An Embarrassing Anniversary

Adam Michnik , translated from the French by Olivia Emmet

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the events of 1968 raises troubling questions. What was the Prague Spring? A moment of liberation or the result of Communist intrigue? A reform aimed at destroying the Communist dictatorship or a masquerade staged to save it? And who were the people responsible for the Prague Spring? Were they organizers of a revolt against totalitarian oppression or foxes who changed their skins according to circumstance?

I belong to the generation whose character was formed by the student meetings and police attacks that took place at the time. In Poland we were inspired by the hope of the Prague Spring and also by the first swallows of Russian democracy in the early books of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. We were fascinated by the accounts that reached us from the banks of the Seine, where French students had organized a carnival and called it revolution. There was, we saw, a fundamental difference between the ‘68 which was a central experience for people of my generation in Paris or California, Rome or Frankfurt, and the ‘68 which, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, came to symbolize, first, liberty regained, even if only for a short time, and then the bitter failure of that liberty in its struggle with totalitarian oppression.

For those of us who had undertaken to defend from Communist censorship the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Forefather’s Eve—inspired by the November uprising of 1830 against Russia—the Prague Spring was a symbol of hope and opportunity, a taste of fresh air. I will not forget how tense we were in Poland as we read the news from Czechoslovakia after Dubcek came to power early in 1968. Our own abortive demonstrations in Warsaw against the regime started on March 8, the day I was arrested, and after that the Communist press was my only source of information. Even behind the bars of Mokotow prison, however, we could read the exhilarating news that broad democratic changes were taking place in the neighboring country to the south. I remember equally well the shock of hearing that the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries had intervened in Czechoslovakia in August 1968. For the next twenty years I found it impossible to talk to Czech or Slovak friends without feelings of guilt.

On the tenth anniversary of that intervention, Polish and Czechoslovakian dissidents met at the Polish-Czech frontier, in the Sniezka district of Czechoslovakia: the Czechs and Slovaks included Václav Havel, Peter Uhl, and Jaroslav Sabata; among the Poles were Jacek Kuron, Jan Litynski, Antoni Macierewicz, and myself. A photograph shows the future president seated side by side with future cabinet ministers and parliamentarians: at the time, we were all criminals pursued by the police. Our guide to the meeting place was Janusz M., then a Polish philosophy student with leftist sympathies. Twelve years later I saw him on television speaking on behalf of the extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic fringe. How differently the dissidents have evolved. On the one …

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