The day that Soviet-led armies rolled into communist Czechoslovakia to put an end to a pro-democracy movement changed Milan Tesar’s life.
“I saw tanks coming down this road here. I threw a stone in their direction and then I heard the bullets whizz by,” he told AFP in the small town of Hostivice just west of Prague.
The invasion crushed the so-called “Prague Spring” movement led by reformist Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek, which had tried to put “a human face on socialism” through democratic reforms to the totalitarian regime.
Tesar’s spontaneous resistance against the invasion had consequences for the then 16-year-old: “I wasn’t allowed to study.”
But at least he did not lose his life, as was the fate of more than 400 of his fellow citizens — men, women and children caught up in the crackdown.
On August 20, 1968, some 14 million Czechs and Slovaks enjoyed a quiet summer evening, unaware of the tragedy to come.
Certain Communist party officials and members of the secret police opposed to Dubcek were the only people who knew.
That evening, state television broadcast “A River Performs Magic”, a lyrical comedy about an old man who finds his lost youth in his childhood region.
The Communist party daily Rude Pravo discussed a change to the party’s articles of association and announced the coming visit of United Nations Secretary General U Thant.
Overnight, everything changed.
Three dozen Soviet divisions, backed by Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops, crushed the “Prague Spring” movement that had shed censorship and introduced unprecedented press freedom.
The dawn brought the first victims, with 50 people killed by the invaders’ bullets and tanks on the first day of the crackdown.
“Overall, 137 people died in Czechoslovakia between August 21 and December 31, 1968,” says Libor Svoboda, a historian at the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.
Fifteen people, most of them young, died near the Czechoslovak Radio headquarters in Prague’s centre where a crowd had gathered in a bid to protect the building with their bare hands.
“The radio became a symbol of resistance against the occupation, because it continued to broadcast information freely even after the occupation began,” Svoboda told AFP.
“Several people were shot dead here, others died when a tank exploded and the fire spread to the buildings nearby,” he said in front of the radio building.
Truck vs people
“Five men aged between 20 and 44 were brutally killed in front of the radio building by an empty truck pushed by the Soviets down this street against a crowd that had no chance of escaping,” Svoboda added.
He went on to list other victims, including a 26-year-old mother of a small boy who “was killed with a submachine gun for no obvious reason”.
“Two 15-year-old hitchhikers were killed by soldiers who opened fire on a truck which they had just got into,” Svoboda added.
Historians put the total number of victims of the Soviet occupation, which lasted 20 years, at 402.
The last Soviet soldier left the country only in 1991, or two years after the Velvet Revolution that toppled totalitarian communist rule.
“In the years following the invasion, many Czechs and Slovaks but also several foreign tourists fell victim to road accidents caused by Soviet soldiers who lacked the skills needed to drive trucks,” Svoboda said.
“But we must not forget crimes such as the Soviet deserter who murdered a woman and her two children with a hammer… in April 1981.”
The last victim of the Soviet troops on Czech soil was a 72-year-old pensioner killed by a truck on November 16, 1990, a year after democracy was reintroduced in Czechoslovakia, which went on to split into two countries in 1993.