What Really Happened in Bratislava on August 21, 1968
The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia took place 45 years ago today, on August 21, 1968. I remember it not so much because of its historical significance, but because of family stories told and embellished over the years. I decided to interviewed my Uncle Milan about it to get the real story, who was a young Canadian studying in Bratislava that summer.
M. “I was attending a Slovak language course at the University of Bratislava which is located in the center of the city, staying at the university dormitory.
The invasion took place during the night. Warsaw Pact tanks and soldiers came in from Hungary, just across the Danube River, as well as from Poland (several hundred miles to the North) as well as from the east (from the Ukraine, which was then part of Russia).”
T. Did the invasion take you and your friends by surprise?
M. “The invasion took everyone by surprise although Alexander Dubček, the Czechoslovak leader at that time, was making moves (talk of more democracy, etc.) that the Soviet leaders, such as Breznev, did not agree with and so there were signs in the air that some action would be taken by the soviet leadership to stop Dubček from going too far. So in that sense the invasion was not a surprise but when it actually happened, it was quite unexpected.”
T. What do you remember of Czechoslovakia’s First Secretary, Alexander Dubček?
M. “Dubček’s approach was very, very popular with the masses. His dream was for “socialism with a human face” and we called it the “Dubček Spring”; today it’s called the Prague Spring, and from the Soviet point of view it constituted a serious threat to their rule and control and so it had to be stopped.
I recall attending a football match the day or two before the invasion in the main stadium in Bratislava. Dubček attended and when he entered the stadium the spectators literally went nuts with applause and joy; he was the “peoples” hope for a better future.
I should point out the Dubček was a Slovak so this increased his popularity even more in the Slovak part of the country. The day of the invasion he was whisked off to Moscow and Husak, a real communist hard liner replaced him; Husak ruled the country for many years after that.”
T. What happened to Dubček?
M. “Dubček ended his life as a gardener in Bratislava. Oddly enough, the last Emperor of China also ended his life as a gardener, so seems to be a popular post-power occupation, something I keep in mind when I am in the garden.”
T. What happened when the Russians invaded Bratislava?
M. “I recall looking out of the window of my room in the dormitory as the sun came up and seeing all the streets full of Warsaw Pack tanks and troops. It was really scary, although not much, if any, shooting or other bad behavior by the occupying troops took place. In that sense it was a rather “peaceful” invasion. Street signs were painted over, and arrows were turned around, to confuse the tank drivers. Everyone was chanting ‘Dubček Svoboda’. In Prague, it was a totally different story, but I wasn’t there so cannot comment on that from a personal point of view and only rely on what I saw in the media afterwards.”
T. Did you go outside?
M. “After some other students and I settled down and took inventory of what was happening, we did venture out into the streets and mingled with the troops among the tanks. The troops by and large were very cheerful; I guess that they were just doing their duty and that they did not really like what they were asked to do. We did see one or two tanks attacked by the masses but this was the exception as the troops and folks both seemed to be on the same side. Nevertheless, it was an occupation, I was a foreigner and I was advised to leave the country as soon as possible.”
T. What do you remember of this picture of the invasion in Bratislava? Isn’t that Uncle Andy there, in the background? Did you take this picture and sell it to Time magazine?
M. “I did not take any pictures so I do not know where the story originated that I sold some pictures to Time.”
T. The family story I heard is that Uncle Andy helped you escape in the dark of night, by sneaking across the bridge unseen by the Russians.
M. “Uncle Andy did help me cross the bridge and took me to the border but it was all done the morning of the invasion, nothing “James Bondish” about it.”
T. How did you get out? Weren’t the borders shut down?
M. ”Somehow I meet up with Uncle Andy, I do not recall how that happened, I guess he came to the University to look after me. Anyway, we agreed that I should leave right away, so we packed up my red Austin 40 car and somehow managed to drive down to the main bridge in the center of the city which crosses the Danube. When we got there, there was a major check point and the bridge was occupied by a row of tanks so crossing was not possible without permission from the checkpoint commander. Uncle Andy talked to the checkpoint commander, explained that I was a Canadian student and that all I wanted was to cross the bridge and drive to the border (which was on the other side of the Danube only a few miles away). The commander agreed and we crossed the bridge (Uncle Andy, my cousin Michele and myself).
We assume that in the very first hours of the invasion, there were no clear instructions on who to let out of the country and who not to. I subsequently learned that the border was sealed to everybody later that day. When we got to the border, we had more good luck . It was still manned by Slovak agents who were very sympathetic to my situation and with the minimum of formalities let me cross the border into Austria; Uncle Andy and Michele got out of the car and stayed in Bratislava. I had a major sigh of relief when I passed through the “no man’s land” (a stretch of land about 1/2 mile wide) and crossed into Austria. That is the end of the story.
But it is an experience that I shall never forget.”