I was there when the Soviets invaded Prague. What Vladimir Putin is doing is different
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/03/2022 (388 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Six days after the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, the airwaves are alive with images of war and resistance. Almost every image, every item of news, carries a deep historical resonance: the red glare of rockets over Kyiv and Kharkiv (Baghdad 2003); a man standing defiantly in front of a Russian tank in a Ukrainian village (Tiananmen Square, 1989); women in Dnipro making Molotov cocktails (Budapest, 1956); young Ukrainians arguing with Russian soldiers (Prague, 1968); young Brits anxious to go to Ukraine to fight for democracy (Spain, 1936); Vladimir Putin putting his nuclear forces on high alert (Cuba, 1962); families sheltering in Metro stations while Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bolsters morale with Churchillian rhetoric (London, 1940).
It’s as though Putin’s savage aggression has not just unleashed a mighty worldwide chorus of support for a country under siege but has summoned from the grave the ghosts of conflicts we thought had been safely laid to rest.
One ghost that is particularly vivid in my mind is the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. A massive military operation, the largest in Europe since the end of the Second World War, it shattered hopes for greater democracy and brought that country, already firmly in the Soviet camp, to heel for another 20 years.
I lived and worked in Czechoslovakia from 1967 to 1977, and experienced the outburst of creativity and optimism and hope that led to the so-called Prague Spring, with its promise of “socialism with a human face.” And, after the Soviet invasion, I saw the slow and deliberate suffocation of those hopes under Soviet military occupation.
There’s a temptation, now, to conclude that the Russians are coming at us again, pushing to enlarge their empire by acts of war. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who became his country’s president when the Communist regime finally collapsed in 1989, pushed hard for NATO to accept the former Soviet satellites as members. One of his main arguments was that Russia remains a threat because it “does not know where it begins and where it ends.” Putin’s incursions into Ukraine appear to bear that out.
But a comparison of the two invasions reveals huge differences between the way the old Soviet Union used its military and how Putin is using his in Ukraine. For one thing, since the end of the Second World War, the Soviets never invaded a country they did not already own (East Berlin 1953; Hungary 1956). And when they did go in, they went in big to discourage resistance and make room for a more surgical approach.
For “Operation Danube,” the code name for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Moscow amassed between 250,00 to 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops along the northern, eastern, and southeastern borders of a country one-seventh the size of Ukraine in area.
On Aug. 21, the armies rolled their tanks unopposed across the border. The Czechoslovak army had been ordered to stand down and within days, despite a spectacular, non-violent pushback from unarmed citizens, the Soviets had secured the entire country, militarily at least. There was some property damage, and people died. But there was no widespread fighting, no missiles, and no bombs.
That invasion had a clear political purpose: to bring the Czechoslovak leadership under its control. On the first day, the invading forces arrested the Czechoslovak Communist Party presidium and whisked them off to Moscow, where they forced them to sign the so-called Moscow Protocol, essentially capitulating to the Soviets and agreeing to what amounted to a military occupation.
The Czechoslovak leaders were then flown back to Prague, where they faced the humiliating task of dismantling the reforms they themselves had set in motion. Any authority they may have had with the people was destroyed. It all happened in the course of six days.
At this point, it’s too early to say when, or even if, Putin’s troops will be able to claim they’ve conquered Ukraine. So far, despite the talk about “Putin’s playbook,” there’s little evidence of a well-thought-out military or political strategy. Far from humiliating the Ukrainians, Putin has stiffened their resolve. It seems clear President Zelenskyy won’t be his stooge. Does Putin have another government waiting in the wings?
The shambolic air of Putin’s invasion is reminiscent of “Operation Shock and Awe,” when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, driven by little more than false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and a naïve belief that if Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship were crushed, democracy would naturally arise from the rubble. We know how that turned out.
Putin’s stated reason for going to war––to prevent a genocide and root out the fascists––is just as absurd, while his probable real reason – to crush a burgeoning democracy on his doorstep because it could give his people dangerous ideas and threaten his hold on power – raises his unprovoked invasion to the level of a war crime.
In retrospect, the Soviet Union’s greatest weapon in wielding power over its empire was one the tanks were merely there to enforce: a coherent ideology. That ideology – Marxism-Leninism, Scientific Socialism, or Real Socialism (the nomenclature varied with the times) — was the glue that bonded the countries in its empire to Moscow and to each other. It was the catechism that bound the party faithful to the faith, the standard by which loyalty to the party was measured, the lie-detector used to expose and root out deviation and counter-revolution. It was above the law.
After Stalin’s death, ideology became stronger than any single leader, and, with few exceptions, Soviet leaders were a parade of grey, interchangeable representatives of an impersonal yet implacable system.
That was what Alexander Dubček, his band of reformers, and the Czechoslovak people, were up against in 1968. It was a ruthless force, backed by tanks, but it ensured that the ideology held firm for another 20 years. The invasion of Czechoslovakia did little to shake up the postwar world order, because that was not the point.
Vladimir Putin may have ambitions to restore a greater Russian empire, but he has no ideological superstructure to help him do it. That’s one reason his invasion of Ukraine is so unsettling: we have no way of predicting what he will do next, or how far he will go. Putin’s Russia is a dictatorship of one man. He is beholden to no ideology. That allows him to behave irrationally if he chooses, but it also makes his hold on power vulnerable. Dictatorships usually die with the dictator.
One final comparison: on the day of the Soviet invasion into Czechoslovakia, a tiny band of eight Russian dissidents assembled on Red Square and unfurled banners protesting the invasion. Their bravery is now part of the history of that event but at the time, they were arrested and jailed, sent to psychiatric hospitals, or into exile.
In contrast, last Thursday, the day of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, thousands of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg and in dozens of other cities and towns, braved arrest and imprisonment to protest the invasion. The demonstrations are only growing. That does not bode well for Putin.
Acts of war have unintended consequences. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia spawned a powerful dissident movement that helped bring down the regime once and for all.
In the fullness of time, could not a similar fate await Putin?
Paul Wilson is a writer and translator. He has translated books by Václav Havel, Josef Škvorecký and others.