Spring offensive

Bohemian lake: Unsplash

On this somber first anniversary of the war in Ukraine and anticipating a spring offensive, I expected to read historical reflections in the media about the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks and troops in 1968. So I am filling a gap with a brief memoir.

With two undergraduate friends, I crammed into a mini car to drive from London on a winding route through Warsaw Pact countries for a vacation on the island of Crete. As two biology students and a medic, we stopped in Brno to pay homage to the abbot who pioneered the science of genetics.

Curiosity drew us to a loud disco playing Western pop music in Horni Pena, Bohemia. The local youth gave the rare foreign visitors a huge welcome. They were eager to learn about Western lives they hoped to emulate after recent reforms by the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, gave hope for a more liberal regime.

We heard ominous noises under the bonnet (hood) of our car during our onward journey. Thankfully we manage to limp to a campsite beside a beautiful lake and met a Prague family in a neighboring tent. They acted as our interpreters. They advised us to hitchhike to Vienna to buy a new front wheel bearing. We took the part to an automobile repair shop in the village. Our car fascinated the two mechanics who examined every corner and communicated through hand signs they had never seen front-wheel drive before.

The next morning, they had replaced the bearing, evidently after working all night. Then they refused payment, no matter how hard we tried to force banknotes into their palms. The gentleman from Prague sent us on our way with a farewell I never forgot: “Remember Czechoslovakia!”  

We drove east through Moravia into Slovakia and crossing the border into Hungary we entered a cheerless country. Later on our travels, we heard that Czechoslovakia was invaded the day after we left. Another friend didn’t get out in time.

The people fell under a grim regime that crushed hopes of reform and democracy. They waited more than twenty years to gain lasting freedom.

Parallels between the former state of Czechoslovakia and present-day Ukraine only go so far. Ukrainians enjoyed freedom for longer before a brutal invasion. They have suffered, far, far more from loss of life and property destruction than in the Prague Spring. May their bid to remain free and choose their destiny be confirmed much sooner than the Czechs and Slovaks had to wait.

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