The ultimate dullness
From the window of my room at the Pushkin Hotel, at 14 Husova Street, I could witness the parade of tourists who were walking en masse along the cobblestone streets of old Prague, a city that, if we don’t sharpen our eyes, is reduced at this point to art nouveau reproductions by Alfons Mucha, to rather kitsch pieces of Bohemian crystal, to the importunate gaze of Franz Kafka’s icon, and its collateral effects.
Late in the afternoon, after visiting the cemetery and the Jewish quarter, and having crossed a couple of times the Charles Bridge that crowns the Vltava River, the traveler can listen to an amalgam of sublime sounds, in what is one of the European cities where classical music is one of the most respected trades; and at night, when the streets are deserted, you can experience the sensation of being in a place of the most perverse discretion —far from the blatant shop windows of Amsterdam, the brazenness of Barcelona’s Raval or the roughness of rue Saint-Denis, close to the Parisian market of Les Halles—. Prague is one of the cities where the meat trade has seemed to me most present, surreptitious, and intense.
It was summer and I felt an unusual excitement. I had landed in the capital of the Czech Republic on the same date that 40 years b, in compliance with the Brezhnev Doctrine, first the paratroopers, then the Soviet Army tanks, at the head of a contingent of signatory countries of the Warsaw Pact, burst in, exactly in the early morning of August 21, 1968.
With the eagerness of one who commemorates the roundness of a number, I had previously bought Invasion Prague 68, an album with more than 200 photos taken by Josef Koudelka, ranging from the bricks thrown against the tanks and the first corpses to the cold in the marrow that comes with the weight of the imposed power, with the euphemistic normalization, and then the false calm of a city dominated by an, up to that point, gentle friend, now annoyed, bewildered, for the most part, with his rough little soldiers wondering what they were really doing in that beautiful city, hungry for sex, as captured in a photo by Teresa, Milan Kundera’s emblematic character.
Just a couple of months ago, one of the graffiti still fresh on the walls of Paris read: “We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger means the risk of dying of boredom.” The big, somewhat uncomfortable brother (The Holy Russia, as Jan Saudek, another photographer, would title a memorable diptych of his), now arrived to impose the definitive dullness.
With the echo of the Soviet aggression against Hungary in 1956 and the post-Stalinist thaw promoted by Khrushchev, Prague had become an uncomfortable city on a mite-ridden couch, a body that moves and questions the legitimacy of the pillars that support it. In an interview with Mario Benedetti, published in two parts in the Uruguayan weekly Marcha, on February 28 and March 7, 1969, Roque Dalton gave an account of the “political astonishment” he experienced for two years in front of “an ideological panorama he did not expect to find in a country that had been under socialism for twenty years.”
In contrast to the “sense of the heroic” apprehended in Cuba, the Salvadoran poet was shocked by that mixture of “mysticism, religiosity, anti-communism, snobbery, nihilism,” in short, “ideological forms” exported by the imperialism “for the consumption of the peoples” he found among the youth in Prague. This was exactly the same thing that Leonid Brezhnev said to himself on a bad day, while shaving, I think, and when, after a slight tremor of the executing hand, a drop of deep red blood had just splashed the whiteness of the sink. Then would come an angry slamming of the door, the difficulty in falling asleep, waking up one morning repeating “Empire, Empire! (we wouldn’t know which one he meant), in perfect Russian with Ukrainian resonance, and behind him his wife’s voice: “Calm down, Leonid, but you have to do something,” while she ran her warm hand over his back.
In June 1967, during the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers, the party leadership had been strongly criticized: the writers demanded the rehabilitation of those defenestrated in the 1950s and called for a return to certain democratic codes. This was summed up by Alexander Dubček in his book La vía checoslovaca al socialismo (Ariel, Barcelona, 1968): “let us return to the origins, let us go back to 1945, when the majority of the people were with us and with our intention to build socialism.” It was Dubček who at the beginning of January 1968 had taken the reins of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, when the plenary session of its Central Committee established the impossibility for the same person to hold the position of head of state and Party secretary. On that day, Antonin Novotny, the man of the Russians, was ousted.
A month later, censorship of the mass media was lifted. Radio, television, newspapers, echoed the outcry of a worn-out population, fed up with the dullness. And making clear first the Marxist postulates of the transformations undertaken, the new leadership of the Party signed in April its new “Action Program:” the Party would continue as the leader but it would democratize its working methods, it would include non-communist citizens in the repair of the economic-social fabric, it would acknowledge the free autonomy of enterprises in their management, it would authorize small private business, it would vindicate national minorities (Jews, Slovaks), citizens would have the right to travel freely abroad, in addition to attention to the most elementary demands: a less ideologized education, a more dignified housing, a less impoverished standard of living. Alexander Dubček would also have trouble falling asleep: Bolshevism and democracy, Marxist ideology in power and civil society in full bloom, seemed arduous tasks, shifting sands; or as Carlos Fuentes would say in a text in memory of Julio Cortázar (both direct witnesses of the occupation at the end of that 1968), “the good intention of saving the unsalvageable.”
So the tanks had entered Prague. A few days earlier, Dubček had separately received visits from Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the champion of Yugoslav self-managing socialism, and Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian Conducător, cousins of dubious reputation watched by the Kremlin with dog-like zeal. The rest is rather well-known. Moscow could not afford a new Finland fifty years later. The Czechs had set September 9 as the date for a party congress to legitimize what had been set in motion, and that would perhaps be the bold moment for new demands. That is why the tanks were properly oiled even a month before the day of action, the ammunition checked in their gray-covered boxes with letters of a different alphabet, the secret cables received by their KGB/StB double agents and the troops of little soldiers without recent sex just a few kilometers from the border.
In the mid-morning of that August 21 Dubček will be arrested and taken to a secret location. A “revolutionary tribunal” will try him for his activities against the Fatherland. It was the return of the Empire. The worst was expected.
“Oh, this smells like death to me,” said a character in a story by Ivan Klíma, when the doctor was about to announce to him an invasive cancer that would not let him sleep either.
But the worst thing, like the cancer or the firing squad that Dubček was considering, would be his compulsory retirement in some KGB barracks in the Carpathian Mountains, the pressures of his captors, the fear, always the fear; then came his transfer to Moscow, his capitulation, the signing of the Moscow Protocols, his trembling voice on the radio, back in Prague, “so humiliated that he could not speak,” a feeling that Milan Kundera’s Therese is unable to forget, even from Zurich, in exile.
Forty years after all that, I was still looking for two or three traces of those years in Prague, or at least a tiny glimmer of them. Me and my photo album of Koudelka among so many tamed tourists. “There’s nothing left,” a friend had warned me in advance in a bleak email.
One of those early mornings I was awakened by the ringing of the phone.
“Oh, this smells like death to me,” I mumbled. But it was just a fellow hotel guest, full of beer, who had forgotten his room key and room number.
The next morning, during breakfast, I managed to translate from an Italian newspaper a report from the Novosti agency announcing the imminent Russian boycott of Czech beer if the Prague government decided to install an American anti-missile system radar on its territory. I had forgotten that I was in a country that produces 19 million hectoliters of beer a year, with an annual consumption of 160 liters per person. I then thought of Roque Dalton and that place, U Fleků, where his famous poem “Taberna” came from. That day I went all over the city, but I did not find the place. Maybe I had it before my eyes…, the truth is that I never found it. “Poets eat a lot of bad angels,” the Salvadoran poet had written, or in this case transcribed.
All about the press
Whoever attempts a reading of the Cuban reading of the events in Prague through the press of the time will perceive in a first stage the intention of presenting all the possible viewpoints, the diversity of that echo that comes from abroad in the form of cable dispatches. In that spirit, the July 18, 1968 issue of Juventud Rebelde merely transcribed a statement on foreign policy by the reformist government in Prague: “we hope that friendly countries will support our process of renewal and that they will not take any action that could complicate the internal situation […] creating sources of misunderstanding and tension among some socialist countries.” The following day, a dispatch from the Czech agency CTK quotes the position of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romanian president: “we consider that it is a duty and the responsibility of each people, of each party, to organize its internal life according to the concrete conditions and its aspirations. No one can have the pretension of being the possessor of the universal truth in the construction of socialism.”
However, on July 23, the same newspaper published an article from the Moscow military newspaper Krasnaia Zvezba: “Can we look with indifference, insensibly, at the statements in certain organs of the Czechoslovak press, radio and television which try to distort the aims and mission of the Warsaw Treaty…?” The following day Jan Pudlak, Czech Vice-Chancellor, was quoted as asking not to dramatize the situation, and then the support of the French Communist Party and its “total solidarity with the Czechoslovak will to determine an original path towards socialist democracy” was reflected.
Meanwhile, the magazine Bohemia, supposedly less inclined, due to its weekly character, to succumb to the immediacy of the news, began to dedicate to this situation, in the issue of July 26, a good part of its section “Throughout the World”. Whoever was responsible for this space, does not hesitate, with a couple of defining adjectives, to show examples of “the orthodox opinion of European socialism on the new Czechoslovak regime” and the “magisterial tone,” of reproach, warning and suspicion with which the five sister countries (USSR, GDR, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria) addressed the Czech leaders in a recent document, immediately answered by means of a letter-response from the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The anonymous Cuban analyst describes it as “measured but firm.”
On July 27, 1968, Juventud Rebelde reproduces a note from the CTK agency where the support of the Czechoslovak people for the policies of their Party is clear, as well as the request that in the negotiations with the Soviet leadership “the principles of autonomy and sovereignty be respected,” followed by a list of those sympathetic to the reformist cause (Romania, Yugoslavia, Japan and most of the Western communist parties), and on the other side the signatories of the Letter of the Five, with the support of the communist parties of Chile and Venezuela. Two days later an article appearing in Rude Pravo is quoted in extenso: “Either we are in a position to offer the workers something that suits them, and they will acknowledge it, or we are not capable of doing so. Then, however, it would be very difficult to maintain political power by honest means.” The Cuban Government, as we have observed, has not expressed itself on the matter.
August begins and in the first two issues of the month the analyst and compiler of Bohemia has preferred to give space to news from Vietnam, Palestine, the student crisis in Mexico and, obviously, the United States. From issue 33, on August 16, due to the seriousness of what was coming, the weekly dedicates seven pages to press dispatches on Czechoslovakia from all over the world and to an account of statements, visits and political gestures, with an objective tone, without dramatization or demonization. The following week, Cubans will learn the news of the largest military operation carried out in European territory after 1945.
The August 23 issue of Bohemia will hit the streets with a 16-page supplement dedicated to what, with the help of photos, it will not hesitate to call the Soviet occupation. Then, the first step of the compiler will be to confront the view of Radio Prague, according to its bulletin of August 20, with a cable from the TASS agency dated in Moscow which justifies the arrival of the allies with the alleged “request for assistance” from Party and State personalities to stop the threat of the internal “counterrevolutionary forces.”
This will be followed by a column entitled “The Occupation in detail” which will recount, through AFP and Prensa Latina reports, hour by hour, the range of incidents reported on the single day of August 21, most of the time in a tone of identification, of emotional understanding with the invaded country, which shows, 40 years later, what the predominant feeling was: All Czechoslovakia, the newspaper notes, is paralyzed, passers-by stop and in a military attitude are silent for two minutes following a proclamation by journalists and writers; in Wenceslas Square a banner appears: “We are a free people;” balconies all over Prague display national flags, handkerchiefs in the national colors; slogans in favor of the reformist party are heard; demonstrators shout “Gestapo!” and “Long live Dubček!”; the radio invites the youth not to insult the Soviet soldiers “because they are comrades fighting on the wrong side;” the crowd exclaims, “Long live Prague! Americans out of Vietnam, Russians out of Czechoslovakia!”
As part of this extensive press coverage, a note from the Czech Embassy in Havana is reported, expressing its support for the protest against the “occupation […], considering it […] as a violation of international law,” demanding the release of the detained leaders and demanding the “immediate withdrawal of the armies of the five countries.” At the end, in an unprecedented twist, there is a box entitled “Maneuvers against Cuba” in which, based on an AP dispatch originating at the UN, where the criteria of Latin American diplomatic sources are presented, which maintain that the Soviet attitude towards Czechoslovakia “would make it possible for the United States to believe that it also has the right to invade Cuba, since it falls within its security area,” a very curious reflection which, behind this defensive position, that of an animal stalked by its predator, nevertheless admits the provocative and interfering attitude of the other empire, that of the “comrades who fight on the wrong side.”
And here comes the final twist: the 35th issue of Bohemia, on sale on August 30, will include an address by Fidel Castro to the top brass of the Party, the Government and the television cameras. Several topics will be dealt with: the criticism of the “pseudo liberal character” of the Czechoslovakian reformist group, the “honeymoon” between “the liberals and imperialism,” noticed long before by the leadership of the Revolution, the attack on the attitude of Josip Broz Tito and his League of Yugoslav Communists, as well as —after having recognized that there was a violation in the crossing of the border and the occupation of the neighboring country— this paragraph that summarizes the historic Cuban position:
…only the development of the political consciousness of our people can allow the capacity to analyze when it [the occupation] can be presented as a necessity and when it is even necessary to admit it, even when it violates rights such as the right of sovereignty which in this case, in our opinion, has to yield to the more important interest of the rights of the world revolutionary movement and the struggle of the peoples against imperialism which in our opinion is the fundamental question…
Then, in the same issue of Bohemia, the section “Throughout the World” devotes its pages to an interview with “the Arab guerrilla organization Al-Fatah,” the crisis in Bolivia, the invasion of Vietnam… However, the section “In Cuba,” so far devoted to obviously national issues, devotes three pages to the Czechoslovakian issue, this time clearly taking sides, and in concordat with the only possible party: a TASS dispatch is quoted on the “command of allied troops assisting in ensuring the internal and external security of the Socialist State;” there is talk of “enemy elements” and of “counterrevolutionary forces” resorting to dangerous actions such as the burning of tanks and the spreading of fires in buildings; it is denounced the “unbridled defamatory campaign against the patriotic forces of the country and of the allied socialist states;” the presence in Prague of more than 1,500 Americans, spies who played a crucial role before and during the events, is announced; the intense smoke observed on the roof of the American embassy, product of the suspicious burning of revealing documents, is reported; according to another TASS report, it is established the list of the revisionist leaders caught in a “secret council” on August 22 (Císar, “apostate of Leninism,” Sik, Kriegel, Jan Prochazka, among others); a cable from Prensa Latina in Algiers is reproduced, according to which the daily El Moudjahid praises the fact that the armed occupation took place “without bloodshed;” the gestures of support from the Syrian, Turkish and Mongolian communist parties are enumerated; and finally it comments on the arrival in Moscow of a high-level delegation headed by Ludvik Svoboda, Czechoslovak president, their reception by Comrade Brezhnev, the guard of honor, the respective anthems, the jubilant welcome of the Muscovite people [coming from his sweet retirement in the Carpathians, Dubček would join a few days later], and the conclusion of the talks “in an atmosphere of comradeship and frankness.” “All this,” the new anonymous Cuban compiler clarifies at some point, for we imagine he was not the same as days before, “to explain the crossing of the Czechoslovak border in the early morning of the 21st.” It is as simple as that.
The words left out
In an account of his friendship with Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez has narrated somewhere a scene between the two of them, naked, at 120 degrees Celsius, sitting on a fragrant pine bench in a public sauna where they had been taken by Milan Kundera. A sauna, a dark, dank, secluded space, “the only place without hidden microphones in the whole city,” he says. Only there, at the end of 1968, could they listen without interruptions to the story of what happened during the first weeks of the occupation. At the same time, Jean Paul Sartre also travels to Prague, attends performances of two of his plays staged by theater people who would soon be defenestrated for their fight against an enemy, he clarifies, “present but invisible.” “I left there without joy,” admits the writer, according to a book by Simone de Beauvoir, La cérémonie des adieux.
From all this and from other properly fictional texts (The Orgy of Prague, by Philip Roth, Prague Pictures, by John Banville) a sensation has emerged, that of the not only aesthetic dullness that every totalitarian state brings with it like a brooch, a coat of arms: “here, put it on your chest, this is my dullness, you have to take it with you everywhere.”
The most optimistic, who have been the most affected, continue to think that the castration to which the Prague Spring was subjected prevented the blossoming of something, the emergence of a state (in small letters) of well-being described with rather botanical terms, such as sprouting, germination… They also think that, had the tanks not burst into the city, had Leonid not cut the skin on his face while shaving, as I like to imagine, and had he not woken up sweating in the middle of the night with a very bad feeling, a beautiful and significant transformation would have taken place in the politics of the twentieth century. That’s how they think and that’s their right.
On the other side, the unredeemed, so firm, so given to certainties, insist on placing Alexander Dubček’s project next to the one that 20 years later Mikhail Gorbachev propitiated in the very heart of the empire —at the same time when the Argentine singer-songwriter Alberto Cortés, in the Karl Marx Theater, made a good part of Havana’s intelligentsia rise from their seats, amid boos, with just a couple of uncomfortable words, or perhaps with the echo of a single one—. With naturalness, the singer referred to the USSR as just another empire, which made many of those present uncomfortable. “Empire, empire, empire,” some Cubans repeated that early morning, in their dreams, like good old Leonid.
A text on the events in Prague published by the Cuban magazine Temas in its 55th issue (July-September 2008) was conceived in that frame of mind. The author, researcher Manuel E. Yepe, attempts an approach from his position as former Cuban ambassador in Romania and witness of the atmosphere prior to that Spring in the countries of the communist bloc. Yepe sketches a panorama of the Czechoslovakian situation in the light of four decades and then goes on to justify again the approval given by the Cuban government just two days after the so-called Operation Danube was carried out.
It is not surprising, then, that the words, the clichés the researcher has ignored, stand out here because of their absence: the fact that Leonid Brezhnev made a practically secret visit to Prague at the end of 1967, where he only spoke with President Novotny, his (visible) man in the country, about the critical winds blowing within the Party; that in February of the following year he visited the city again and tried by all means to change the terms of Dubček’s discourse, who already was the driving force behind the reforms; that two months later the joined military maneuvers not only represented a boost to the Czechoslovakian reaction, but, at their conclusion, the neighboring armies cantoned there considerably delayed the return to their countries; that if the Soviets responded to the request for help from the real Czechoslovak communists, these were but eleven elements of the Central Committee working behind the backs of the other 90 percent of the members; that the six thousand friendly tanks were supplied and set in motion when the empire —another of the words obviously left out— had had enough of one of its colonies trying to be too clever by half.
When the researcher tells us that President Svoboda attended the talks in Moscow on August 23 in the company of Dubček, he forgets that Dubček had been under Soviet pressure for two days in a place unknown to his family and his government colleagues, and that the Czechoslovakian people were clamoring loudly for his release. Then he ignores Brezhnev’s words: “We came to the conclusion in the Kremlin that we cannot trust you because you do what you want, even what we do not like, and you do not accept our criticisms in good part”, as narrated by Zdenek Mlynar in his book Le froid vient de Moscou (Gallimard, 1981).
Yepe does not want to notice that when Dubček returned he was a political corpse (Milan Kundera recounts in his Dialogue on the Art of the Novel that before transmitting his address to the Czechoslovak people, the radio technicians had to cut “the painful pauses in his speech”), the wreckage of an honest Marxist, fed up with sclerosis and being tutored and treated with condescension from Moscow, a man who ended up as a forest guard near Bratislava —a silenced forester— before his belated rehabilitation in 1989.
Manuel E. Yepe leaves aside that, with the normalization, political positions were again obtained by appointment, by hand, not by suffrage, as proposed by the reformists; that the Soviet-style restoration undid the purpose of respecting national minorities, that Jews, as in the metropolis itself, were once again looked upon with reluctance, far from the showcases of the restored society; Yepe forgets that the exodus of dissatisfied people shot up dramatically, that the decentralization of the economy never became a reality, that free association was ipso facto annulled, that religion was never again seen as a citizen’s right.
Manuel E. Yepe never notes that, in 1969, barely a year later, half a million communist militants had been expelled from the ranks of the Party. Half a million sectarians? A micro-faction, on a large scale, of traitors reproducing like gremlins? The gremlins against the Kremlin? He also ignores that two years after the invasion Moscow dictated line by line a text printed by the millions and entitled Lección that traced the ABCs of the good sovietophile lamb.
While the researcher ventures the theory that the invasion was a mistake that even endangered the integrity of the Cuban Revolution, on the other hand he justifies Fidel Castro’s applause for that same mistake. And, finally, he does not even attempt to weigh with an accurate gauge the resonance, not of the Soviet interference, but of the Cuban approval: the disappointment of such varied progressives as Jaroslav Seifert, Christopher Hitchens (at the time in Cuba as a member of the brigade de cara al campo), Roque Dalton, Noé Jitrik, Régis Debray, Tariq Alí, Teodoro Petkoff, Roger Garaudy, Kiva Maidanik…
One of these, the Spaniard Manuel Sacristán, anti-Franco fighter, uncomfortable Marxist, critic of the deformations of Stalinism, but a theoretician convinced of the values of communism, stated, in a letter sent in July 1969 to José María Mohedano, editorial secretary of Cuadernos para el diálogo, one of the most lucid analyses ever made of the Cuban position from the left:
Fidel Castro’s great mistake consisted, in my opinion, in not realizing that in order to speak the truth he was choosing, precisely, the occasion in which perhaps a door was going to be opened so it could begin again a new political dialectic internal to socialism. And this forced him to commit the sin of diplomacy consisting of keeping silent that the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic was the least politically degenerated socialist country in all of Central Europe.
That the sharpest questionings come from the left —it is obvious, the zone of pain— is an indicator of something, and this makes it less easy for the wound to heal. Yepe is not lying when he assures that the Cuban gesture propitiated “a positive turn in the Cuban-Soviet relations,” we know that. He had previously noted that, with the outcome of the Missile Crisis in 1962, the relationship had been affected “at least on the level of trust,” so that, we now deduce, it was restored with the Cuban support in 1968, even though they were applauding a mistake. What happened 20 years later, with Gorbachev, continues to be the emergency card for those who, even today, justify that mistake and its consequent applause; a dubious card, which is neither clover nor heart, since it is still marked by an arbitrary parallel and by the hangover of a hypothesis.
In an interview published in the magazine Vuelta, in February 1994, the Czech Marxist philosopher Karel Kosik affirmed that the Prague Spring represented a third way between the Stalinism of the Soviets and the capitalist market economy, hence its validity —or so we must think—, the need for two, three attempts at a spring. However, in the end it is a political platform based on something that never came to pass, or at least to come to fruition, in a failed flowering. Hence, ten years after the invasion Manuel Sacristán insisted that it had to be allowed to grow, as Yepe does not believe, even after assuming all possible risks: larvae, fires, floods…
“There was undoubtedly the risk of a bourgeois offensive, with its bridgeheads within the same leading organs of the State and the Party,” warns the former ambassador. “But not to conceal that possibility, but to resist it and defeat it, was the necessary condition to move from bureaucratic authoritarianism to a regime of socialist transition.”
Sergio Pitol, Mexican ambassador to Czechoslovakia between 1983 and 1988, gives an account in his book El Viaje of the atmosphere in Prague even so many years later:
Hatred toward the Russians was intense, monolithic, visceral; and no fissure, not even the slightest nuance, was allowed. It extended, albeit with less intensity, to the other socialist countries for having collaborated in the military occupation that cut short the experiment known as “socialism with a human face” in Prague in 1968. When I took up my post at the embassy, fifteen years had already passed since that infamy, but the memory of the tanks in the streets, the days of humiliation and impotence, the absurd argument that the Czechs and Slovaks asked for that help to put an end to the enemies of socialism, refocused the anger of the population instead of diminishing it.
What if the Soviet operation provoked nothing but the hatching of a myth? That the allied tanks have prevented the flowering of something, the maturation of an exciting political project, has served to divinize it, for we are before the castration of a beautiful calf that never generated offspring. What would have become of Rimbaud if he had not abandoned poetry at the age of 19 to devote himself, among other things, to arms trafficking in the deserts of Abyssinia? We will never know. Hence, both Prague and Rimbaud suffered from the syndrome of prematurity.
For much of the left, Prague is a hypothesis. Or at least its Spring still is —for those who dream of it and beat their chests, and for those who continue to justify the irruption of the “comrade who fights on the wrong side”—, a hypothetical spring, with all those botanical terms that have accompanied it ever since: germination, sprouting… Not the city, the city-Prague is there, with its river, its bridges and those winding streets where tamed tourists tend to get lost.
* Originally published in the blog Penúltimos días, January 6, 2009.