -- Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia -- and Old Europe, which is looking around in all directions just as it did back then. I would like to say that Prague Spring was our hope, too; we hoped that spring would somehow migrate and become our spring, or our summer.

"Now, even though in our own lifetimes we have -- to use [former Soviet dissident] Vladimir Bukovsky's phrase -- lived to see ourselves ruled by the Gestapo, I think that even now that same hope exists. And, once again, one of the oases of that hope is Prague, because people here reacted correctly to what happened in the Caucasus, first in Chechnya and now in Georgia.

"I would like to say a word to all those in my homeland who do not accept their lack of freedom. I want to urge them to stay free and to choose their place in this terrible time."

'They Beat Us On Red Square'

Pavel Litvinov, a physicist and dissident who served a five-year sentence for his role in the protest, compared the situation then in Czechoslovakia with what is happening now in Georgia.

"On August 25, 1968, seven friends and I went to Red Square in order to express our shame over the conduct of our government and our disagreement with the introduction of troops into Czechoslovakia," Litvinov said. "We protested against the idea of using tanks to crush free speech. That was the idea.

"Now I am in Czechoslovakia [sic] -- it is a free country that is following its own policies, and living its own life, one that a small country should live. But back then, that life was interrupted. Here I just watched the films of how Soviet tanks were driving through Prague, shooting at the National Museum because they thought it was the radio station. And Czech civilians approached those tanks and began to talk to them. More than 100 Czechs died in the fighting.

"And what was going on with us? They beat us on Red Square. Vitya Fainberg had his teeth kicked out by a KGB boot. We were taken to the police, tried, and convicted. I got five years -- some of it in prison, some in exile in Siberia. Thank God, I survived and now can remember it without difficulty. And I think it is important that we were able to say this, that we came out [in protest].

"There is something now to remember and to be cautioned about. Because today Russian forces have occupied Georgia and it is extremely important that they leave that country so that Georgia can develop in its own way, that they not interfere in Georgia's domestic affairs, and that Georgia -- perhaps with Russia's participation -- can resolve the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this must be settled peacefully, with the participation of international observers, without arms, without occupation."

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