The Economist: Before the freeze
By the time Alexander Dubcek became head of the Czechoslovak communist party in January 1968, there was already sense of change in the air. The year before, members of the writer’s union held a conference espousing their opposition to censorship, and students had marched on Prague Castle to protest conditions in university dormitories. After a brutal police crackdown failed to quell the unrest, reformers like Dubcek gained the upper hand in an internal party struggle. Part policy, part accident, a period of cultural liberalisation, the so-called Prague Spring, followed.
Fifty years later, the August 1968 Soviet-led invasion is still a mainstay of European history courses, but the role that artists and writers played in the temporary thaw is overlooked — as is the impact Literarni noviny (Literary News), a periodical still produced today. Following the aforementioned conference and additional agitation in the pages of the writers’ union official weekly, the central government placed the paper under control of the Culture Ministry, which closed it down and sparked opposition from the more liberal wing of the communist party. In fact, many of Czechoslovakia’s leading intellectuals still sympathised with the broad strokes of communism and were hopeful that the system could be improved from within. “A lot of them were even party members,” says Tereza Spencerova, an editor at today’s incarnation of Literarni noviny.
Unlike elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Czechoslovak communists had taken power in part through democratic means in 1948. Most of the Czechoslovakia had been liberated by the Red Army, after a period of brutal Nazi occupation in Czech lands and a ultra conservative, nationalist puppet state in Slovakia. “The writers’ positions were understandable, but they were only just beginning to cope with their own mistakes,” in 1968, Ms Spencerova adds. “They were artists, but they became politicians too.”
The writers’ union continued to test the limits of speech. In February, the new chairman, Kafka scholar Eduard Goldstücker, detailed the downfall of the previous communist party head, Antonin Novotny, on state television. When authorities declined to punish Goldstücker for this radical act of transparency, others took it as a sign they too could speak more freely. Goldstücker launched a new newspaper, Literarni listy (Literary Pages), to replace Literarni noviny. The party was floundering in its response. “By mid-March several Presidium members had begun to fear that they were losing control of the country,” according to Kieran Williams, a historian. By the April party congress, Dubcek was advocating a new path, so-called “socialism with a human face”.
Meanwhile, the cultural floodgates were open. A film version of Milan Kundera's novel "The Joke,” a raw satire of the communist regime, was shot (it was promptly banned in 1969 and remained so through 1989). The psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe formed. Even restrictions on travel were relaxed. In June 1968, Literarni listy published the “Two Thousand Words” essay. In it, Ludvik Vaculik demanded “the resignation of people who have misused their power”. Following this publication the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, began referring to the situation in Czechoslovakia as a “counterrevolution”. A few months later, on the night of August 20th-21st, 5,000 tanks and 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops from five countries invaded, just as Literarni listy’s print runs were surpassing 300,000 copies.
Even as repression was swift, the discursive atmosphere persisted on the margins for a few months longer. A group of young intellectuals — among them Mr Kundera and Vaclav Havel—debated the country’s essence for the better part of two years on the pages of Literarni listy and elsewhere. “A small nation… if it has any meaning in the world, it must daily and over and over again create,” Mr Kundera wrote. “When it stops creating values, it loses the privilege to exist.” Many of the protagonists in the Prague Spring would form the vanguard of the nascent democratic movement two decades later. While Mr Kundera would flee the country in 1975, Havel stayed on, enduring multiple stints in prison, before becoming the country’s first president after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
As the government maintained a tight grip on free speech in the intervening years — a period known as Normilizace (normalisation)—a revived Literarni noviny was published in fits and starts in exile. It was fully revived on its home soil in 1990, and remains a common, if understated presence on newsstands. Now a monthly, few would contend its role in the public sphere approaches anything near what it was 50 years ago. But the editors contend this is a problem with supply, not demand. “People are looking for something new politically, there could be an audience,” Ms Spencerova says. “But we don’t have the same kind of intellectuals. Today there are very a few serious writers who want to talk about politics.”