A modest, rather shabbily dressed man makes his way by bus from his home in the suburbs of Bratislava to the Slovak Forestry Ministry in the city center. Accompanied by a couple of secret policemen, he is ignored by his fellow commuters. Ten years after launching the slogan, "socialism with a human face," Alexander Dubcek has himself been transformed into one more faceless Czechoslovak bureaucrat.
Near the office where the former first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party now works, there is a building with a red banner slung across its facade. The white lettering, six feet high, reads: "Hail to the Soviet Armed Forces - Our Liberators."
The banner refers to the Red Army's liberation of Czechoslovakia from Nazi occupation during World War II. But it could as well be a paean of praise for its return as an invading force in August 1968. In the topsy-turvy society which Czechoslovakia has become, the reform movement known abroad as the Prague Spring is officially condemned as a "counter-revolution" while its forcible crushing is lauded as "an act of socialist solidarity."
Jiri Hajek, who as foreign minister in 1968 denounced the invasion in the United Nations, was an original signatory of last year's charter 77 human rights manifesto. "The forcible reimposition of Stalinism in this country has all the elements of a cruel farce," he commented.
Like Dubcek and Hajek, nearly all the leading politicians associated with the reform movement are either disgraced or dead.
The exception is Gustav Husak, the Slovak leader originally believed to be a liberal who threw in his lot with the conservatives and ousted Dubcek as party secretary in April 1969. Two weeks ago, he publicly thanked visiting Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev for extending a helping hand to Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In what was euphemistically described as the normalization process, around half a million Czechoslovaks, out of a total population of 15 million, lost their jobs or were expelled from the Communist Party. Writers and factory managers became bus drivers and maintenance man.Another 150,000 people - including prominent cultural figures like the film directors Milos Forman or the journalist Jiri Lederer - left the country after the invasion.
Ota Sik, 58, deputy prime minister and architect of the economic changes under Dubcek, was in Switzerland at the time of the invasion. He did not return and was stripped of his citizenship in 1970.
The result has been rapid upward mobility for anyone prepared to approve the Soviet action. This sizable new bureaucracy forms the bedrock of support for the present government.
Is is symbolic of the new order that Pargue's Wenceslas Square, where youths had protested the invasion by sitting down in front of Soviet tanks, is being ripped apart for the construction of a subway - to be built with Soviet assistance.
"Nowadays Prague is both a beautiful and a sad city," says a long-time Western resident. "It is beautiful because it has some of the most perfectly preserved medieval quarters and bridges in Europe. It is sad because it was once one of the great cities and its growth and vitality have somehow been stunted by the imposition of an alien system."
Although Slavs, the Czechs possess the virtues of sobriety and hard work which are characteristic of Austrians and German. They are proud of founding the first university in central Europe and of their resistance to the papacy in the 15th century - 100 years before anybody else. Prague is situated west of Vienna and its citizens have long dreamed of being a kind of bridge between East and West.
It was a vision that seemed close to realization for a brief period before the Communist coup in 1948 and again 20 years later. Today, however, the official mentality is that of a border state: the Soviet bloc's military and ideological front line against the capitalist West. Since the people are essentially Western in outlook, the official fear of ideological contamination is that much greater.
There has been no attempt to embark on a policy of national reconciliation like that of Janos Kadar in neighboring Hungary after the bloody suppression of its 1958 uprising. Nor is there the mood of outspoken national defiance that makes the Soviets tread so warily in Poland. Ever the realists, the Czechoslovaks appear resigned to accepting a situation they can do little to alter.
Of the changes introduced in 1968, the only one to survive virtually intact is federalization. After years of feeling exploited by the Czechs, the Slovaks now have their own regional government. This, combined with huge investments, has given their once backward capital, Bratislava, the appearance of a boom town and meant that they have probably gained most in the years following the Soviet invasion.
The biggest casualty has been freedom of speech. If the main characteristic of spring 1968 was a willingness to say what one felt, this springtime people are wary of expressing themselve freely to anybody outside their immediate family. Supporters of the Charter 77 human rights group say that after talking to foreign journalists they have been picked up by police, interrogated, and threatened with reprisals.
Other than officials, most people I talked to asked me not to use their names in articles and to delete their addresses from my notebook in case I was searched.
One Charter supported remarked: "The secret police are everywhere - and unlike the days of the good soldier Schweik, it's now impossible to tell who's an informer and who isn't. Perhaps that's their greatest achievement."
Another casualty has been economic reform - the attempt to dismantle the system of rigid central planning in favor of greater autonomy for individual factory managers and profitsharing among workers. While officials at that Czechoslovakia has not returned completely to the pre-1968 model, it has remained the most strictly controlled economy in Eastern Europe with the possible exceptions of Romania and Bulgaria.
An old Czech Communist, originally expelled from the party for opposing the Hitler-Stalin pact, says the main consequence of 1968 has been mass apathy: "Before and during the Prague Spring, People thought it was worthwhile taking part in politics. Now hardly anybody does. Politics is thought of as an evil an dirty business for evil and dirty men."
It is a sentiment echoes by a young officer worker who demonstrated against the Soviet invasion as a student, but now wants nothing to do with politics.
"I think my generation is more interested in family life than political life," this person said. "Most Czechs I know have largely forgotten about the Dubcek era and never discuss it. Our main concerns are to own a car and a country cottage - and to get away for the weekend."
For a generation brought up on the trauma of Munich in 1938 - when the Western allies agreed to the dismembering of Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler - and then the 1948 Soviet backed Communist coup, the crushing of the Prague Spring was a tremendous psychological blow.
"During the normalization period, most people felt compelled to put up their hands in favor of the invasion at political meetings in factories and offices. So many party members had been dismissed from their jobs that it seemed pointless to resist. But it left a permanent scar on the soul," says an intellectual who signed the charter but is not hopeful of anything changing in the near future.
Some workers express satisfaction with a lifestyle that, while not exactly affluent, is certainly more prosperous than any other Soviet-bloc country except East Germany. Standards of living are well below neighboring Austria but there are no great disparities of wealth. The pace of work in factories is much slower than in a capitalist society.
With hindsight, there is general agreement that the events of 1968 had a negative impact on the long-run development of the society. The rapidity with which events got out of control during the Prague Spring has made any future move toward liberalization much more suspect to the present leaders and their Soviet masters.
Outright, as opposed to silent, opposition to the government is confined to a small band of intellectuals and former politicians like Hajek, who says that "1968 was our moment of truth - the time when we virtually unanimously resisted the invasion and forced the Soviet Union to release Mr. Dubcek and the other liberal leaders who were forcibly taken to Moscow. That is an experience which cannot be eradicated from the national consciousness and it gives me a certain hope."
At present there are few signs of his hopes being realized. But in December 1967, few Czechoslovaks predicted the sudden fall of the hard-line Stalinist, Antonin Novotny, and his replacement by Dubcek.