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Our Dreams And Our Neighbors Were Lost

Lyudmila Alekseeva
Lyudmila Alekseeva
Prague Spring and the invasion of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 were historical events not only for the Czechs and Slovaks, but for the peoples of the Soviet Union and all the Soviet bloc countries. And the approval of the incursion inside the Soviet Union was not nearly as unanimous as our mass media made it seem. An enormous number of my countrymen earnestly wished for the success of Prague Spring and viewed the entry of tanks into Prague as a personal tragedy.

This was not only because we were ashamed in front of the Czechs, but also because the tanks were also crushing our common dream of "socialism with a human face." After all, in the 1960s the vast majority of people -- even highly educated people -- were socialists. We believed that socialism was the best socioeconomic system.

This belief, of course, did not stem from the fact that we liked the way we lived or how our country was run. Of course, no one liked those things.

But we didn't know any other way. After all, in the 1960s a third generation of people was being born that had known nothing other than the Soviet system, nothing but the most severe censorship and constant brainwashing. We studied the history of our country and the world from textbooks approved by the Soviet authorities. We had even lost our oral traditions, as the years of Stalinist terror had taught parents not to speak honestly to their children and not to share their life experience with them if that experience contradicted the official version of why things were the way they were.

In addition, socialism, as a theory, has many attractive features, especially to people who know no other system. Who could claim that the idea of socialist equality is not something to strive for? Who could really object to the main Soviet slogan of "everyone works according to their ability and receives in proportion to their labor," which was the prelude to the ultimate phase of social development in which the slogan of pure communism would be "everyone works according to their ability and receives according to their need"?

Not The Slightest Progress

Our problem was not that we disagreed with these postulates of socialism and communism, but that in our world -- a world that was bounded by our country's borders, surrounded by an impenetrable Iron Curtain -- we could see neither equality, nor social justice, nor attention to the needs of the people, nor respect for the individual. And we could not see even the slightest progress toward any of these ideals.

No, the world we lived in was very cruel to the individual and built on the harsh principle of subordinating the individual to the state. And the state constantly reminded us of this by unceremoniously invading our private lives. It often, for no particular reason of its own, made it impossible for people to live, or even took away their lives entirely. That is why the Czech calls for "socialism with a human face" were greeted so enthusiastically inside the Soviet Union.

At the time, of course, I, too, was a socialist. But I dreamed of democracy -- it didn't matter to me whether it was socialist or capitalist or some mixture of the two. But it did seem to me that it would be easier to turn Soviet reality into socialism with a human face than to build a bourgeois democracy there. It would be a more certain road for us to develop democracy within a socialist framework. And I wasn't the only one who thought this way.

At a time when the Soviet leadership was pining for Stalinist order, the Moscow intelligentsia was animated by the Prague Spring. The political and economic system that the reformers were trying to create in Czechoslovakia seemed like a handbook for our country. We were sure that their experience could be transferred to the Soviet Union.

I created optimistic scenarios in my mind: as a result of the Czechoslovak reforms. Workers would have incentives to produce more. Factory managers would understand the advantages of innovative technologies. Writers would be able to publish their works without hindrance. The working class, managers, the intelligentsia -- everyone would work together for the good of the country and economic indicators would go through the roof. Seeing the Czechoslovak economic miracle, Soviet leaders would concede the advantages of socialism with a human face and begin their own reforms.

Naturally, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies were interested primarily in economic achievement, not democracy. But the experience of a fraternal socialist country would convince them that democratization is a necessary condition of economic renewal.

Sympathized Completely

A lot of my friends thought this way, as well. We sympathized completely with the Czechoslovak reformers and expressed our support for them in the best Russian tradition -- at private dinners. After we toasted our political prisoners, we drank to the health of comrades Alexander Dubcek, Oldrich Cernik, and Josef Smrkovsky. We all worried about the reaction of Soviet leaders to the Czech experiment but hoped and believed they would not resort to violence.

But one of my friends, former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, was not so optimistic.

On July 27, 1968, he sent an open letter to several leading papers of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, as well as to the BBC. "Are our leaders really worried about what is happening in Czechoslovakia?" he wrote. "I think they are not only worried, they are frightened. Not because it is a threat to socialist development or to the security of the Warsaw Pact countries, but because the events in Czechoslovakia might undermine the authority of the leaders of these countries and discredit the very principles and methods of leadership that prevail in the socialist camp today."

Two days later, Tolya was arrested.

Eight of his friends wrote a letter defending him, protesting his arrest. Our apartments were searched and we were hauled in for questioning. I expected to be arrested at any moment, so my husband and I decided to take a two-week vacation in Ukraine to rest before that very likely event. We lived in a hut in the forest, gathered mushrooms and berries. In the morning, we walked to a nearby village to buy milk and eggs.

On August 21, on our morning trip to the village, we learned about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Those tanks in Prague also destroyed our dreams of humanizing the socialist regime. We were both bitterly ashamed that we carried Soviet passports, that we were Russians, and, consequently, were part of that shameful violence.

Red Square Arrests

We wanted to return to Moscow immediately to be with our friends and relatives, as people always do when misfortune strikes. But we weren't the only ones who wanted to rush home and we were only able to get tickets for August 26.

On the evening of August 25, in the Kyiv apartment of friends, we heard on Radio Liberty about a demonstration in Moscow, on Red Square, and about the arrests of the demonstrators. Their names were still unknown -- the report only mentioned the detail that one of them was a woman with a baby in a carriage. I knew immediately that that was Natalya Gorbanevskaya. And, that meant, I was sure, that Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz -- my best friend -- were there, as well.

The next day we returned home. I threw down my bag and rushed to the telephone. I stood there, imagining how I would call. And Larisa's son Sanya would answer. And I would ask for Larisa, and he would say: "Mama's been arrested."

At that moment the phone rang. And Sanya said, "Mama's been arrested."

The next day I read a letter that Larisa had written before leaving for the demonstration that she asked her lawyer, Dina Kaminskaya, to pass on to Marchenko. "Each of us on their own decided to do this because it has become impossible to live and breathe," she wrote. "I cannot even think about the Czechs or listen to their appeals over the radio without doing something, without shouting."

It wasn't only those who demonstrated who felt this way. But Soviet people then were not in the habit of demonstrating to show their feelings -- that is the only reason why there was only one demonstration and why it was so small. Actually, there were other demonstrations, but they were generally just one person.

-- A student of Moscow State University stood at the entrance to the university and gathered signatures on a petition against the invasion. He went to a psychiatric hospital.

-- Vladimir Lukin, who is currently Russia's human rights ombudsman, worked in those days for the journal "Problems Of Peace And Socialism," which was published in Prague. He spoke out publicly against the invasion and derailed his successful career for many years.

-- Vladimir Malinkovich was a military doctor who refused to deploy to Czechoslovakia with his unit. He was threatened with arrest, but ended up merely being demoted and discharged.

Lonely Protests

The most common form of protest with the occupation of Czechoslovakia was a refusal to vote in support of the action at various meetings that were held around the country at workplaces and institutes of higher education. The refusal to raise one's hand at an open meeting was a fairly bold action. As a result, no doubt, thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of people lost their jobs.

But only direct eyewitnesses found out about these lonely protests. The saddest thing is that no one in Czechoslovakia learned of them and that our common shame was redeemed in the eyes of Czechs only by the seven people who went to Red Square on August 25.

Even ordinary citizens who had no intention of protesting had a hard time coping with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I had a friend who was vacationing at the time in the Georgian Black Sea city of Sukhumi. On the morning of August 21 she was walking to the beach and she noticed a long line of silent, gloomy people at a newspaper kiosk.

"We invaded Czechoslovakia," she thought immediately.

No one was talking on the beach either, but everywhere you could hear radios tuned to the foreign broadcasters. Everyone was openly listening to their reports of the invasion.

"No one loves us," one fat man laying nearby in the sand was heard to say.

Same Burning Shame

Now 40 years have passed. But now, as I write these words, on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the famous Red Square demonstration, I feel the same burning shame that I felt 40 years ago -- this time because of the incursion of Russian forces into Georgia.

Russia and Georgia share centuries of intense cultural ties, from the days of Aleksandr Pushkin and Aleksandr Griboyedov. It is impossible to imagine Russian culture without the contribution of the Georgians and vice versa. Many of our most famous countrymen loved Tbilisi, and Georgians always felt at home in Moscow.

Now, all that is ruined for the sake of imperialist goals: let them be afraid, don't let them dare to try to get closer to the West.

But you can't force someone to be nice. In Georgia, just like in Czechoslovakia 40 years ago, our invasion has insulted our friends and squandered their sympathy and trust.

Sooner or later we will see the consequences of this and they will be the exact opposite of the goal of the invasion -- this country will be lost to Russia as a good neighbor for a long time. Maybe forever. Just as we lost Czechoslovakia.

Ludmila Alekseyeva was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and has served as president of the International Helsinki Foundation since 1998. From 1956 on, her apartment was a meeting place for Moscow intelligentsia and a center for the distribution of samizadat. In 1976, she joined the nascent Moscow Helsinki Group, and the following year she was expelled from the country. She returned to Russia in 1993. Since 1989, she has been a member of the restored Moscow Helsinki Group of which she was elected chairman in 1996. 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