Questions to the narrator
TranscriptPlease note that this transcript is based on audio tracks and doesn't have to match exactly the video
Question: Could you describe how you felt once it was clear that the invasion had succeeded and that Moscow had imposed its will?
Zdena Tominova: I don’t think there was a sort of overnight immediate moment when I felt like, this is all over. It was too much of a festival, too much of a strong thing to die immediately. But for me, and I suppose for many people as well, the moment of truth came when Dubcek was actually speaking on the radio when he was returned from captivity in Moscow. I listened to it in the occupied town hall when I was working as an interpreter for the first week of the invasion, and the soldiers were already leaving, they were clearing out because everything was as if returning to normal. And that’s what Dubcek was saying, that we’re going to continue with the reforms and everything is going to be just fine as it was before. But he couldn’t even speak, there was a broken man talking, sobbing between words. I can’t describe the feeling, it was really like an era coming to an end. And you listened and you felt terrible compassion for the man, but at the same time you felt – stop sobbing, you didn’t have to sign, you didn’t have to capitulate, you ought to have trusted the people far more than you did. We were here, we were winning, we were absolutely behind you, now you’re sobbing there, saying this is it, we had to capitulate. I think at that moment everybody knew that the particular party was over and that very rare event, when people and the Communist Party were in a bond of trust, was definitely over and was never going to happen again. And it was sadness, but it was also anger I think, a very subdued anger. Like you feel you can’t go on fighting, but anger nevertheless.
What did people do?
People didn’t go home overnight. Like I said, it took another nine months before they were able to impose some kind of normalisation, before the strike stopped, before the students stopped meeting. It took well until April 1969 when Dubcek was finally ousted and the new regime, which is still there, took over. And even after that, after that moment, there was a while when people still stayed in the streets, the first anniversary of the invasion. But even though they stayed on the streets they knew it was a swan song. It wasn’t really going anywhere, it was just a slow death of a movement, a slow death of a historical moment that is not going to be repeated or cannot be continued.
Could you describe the purge? Who was purged and the process itself, the interview.
I think the new regime was actually very clever. The whole process of normalisation is one of the most dreadful I think in history, exactly because it wasn’t bloody. It wasn’t a dramatic purge. Nobody was executed, nobody was even sent to prison. Even Dubcek himself was just sent back to Slovakia and made a little clerk in a forestry office, simply isolated from the people by three secret police bullies that were on his heels day and night through fifteen years. What happened was that they actually asked everybody in the party or everybody in institutions, schools, offices, all the intelligentsia, all the white-collar people. Not workers, really, not unless they had some party posts. You know, they took people into a little room, it’s best to imagine like that because most of the time that’s what happened. Into a little office where there would be a little committee, two, three, maybe four people, and you would be on your own, nobody there with you. It wasn’t a big meeting, it was a very private situation, so you were exposed to history as it were, just very much on your own. And you would be asked, “did you think that the entry of the Warsaw Pact troops in August was a fraternal help?” And of course your whole being would want to yell, “no, it wasn’t, it was an act of violence”. But you would think, nobody’s here to support me, the streets are empty, the crowds have gone, and if I say “no, it was an act of violence, it wasn’t fraternal help, it was a terrible thing to have done for the Soviet Union”, you would endanger your entire career, you would endanger your children’s future. So I suppose most of the people just said, “yes, it was fraternal help”, and the hell with it, and went home with that terrible moral crippling. If you say ‘yes’ to something that your whole being wants to say ‘no’ to, you carry this wound for years and years to come. And I think there is an explanation in there, a moral explanation, why people then actually went along with the whole normalisation, ugly as it was – because they were morally crippled. And of course those people who didn’t say “yes, it was fraternal help”, who did say “no, it was an act of violence”, did suffer immediately that kind of punishment that the other people knew would follow. Which is, they were immediately thrown into a pit of the society. Expelled from the party, expelled from all the positions they held if they were professional people, as most of them were. They were taken out from professional life, prevented from working, from continuing their jobs, from continuing their writing, publishing, they became pariahs of the society. And the whole horrible thing carried on to their children, they were not allowed to study, they suffered very much the same fate. So by this very small and private act of asking everyone the question they knew there was no positive answer to, and yet forcing anyone to do so, they just cut the society in half. Into the Seven Magnificent Ones, the few thousand that refused the moral crippling, they stayed with the truth. But their punishment was so spectacular, that there was no way. That’s why for example we can’t heal as easily as Hungary could, or as quickly, even though it took there twelve years as well, because of that absolute cut between the people who said ‘no’ and the people who said ‘yes’ and who lost. It’s like really cutting your body in two.
[unrecorded or unintelligible question]
I think I felt very much like everybody else, terribly angry. The remarkable thing was there was not a second, a minute of fear. Nobody was afraid, we were just terribly angry and we felt that we were so much in the right that they couldn’t do anything to us. And we stood there with that anger and the absolute absence of fear, with empty hands, feeling ‘this is actually the day of victory’. That’s the funny thing. We weren’t feeling we were losing, not in the first week, the truth and the feeling that you were right. I think I’ll never feel that way again, that kind of power which is not power against everybody or against anything but for something that stays with you, and that no amount of tanks, Soviet or other, can move, or do something with. So you know it was anger, but also that fantastic feeling of victory and that fantastic feeling of togetherness. We were all out in the streets. You felt that nobody stayed at home, babies and old people included. And that again I don’t think will be repeated. I wouldn’t have missed that time for anything in the world. It may sound horrible but it’s true.
[unrecorded or unintelligible question]… If you could just say about this.
You know, what often gets forgotten and what the dramatic pictures tend not to show is that apart from all the anger and drama and tragedy that was going on, there was an enormous creativity. The Czech wit came into its best during that first week of invasion. And people invented new and new forms of non-violent resistance. People started making home-made posters. The whole centre of the town was covered in posters, and they were not just angry, they were very witty. Everywhere was this big slogan, ‘Lenin for Christ’s sake wake up, Brezhnev’s gone mad’, and you know little paintings and poetry in Czech and in Russian. And the soldiers would tear it down during the night, and it would reappear next morning. People were singing on street corners, and there were even such methods like, I suppose you’d call it patriotic smooching. Young people, girls and boys, would sit on benches in front of Russian tanks and Russian troops and kiss and hug, and it had a terribly demoralising effect I’m afraid on the young Russian soldiers. The whole thing was, there was joy in the fact that we were all together and there was fun. And I think that made the whole thing even stronger because that also prevented us especially during the first week from hating, and hating is terribly unproductive. But of course we didn’t hate them because we were not afraid. We started hating them when we realised that we lost, only then came the hatred.
Zdena Tominová (1941–2020)
A Czech writer, translator, dissident, after the arrest of members of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979 also one of the speakers of Charter 77. As a result of persecution she and her entire family were forced to emigrate. She lived in Britain from 1980, where she was involved in literary and scriptwriting work, worked for BBC Radio and pro-actively supported the Czech dissidents. Amongst other things, her husband, the Czech philosopher Julius Tomin, organised home seminars by foreign intellectuals at the time when they were not allowed to officially give lectures in Czechoslovakia and their Czech and Slovak colleagues were not allowed to travel abroad. She was awarded the Medal of Merit by President Vaclav Havel in 2003.