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The Day the Soviets Arrived to Crush the Prague Spring, in Rarely Seen Photos

On August 20th and 21st, 1968, fifty years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of Soviet and allied Warsaw Pact troops poured over the Czechoslovak border from surrounding countries in a massive show of force that quickly deposed the government of Alexander Dubček. As the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party, Dubček had presided over a short-lived experiment in Communist liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Dubček had rehabilitated political opponents, abolished restrictions on travel, erased press censorship, and encouraged freedom of expression; he later remembered being inspired by the French Revolution’s calls for “Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité.” But the artistic and political ferment that resulted—Dubček referred to his program as “socialism with a human face”—proved too much for the doughty post-Stalinist Russian premier, Leonid Brezhnev. In the face of the Soviet invasion, the Prague Spring partisans adopted a policy of nonviolent resistance, which allowed them to hold out for another eight months, but the movement was ultimately crushed. The invasion evolved into an occupation that continued for twenty years, leading to a mass emigration from the country and breaking the spirit of many of those who stayed behind.

Wenceslas Square, Prague, August 21, 1968. Photograph by Vladimír Lammer / Courtesy Czech Center New York

Dvorakova had originally planned a commemorative exhibit featuring the work of Josef Koudelka, who took many of the iconic photographs of the Soviet invasion. (His images were initially published by the Sunday Times Magazine in London at the time of invasion itself, under the initials “P.P.,” for “Prague Photographer,” in order to protect Koudelka from retaliation.) But Koudelka’s photographs were already well known, and a friend suggested that Dvorakova instead speak with Dana Kyndrová, another Czech photographer, who was working inside the Czech Republic to collect photographs of major events in Czech history, including the invasion of 1968. Many of the photographs Kyndrova gathered had never previously been seen; some had to be printed directly from negatives. An exhibit of some of the images was staged in Prague in 2008, but they subsequently had little circulation outside of the Czech Republic. So, in July, Dvorakova met with Kyndrová in Prague, and they chose twenty photos taken during the initial twenty-four hours of the 1968 invasion. Dvorakova had prints made and brought them back in her suitcase. The photographs show the shock and grief of ordinary Prague citizens, and also residents’ efforts to impede and obstruct the plans of occupying troops. Dvorakova’s goal in the new exhibit, she said, is “to illustrate events that happened, hour by hour, on that one day.”

Prague, August 21, 1968. Photograph by Josef Hník / Courtesy Czech Center New York
Prague, August 21, 1968. Photograph by Bohumil Dobrovolský / Courtesy Czech Center New York

Photos of Dušan Neumann: I Saw It Happen – Prague, August 1968

To commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact, Czech Center New York presents the lesser known photographs of this historic event taken by reporter Dušan Neumann. The Czech-American journalist managed to capture unique shots of the first hours of the occupation in August ’68 that took place in Prague, the repercussions of which put a stop to the efforts to liberalize the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

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