The climate in Prague in the spring of 1968 was one of liberalization and reform. Laws were passed to abolish censorship and cultivate ‘democratic socialism’. As communist Czechoslovakia opened itself up to the West, the USSR looked on with increasing disapproval. On the night of August 20, Soviet-led troops invaded Prague to bring an end to the reforms. Some of the photos of the turmoil that ensued have just gone on display in Prague.
‘In the End, the Tanks Came’ provides a glimpse of the violence, the bloodshed and the desperation that reigned in Prague on August 21, 1968. In this genteel, downtown Prague gallery hang images of overturned vehicles, plumes of smoke and civilians fighting with whatever they can find against the heavily-armed occupying forces.
One of the photographers exhibited is Libor Hajský. He was a junior at the Czech Press Agency in August 1968. Most of his negatives were seized and destroyed following on from the invasion, but a few iconic colour prints remain:
“I was just lucky to survive. Because here we have one of my photos, which is of two dead men. And I was about two metres away from them, and then I took a step back and a truck crashed into them. Someone at the top of the hill had released the truck’s brakes. I took a photo of an overturned tram which was being used as a barricade. And the Russians were shooting from behind this tram and right beside me, three people were shot dead. So I was lucky to survive. It felt like a warzone, it really did.”
Many thousands of photos were destroyed by the Warsaw-pact troops after the invasion. Some succeeded in having their negatives smuggled to the West, in the Czech Press Agency, a few rolls of film were hidden away. But jazz musician Jiří Stivín, whose photos are also shown at this exhibition, chose a different way to preserve his images:
“I took these photos because it was a very special time for me, and then I forgot where I put the negatives, and then finally now, these photos can be exhibited.”
Kamila Moučková was the continuity announcer on Czechoslovak TV on that day in 1968. She was at the centre of the action, being taken off air mid-broadcast by soldiers wielding bayonets, but, as she told me at the exhibition opening, many of these images were new to her:
“To be honest, I don’t recognise any of the scenes depicted here, because I was locked away either in a TV studio, or in a military bunker. I only gradually got to see these images and learn about what happened in Prague that day. I didn’t experience these scenes, I was never out on the streets. I was either broadcasting on television or in that bunker.”
‘In the End, the Tanks Came’ presents amateurs’ snapshots alongside professionals’ photographs. What they have in common is the harrowing story that they tell, and the fact that they survived. The exhibition runs until July 25, at the J. Sudek gallery in Prague.
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