People like anniversaries, so here’s another one: 50 years ago this week Soviet tanks drove into Prague.
Their tracks stamped into dirt the human face the Czechs wanted to put on communism (the official term was ‘socialism’, but ‘communism’ was what the Russians and their satellites meant).
The attempt was doomed to failure: human and communism just don’t belong in the same sentence. However, the Czechs felt they as sovereign people had a right to find that out for themselves.
It took 200,000 Soviet soldiers and 2,000 tanks to explain the error of their ways. Considering that in June, 1941, the Nazis managed to rout the Red Army with only about 3,000 tanks, and that the Czech army had been ordered not to resist, the Soviets took the threat to their supremacy seriously.
I was a young student in Moscow at the time, and I still remember the shock, not that I had any illusions about the kind of country I lived in.
The Soviets had form in that sort of thing. In 1953, they crushed an uprising in East Germany. And in 1956, at the height of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’, they staged a repeat performance in Poland and – most spectacularly – in Hungary, where they drowned a popular revolution in blood.
But I was a child then, and so was post-Stalin Russia. We had the credulity of children, and it made sense to us that, as Pravda explained, the Soviet Army had only just beaten NATO to it, what with NATO (especially German!) troops poised at the Hungarian border ready to pounce.
Soviet propaganda repeated the same lines in 1968, but that time no one believed them, at least no one I knew. Even though the ‘thaw’ was a distant memory by then, we had tasted a tiny sip of freedom and got intoxicated on the heady liquor.
Everyone detested what the Soviets had done. Everyone admired the five heroes, who staged a pro-Czech demonstration in Red Square, carrying posters “Freedom to you, freedom to us”. Everyone lied about regretting not having been there with them.
It’s hard to recall such unanimity among the normally fractious and argumentative Russian intelligentsia.
Our customary disdain for the Soviets was replaced by passionate hatred, and there was no going back. After 1968 anyone expressing sympathy for the invasion, or indeed for the regime in general, would have suffered social ostracism.
Half a century has passed, and the Soviet Union is no more, at least not its nomenclature. Yet the present government has exhumed its remains and is trying to perform the miracle of resurrection.
Putin’s criminality is different from the Soviet kind, but just as flagrant, perhaps even more so. One could argue it’s more dangerous for being more perfidious and better equipped technically.
Putin’s state is history’s unique blend of secret police and organised crime, morphed into one another. It’s the only truly gangster state in that, with a single-minded focus, it pursues globally the ends regular gangsters pursue locally.
This state has no real ideology as such, but it desperately needs to sow chaos and discord in the West, creating troubled waters in which the global mafia can then profitably fish.
At the same time Putin’s junta needs to consolidate its home support, and that’s a challenging task in a pauperised country most of which lives below third-world standards.
As part of that two-prong strategy, Putin is reviving the imperial idea made up in equal parts of its tsarist and Stalinist constituents. This has been the hallmark of Putin’s 18 years in power, and the volume of propaganda to that effect outdoes by a huge margin everything I remember from the ‘60s.
It’s only in that context that the latest statistics released by Levada-Centre may be understood. The question put to the casualties of Putin’s propaganda war was simple: How do you feel about the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia?
The first finding is quite interesting: only 32 per cent of Russians have ever heard of the event.
Selective teaching of history is nothing new in those parts, but one is still amazed at the collective numbness of curiosity. A leisurely stroll through the net would have been most enlightening, but enlightenment doesn’t seem to figure prominently on the Russians’ list of priorities.
Of those educational overachievers who’ve heard of that monstrous event, those who approve of it outnumber those who disapprove by a margin of almost two to one (36 to 19 per cent), while 45 per cent don’t know one way or the other.
Remarkable though such statistics are in absolute terms, they are even more instructive comparatively. For the same question was put to the Russians in 2003, just three years into Putin’s tenure.
At that time 32 per cent of respondents condemned the invasion, as opposed to a mere 19 per cent today. The tendency is unmistakable: more and more Russians feel their country is entitled to use tanks as a means of controlling the post-Soviet space.
Those who live in that space tend to hold a different view, which is why Eastern European countries rushed to join NATO and the EU the moment the door was cracked ajar. My guess is that they’d have happily joined the Ku-Klux-Klan if that had kept the Russians at bay.
Yet Putin’s hybrid war, one of those rare wars fought by one side only, is a juggernaut trampling over Europe, and the rest of the West too, come to that.
Current leaders of some Eastern European countries, such as Hungary’s Orban and Czechia’s Zeman are Putin’s agents in all but name – if they aren’t, it’s hard to imagine how differently they’d act if they were.
And, much more dangerously, President Trump seems to recognise at least tacitly that the post-Soviet space is Russia’s natural sphere of influence.
Whenever he takes time off from training for gurning competitions, Trump drops broad hints that he wouldn’t mind giving his role model Putin a free hand there, in exchange for some nebulous considerations.
He ought to chat to those who lived in Prague during that August 50 years ago. Talking to Hungarians who remember 1956 wouldn’t go amiss either, but their number is dwindling.
We live in dangerous times, and the sooner we recognise that, the better. And – with all the deference towards those who rightly deplore Islamic crimes and geopolitical spread – the main source of danger sits in the Kremlin.
That’s a good thing to realise when remembering the awful fiftieth anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion – and how it’s seen in Moscow this summer.