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‘It was lethal’: How the Prague Spring was crushed by a Soviet-led invasion

There were bodies all over the cobblestone streets of Prague. They had been covered in newspapers — the newly liberated, critical, fiercely independent newspapers — so passersby wouldn’t have to see the faces of the dead.

The morning of Aug. 21, 1968, seemed like a surreal nightmare, an unimaginable descent into hell that whiplashed an entire nation out of a dreamy, ethereal season.

It was called the Prague Spring, but summer was when it reached its full, voluptuous bloom. Censorship as a government policy was officially abolished on June 26 and students held rallies in the streets chanting, “Dubcek! Svodboda!”

That’s Alexander Dubcek, the latest Communist muck-a-muck to be installed as party head and de facto leader of Czechoslovakia. He could have been just another Kremlin approval-seeker, a hard-liner who embraced the censorship, oppression and continued calcifying of the industrial machine that the Czech and Slovak lands had once been. Thousands had been imprisoned, persecuted, even executed for their political views over the years. American intelligence analysts described the entire country as “a basket case.”

But, no, this Dubcek said his plan was “Communism with a human face” and with each test — critical articles, daring poems, showdowns with disapproving Moscow bosses — he stood firm. And people started saying “Dubcek” and smiling or even daring to say “Svoboda,” which means “freedom.”

The borders opened up a bit more, and Czechs who only knew the Tatra mountains and the forests of Bohemia suddenly traveled to Italy, England and America.

Igor Lukes was 17 and was headed to university, rather than Red Army military service. He celebrated with a trip to England.

He had a double-breasted, pinstripe suit tailored for the trip at a haberdashery in his Letna neighborhood, where the giant statue of Stalin  had once stood. “Because that’s how I believed everyone in England dressed,” Lukes explains 50 years later. “I missed the memo about the Beatles and all that.”

My parents, Ludmila and Josef Dvorak, also prepared their best clothes — the dark, three-buttoned suit and blush pink skirt suit they wore on their wedding day — for their big trip: America. Their suits were not the height of fashion in San Francisco that year, either.

Farther and farther, the Czechs leaned west.

“In Washington, the Intelligence Community watched these developments with a mixture of astonishment and growing unease,” according to CIA analysts’ reports in the Central Intelligence Agency’s library. “Previous liberalization efforts in Poland, East Germany and Hungary had been brutally repressed. But those had been rebellions against the Warsaw Pact and Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe, which the Czech leadership was taking great pains to avoid. Moreover, it had been apparent even to the Kremlin that Czechoslovakia was in need of some kind of economic reform. Czechoslovakia, which was once a small industrial powerhouse, was now, after 20 years of communist rule, a basket case.”

So, the West wasn’t exactly greeting the reforms with open arms.

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“The Prague Spring thus could be viewed as actually strengthening the communist regime and, by extension, the alliance itself,” analysts wrote.

Lukes, the son of a law professor and a beloved children’s author, was thrilled by England, especially the friendliness of the British.

“I was really impressed with the way they treated me, the way they treated each other,” Lukes, now a professor at Boston University, said. In Czechoslovakia, “we were much more impatient, people never smiled, you came to a store, people barked, ‘What do you want?’ ” he said.

In America, my parents — my mom was 21 and my dad was 23 — loved everything. The openness, the music, bananas, the cars.

They wondered if they could extend their visas and earn some money to buy a car back home. Wouldn’t that be something?

They were staying with my uncle, Zdenek Dvorak, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1947 aboard the SS Marine Flasher, a ship filled with Holocaust survivors. He was just 14 and wanted to study, something our family didn’t have the political juice for in the old country. By 1968, he was an art teacher in California, married to an American woman named Shirley. They drove a VW Bug.

On Aug. 19, my mom celebrated her 22nd birthday in California with a banana cake. She loved bananas, a luxury item in Czechoslovakia that a glove seamstress could rarely afford or even find.

On Aug. 20, Lukes returned to Czechoslovakia  from England. He’d bought a bottle of whiskey at the duty-free shop and shared it with his parents as he tried to tell them everything. By midnight, they were all tired and fell asleep.

“But at 1:30 or 2 a.m., a friend of mine called. He said ‘Open the window,’ ” Lukes said.

“One could hear the roar of the transport planes that were bringing tanks. Russians had the largest transport planes in the world. One could also see tracers against the dark sky. On the one hand, it was enormously frightening. It was lethal,” he said. “But they were also, I don’t know, aesthetically pleasing. So I was in awe.”

“I met this friend of mine, we walked through the city,” he said. “We saw dead people, here or there, covered in newspapers,” he said.

On Aug. 21, my parents were planning a walk in the Sierra Nevada when the calls started coming from other Czechs.

“Look at the TV,” they said.

My uncle’s television was on the fritz, so they looked at a screen of black-and-white snow and listened to reports of Soviet tanks on the streets they knew.

The Warsaw Pact armies had invaded at night, and about 500,000 troops rolled across the country all day. Most of the soldiers didn’t even know what country they were in. Lukes said some believed they were in Germany to fight Nazis.

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The soldiers were mostly Muslim boys from the outer ’stans of the Soviet empire. Their uniforms were tattered, many of them looked emaciated. Czechs tore down signs and gave them bad directions. A total of 137 Czechoslovakians were killed, about 500 were wounded.

Dubcek and his men were arrested and flown to Moscow.

The Prague Spring was over and a new Soviet winter began on Aug. 22, 1968.

Lukes said there was a weird euphoria across the country after the invasion. The Czechs believed the West would come to their aid against the invaders. Surely they wouldn’t stand for this.

President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a statement at 12:15 p.m.

“The tragic news from Czechoslovakia shocks the conscience of the world. The Soviet Union and its allies have invaded a defenseless country to stamp out a resurgence of ordinary human freedom. It is a sad commentary on the Communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system,” he said.

America would look into this, he promised. All the right words.

“Meanwhile, in the name of mankind’s hope for peace, I call on the Soviet Union and its associates to withdraw their troops from Czechoslovakia. I hope responsible spokesmen for governments and people throughout the world will support this appeal. It is never too late for reason to prevail,” Johnson said.

And that was it.

Vietnam had America’s attention. Few people could find Czechoslovakia on a map.

Nothing happened.

A year later, when there were protests on the anniversary and the men in uniform attacking citizens were Czechoslovakian police, that was when Lukes said he knew he had to leave.

“By 1969, the enemy was not the ‘other,’ ” he said. “The enemy was the Czech police. Our own people. It was the first time I had seen the police use physical force.”

My parents stayed in America.

They debated it. They weren’t political refugees or academic exiles. They just wanted a car. And they missed their families.

But when they talked to other Czechs who were also deciding whether to stay or return, my mom said they all had the same dream. “We dreamed we took the plane home, we landed and realized we made a mistake. We tried to return to America, but they wouldn’t let us.”

Before they were legal to work, they did some housekeeping in motels and split wood. My dad worked off the books at a Kentucky Fried Chicken I later worked at when I was in high school. They bought a Malibu.

Decades after the Prague Spring, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he modeled glasnost and perestroika after Prague in 1968. The uprising in the Middle East was called the “Arab Spring” in honor of Prague’s attempt at freedom. One by one, the Warsaw Pact nations apologized for the invasion.

If you turn ’68 upside-down, you get the year that Czechoslovakians took to the streets and finally did overthrow the government in a bloodless, “Velvet Revolution.” 1989. It happened in the fall.

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