Ex-Soviet dissident: We wanted our Prague Spring too

Roman Gazdík
25. 8. 2008 10:20
40 years ago Pavel Litvinov shocked KGB on Red Square
Pavel Litvinov today
Pavel Litvinov today | Foto: Ludvík Hradilek

Prague - "I had no idea I would still be discussing our demonstration with journalists forty years later," says grandson of Stalin's foreign minister, former Soviet dissident and human rights advocate Pavel Litvinov.

He was one of the eight people who - 40 years ago today - gathered at Moscow's Red Square to rally against the Soviet Union-led invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries. As reprimand, the regime sent him into exile in Siberia for five years.

In an interview for Aktuálně.cz, Litvinov not only looks back at the event which directly affected his entire life, but also explains why the so-called Prague Spring was so important to Soviet dissidents and why it is not possible to compare the latest Russian military action against Georgia with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Read also: Red Square protest against 1968 invasion remembered

A.cz: How did you feel during the Red Square demonstration on August 25, 1968?

Litvinov: I was excited. It felt like an adrenaline rush. I don't really know how to describe it. I felt a strong urge to do it. I was ashamed of being a Soviet citizen, in whose name the invasion was done. I wanted to say that not all Soviets were supporting it. I felt great, more uplifted than scared.

Could you describe how exactly the demonstration went?

We came from different parts of the square and sat on a small step (surrounding a historical monument known as Lobnoye Mesto) that was a little bit higher than the rest of the square. Natalya Gorbanevskaya made a banner for me which said "For your freedom and ours", because that was a slogan I liked. It explained that Russians as oppressors can not be free unless the Czechs are. It is an old slogan from the 19th century, used by exiles from Poland and Russia to toast each other.

For your freedom and ours
For your freedom and ours | Foto: Memorial, Moskva

We raised our banners, we did not shout, just sat in silence. The square was quite empty at that time, with both the GUM shopping mall and Lenin tomb closed. Immediately some people rushed towards us, calling us "parasites" and "drunks", and started beating us. They were KGB agents. Viktor Fainberg lost four teeth in the melee.

Only then other people appeared, who were not agents, and they asked us who we were. We explained to them that we had come to protest against the violation of the rights of the citizens of Czechoslovakia, which was our right granted to us by the constitution. A discussion started, but the KGB agents tried to talk us down.

What happened then?

Police cars (the unmarked kind) came and took us to a station, where they held us for two or three hours before the interrogation began, which in itself was quite ridiculous, because we did not deny anything. Then they took us to our apartments which they searched, confiscating our samizdat publications, articles, poems.

Gorbanevskaya and Fainberg were then sent to prison and psychiatric hospitals. The remaining five of us (21-year old Tatiana Baeva was not tried) were put on trial after two months for violating public order, public slander of the Soviet government and obstructing the traffic on Red Square, which was ridiculous since the square is a public promenade and there is no traffic to speak of. (laughter)

I was sentenced to five years of inner exile in eastern Siberia. Larisa Bogoraz received four years in Siberia, Konstantin Babitsky 3 years, and Vadim Delanay with Vladimir Dremlyuga were given 3 years in labor camps.

Who were the prosecution's witnesses?

KGB agents who were pretending to be outraged citizens. What was quite funny though was the fact that they all had the same P.O. Box number, 3405. And they all claimed that they did not know each other and were at the same place by coincidence. In the end, even the judge had enough of it and they stopped interrogating them. She was trying to make it look less suspicious.

How much publicity did your demonstration and the ensuing trial receive in Russia?

The first mention by the official media, which was also the last one for many years, came two months after the trial and we were described as hooligans, drunks and parasites. They wrote that I did not have a job, which was true, of course, because I was fired and I could not find any other work since the only employer in the country was the Soviet government.

But there was a rumor going around and many people also listened to Western radio. And then we also had samizdat: Natasha Gorbanevskaya published our own journal Chronicle of Current Affairs, where the news about our case appeared as well as other things.

I believe that if the KGB didn't arrest us or let us go the next day, there would be hardly any evidence that our demonstration took place (laughter), because the Western journalists that we had invited, had their films taken and exposed to the light by the KGB agents. Perhaps KGB has some photographs somewhere, but I doubt it. There are only photographs of two of our five banners.

What did the Prague Spring mean to you as dissidents and how much attention did it receive in Russia?

We, as dissidents, followed the events taking place across the Eastern Bloc very closely, especially the ones in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where some liberalization could be noticed.

Pavel Litvinov in an archive photograph
Pavel Litvinov in an archive photograph | Foto: Memorial, Moskva

We heard from foreign radio broadcasts that a new secretary general of the Communist Party, politbyro, a guy named Alexander Dubček, was appointed, who said he wanted to build socialism with a human face. This expression immediately became legendary.

Did it appear in the official press?

I don't remember, whether it did immediately, but definitely in the end. The first time I heard it was from the foreign radio broadcast of Dubček's 1968 New Years address. But we were suspicious: most of us believed communists were not capable of anything good.

We followed the situation very closely. Some of us were also Slavic language specialists, so we were translating articles from the Czechoslovak press that was available in Moscow and that nobody could understand.

The existence of discussion alone was enough to give us hope that it could influence some younger communists in our country - not people like Brezhnev, whose brain was frozen and thinking stupidly. We were hoping that if such developments were possible with the blessing of the communist party, some progress could also come about in Russia.

You must have known what was in store for you when you decided to stage a demonstration...

Of course, we expected the worst. We had been a thorn in their side for a long time as leaders of the human rights movement so I was expecting the maximum sentence of seven years in a labor camp and five years in exile. In the end, we got less than we expected.

Foto: Ludvík Hradilek

The most important thing was that we had satisfied the inner moral need to do it and to express how ashamed we were of our Soviet government. But we also believed it would not completely die out and that once people learn of our punishment, they would listen to us more.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal used to say he only trusted those witnesses who were ready to have their throats cut for their testimony.

Three years ago you went public saying that it was not right to compare the US military detention camp in Guantanamo with the gulag. Czech Prime Minister is now drawing comparisons between the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and the latest Russian military action against Georgia. Is that fair?

It is fair in the sense that the same Russian government invaded a territory of its smaller neighbor. I want them to leave and to refrain from making these kinds of actions in the future.

But it is not fair to compare the situation in Georgia with the one in Czechoslovakia, which was a peaceful country that wanted to sort its own matters without incurring the wrath of its big brother.

Georgia, on the other hand, has an unsolved ethnic and national problem and most of the Ossetians do not want to be part of that country. Georgians sent troops there, killing at least 44 people, maybe more. There had been an agreement about Russian peacekeeping troops - a fishy one, but Georgia consented to do it all the same - and there had been a certain status quo maintained.

I hate to say this, but the Russian government did have a reason to take action when things like that were taking place at its border. Of course, they went too far, but Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is as much to be blamed for the crisis as Putin's regime is.

Pavel Litvinov and two other demonstrators from Red Square, Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Viktor Fainberg, are taking part in a debate about their lives in café Krásný Ztráty in Prague's Old Town (Náprstkova 10) on Monday August 25, at 6 PM.


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