Philosophers of patience

Fifty years ago, on August 20, Russian tanks moved into Prague to suppress what has passed into history as the 'Spring of 1968' when artists, intellectuals, public personalities and reforms-minded politicians joined hands in an attempt to secure the freedom of expression. Among the sufferers was the great long-distance runner, Emil Zátopek, who was dismissed from his senior position in the military and expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. To make matters worse for him, he was packed off to a distant town to do cleaning and sweeping duties. Later, he was rehabilitated and he spent his final working years in the national sports ministry.

By Vidyarthy Chatterjee
  • Published 22.08.18
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Fifty years ago, on August 20, Russian tanks moved into Prague to suppress what has passed into history as the 'Spring of 1968' when artists, intellectuals, public personalities and reforms-minded politicians joined hands in an attempt to secure the freedom of expression. Among the sufferers was the great long-distance runner, Emil Zátopek, who was dismissed from his senior position in the military and expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. To make matters worse for him, he was packed off to a distant town to do cleaning and sweeping duties. Later, he was rehabilitated and he spent his final working years in the national sports ministry.

Zátopek was a famous middle-aged man when he protested and he paid a heavy price for it. In those difficult days, a small girl by the name of Martina Navratilova was looking at things around her and did not know what to make of what she saw. In a few years' time, she would grow up to be one of the legends of women's tennis and recall those turbulent times in her autobiography, Being Myself: "I was eleven years old in 1968... people were seeking more freedom to run their own country... my parents were not political people; they were more interested in tennis and work and the outdoors than in politics. But you would have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss what was going on in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1968."

For weeks after Russian tanks took over, all kinds of banners could be seen hanging in Prague. Navratilova mentions what was written on some of the banners in her book: 'Ivan, go home, Natasha has sexual problems'; 'The Russian National Circus has arrived, complete with performing gorillas'; 'What do you tell your mother about our dead?' But the one that reflected the mood of the people most accurately was, 'Socialism, yes; Occupation, no'.

Aleksandr Dubcek was dismissed from his post of secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia for initiating the reforms. Like Zátopek, Dubcek, too, was bundled off to a distant town to do menial jobs. Significantly, Dubcek never renounced his faith in socialism. His quarrel was with the way in which the party bosses functioned and their lack of faith in themselves that made them constantly seek the approval of Moscow. Their lack of confidence resulted in rigidities in ideological thinking and errors in political practice that caused widespread suffering and resentment.

When democracy returned to Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dubcek was a different kind of hero than Václav Havel, the intellectual-statesman who had led the pro-democracy movement modelled in many ways on the Gandhian example. Both were heroes, but their agendas to build a new nation and a new society were different. In the mad rush to befriend the market economy and the West's international financial institutions, Dubcek lost out.

A couple of years after the triumph of what the media called the 'Velvet Revolution', Dubcek died, leaving the field open to Havel to prove to be, as it turned out, a good agitator but a poor administrator. Not only did Havel preside over the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries - the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic - but he also proved ineffective in stopping the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund from practically taking over the economy of the two new entities.

Zátopek was someone that anyone could recognize; so was Dubcek. But there were many unknown, gifted, young people who saw their hopes of doing something lasting dashed to the ground when the repression against the liberals began. A fair number of such people belonged to the world of cinema. Since the beginning of the 1960s, Czech cinema had been energized by what could only be described as a latter-day renaissance. A whole group of creative youngsters had taken over the film schools with great skill and greater ideas. Their diploma films indicated in many cases not just technical virtuosity or their ability to tell a good story with imagination, but also a profound philosophical aversion to force, coercion, and to the official attitude towards cinema's young dreamers, visionaries, mystics and magicians. Many of the Czech 'New Wave' film-makers have left their incomplete signatures on the minds of avid viewers who were perplexed by the depth and range of their achievements. These signatures belonged to artists whose destinies greatly differed. After the clamp-down, Milos Forman and Jan Nemec migrated to the West where Forman in particular earned fame and wealth but lacked that rootedness in his films that is necessary to give a sense of fulfilment to the discerning viewer.

Forman left Czechoslovakia, but friends like Jirí Menzel or Vera Chytilová stayed back and worked when assignments came their way, devising ways and means to make his or her sad and disapproving voice heard but never crossing the limit which would cost them what they wanted - to make films.

And, finally, there were those who refused to work in an atmosphere marked by open hostility. They refused because they thought no work of an honourable kind was available to them. The names that readily come to mind are Elo Havetta, Pavel Jurácek and Evald Schorm. Had they been allowed to work as they wished and they doubtlessly deserved, they would have in all likelihood carved their names in letters of platinum.