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Spirit Of Freedom And Freedom Of Spirit

Pavel Sevyarynets
Pavel Sevyarynets
More than 10 years ago, during a time of street protests in Minsk, I found a peculiar statuette and a bunch of old photographs in an apartment that demonstrators were sheltering in. The statuette was of a soldier on a tank and it bore the Russian inscription: "For the Liberation of Prague, 1968." The photographs showed smiling officers in Soviet Army uniforms against a background of the architectural glories of the Czechoslovak capital.

The apartment was on Skaryna Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Minsk, which has since been renamed Independence Avenue by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. I imagine the new name commemorates Belarus's independence from the civilized world. Back in Soviet times, municipal authorities handed out apartments like the one we were moving into to retired servicemen, government officials, and KGB officers so that official motorcades whizzing up and down the avenue could be watched over by reliable cadres.

The apartment had been left by its former owner in a miserable state. The bathroom was filthy and the plumbing in the toilet was rotted out. There were bits of rickety furniture here and there and the paint was peeling off the walls. This was the way the "liberators of Prague" wanted all of Europe to live.

The communist empire posed a challenge to God and man. It could not allow the desire for freedom to prevail in 1968, and now the reanimated despotism in Belarus sees a mortal danger in the desire for freedom.

Spiritual Foundation

The Czech reformers of 1968 were descendants of all those who strived for freedom here in the heart of Europe 1,000 years earlier. In the 9th century, the great brothers Cyril and Methodius preached the teaching of Christ on these lands, bringing to heathens and barbarians the deliverance of God's word, education, and written language. They were opposed by both slaves and mighty rulers, but the brothers laid down the spiritual foundation of all of Slavdom here.

At the dawn of Reformation in the 15th century, Jan Hus, a master at Charles University in Prague, called on his people to embrace evangelical freedom. His teachings awakened all of Europe. Hus sacrificed his life at the inquisitor's stake, but the Czechs responded with a nationwide uprising that changed the course of history.

A century later, at the very place where Prague Spring flourished in 1968, our Belarusian disciple of Hus, Francis Skaryna, printed the Bible in the Old Belarusian language.

In the 20th century, Czechoslovak President Tomas Masaryk took the banner of freedom from his ancestors and became the only head of state who officially invited Belarusian students -- refugees from the Bolshevik terror -- to be educated in Prague. The capital of Czechoslovakia offered shelter for leaders of the Belarusian People's Republic, who, like the Czech insurgents of 1968, fought for freedom for their people.

We saw in black-and-white newsreels how Soviet tanks crushed the sprouts of Prague Spring. But those living today in Minsk can imagine how it really was: rallies with thousands of people shouting "Freedom," armored personnel carriers in the streets, prison cells overcrowded with political prisoners -- such pictures have become familiar to us from many Belarusian springs.

Long March To Freedom

In 1989, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Prague and freedom finally prevailed in Czechoslovakia, Belarus was just entering on its own long march to freedom. Our 1991, 1996, and 2006 were more similar to Prague in 1968 than to the Prague of 1989.

In the Soviet Union, the only Belarusian who publicly condemned the Soviet assault on Prague in 1968 was dissident Mikhail Kukabaka. Kukabaka subsequently underwent many interrogations and stays in psychiatric clinics. Why was the empire so afraid of this single voice of truth about Prague? Because Dubcek and the Czech reformers, while speaking about "socialism with a human face," followed the path of the One whom communists of all times and nations hated most of all. They did the work of the One whose face has inspired people to seek freedom, truth, and justice for 2,000 years.

Prague has long been associated with freedom and liberty by Belarusians. It is the home of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose broadcasts constantly remind us of the freedoms we lack. For me, Prague is a golden city not because of its spires or fountains but because of its spirit of freedom and the freedom of its spirit.

True, different people understand freedom differently. Comparing the events of 1968 in Prague with those in Paris, one can see that in both cities people were demanding freedom. But how different those demands were!

Opportunity For Reflection

Freedom demanded in Paris was anarchic, hippie-like, with an element of the sexual revolution, a rebellion against morality, with a denunciation of patriotism. It was a call for freedom from order, rules and, in the end, from God.

The freedom demanded in Prague was moral and patriotic; it was freedom from dictatorship, violence, and militant atheism. There were many priests and believers among those who rose up in 1968. In contrast to students in Paris, who protested against European values, demonstrators in Prague were the heirs of those who built Europe over the past 2,000 years.

The anniversary of the Prague events is an opportunity for reflection both for Belarusians -- whose every spring so far has been crushed by the ruling regime and the Eastern empire -- and for Czechs who, having gained freedom, have embarked along the path of the French students of 1968. Europe, exhausted by the burden of its own freedom, can be delivered from decadence, from the slavery of sin and consumerism, and a new barbaric epoch by a Christian awakening, such as those seen in the times of Jan Hus in Bohemia and of Francis Skaryna in Belarus.

Czech and Slovak believers prayed for such an awakening in 1968, just as Belarusian believers pray now. It should be an awakening of the countries at the heart of Europe -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus. Nations that earnestly desire freedom will gain it in the end.

1968-2008. Forty years. That's exactly how long Moses wandered with the chosen people in the desert to let the old generation of slaves die out and to let a new generation of freedom be born.

What freedom is desired consciously or instinctively by every European heart? The Bible, printed by Belarusian Skaryna in Prague half a millennium ago, gives the answer: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Galatians, 5:1).

Pavel Sevyarynets, 21, is a journalist and one of the leaders and founders of the Youth Front (Mlady front) movement in Belarus. 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
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On the 40th anniversary, two Czechs and two then-Soviet soldiers remember their parts in history. Play