Shock and disillusionment: students respond to the 1968 Soviet invasion


For the younger generation that had grown up after the end of World War II, the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 was traumatic. The Prague Spring had brought an atmosphere of optimism and genuine enthusiasm for change, and all these hopes were crushed overnight. In this week’s From the Archives, we’ll hear what students had to say at the time, as recorded by Czechoslovak and foreign radio stations as the occupation unfolded.

This anonymous young man sums up the sense of uncertainty that came with the invasion:

“I am a Czech student, 22 years old. At this very moment, as I am recording, Russian tanks, prepared for any action, are standing in a big park just under my window. I don’t know whether I will ever finish my studies or meet my friends abroad again. And I could count and count, but at this moment everything somehow loses its sense. At 3 a.m., August 21 1968, I woke up to a completely different world from the one I went to sleep in.”

During the days that followed, foreign correspondents were running around Prague, trying to make sense of what was going on. They recorded numerous interviews, especially with students, who had gone out into the streets in huge numbers, trying to persuade the young Soviet soldiers that they were unwanted and uninvited. Here are two students talking to the BBC on the third day of the invasion, August 24.

Young woman: “I have been speaking with many Russian soldiers. You cannot explain anything to them. They are like a wall. You ask them: ‘Why did you come?’ They said: ‘We are your brothers, we are liberators.’ I say: ‘No, that isn’t true. You can see that there is no counter-revolution, that nobody wants you, nobody needs your help.’ ‘No, I am your friend, I am your brother and I came to make freedom, I came to make order in your country.’”

Young man: “They are always saying that they want to fight against a counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia, but I think they don’t know what counter-revolution means. From January we had a new government which united the Czech nation, and now the Russians came to make another government. This is the counter-revolution!”

Young woman: “I think this occupation was very bad for young people, because young people were very happy in our republic in the months from January to August. There was so much enthusiasm that you would hardly believe it.”

Students abroad were every bit as shocked by the invasion, as we can hear in the following extract. This is part of a Deutsche Welle report from the West German capital Bonn on the day of the invasion, August 21.

Presenter: “In front of the Soviet Embassy near Bonn from early in the morning groups of students and young people assembled to demonstrate against the invasion of Czechoslovakia…. Can you tell me who is demonstrating here?”

Young man 2: “Well it’s all sorts of people, young people, students, some journalists I see round here, people from all walks of life, I would say.”

Presenter: “And why are they demonstrating?”

Young man 2: “Well, of course they are all fed up with the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia.”

Presenter: “What’s your personal reaction? What was your reaction when you heard about it this morning?”

Young man 2: “Well, I was gravely shocked when I was called at four o’clock in the morning and I think this is really the worst thing that could have happened to East-West relations and to all of us who thought that there might be a way of getting closer to the East.”

Young woman 2: “I was very, very sad, because Czechoslovakia was the hope for young people in the Eastern and the Western world, to show that democracy and socialism go together, that there was one country trying to have a policy for people, not for some power interest, just for people. It was very, very sad news this morning.”

The sense of disillusion and bewilderment was shared by students on both sides of the Iron Curtain.