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Revolutionary Shouting And Dead Silence

A man tries to help people killed or wounded in the Prague Spring uprising on August 21, 1968, the first day of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A man tries to help people killed or wounded in the Prague Spring uprising on August 21, 1968, the first day of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Last year, it seems, everyone was thinking about 1968. Where they were, what they did, what the year of global revolution really meant. And I was no exception.

In fact, in a way, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

I was 20 years old in 1968 and a student at a provincial university in Ukraine. As such, I played a small, but appropriate, role in the events of that turbulent year.

First, I made my contribution to the sexual revolution by having an affair – a genuine love affair – with my English-language instructor. It was like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the English Department of that sleepy, third-rate institution, and my revolutionary gesture had its cost, albeit not for me. My amour was quickly stripped of her post, although she landed on her feet soon after with a position at the local medical institute.

I also became involved in spreading the word about the Prague Spring. I miraculously laid my hands on a Ukrainian (Ruthenian) newspaper published in Slovakia. It had printed the Action Program of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, a document that was the apotheosis of liberal thought by the standards of that time and place. I read it aloud at my university wherever and whenever I could find someone to listen, including in my political-instruction classes.

The spring came and went. I spent the summer of 1968 working as a counselor at a pioneer camp. When Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, I heard about it from a loudspeaker nailed to the tallest pine tree in the camp’s activity area. It was the beginning of new period of political instruction.

When university classes resumed in September, a man I remember as First Lieutenant Reshetilov summoned me to the so-called special department and asked me directly how I felt about the socialist camp’s “fraternal assistance” to Czechoslovakia. I didn’t blink: “Shame and sadness.” Over the next 10 years, my relationship with the KGB varied between somewhat spoiled and catastrophically spoiled. Eventually, I left the Soviet Union.

I continue to pay for the events of 1968.

'Typical' Russian

As fate would have it, I have lived and worked in Prague since 1995. And all this time I have felt how keenly I am unloved.

One stark reminder came last summer, when I was a speaker at the Prague International Writers' Festival. My name and the name of the country that is the home of the language I write in (Russia) were featured on posters promoting the festival. One of these posters was hanging in the city’s main square, and some sincere Russophobe had lovingly blacked them out, presumably not because he objected to my verse.

Thanks to people like this anonymous scribbler, I understand that to the outside world, my personal actions are of little or no account. To them, I am a representative of the Russian state and a “typical” Russian, even though I have carried a British passport for more than 20 years. But how could they know that?

“I know exactly what you mean,” I goaded them. “I can imagine what you had to go through in order to give the FBI the slip and get here. Where will you ask for political asylum – here, or in Paris?"
I have also come to believe that we do the things we do, even our most public actions, not for the sake of “the people” or “the motherland,” but – in the best case – for the people close to us and, more typically, for ourselves, in order not to disintegrate as individuals.

The writers' festival last year took 1968 as its theme and featured many American writers. They boldly denounced U.S. aggression in Vietnam and recounted fond memories of their clashes with the “pigs” at antiwar demonstrations. They drew aggressive parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. One described at length how peaceful Vietnamese villagers were fried alive by napalm dropped from U.S. planes. No one uttered the words “China” or “Soviet Union” or “Hanoi.”

I threw out the idea that back in 1968 the democratically minded Czechs and Slovaks were fighting the same evil that Americans were fighting in Vietnam: communism. I mentioned that there were more than 100,000 North Vietnamese soldiers masquerading as Viet Cong rebels and fighting in South Vietnam. That there were hundreds of Soviet antiaircraft gunners shooting down numerous U.S. warplanes and pilots.

Conference participants responded to this with outrage and humanitarian zeal. “Are you for war or against?”

I’ll admit my reply was feeble. “That’s not the point,” I said. “History isn’t so simple. It didn’t just involve America. I’m only trying to say what happened.”

I was ignored. The Americans wanted to focus on “the American perspective.”

A Czech writer was asked whether the Prague Spring was part of the revolutionary wave of Western Europe and the United States, and he responded with a limp “we had different aims.” And I was left alone with my memories of a loudspeaker nailed to a pine tree on a day in August 1968 and the fateful message it delivered to me and my pioneer charges – a message that at the time seemed like a life sentence.

I’m sorry that the discussion ended there. My American colleagues are talented writers with Hollywood-style good looks. They are friendly, sophisticated, open. People who are not just people but doves who became alarmed in the presence of a hawk and flew away from a dialogue.

But perhaps not entirely.

'Interesting Ideas'

A few days later, the festival organizer invited me and three Americans to dinner at Prague’s impeccably elegant Palffy Palace restaurant. When I returned home that evening, I jotted down what I recalled of our conversation.

My fellow guests were a Great American Poet, his wife, and an American expat poet. Referring to the reviled administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and revealing that uniquely American historical perspective, the expat exclaimed: “What we have now is a fascist regime!” The poet’s wife supported him: “The administration has trashed our reputation!”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I goaded them. “I can imagine what you had to go through in order to give the FBI the slip and get here. Where will you ask for political asylum -- here, or in Paris? If I were you, and speaking from experience, I’d choose Paris.”

The conversation fell silent and all I could hear was the clinking of cutlery.

The expat poet was the first to speak up. "And aren't all those pathetic kiosks and food stands on Old Town Square just a kind of commercial fascism?"

Again, I couldn’t resist provoking them. “If all we are going to do is engage in withering criticism of McDonald's and airline food, we might as well ask the waiters to join the discussion.”

By this time, the situation was awkward enough that the Great American Poet coughed quietly and said, “Igor, pull your chair closer. I’m a little deaf. You have expressed some interesting ideas, and I’d like to ask a question.”

I moved closer. “Allen’s poetry, Gary’s, Jack’s,” he said, referring to Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. “All of us beatniks. Do our poems work in Russian translation?”

“You know,” I said. “you have a poem about how a bunch of U.S. troops in 1954 massacred 100 whales off the coast of Iceland just for the hell of it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Voznesensky liked that poem!”

“I like it, too. But here’s the problem: In my country, they did that to people, and on a much vaster scale,” I replied. “You know, I re-read some of your poems -- and those of your friends -- before the festival. There is so much in them -- shamanism, drugs, yelling, wailing. Acoustically, they are incredible and I realized that you were shouting -- whether individually or collectively -- because you are afraid of death. With your words, you affirm your immortality. Remember the English expression ‘dead silence’?”

“I’ll think about it,” the Great American Poet said. “I’ve never had this kind of conversation before."

And I realized that I never had either.

Igor Pomerantsev is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. Translated from the Russian by Frank Williams. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL