One of the most tragic and bitter episodes in modern European history was marked on August 20 as both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who were the united entity of Czechoslovakia until 1993, marked the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the iconic Prague Spring after thousands of Soviet troops and units from other Warsaw Pact nations poured into the country to halt the liberalising reforms of Slovak-born Communist leader Alexander Dubček, who billed his opening of society “socialism with a human face”.

The invasion saw more than 80 dead on the streets of Prague and thousands more imprisoned by the Soviet KGB and its close Czechoslovak ally, the StB. The event has deeply scarred the nation and continues to influence internal politics nearly three decades after the collapse of Communism and a quarter century following the dissolution of the Czechoslovak union.

Commemorating the occasion, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, himself a Slovak, said, “We must remember the lessons of August 1968. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, while there is no prosperity without freedom of expression, religion or association. Therefore, we should never tolerate a breach of international law, crushing people’s legitimate yearning for freedom and democracy,” 

Echoing Šefčovič was Věra Jourová, the European Justice Commissioner and a Czech by birth: “A Soviet tank at my doorstep is one of my earliest memories, it influences you for life. Hence, I consider defending our democracy the biggest task of today, for all of us – Czechs, Slovaks, and Europeans.”

Despite the lofty calls for much-needed remembrance and an outpouring of sympathy from across Europe, including from the likes of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who demanded that the world mark the anniversary by remembering that the tragic loss of life while average citizens, many of them young students, “defended the most basic of human rights and freedoms”, the commemorations were given the cold shoulder by the leadership in both Prague and Moscow.

The Czech Republic’s openly pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman refused to give a speech or attend a single ceremony associated with the anniversary, a move that forced Czech television stations to broadcast the ceremonies taking place in neighbouring Slovakia, including a nationally televised address by Zeman’s counterpart, Slovak President Andrej Kiska.

Zeman’s decision to largely ignore the commemorations come at a time when the Czech Republic’s Communist Party, which remains committed to a hardline Soviet-style model of government that is more in line with the 1970s than the liberal reformist movement of 1968, is gaining strength in national polls and the number of Czechs who feel any ill-will towards Moscow over the invasion has waned considerably since both the Czech Republic and Slovakia became full members of the European Union and NATO more than a decade ago.

The Czech public’s demonstrative shift from lionising pro-democracy stalwarts like the dissident-turned-Velvet Revolution icon and the country’s first post-Communist leader, Václav Havel, first began to publicly manifest itself when Czech ice hockey legend Jaromír Jágr, one of the country’s most iconic athletes and a national hero who wore the number ‘68’ throughout his career to honour the events 50 years ago, left his lucrative career in North America’s NHL – the world’s premier professional ice hockey league – for Russia’s KHL in 2008, despite having spent years making disparaging remarks against Moscow for the 1968 invasion and for being forced to learn the Russian language as a child.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has waded further into the controversial waters of selective memory regards the events of the Prague Spring when he was recently asked by a member of the Czech Communist Party about the events that occurred a half-century ago. “It doesn’t matter which nationality was responsible for ordering the 1968 invasion,” Babiš said in response.

Though he later described the invasion as “one of the greatest tragedies for Czechoslovakia,” Babiš continues to court the country’s Communists following their support for his coalition government and continues to downplay the role the Soviet Union – and by extension, Russia, which is formally internationally recognised as heir to the former’s legacy – played in the events of 1968.

Russians’ knowledge of ‘68 thin, most support the Soviet invasion

A recent poll in Russia revealed that more than a third of Russians say the Soviet Union was correct to launch the 1968 invasion into Czechoslovakia as a means to brutally crush pro-democracy demonstrations and nearly half of the population says it knows nothing about the incident, levels that show a resurgence of Leonid Brezhnev-style propaganda from the pre-Glasnost period of Soviet history.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union has become the norm under Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel who has never hid open disdain for the 1991 collapse of the country and has invested significant personal and political capital in rehabilitating many of the core elements of Soviet society, including the influence of the secret police and intelligence services.

Flush with cash and the backing of Putin allies, Russia’s state-run news outlets have spent the last two decades lauding the Soviet Union’s World War II victory over Hitler’s Germany, but have largely ignored the country’s less-vaunted moments in the second half of the 20th century, including the 1956 invasion of Hungary to quell a pro-democracy uprising, the Soviet Union’s costly decade-long war of conquest in Afghanistan, Moscow’s support for radical European terror organisations including Baader-Meinhof in West Germany and Italy’s Brigate Rosse, and the KGB’s jailing of dissidents and refusniks in the 1960s and 1970s.