I’ve just been listening to a play on Radio 4 about some British teenagers at a Soviet summer beach camp in August 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Boy, did that bring back some powerful memories.
I had spent half of my university year abroad in Czechoslovakia from September 1967 to January 1968. After the next term in France, I attended a summer school for Russian language in Moscow for three weeks, arriving home in Brighton on the fateful evening of August 20th.
The next morning my father woke me up with a cup of tea and the words: “The Russians have invaded Czechoslovakia.” All I could think of at first was what might be happening to my erstwhile student friends. In that moment, and following the TV, radio and newspaper coverage during the following days and weeks, my naive youthful idealism was stripped away forever.
The play, ‘May There Always Be Sunshine’, by Alan Pollock, resonated in so many ways at the level of temporary friendships and relationships. I wish I had kept a diary. There are so many details I cannot remember of what it was like being a 20/21-year-old English student ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the time when Dubcek was trying to liberalise Czechoslovakia.
I cannot pretend to have understood what was going on at the top. My only real contact with the ‘Prague Spring’ was when I travelled alone from the small town of Presov in eastern Slovakia, where our group of 10 British students was staying, to the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, to visit a Slovak pen-friend whom I had acquired before this student exchange had been mooted. She took me into Bratislava University, which was plastered with pro-Western posters and seething with anti-Soviet agitation.
The realisation of having been kept (or having kept myself) in the dark, and later seeing on TV the tanks rolling across a country I had come to like, undoubtedly contributed to my determination to become an international journalist after graduating. In future I would ask the hard questions, whatever the political colour of the government. In the end that got me into serious trouble in Cuba, and I was expelled by the Castro regime – but that’s another story.