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Eyewitness: Prague Spring crushed

Ondrej Neff was a 23-year-old journalist at Czechoslovak Radio at the time of the Soviet-led invasion of his country on 21 August 1968.

Ondrej Neff in 1966 (left) and today
Ondrej Neff lost his prominent radio job after the invasion

Czechs and Slovaks are marking the 40th anniversary of the invasion, when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops, backed by tanks and aircraft, marched in to crush Alexander Dubcek's liberal reforms, known as the Prague Spring.

Here Mr Neff describes how he helped broadcast news of the invasion. Today he is a freelance journalist, blogger and science fiction writer living in Prague.

I was very young at the time, and I'd only been working for Czechoslovak Radio for two years. The foreign desk was the elite of the radio station, and I was the youngest person there.

I lived quite near the station, about 10 minutes' walk, so I was one of the first people to arrive. It was shortly after 0200. I'd been woken up by the sound of the aircraft overhead: Antonovs carrying troops. It was a very scary sight - this dark night, and all these planes without lights, like huge dark crosses flying over our heads.

When I got to work there were already about 10 or 15 people there; some of them had been on the night shift of course. We were helpless, because the minister of telecommunications had switched off the radio and television transmitters, but the technicians managed to find a way of broadcasting via the telephone lines.

Invasion Prague - Josef Koudelka's photographs from 1968

I can remember the sense of desperation I felt in those early days of the occupation. I felt my future had been lost. But of course hope dies last, and we thought that somehow our political leaders - some of whom had been kidnapped and taken to Moscow - would be able to get through to the Russians.

But none of us really had any illusions. Dubcek wasn't strong enough as a person to fight against Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was a dictator in the style of Stalin.

Makeshift studio

I remember very well the face of the first Russian soldier I saw. He was carrying a huge machine gun, and looked like he'd just stepped out of a film about the battle of Stalingrad. He was very dirty, and his face was full of sweat. It was absolutely ridiculous, absolutely absurd.


In eastern Slovakia, we quickly realised that we were likely to be among the first places that the Soviet army would reach

Dr Pavel Grossman, BBC website reader

I tried to talk to him, but it was pointless, he wouldn't speak to me. Even later on, when I did manage to speak to some of the soldiers, it was useless. They were totally indoctrinated. They believed they had prevented the outbreak of World War III or something.

We managed to carry on broadcasting from the headquarters of Czechoslovak radio on Vinohradska Street for a while, then we had to move to a military broadcasting studio about 2km away. We broadcast from there for about 24 hours, before the Russians came and chased us out.

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Archive footage from the 1968 military clampdown

Finally we ended up in a very strange place - a secret studio used by the Italian Communists, who had a subversive radio station here in the 1960s. Practically nobody knew about it - they claimed their broadcasts came from a secret location inside Italy, but they were really put together here in Prague.

The studio had been damaged by fire a few months earlier, and our technicians had been called in to repair the wiring, so they knew about it of course. Our technicians led us to this building and we broadcast from there until mid-September, when things calmed down and we were able to return to the main building.

Czechs attack Soviet tank, 25 Aug 1968
Czechs managed to disable some Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague

I left Czechoslovak radio shortly afterwards to do my military service, but by the time I got out of the army, in September 1970, it was all over. All the people in the radio had changed. Obviously I'd been fired from my job in the foreign section.

I ended up going back to college and trained to be a film projector, and got a job in a cinema. Later I became a photographer, and did that for 10 years. In the 1980s, when the situation relaxed a bit, I started publishing science fiction stories.

After the revolution, in the early 1990s, I went back to where I had left off in the 1960s! It was rather ridiculous - I was 45, and I was learning how to be a professional journalist again, after a gap of 20 years.

Of course August 1968 was an important chapter in my life, as it was in the life of practically everybody in my generation, because it changed the lives of all of us - some for the better, some for the worst. Nothing was the same again.

Visual memories and emotional memories are one thing, but political reflections are another. I think the future will judge the importance of this event, because personally I believe that in August 1968, communism as a political and ideological movement lost its moral face.




SEE ALSO
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Country profile: Czech Republic
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