Tanks against Spring


During the early hours of 21 August 1968 forces of the USSR and countries of the Warsaw Pact crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. In Ukraine the invasion led to a new wave of repression, as well as a kind of jolt of consciousness which opened many people’s eyes.

The Internet publication “Ukraina moloda” spoke with Yevhen Sverstyuk who spent 12 years in the labour camps and in exile.

Did “Pravda” and “Izvestia” write about the Prague Spring?

Yes, but only about the “debauched excesses of democracy”.  We learned the truth from Radio Svoboda and Czech newspapers. The press from socialist countries was freely sold in Kyiv kiosks. The Ukrainian newspaper in Poland “Nashe slovo” regularly received lists of “prohibited writers” and obediently stopped publishing them, whereas in Czechoslovakia on the contrary it became possible to have things published. We felt that something real was taking place there. Of course Budapest in 1956 was remembered but there it was something else. The status of Hungary differed from that of Czechoslovakia. Hungary had been on the Nazi side in WWII.  Then Budapest was “taken”, but Czechoslovakia was “liberated”. The pictures of Czech young women throwing flowers to Red Army soldiers are no fakes. The USSR trusted Czechoslovakia more than Hungary or Poland.  That was why the Czechoslovakian path to “socialism with a human face” was a big headache for the Kremlin. In its maximum form it could threaten the exit of Czechoslovakia from the socialist bloc. In the summer of 1968 it became clear that it was dangerous because Soviet republics, first of all the nearest – Ukraine, could follow its example.

The Czechoslovakians perhaps knew about repressions in neighbouring Ukraine. The historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych believes that the foreign raids of the UPA in 1946-1948 also in some way informed Central Europe about what was happening in the USSR. Perhaps the Czechoslovakians didn’t want to allow that in their country?

The Czechoslovakians who greeted Soviet tank drivers with flowers were really surprised that so many people were fleeing in the face of the advancing Red Army. When the Ukrainian UPA fighters crossed the border, the Czechoslovakian government at Moscow’s demand obstructed them.  Yet at the same time the people saw that the USSR was a country that people were fleeing from. And yet Czechoslovakia remained the most loyal to Moscow of all the socialist bloc countries.

What was the role of the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party Petro Shelest in the crushing of the Prague Spring?

I don’t think his role was large. It was not Shelest who decided on that issue. He was scared because they told him that the Czechoslovakian events were having a big impact on Ukraine.

What were Ukrainian members of the intelligentsia saying in their kitchens about Czechoslovakia? What were they hoping for?

There were different reactions. We were very much hoping for decisive steps from Czechoslovakia, however we were also fearful that these steps could be dangerous. We dissidents felt that we were a united whole with the Czechoslovakians, hostages. If there was a pogrom there, it would also break out with us. I argued with Ivan Svitlychny. He said that they would bring in tanks. I argued that that was impossible, that the USSR in that case would damage its image before Europe, that the face of communism would be tainted in the eyes of the world. I just so didn’t want them to bring in tanks.

We were charmed by the possibility of publishing in Czechoslovakia. it all happened very quickly yet each of us had time to publish something. I had an article published which I sent in a letter, otherwise there was no chance of getting it through. The letter began with the usual friendly jokes and suddenly turned to Mykola Zerov (Ukrainian poet, murdered in the Sandarmokh Clearing in 1937 – translator). There were several such letters that got gathered together to form the article. There was a passage in it where the former party critic Leonid Novychenko was called a “voluntary convoy” because he spoke out against Zerov’s rehabilitation. At first the editors asked for permission to remove this paragraph. However liberalization swiftly went so far that they stopped paying attention to that and published the article in full.

If those changes in Czechoslovakia had taken place a little more slowly, maybe the tanks wouldn’t have been brought into Prague?

One can dream that the changes went in optimal fashion, not so suddenly. However the process has its own rules. It was like the ice had broken and Dubcek was now unable to stem the flow of change. As they said in Moscow, the situation was “out of control”.  <>

Were there protests in Ukrainian society against the occupation of our neighbouring country?

The reaction was fierce in both Ukraine and Russia. In Moscow five people went out onto Red Square with a poster saying “For your freedom and ours”. This was when Alexander Galich wrote his song connected with the Decembrists:

And all it’s all the same, not simpler

Our age tries us –

Can you go out onto the square?

Will you dare to go out onto the square

at that designated hour?

This recorded the courage of those people. However to be fair it should be said that on the square at that moment were television cameras of foreign correspondents who had agreed this in advance with the demonstrators. This was not the same as the Decembrists when they went out onto Senatskaya Square in 1825.   The authorities were forced to treat this act as “hooliganism”. The participants were tried under an article that didn’t allow for more than 3 years imprisonment.

The world did not know about the Ukrainian protests although they were more dramatic. For example, on 5 November Vasyl Makukh went out onto Khreschatyk, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, shouting of Ukraine’s freedom and the occupation of Czechoslovakia.  That was so terrible that everybody pretended not to understand what was happening. Maybe they really didn’t understand. The police grabbed him, put out the flames and he died.

Then in the camp I met Mykola Bondar, a cultured young man, a PhD student at the Kyiv Philosophy Institute who got seven years for unfurling a banner reading “Down with the Communist Party!” at a demonstration on 6 November. He was immediately taken away by ambulance – the KGB had worked it all out. I imagine it’s easier to write some kind of appeal than to express your protest so desperately as Vasyl Makukh and Mykola Bondar.

The events in Czechoslovakia obviously had the most dramatic consequences in Ukraine?

It was also the determining of our fate. The gap between the events in Czechoslovakia and the murder of Alla Horska was less than two years. In Ukraine the repressions were more ferocious than anywhere. They had to isolate all those who could arouse similar moods and intimidate the others. However that was a time which sobered many. The Prague Spring had a huge impact on the party elite and generally on informed people.  It is important to hear the testimony of Mikhail Gorbachev who thought t about the evil of the system after the military were sent into Prague. A liberation movement by neighbours has a greater influence than we realize.

Yet that’s on condition that the neighbours have contact.

After the tanks the Soviets encouraged contacts, but the Czechoslovakians stopped travelling. The trains from there were empty. There they were critical even of those who travelled to the USSR.

So the Czechoslovakians did not think of holding out a hand in support of their Ukrainian neighbours who were even more subjugated by the Soviets.

They didn’t have time for that. They considered that the world should take a heavy stand and boycott Moscow, and they watched those who didn’t do that.  <>

At the moment Moscow is showing a noticeable tendency to reinstate control not only over the territory of the former USSR, but over the socialist bloc although these countries are already in the European Union and in NATO. At the same time the Czech Republic is gradually forgetting about the “Moscow carrot”. And our links with that country have already weakened.

Yes, undoubtedly. When I was in the Czech Republic at a PEN conference in the 1990s I saw how they know very little about how we reacted to the events in Prague. And young Czechs know virtually nothing about the actual events. The only thing that has stuck in people’s minds is the slogan “Three thousand kilometres to Moscow” which Czechoslovakians stuck to the Moscow tanks in 1968.  There needs to be better contact between our nations, not only contact with people going there to work. it is particularly important to unite and fight common threats.

Very slightly abridged from the interview at

Yevhen  Sverstyuk , prominent Ukrainian writer, philosopher and former political prisoner, was born on 13 December 1928 in the Volyn region.   He has written many books and numerous essays and articles on literature, psychology, philosophy, and religion, as well as translations from German, English and Russian. He is a laureate of the Shevchenko State Prise, and the International UNESCO Award. In Ukraine and in the West he has been known since the 1960s as a participant in the national liberation movement, and was one of the organizers of Ukrainian “samvydav” [samizdat].  He spent 12 years in the Soviet labour camps and in exile for his literary works, in particular for his book “Sobor u ryshtovanni” [“The cathedral under scaffolding”] (Paris, 1970).  He is presently editor of the National newspaper “Nasha Vira” [“Our Faith”], and is also the President of the Ukrainian PEN-Club, and a co-organizer of the civic organization “Hromadyanska pozitsiya” [“Civic Stand”]. 

Please see  for more details about Yevhen  Sverstyuk ’s life

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