Even though the Soviet people started to see the weaknesses in their country, they still couldn't talk about it--at least in public. Public opinions were scrutinized and monitored: a person's public facade was different than his private behavior, his conversations among friends and family. It was called Marxist-Lenin talk in public. People started living a double life. How long would people tolerate this double life?
"The split between the public and the private self, official and unofficial language, outward conformity and inward dissent...I applaud conduct by the state I would never endorse in private life." Timothy Garton Ash, historian.
The Prague Spring of 1968
I marvel as I walk and drive through the most beautiful spring I have ever seen. The trees bursting with pink, purples, and yellows are everywhere. The redbuds are stunning.Yet, is it really the most beautiful I've ever seen? Probably not. The feeling is because spring goes so fast. We are not ready for it to pass.
The unrest started in Poland triggered by concern over declining growth rates, agriculture failures, and keeping up with Western growth. Intellectuals spoke out, but most were arrested. The voices died out.
Alexander Dubcek was the leader of Czechoslovakia and vowed to give socialism a human face. His country too was faced with economic stagnation and so he implemented changes, and planned to implement the "democratization of the entire socio-politico system." Censorship, eased, dialogue began. Revolting students were placated. Hope emerged.
The hope made its way to Poland, and Moscow got nervous. The Soviets feared a break in the communist block. Brezhnev met with Dubcek and demanded re-implementation of censorship and media control.
Warsaw Pact troops moved into Prague on the night of August 20, 1968. Dubcek was arrested along with other Czech reformists and taken to Moscow. The rise to democracy ended as quickly as it started--like spring. Yet there is a perceivable shift. When the troops entered the country, they are booed. Protests in Yugoslavia, Romania, China and even a small demonstration at Lenin's tomb, reveal a united, eastern world discontent with the way things are.
The United States protested the Soviet stop to freedom in Czechoslovakia, because they feared nuclear confrontation. From the Cold War, by Isaacs and Downing:
Events in the mid 1960s blurred the image of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to see the US as freedom's champion when race riots protested inequalities, and police clubbed and tear-gassed anti-war protesters outside the hotel where the Democratic leadership was gathering. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed the Soviet people without grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a government that claimed to rule on the people's behalf. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended for decades a possible third way in East Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the communist bloc.
John Gaddis, professor of Cold War History at Harvard University writes, “Brezhnev’s problem was that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union like all other ruling communist parties, drew its authority from its claim to historical infallibility: that left it vulnerable when events failed to follow the script. Once it became clear that that was happening, there was little left—apart from a morally and legally indefensible use of force, as in Czechoslovakia—to justify the party’s existence. Its legitimacy rested on an increasingly implausible ideology, and nothing more.”
Little pockets kept the faith in Prague--one of those pockets held the playwright Vaclav Havel. The story of the spirited writer doesn't die. When he is imprisoned, he writes. For four years, it is he who puts a face on his country through his writings. John Gaddis writes: “That (prison time), gave Havel the motive and the time, through his essays and plays to become the most the most influential chronicler of his generations disillusionment with communism. He was, it has been said, a Lennonist rather than a Leninist.— He did not call for outright resistance: given the state’s police powers, there would have been little point in that. Instead he encouraged something more subtle, developing standards for individual behavior apart from those of the state. People who failed to do this, he wrote, “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” But people who were true to what they themselves believed—even in so small a matter as a brewer deciding to brew better beer than the official regulations called for—could ultimately subvert thee system.”
I love that the spirit of the revolution, what has been called a great part of the cumulative effect in breaking the back of communism, came from the power of the pen and not the force of the sword--that it's greatest influence emphasized the best of the spirit of man.
This spirit was set into motion by the Conference on Security and co-operation in Helsinki in 1975...continued in CW #16.