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Belarusian Tank Commander Revisits The Czech Town He Once Occupied In 1968

Valery Finiuk as a Belarusian tank commander in 1968.
Valery Finiuk as a Belarusian tank commander in 1968.
MINSK -- Forty years ago, Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia.

Among the invading forces was a 20-year-old Belarusian tank commander named Valery Finiuk.

Finiuk was in charge of tank No. 386, one of thousands of pieces of Soviet armor that penetrated the Czechoslovak border in the invasion. Finiuk's squadron was ordered to make no stops during its journey, so as to hasten aid to Czech brethren in their defense of socialism.

Karel Hajek was a Czech youth of 18 in August 1968, a recent high school graduate returning to his native Tyn nad Vltavou from a brief summer holiday in Hungary.

Hajek chose to express his attitude to the operation of the "allied forces" as explicitly as was within his means. In broken Russian, he scribbled on the walls of the local church the following message: "Moscow Yours, Prague Ours." He added egg yolk to the paint to make his message stick better.

Czech television and RFE/RL reunited Finiuk and Hajek earlier this month in Tyn nad Vltavou, 120 kilometers south of Prague.

The former tank commander is today a storm specialist with a geological firm in the Belarusian city of Baranavichy, while the protesting Czech youth is now the mayor of his hometown.

In the following video, Finiuk takes his old military uniform out of a closet, where he's been keeping it for the past 40 years.

The Return of an Occupier Video 1
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Finiuk does not know that the town of Tyn nad Vltavou is today dotted with “wanted” posters bearing his youthful image and asking longtime town citizens if they recognize the young soldier in the photograph.

Finiuk wonders how those that might remember him will behave toward him today. He wonders if he will recognize the banks of the Vltava River, the waters from which he was forced to drink so many years ago because none of the citizens would offer him a glass of fresh water.

He remembers seeing slogans that said, "Not a drop of water for the occupier!"

Finiuk’s eyes gaze through the train window for most of the 24-hour trip from Baranavichy to Prague. He is lost in thought, 40-year-old images replaying in his mind. He recalls his commanders telling him there was a counterrevolution brewing in Czechoslovakia, that socialism was under assault, that the West Germans would return if the Soviets didn’t get there first.

Then he remembers how, somewhere in Poland, the mechanism that enabled his tank to execute 360-degree turns broke. He remembers the panic he felt: "Dear God, should there be war there, I’ll be the first to die!"

Finiuk recalls his surprise at the unwelcome reception the Czechs gave their Soviet "helpers." "Out With The Occupiers" read signs visible through the tank windows.

In the town of Liberec, his tank was pelted with eggs and enraged Czechs overturned garbage trucks in protest.

And in Tyn nad Vltavou, Finiuk remembers the words painted on the side of a church...

"So where’s your tank?" Mayor Hajek asks the now white-haired Finiuk, as the two finally meet.

"Only on my old uniform's epaulets," replies the Belarusian.

"In that case, be my guest!" Hajek exclaims.

In the next video, Hajek greets Finiuk in front of the town hall and invites him in for a chat.

The Return of an Occupier Video 2
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There were various reactions to the erstwhile Soviet soldier’s return to Tyn nad Vltavou. Some appeared to have recognized Finiuk. Some were overcome with anger at bygone grievances. Some dug up old black-and-white photos from the era. A retired schoolteacher invited the television crew into her backyard, where she treated Finiuk to a glass of water.

A written plea from the town’s then-mayor was unearthed in the local museum archives. In it, the mayor begs Soviet troops to divert their tank cannons away from the town center, as their positioning was frightening the populace. It is documented that this request was obliged.

Finiuk has his own documentary relic of the event -- a sketch he drew four decades ago depicting his tank’s coordinates among seven town landmarks. Only today do the townspeople discover the sequence in which those landmarks were to have been destroyed should Finiuk’s commanders have given him such an order.

RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Alena Kovarova shows the sketch and describes the city landmarks depicted. Accompanied by Finiuk, they visit the town's church.

The Return of an Occupier Video 3
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Perhaps the fact that Soviet tanks never fired a single shot in Tyn nad Vltavou made the mutual reminiscences less bitter than they might otherwise have been. Indeed, the mayor and the former tank driver are soon addressing each other in the familiar forms of their respective languages, showing each other where they made their particular marks four decades ago in this small Czech town.

Hajek attempts to find the spot on a church wall where he scrawled his graffiti in 1968, while Finiuk, on the river bank, remembers the site on which his tank once stood.

The Return of an Occupier Video 4
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Before returning home, Finiuk decides to donate all of his “relics” to the Tyn nad Vltavou museum -- his uniform, original leaflets, the sketch of potential targets.

He admits that while attending obligatory ideology classes, where he took notes on speeches of the general-secretary, in his heart he actually agreed with the words emblazoned on the banners: "Your coming here is a tragic mistake!"

Mayor Hajek discloses that it was on his initiative that the town's Ruska Street was renamed. But to Finiuk he confides, "Don’t feel bad. To what extent is any soldier responsible for the mistakes of his government? The main thing is that you now realize what it was you were actually came to liberate us from."

Hajek talks about his efforts at protest through his graffiti, what made him decide to invite his former enemy to his town, and recalls the heady days of the Prague Spring movement. "It was a wonderful time. We were all living as though in some beautiful dream," Hajek says. "And then those tanks rolled in and shook us awake…"

The Return of an Occupier Video 5
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