Report From Prague: Viewing a Disaster

What follows is a simple eye­witness account of two days in Prague under Soviet occupation. This is a report, not an analysis or a commentary. It is because I know that every “Cold War­rior” welcomes the events in Prague that I must note simply that bad as the invasion was it does not compare to the United States actions in Vietnam where a million or more have died. Prague and Saigon are linked, symbols of the contempt great powers have for the right of smaller nations to self-determination. Let all those who so easily demand immediate and complete Soviet withdrawal apply that same standard to the situation in Vietnam.

I had gone to Europe to attend two working conferences, one in Vienna (War Resisters International) and the other in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia (International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace). Between the conference was a space of four days and I chose to spend that time in Prague as vacation. I arrived there on Saturday evening, August 17. I was due to leave early Wednesday morning, August 21.

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Other American radicals in Prague spent their time to good advantage, seeing student leaders, liberal writers, political figures. I simply wandered aim­lessly, having fallen under the charm of the city, the most beau­tiful I’ve seen in Europe. I stood in church on Sunday morning listening to the chants and smelling the incense. I visited the old Jewish cemetery, the most tragic graveyard I’ve ever seen, filled with thousands of tombstones leaning on one another for comfort in their eternal sorrow. Graveyards are places where the living come, the sons and daughters and the grandchildren, to honor their ancestors. Graveyards fascinate me, for they are not a symbol of an end, but proof of beginnings — here we stand, observing the gravestones, and there lie the ancestors from which we have sprung. Between the living and the dead there is a silent communion. But in the Jewish cemetery, carefully enclosed by high old walls, there was the chilling knowledge that only death was there, for those who should have come to lay flowers had perished in the death camps. The ancestors lay there beneath the stone tablets and only tourists visited, stran­gers to the family. I wept twice in Prague and the first time was when I spent an hour wandering through this silent field of graves.

I roamed through the National Museum, drank beer in small cafes, and walked out on the Charles Bridge to take pictures of the chalk drawings done by the long-haired young rebels­ — slogans in English against the war in Vietnam and slogans in German against Ulbricht. I walk­ed down the broad main street, Vaclavske Namesti, watched stu­dents in Wenceslas Square, and stood listening to debates in the “Hyde Park” of Prague, a little square off Na Prikope.

And in this way I spent my time. I had some contacts through Allen Ginsberg but they were never home when I phoned. By Tuesday night, my last night in Prague, I felt sharp pangs of guilt that I had not been more “responsible” and ” political” in looking people up. I wandered Prague late Tuesday night, until it was a city asleep and moving toward dawn. (At 11 p.m. invasion forces crossed the frontier). I got to bed at 2:30 a.m. (At that hour Russian air­craft had landed at Prague air­port.) I slept fitfully, waking once at 5:30 a.m. to the roar of jets. I slept again until 6:30 a.m. when I had to get up to catch my early flight to Yugoslavia. I went down for coffee and sensed a crisis in the air — Rude Pravo, Communist Party daily, had appeared with large headlines and printed on only one side of the sheet. At one point the Czechs in the room stood by the window and I joined them to watch tanks roll by in the streets below. Still groggy with sleep I took it for granted they were Czech tanks (who else would have tanks in Prague?). I finish­ed my coffee, packed, and then, a thin edge of anxiety working through my mind, went down to the main lobby to make sure the airport was not affected by what­ever crisis had brought Czech tanks into Prague at 8 a.m. There at the front desk I found this note:

American Embassy advises (5:50 a.m.) American citizens to stay where they are. Listen to the Voice of America at 1200 KC (if you were foresighted enough to bring a radio). Stay off streets.”

It was now just after 8 a.m. Wednesday, August 21.

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I went out in front of our hotel, the Hotel Flora on Vino­hradska Street, about 12 blocks from the center of town. I watched tanks and troop carriers roll by. Czechs stood weeping openly on the streets, gathered in small quiet groups. And now, for the second time in Prague, I wept. I had profoundly identified with the Czech experiment in “Communist democracy.” The Russians had done more than in­vade Czechoslovakia — they had sent their damn tanks crashing into our skulls, they had invaded the hopes of socialists all over the world.

There was an unreal quality to the invasion. The troops were all in trucks or tanks, not on foot. The sidewalks belonged to us, where we stood silent and unmoving. The streets belonged to the tanks. Tanks are ugly things. They were filled with young Russians, men who had been told they were going on maneuvers and found out they were invaders of a socialist country. They were frightened. The troop carriers had machine guns mounted on the front and men with automatic rifles watching the windows and roofs of the buildings they pass­ed. In the distance one could hear the harmless toyish sound of automatic weapons being fired — a kind of “pop—pop—pop.” People moved along the streets, lining up at food stores — which were virtually the only stores open. The streetcars were not running and few cars were on the streets. I had shot my last frame of film Tuesday evening and had to hike for several blocks to find a drug store open where I could buy some film. I came back, then, having seen Russian troop carriers lining the road all the way toward town, as if they were in a traffic jam. I shot some tanks with a telephoto lens from my hotel window.

Perhaps it was because we were motionless on the sidewalks, while the Russians sped by in trucks and tanks, that the invasion was like a dream. The tanks were motorized images, with which the population was not interacting, only observing. It was not yet noon but the resist­ance was beginning, as a car moved down the street throwing out mimeographed copies of Rude Pravo. Then it was noon and the first organized resistance began. A young man pulled his bicycle into the street and block­ed traffic — which consisted, actu­ally, of a single Czech truck which pulled over to one side. Horns began to blare for a two­-minute general strike. At that moment, with the kid in the street and the horns blaring, a Soviet troop carrier came shoot­ing down the street. The kid held his ground, perhaps paralyzed with fear or courage, but it would have made no difference to the troop carrier which wasn’t even slowing down. At the final moment, as most of us nervous­ly pulled away from the corner, fearful of gunfire or seeing the boy run down, an older man moved out from the crowd, put his arm gently around the boy and the bike, and guided him to one side of the street. The troop carrier shot by without ever having paused.

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A student walked past our hotel, moving away from the center of town, holding a large Czech flag.

Radio Prague went off the air early, and Radio Pilsen began broadcasting. It used German, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Polish as well as Czech — it was beaming its appeal to the invading Warsaw Pact troops, explaining there was no basis for the invasion, that socialism was safe, the invasion illegal. It was also urging the population not to provoke an incident but simply not to cooperate. Radio Pilsen went off the air while I slept in the afternoon out other stations then came on and the Russians, having forgotten to bring tracking equipment with them, could do nothing.

The dream quality came back at dinner, for the Flora is a first class hotel with an excellent restaurant presided over by an imperious head-waiter. We all went to our tables, ordered cocktails or wines and our dinner as if nothing had happened. People chatted in the muted luxury of the Flora, they ate and drank quietly. Outside, somewhere, Czechs were organizing. Some were dying. Some were already dead.

All night long there was the buzzing of motorbikes back and forth through the city. The students were organizing. The underground papers were now being printed, having found presses. About 9:30 p.m. I took another walk toward the center of town, and found out why the line of Russian troop carriers had been backed up earlier in the day.

The Czechs had built up a barricade about 10 blocks from the hotel and two blocks from the National Museum, trying to stop the tanks from getting to the radio station. When I got there I saw a fantastic tangle of burned out streetcars, buses, trucks, and debris — including at least one Soviet truck half blown up and hurled into a side street. This was where the firing had been coming from in the morning and some had been killed — no precise figures. (Note — in fair­ness to the Russians, they generally fired into the air and no estimate of the dead exceeded 30 for the first day, about par for an American riot.) Hundreds of people were milling around the barricade, while the Russians were staying discreetly in their trucks a block away. It is report­ed that at least one Russian tank was set on fire during the morn­ing at this barricade area.

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The milling of so many people made me nervous and I went back to the hotel and it was about 11 p.m. when, looking out my window, I saw fireworks coming from the area where I had just been. Beautiful orange rockets going up in the air. I didn’t understand why fireworks should be going off and went to the window for a closer look. Suddenly the crowd in the street below me broke and ran as if a heavy summer shower had hit them. I leaned farther out to see why they were running for shelter when I heard a “flick” against the building near my win­dow and realized the fireworks were tracer bullets and they were falling in our area.

Suddenly my window, large enough in any case, seemed to fill the whole wall, offering the entire room as a target. I scrambled for the side of my bed where I stayed for perhaps two minutes when I realized that even though the firing was getting closer (the gentle almost lazy “pop—pop—pop” had shifted to a a harsher “tat—tat—tat”), with tracer bullets you could see which way the fire was going. I edged back to the window and standing at one side watched the tracers climb into the sky. I had never realized before that bullets had a “finite speed,” that you could see the graceful blazes of orange climb slowly like Roman candles, and, like Roman candles, wink out.

So Wednesday came to an end. The Czech army had put up no resistance, on direct orders of the party. The only real fighting anywhere near us had occurred around the makeshift barricade 10 blocks away. But it was already clear that non-violent resistance was taking place. When I woke up Thursday it was clear at once that the Russians had made three mistakes. First, they had waited eight months too long. The Czechs, once the most docile of Communist populations, had enjoyed eight months of genuine press and radio freedom. Free­dom, like tyranny, can become a habit. Second, the Russians had assumed they would have some support from within the country and, as it turned out, they had no support at all. Third, they let the first 24 hours pass without any decisive action.

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The Russians may well have assumed, having seized the radio and tv, the airport and the train station, and having surrounded the National Assembly, arrested Dubcek, and sealed off every large area that might have been used for demonstrations, that they had “won.” Certainly their actions had been decisive, total, overwhelming. They had encoun­tered no effective or organized resistance. They had occupied the city. But it became obvious they didn’t know what to do with a population that “refused to re­cognize them.” They had failed to shoot the occasional flag­-carrying student on that first day. They had not counted on the underground radio and tv.

They had not, it seems, thought about the problems of suppress­ing illegal papers, and Thursday one could see that manifestos and leaflets and papers were every­where in evidence. Posters had gone up on all buildings. Trains had ”SVOBODA — DUBCEK” chalked on their sides. Trucks and cars had posters draped over their fronts. Signs in Russian were everywhere telling the troops to leave as well as signs in Czech urging no support for collaboration and no cooperation with the traitors Moscow was seeking to install as a provisional government. The national flag began to appear in apartment windows. Half the people on the streets were wearing bits of rib­bon showing the national colors. Police cars (Czech police) carried large Czech flags. A spe­cial appeal to the occupying ar­my had been printed up. The Czechs were also churning out short leaflets in French, English, and German to make sure the tourists understood the situation. Their radio was still on the air, and this gave the citizens hope. People grouped themselves around little portable radios. People appeared on the streets with petitions and other people stopped and signed the petitions.

An ambulance corps had been organized, and civilian cars flying red cross flags shot up and down the streets. The people were beginning to give a loud whistle when the tanks clanked past (this being something in the nature of a hiss). The Russians had taken Prague but they had not managed to capture its people.

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I went for a long walk Thurs­day afternoon, at one point walk­ing directly under the gun of a Soviet tank, to get down to the National Museum and see if — as rumored — it had been burned out. (It hadn’t been, although along with a number of apartment buildings that I saw, its facade had been heavily raked with machine gun fire, breaking most of the windows.) What I did see, and found incredible, was that every Russian tank and every Russian troop carrier was sur­rounded by groups of Czechs. Whatever spontaneous spitting or rock throwing may have occurred early Wednesday was gone — the crowds were arguing, pleading, explaining. I remember one tank on which a student was perched reading some manifesto to the two Russians sitting in the tank. If the image the West has of the Hungarian uprising in 1953 was a youth throwing stones at a tank, the image from Prague was one of dialogue and verbal confronta­tion.

(I learned that on Wednesday night all the bars had been closed to prevent anyone from getting drunk and charging at tanks. The radio broadcast steady appeals for calm, for no provocation and no cooperation.)

I walked into Wenceslas Square and found the main street leading into it filled with thousands upon thousands of persons. As I watch­ed, two truckloads of Czech stu­dents drove up waving flags and headed straight for a Soviet tank which, somewhat to my sur­prise, yielded the right of way.

My time in Prague was draw­ing to an end. I walked back to the hotel, realizing that I under­stood at last what a student had meant when I asked him, early in my stay, what would happen if the Russians invaded. He said, “For us they will not be here.” Shortly after 5 p.m. the Ameri­can Embassy notified us of a special train leaving for Vienna. We got taxis and boarded the train. ❖

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES


When Alexander Dubček became Czechoslovakia’s leader, in January 1968, many reformers in his country were hopeful that he would loosen the stifling social and economic constraints enforced in the Eastern Bloc. Ignoring pressure from Moscow, Dubček did indeed implement a program he termed “Socialism with a human face,” which led to greater freedom of expression and association among Czech citizens. After eight months of what became known as the “Prague Spring,” the Soviet Union had had enough of this satellite country questioning the Kremlin’s authority, and on August 21, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the city.

In the August 29, 1968, issue of the Voice, the editors published a letter under the heading “Czechmate,” which read in full, “This is not just a tragic moment of Czechoslovakia and its people, but also for the United States. The Soviet Union has just ‘elected’ Nixon President of this country.”

The letter’s author was implying that this display of brutality by the Soviets would strengthen the hand of Richard Nixon, an old-line anti-Communist and fear-mongering demagogue, who had recently been nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate. A Jules Feiffer cartoon at the bottom of the page revealed another dilemma for American citizens: Like the Soviets, the United States was also embroiled in a foreign conflict, one that many saw as even more savage and aggressive — the war in Vietnam.

The following week the Voice published an eyewitness account of the Soviet invasion. It was from David McReynolds, who often wrote for the Voice’s “Press of Freedom” department, which welcomed opinionated manuscripts on any subject. The 38-year-old activist had been in Europe for two conferences addressing war resistance and international disarmament. Afterward, he went to Prague for a four-day vacation.

Then the tanks rolled in.

In his report to Voice readers, he says up front, “It is because I know that every ‘Cold Warrior’ welcomes the events in Prague that I must note simply that bad as the invasion was it does not compare to the United States actions in Vietnam where a million or more have died. Prague and Saigon are linked symbols of the contempt great powers have for the right of smaller nations to self-determination.” Later he notes, “Tanks are ugly things. They were filled with young Russians, men who had been told they were going on maneuvers and found out they were invaders of a socialist country. They were frightened.” One assumes McReynolds got this information from Czechs who talked to the Russians. (In fact, he reports that, rather than throw rocks, Czech crowds surrounded the Russian vehicles, “arguing, pleading, explaining.” He adds, “I learned that on Wednesday night all the bars had closed to prevent anyone from getting drunk and charging at tanks.”)

He treks to a drugstore to get film for his camera and photographs an invading tank; that picture joins another on the Voice’s front page of an armored vehicle on the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. (That story will appear here tomorrow.) McReynolds observes a young man using his bicycle to block traffic as a protest. Horns honk to instigate a general strike. “At that moment, with the kid in the street and the horns blaring, a Soviet troop carrier came shooting down the street. The kid held his ground, perhaps paralyzed with fear or courage, but it would have made no difference to the troop carrier, which wasn’t even slowing down.” The boy is pulled from harm, but McReynolds’ sensitive account reminds today’s readers of another frustrated citizen facing down the fearsome power of the state, when that forever-unknown protester stopped a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, in 1989.

McReynolds died last Friday, exactly half-a-century to the day after arriving in Prague for his fateful “vacation.” As the New York Times noted in his obituary, this lifelong progressive ticked off many boxes on the side of the angels: “Mr. McReynolds was best known for his demonstrations against the draft during the Vietnam War, his advocacy of pacifism and denuclearization, and his two bids for president in 1980 and 2000 as an openly gay man running on the Socialist Party USA ticket.” Add to all that, “Village Voice correspondent.”


Intimate Lighting

(Ivan Passer, 1965).
Ivan Passer made but one feature in his native Czechoslovakia, but it was a small masterpiece—a rueful, droll, casually heartbreaking study of two old friends, both provincial musicians, who briefly reconnect. Less interested in narrative than a state of being, the movie is as subtle in its emotional effects as its title would suggest.

Fri., March 6, 6 p.m.; Sat., March 7, 2 p.m.; Sun., March 8, 4 p.m.; Mon., March 9, 5 p.m., 2009


Cindy Bernard: ‘Silent Key’

The gallery is densely hung with colorful reproductions of postcards that were originally sent from places that now exist only in old atlases: Nazi Germany, the USSR, Burma. Bernard’s grandfather, a ham-radio operator from 1923 until he died in 1999, received the missives from other hams around the world that he’d contacted using Morse code. The Nazis were demons for nationalistic graphic design, and the Soviets were no slouches, with their bold Cyrillic texts and heroic aviators. But a card labeled “Radioamateurs work for peace and friendship,” sent from Czechoslovakia in 1962, and a picture postcard of a long-haired Russian named Serge (with a cat on his lap), sent in 1991 as the Soviet empire collapsed, relate a more human history.

Thu., Oct. 23, 11 a.m.; Fri., Oct. 24, 11 a.m.; Sat., Oct. 25, 11 a.m., 2008


Connect the Dots

In the years following Dušan Týnek’s arrival here from his native Czechoslovakia, he studied at Bard College with Aileen Passloff (a member of the iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater of the 1960s) and decided to become a dancer. In works made for the company he formed in 2003, you can see hints of what he absorbed from his studies with Merce Cunningham and his stint touring with Lucinda Childs’s company. The physical facility that enabled him to dance with a variety of small groups blends with the aesthetic of letting drama (if any) emerge from the interplay of movement and form.

In programs and interviews, he hints at the ideas behind his dances, but leaves spectators room to interpret what they see however they like. The three sections of his striking new Fleur-de-lis (set to music by Heinrich von Biber and shown as part of the ongoing 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival) are titled “Annunciation,” “Trinity,” and “Resurrection.” I hadn’t read the program closely before seeing the piece. Re-envisioning it in terms of the subtitles, I have a new perspective on why, in the first section, Matthew Dailey, Nicholas Duran, and Týnek spread their arms to stop Alexandra Berger, Eden Mazer, and Elisa Osborne from running away. I understand that the moment when the men crouch behind the seated women and enfold them could represent the descent of the Holy Ghost, and that the women “flying” athwart the men’s shoulders can be construed as angels. In abstracting essentials, Týnek has also splintered the Annunciation in time, multiplying and fragmenting the participants (Mary, the Angel Gabriel, and the Holy Spirit).

In “Trinity,” third persons insert themselves into duets. And in “Resurrection,” the dancers lay one another out, run off unexpectedly, return in their underwear, and lie down as if to sleep (this graceless transition is apparently to facilitate the costume change). After Duran erupts into movement, they all rise and dance in individual ways in individual patches of space. But they come together in circles and chains and restate the metaphoric power of threesomes.

Týnek has excellent musical taste and a powerful sense of the pictorial. Elegantly designed, often surprising groupings and encounters are his strong suit. He’s less adept at choreographing steps—that is, he’s adept enough, but the movement sometimes looks conventional or not inevitable, as if he’d gotten carried away ringing changes on a seductive idea. There’s a passage in his wonderfully resonant Kosile, when Alexandra Berger is entrapped by others in a snare made of their white shirts; holding the garments’ sleeves, they circle her. Then for a few seconds, they interrupt their hostile walking with fancier steps. The showy passage isn’t long enough to state the folk-dance-gone-cruel idea, and it breaks the intensity of what Týnek has established.

Costumes (by Karen Young) are crucial to both Kosile (2006) and Nympholepsy, an excerpt from ScENes (also 2006). In the latter, the dancers wear long, full, layered red skirts, shorter in front. They whip the fabric around and spread the side panels like winged creatures. When they cluster and lift Mazer high, she becomes a smug giantess in an immense garment.

The many sections of Kosile—finely lit by Roderick Murray and set to music by composers as diverse as, for example, Paganini, Moondog, and Michael Galasso—were inspired by ballads by the 19th-century poet Karel Jaromír Erben. White wedding shirts become instrumental in deconstructing village rituals. They do dress a half-glimpsed marriage ceremony, but, knotted together, they trap a persecuted woman and serve as a litter on which to bear the sick. Scattered, they cover the dead. At some point, I weary of the shirts, but at the same time, I’m impressed by how skillfully Týnek and the performers (including Ann Chiaverini and Aaron Walter) weave the dancing to produce rich images of community life.