Prague Spring at 50

by Daria V. Ezerova, Yale University

This piece was originally published in the June 2018 NewsNet

On January 16, 1969, on Wenceslas Square in Prague, twenty-year-old Jan Palach doused himself in gasoline and struck a match. In his suicide note – or rather, his manifesto – he vehemently condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the regression to hardline Communist propaganda and draconian censorship. Three days later, suffering severe disfiguring burns on 85% of his body, Palach died in a hospital. Forty-four years later, HBO made a mini-series about it.

HBO’s Burning Bush (Hořící keř, 2013) indicates an ongoing shift in the representation of monumentalized historical events. Proliferating in television and big-budget blockbusters, they no longer belong exclusively to the realm of high culture, nor do these depictions aspire to maintain a somber tone. But can commercial cinema and television do the kind of memory work typically done in higher cultural registers? Are these new depictions merely opportunistic and speculative, or can they be somehow commemorative and therefore politicized? The irreverent historical inaccuracy and farcical nature of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) – adapted from the eponymous and equally fanciful graphic novel by Thierry Robin and Fabien Nury – did not prevent it from sparking heated debate and igniting a scandal in Russia. Terry George’s The Promise (2016) received outstandingly bad reviews and failed at the box office, but was nonetheless lauded for shining a spotlight on the Armenian genocide. FX’s Cold War period drama The Americans (2013-) is mentioned in just about every op-ed on US-Russia relations. In the case of the Prague Spring, this tectonic shift in modes and registers of representation is overlaid by a changing attitude toward the events of 1968.

German historian Jan Pauer trenchantly remarks that the Prague Spring has been consistently fetishized by the West, while in the former Czechoslovakia, perception of the nascent liberalization of 1968 has changed over time. On the one hand, the Prague Spring presaged the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and has thus become regarded, because of its failure, as “the historical end of reform communism.”1 Famously, 1989 witnessed a demonstration in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Palach’s self-immolation, as well as the return of Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel into the public eye. On the other hand, the backlash against all things Soviet that swept across the former Eastern Bloc in the 1990s cast a shadow on the Prague Spring’s glorified legacy, and it became remembered as “primarily a struggle between various communist parties and the whole event is viewed as an episode in the history of an absurd experiment –communism.”2 In other words, the memory of 1968 appears to have been overlaid by the chronology of late and post-Communism. But what about now? Soviet socialism has been extinct for too long and in many ways, the term “post-Communism” is already obsolete. After all, there is now a generation of adults born after 1989/1991 who never lived under Communism. So how do we approach the Prague Spring on the cusp of its 50th anniversary?

A recent conference entitled 1968-1989: Paris-Prague offered yet another retrospective reconceptualization of the event. Not only was 1989 presented as “a mere inversion of spring 1968” – evoking a popular poster that showed “89” as an upside-down mirror image of “68” (see figure at right)– but the insistence on a parallel between the Prague Spring and Mai 68 demonstrated an attempt to examine the events in Czechoslovakia from a broader international perspective, rather than just in the context of Communism, and to fully inscribe it in the global 1968, as it were..3 Paired with the changing modes of representation that I mentioned earlier, the end of post-Communism and the reconceptualization of the Prague Spring in an international context call for the creation of new forums and approaches to the study of the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia and their aftermath. Such is the rationale behind Prague Spring on Screen, a panel series sponsored by the ASEEES Working Group on Cinema and Television (WGCTV), which will take place at this year’s annual convention in Boston.

Although primarily focusing on cinematic representations of political liberalization and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, Prague Spring on Screen strives for maximum interdisciplinarity in order to assess the legacy of 1968 across time, genres, and media. To this end, the WGCTV is bringing together experts from a number of fields, including art history, architecture, film theory, and Slavic studies. The panels are organized in a way that will allow screen representations of the Prague Spring to be discussed both synchronically and diachronically. From the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion to Husák’s normalization, to Charta 77, to the Velvet Revolution, to post-Communism, the series will examine the far-reaching repercussions of 1968. At the same time, the panels will avoid a purely historiographic, chronological approach and will investigate the events of 1968 from a broadly interdisciplinary and cross-media perspective.

A panel entitled Witnessing 1968 will assume the ambitious task of investigating how the Warsaw Pact invasion volatilized the relationship between documentary and fiction film in former Czechoslovakia and Poland. Tracing the unstable relationship between reality and fiction across a broad array of works – from such classics as Karel Kachyňa’s The Ear (1969) to post-communist productions such as Evald Schorm’s Confusion (1990) – the panel will examine the difference between narrating and documenting social upheaval and its aftermath. Special attention will be given to the themes of surveillance and subjectivity in light of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) and the writings of Václav Havel.

Another panel focusing on gender and artistic freedom in the wake of 1968 will reintegrate frequently marginalized voices – from anarcho-feminists to ethnic minorities – in its study of the Prague Spring and dissent under communism more broadly. In addition, it will bring insights from animation studies and music theory to its exploration of screen representation of “the event” by examining the works of Jan Švankmajer and nonconformist composers of the USSR. The latter will offer a unique perspective on the events of 1968 by looking at Soviet radical intelligentsia and its protests of the Warsaw Pact invasion.

The third panel will examine cinema’s interaction with literature and architecture during the “normalization” period under Gustáv Husák (1969-1987). Innovative approaches to interart dialogues will bring together such diverse phenomena as the Czech New Wave, samizdat, and panel housing to help participants unpack such complex categories as genre, gender, space, and cultural resistance.

Finally, the fourth panel will zero in on the difference between Czech and Slovak cinematic representations of the Prague Spring, and juxtapose them with Hollywood’s own take on the events. This way, the panel will not only consider international perspectives on the Warsaw Pact invasion but will also address the sensitive question of different responses to it by Czechs and Slovaks. In addition, it will raise the question of ethnic identity in times of political unrest. The panel will also discuss a number of recent films dedicated to the Prague Spring, revealing a changing attitude to the events of 1968 at the beginning of the twenty-first century. WGCTV will conclude the series with a screening of Peter Kerekes’s Occupation 1968 (2017), an anthology of five documentary films from Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia – the former Warsaw Pact countries that invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20, 1968.

Prague Spring on Screen is among the first WGCTV initiatives to focus entirely on non-Russian film, and organizing this series revealed several larger concerns relevant to Slavic Studies in the broadest sense. Firstly, the enthusiastic response to the call for papers could not conceal the fact that the field remains skewed toward Russian Studies. As a Russianist myself, I could not help but notice that although we continue to speak about the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring – or, for that matter, any jubilee that does not center around Russia – remains a somewhat marginalized topic. Secondly, the conceptualization of individual panels laid bare the ongoing necessity to study the USSR as an empire, and the potential for applying postcolonial approaches to Russian imperialism throughout history. The epistemic violence that resulted from the Soviet Union’s obscuring or erasure of ethnic and geographical differences in the name of a universalism that concentrated all cultural, economic and political power in Moscow has shaped the field for a long time and is in many ways the reason behind the isolation between the regional fields of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies. Thirty years after the fall of Communism, there is a need for new platforms and methods that would work against this isolation and more efficiently integrate the voices of the USSR’s former subalterns into academic discourse.

I would like to return here to the question with which I began my essay, namely whether we can consider contemporary popular culture depictions of tragic historical events as being something other than opportunistic. Fredric Jameson notes that “to permit a far more adequate account of the mechanisms of […] mass culture [one has to] grasp [it] not as an empty distraction or ‘mere’ false consciousness, but rather as a transformational work on social and political anxieties and fantasies which must then have some effective presence in the mass culture text in order subsequently to be ‘managed’ or repressed.”4 What is the meaning of the Prague Spring in 2018? A number of political scientists concur that in many countries worldwide, the present is an era of post-democracy. This is a new kind of politics that created a society of spectacle, and not merely in a Debordian sense. It has limited citizens’ role to that of impassive spectators of political games in which they do not participate and on which they have no bearing. The Soviet Union’s non-participatory and exclusionary politics suddenly appear to have gotten a second life and a number of specters across the world. Revisiting Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion on the eve of its 50th anniversary can allow us not only to examine the changing modes of representation but to also start a conversation on what history can teach us as we face the challenges and dangers of a post-democratic world.

Daria Ezerova is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University and president of the ASEEES Working Group on Cinema and Television. She is a specialist on twentieth-century and contemporary Russian literature and cinema, which she discusses in her dissertation, “Derelict Futures: The Spaces of Socialism in Contemporary Russian Literature and Film.” Her publications have appeared in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Kinokultura, and SEANS. In Spring 2018, she accepted a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at Davidson College.

Fig1 Aleš Najbrt, Jaro 68 - Podzim 89 Občanské fórum Československo (Spring 68 – Fall 89, Civic Forum Czechoslovakia), 1989. Screen print on paper, 84.5 x 60 cm. Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic.

1 Jan Pauer, “The Dispute about the Legacy of the ‘Prague Spring’,” European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, June 7, 2011, accessed April 15, 2018
2 Ibid.
3 “International Conference ‘1968 – 1989: PARIS – PRAGUE’,” The Institute of Philosophy, The Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, accessed April 15, 2018
4 Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text, no. 1 (January/February 1979), 141.