15. 6. 2023 - 10. 9. 2023
During the night of the 20th to the 21st of August 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by a half-a-million army of the five states of the Soviet bloc – Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic. It was conducted with heavy army machinery including tanks. Therefore, the decision of Moscow harshly and ruthlessly ended the Prague Spring, which attempted to democratize the totalitarian régime. The citizens were horrified and fought with their bare hands in the streets against the armed occupiers. The most dramatic moments took place in front of the building of the Czechoslovak Radio in Prague. This occurred because of the fact, that people attempted to block the occupation of the radio station by creating barricades made from trucks, buses, and their bodies. However, clashes with the occupiers also occurred in many other locations of the republic. The aggressive and reckless behavior of the oppressors took its penalty. In 1968 a total of 137 Czechoslovak citizens died and more than 500 were badly injured because of the occupiers.
The group exhibition of the 26 photographers is a reminder of this year’s 55th anniversary of the historical event.
Dana Kyndrová, curator
REMEMBERANCE AGAINST DEATH
Debates around the significance of the Prague Spring are fruitful not in the least because they keep the event’s memory alive. Interpretations of the time of Prague Spring differs significantly based on the authors’ worldview. Some see it as an example of the common Western post-Munich notions of resistance; talking the talk without walking the walk. Others opine that true understanding requires time and question why the collective Western forces should have taken a position in the events of August 1968, when it was not pleaded for, much less imagined by the people of socialist Czechoslovakia. All are united in the belief that the significance of 1968 spans beyond a single generation and wasn’t influenced solely by international geopolitics, but also by the behavior and actions of Czechs and Slovaks.
Today we live in a chasm between two cultures; a culture of rememberance and a culture of forgetting. We must not succumb to the allures of the culture of forgetting. We can draw on more than just our cushy and comfortable contemporary experience. The idea of continuity is what allows us to not stray when navigating the complexities of lesser understood historical events. Through our dedication to rememberance we can keep alive our notions of historical heroes and cowards, who aid us in understanding our current world – that is, unless we forget them.
In the 55 years since the months of the Prague Spring, the involvement of many figures showed to be less substantial then they seemed at the time. Who can now truly be interested in the nature of socialist reforms that took place in the sphere of communist social models? Instead of socialist ideological philosophy we now center our discourse on the themes of freedom, rights to self-determination and belonging to a culture or civilisation. The experience of a civilisational threat that the Soviet occupation of August 1968 posed erased any doubts on whether our place is in the West or in the Russian world, as some stubborn and unteachable malcontents continue to ponder.
The unanswerable question remains of whether “passive resistance” was the appropriate response to the violence enacted on Czechoslovakia by its so called allies. For next time, the choice of active, forceful and armed resistance might be considered. It is more of a question of the national temperament than one of calculated logic and weighing of chances. Czechs don’t like to get carried away with flamboyant and grandiose gestures, much less with acts of mass heroism. The Czech flavor of survival is different from our neighbors’; in key moments we can produce from our midst so-called lightbearers who draw the line in the sand beyond which one can’t morally retreat. Their death redeems the nation’s sin of hopelessness: from Hus and the paratroopers of Operation Anthropoid to Palach and Zajíc. One lightbearer isn’t too little or too much, yet lost is a nation where not a single person rises up in resistance to evil. During the suppression of the Prague Spring many young people laid their lives for the ideal of national freedom. František Kriegel saved the nation’s honor and dignity with his fearless acts.
The higher purpose of the events of the Prague Spring are brought to sharp focus by the war waged practically at our doorstep. It is important to deeply understand the war between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian crusade against Ukraine is unequivocally linked to the ideological fundamentalism Russia is built on – the ideology of fear. All Russian philosophy and national governance rests on fear as the basic component of societal organisation. Disappearance of fear equates to the disappearance of Russia. Ukraine’s daily refusal to be intimidated or fearful in the face of Russian threats is a symbol of impending death to Moscow. Putin can’t coexist with the freedom-fighting Ukraine, which represents the negation of his necrophilic world. Putin loves fear, meanwhile Ukrainians love freedom. Their cheerful and unassailable temperament which is an everlasting celebration of life is in stark contrast to the tense cult of death and destruction which has reached its final morbid form under Putin’s rule.
Many Westerners might find Ukraine’s unyielding unbreakability difficult to understand. For many years they haven’t experienced the calling of a cause worth dying for. But Zelensky’s refusal to leave his homeland in the face of death is precisely what once made the West the West. Man, state and a nation show themselves most openly and honestly in a crisis. How they behave when faced with a threat of death and loss of freedom is who they truly are. To be clear, Ukraine is not only fighting for the West, it is the West, a West in the bloom of its youth characterised by the power of Western men willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent an existence under slavery and having to negotiate humiliating compromises with an aggressor. Ukraine is the contemporary frontier, and its people the new frontier men. If Ukraine succumbs in this war, it will also be the death of the West. In this case, Ukrainians killed would be the last free people to lose their lives. However they will not succumb.
The Czech nation has known many ways of being; the bitterness of loss and humiliation of betrayal, frustration from existential insecurity and the cynical habit of double-think and double-speak. It was brought down by the newly fashionable cowardice and pragmatic subservience, and elevated by the knowledge that it doesn’t occupy the space of the right side of history alone. It is true that the human being is inherently unteachable, with past mistakes only serving as a basis for future different mistakes, though completely unteachable nations are no longer present among us. There is even a chance to survive this century, so long that we don’t concede to looking downwards at our feet and continue looking for what appears on the horizon. The memory of the Prague Spring reminds us what is at stake. What is at stake are our souls, the future of our children, the purpose of human existence and the values of our Western civilization.
It is commonly said that the resistance of 1968 was a breath of freedom that enabled us to persevere through two more decades of breathless degradation and repression. We learned the lesson of hope. But it wasn’t hope that died last. It was the kind of hope that survives forever.