AN ACCOUNT OF JOURNEY TO SLOVAKIA 1968.
This is a diary of a visit to the Slovak (Eastern) part of the former Czechoslovakia in August 1968.1 had been unwittingly caught up in the Soviet invasion which took place on August 20-21st.of that year. The diary starts with the train journey from Vienna to Bratislava, by which route I had entered the country. It is an almost exact printed version of what was originally handwritten at the time. Like most British people I was not adequately aware of the distinct Slovak national identity within the former Czechoslovakia and sometimes used the word "Czech" in the diary when in fact the people or things were in all likelihood Slovak. Similarly, some of the Soviet Army personnel described as "Russian" may in fact have been non-Russian Soviet citizens. In a few places I had got a day or date wrong or made other minor errors, or some words had been obscured by later damage to the paper. Corrections or Clarifications are offered in square brackets. The demolition of housing near to the Castle may have been not for the primary purpose of improving people's housing conditions but also or instead for other more questionable objectives. The entry for the evening of 21st.August refers to the roof of the hotel but my later recollection is that I did not go on to the roof but viewed the demonstration from my room . The bridge over the Danube referred to was a fairly low -level metal bridge which carried railway, roadway and footway and not the more modern, high-level road bridge. I do not think that this prominent latter feature had then been built. My later recollection is that the small leaflet in fact definitely was handed by an apparently high-ranking Russian soldier to the Slovak man on the far side of the Danube.
Although not actually said in the Diary I distinctly remember the contrast in atmosphere between Wednesday 21st. August, when there was an uncertain, seemingly fluid situation, and Friday 23rd.August. By this time there was a quieter, tenser and more menacing atmosphere with Slovak people no longer talking to Soviet soldiers, who were by then standing guard with submachine guns at key points etc. The Slovak population were thronging the pavements but only using them to get from A to B in a quiet and businesslike manner. I did not have a camera and did not have any knowledge of the Slovak or Russian language.
ACCOUNT OF JOURNEY TO CZECHOSLOVAKIA. 1968
Monday August 19 Journey.
Tuesday 20. Arrived at Bratislava shortly before midnight.
at the Austrian customs . One and a half hour delay at the Czech customs. Shared
carriage with Yugoslavian women who were suspected of being smugglers. Tried to
make my own way to the hotel but did not manage. Arrived eventually at 2.00 am.
Hundreds of soldiers with tanks and armoured cars lined the main streets.
Apparently Russian .
Wednesday 23 [21 st.]-evening.
Looking from the hotel roof I could see a demonstration of about 2,000 young people. They were marching to the city centre singing the Internationale and carrying the Czech flag. Wednesday 23 (2 lst).
An eventful day. Walked through Bratislava. Having not retired until 3.00am [with little sleep on the 39-hour journey from Britain] did not wake up until 10.30a.m. On leaving the hotel one became involved in a very large demonstration. About a hundred yards down the road there was a square formed at an intersection of several important streets. Here a meeting was just ending as I reached it, and a march of several thousand young people was taking place. It was in support of Dubcek and Svoboda. The whole central area was packed with thousands on thousands of people, mainly young, milling around . The streets were now lined with tanks and troop carriers on both sides. Inside all of these, Russian troops were standing or sitting. They looked very young and did not have very purposeful expressions on their faces. Around every Russian vehicle and tank a group of Czechoslovak young people had gathered and engaged in earnest discussion which was of a political nature. The Russian soldiers did not talk much but did give brief replies from time to time. The discussions tended to be good humoured. Some of the Czechoslovaks were middle aged but were mainly young.
The bank was shut so I then knew that I would have to be content with doing things that didn't cost anything until the following day. At various main street intersections two or more tanks had been placed, facing in various directions, sometimes covering the tramlines. No trams were running. Traffic was light, so there was little impedance for demonstrators marching along the road. I walked on. At that moment they began to use the tanks, and a shell could be seen rushing above and past us. [People] rushed in to a side street but soon stopped running and many of them walked back to see what was going on. At that time I was not aware of the purpose of the Russian forces and thought that perhaps they were requested by the Czech government to help deal with fascist or counterrevolutionary elements. This being so the Russians seemed to be very careless to let a stray shell go so near to people. I decided to walk through the side streets to get an idea of what Bratislava was like as a town. For several minutes the gunfire continued to be heard. There were fine buildings and well laid out streets and squares in the town centre, and it was pleasant to walk through the area. Here were the headquarters [presumably for Slovakia rather than all Czechoslovakia] of the national airline and the national tourist office. There was also a night club. Some of the buildings were offices but many were for residential use. The different uses did not necessarily reflect themselves in a markedly different appearance of the buildings, many of which were quite modern. Soon 1 came to the Danube, where there were more Soviet troops. They did not look angry. In this part of the city, many of the houses were demolished. Walking along the Danube, one passed under the castle walls, immediately below which was a rather small antiquated-looking factory. The housing here was of an especially (slum) standard, and was being demolished, presumably as a slum-clearance measure. Slightly further along, there were some new flats being built. To the left were newish institutional buildings which now separated one from a view across the Danube. One could see that the streetlighting, provided by mercury lamps, was of a high intensity. In a shop window, some western long-playing jazz records were on sale. This was in the central area.
Walking near the Danube one soon came to the outskirts of the town. There was a semi-rural area with a zoo and some farmhouses. I walked a mile or two along this road before walking up a side street. Here there are many single houses. The side streets are not all properly metalled. Soon one reached a railway and I got to the main station. Beyond this there was a large area where the Russian soldiers were especially concentrated. This was a green area with some very modern buildings. Here there were the same groups round the tanks. Here one of the Czech people was middle-aged, earnestly discussing with a Russian who looked like an officer. It occurred to me that, useful as the efforts of the young Czechs [most would have been Slovaks] were, the impassioned experience of an older Czech [see as above] might pull the right strings in some Russian soldier's heart. As I made my way to the hotel I wrote down the names of the streets so as to remember how to get there [the main railway station] when I made the same journey in a hurry the next morning to catch the train to Dubnica N/V [nad Vahom, meaning on the river Vah]. But a Soviet officer was looking at me and I thought he might think I was a foreign counterrevolutionary spy so I stopped writing. Then I got to the hotel. Here I started writing this account.
I was a bit late for supper and the waitresses etc. were eating their own meal. Nevertheless they managed to serve me with one course and a glass of lemonade. There was [it appeared to me at the time] only one member of the staff who knew any English and he asked me why I was looking sad. I said [presumably before having got the said meal] something about being hungry, having no currency etc.[thinking about my own needs first, yes I know-sorry] and he said : " It's not our fault but our friend's-Brezhnev's". I said [that] I had come by myself. He indicated one of the "waitresses" and said [that] she had come by herself to the hotel and was now hotel manageress. Of course I don't especially approve of staff hierarchies but nowhere's paradise. At that moment she was talking to three Italians [who were customers in the restaurant] .[One of the Slovaks] was miming with approval the sub-machine gunning of Russians. This did not seem a hopeful sign. I had assumed all day long that the Russians had been called on by the government to help stamp out counterrevolution and fascist insurgence. This illusion had been strengthened when I saw a Czech army lorry driving past the tanks [with someone in the lorry] shouting out loudspeaker messages which the "Czechoslovak" bystanders cheered or clapped. In the evening the situation remained as before, with the same earnest discussions round each tank. At one place, the Russians in a covered lorry motioned to a Czech [probably in fact Slovak] youth to climb aboard to join them. They also said something to a girl which caused her to indicate a ring on her finger, say something obviously unprintable and flounce away. But it was definite that the Russians were not usually saying anything like this. I walked across the Danube bridge, noticing on the way some knocked-down lamp standards, presumably caused by tank shells. There was a long [traffic] jam of army vehicles on the bridge and on the other side. Here a Czech [probably a Slovak in fact] was reading a small leaflet printed in Russian which has apparently [see Introduction] been given him by a Russian soldier. On walking back over the bridge I saw a spot where a makeshift secular shrine had been placed on the pavement. I afterwards read that a Czech [once again, probably a Slovak] had been killed there.
Next morning I was able to go to the bank and catch the fast train to Dubnica N/V [requiring a change at Trencin to a local train]. At the bank, open only from 7.30-11.30 A.M. each day, the male bank clerks were dressed like factory workers. [The] atmosphere was generally fairly casual.
Was not able to walk back the same way to the station because the Russians had cordoned off an area near the aforementioned very modern buildings. Just caught the fast train (steam) which had few vacant seats. Travelled through the outskirts of Bratislava, where there were a lot of new housing schemes (flats) and industrial development. The former was of a high density. As well as the main station there were a few other stations in outlying districts, all including the name of Bratislava in their title[s]. The countryside on this journey was most attractive. There was a lot of mechanical equipment in the fields, and the rural areas through which the train passed did nothing to substantiate a statement made in a British newspaper this year that the rural areas of Czechoslovakia were at a level with those of poor areas of Southern Europe.
I got to Dubnica N/V after changing. They had, it appeared to me at the time, timetables of every train in Czechoslovakia on view at each of the stations I visited. Dubnica Nad Vahom is a small industrial town, in large measure a product of the postwar period, before which it was a village. It has two important factories, one of which is a large metallurgical works. At the latter, a meeting of several hundred workers was in progress inside the factory gates. In the old village centre a Czech flag was flying next to a black one. The same inscriptions appeared on the walls as in Bratislava. Visited the Czechoslovak family as arranged, after a townsman, who lived in the same street, had accompanied me there. Their flat was quite spacious, and like hundreds of others in the town. The family, two of whom worked in the local factories, were subdued and calm. They had a free Czechoslovak station on the wireless and listened avidly to all the news. It was only then that I found out that the Russians had arrived against the will of the Czech government.
They recommended me catching an earlier train back than I had originally intended, saying that there was now a curfew in Prague and [that] the situation was not dissimilar in Bratislava. The train supposedly an "express", was very crowded at first, and took three hours and a half to cover the 90 miles or so. We went through Galanta, a longer way round, which somewhat worried me.
Walking back through Bratislava at about 10.40pm., the streets were absolutely deserted - no people or traffic except for me and a few other men walking back from the station, and one old woman I saw. There were a group of Russian soldiers standing just beyond the hotel, but I had got to it and rung the bell. After looking at me very carefully they let me in on showing my hotel key.
The next morning the hotel officially recommended me to leave Czechoslovakia and go to Vienna as quickly as possible while the border was open. They stated that someone had been shot outside the hotel ten minutes previously. I went upstairs to the room to think out whether to act on his recommendation. Before that it had hardly occurred to me to leave early, but then I started thinking about the situation in a different way. I even thought they would shoot foreigners so I dressed up in a way I thought most like a Slovak but without obviously pretending to be one. As I was packing the case, machine gun fire could be heard outside near the hotel and a little towards the river. This continued intermittently for some time. On arrival at the station, very crowded, I found that there were 7 hours to wait before the train to the Austrian frontier. At midday every available siren and hooter was sounded was sounded continuously for several minutes. Some youths removed the station square name board and replaced it by one bearing the name of Dubcek. In the afternoon I went for a walk up a hilly road from which a good view of Bratislava could be obtained. The amount of new housing was very striking. A nearby housing scheme was attractively laid out with area of green between the blocks.
I had been told the previous day that at one border area the Czechs had placed a barricade across the road. The incoming soldiers turned back in to Poland.
Picture this: the Living room of a flat in a 1950's block in Trencin, Western Slovakia in the former Czechoslovakia. It is late afternoon on a weekday in the Spring of 1968. There is a window through which a pole-mounted street loudspeaker can be seen along with a street lamp in the foreground, several other similar blocks behind, with hills in the distance . The room, rather sparsely furnished, has a general feeling of emptiness with a sort of semi-glamorous modernist bare adequacy. There is a television set, a radiogram and a wall- fitment with display areas behind glass panels, in which are a few carefully arranged photographs, books etc. amidst much empty space.
The walls are bare but for the emblem of Slovakia-hill surmounted by cross with two horizontal bars with a smaller hill each side-and a framed certificate, headed 'Diplom'.
Anna enters straight from work on her forty-sixth birthday. She cheerfully looks through three or four birthday cards. These are in the form of picture postcards, not folded or in envelopes. After a few moments her husband Vladimir ("Vlad") enters, likewise as straight from work. He carries some sort of old leather or fabric shoulder bag from which he takes a small item wrapped as a present and a white cardboard box with ribbons.
“For my beautiful wife." He gives her the present and hugs her..
"I wish I were" She opens present, an item of jewellery. " You shouldn't have ..."
“That's nothing" They embrace and Vlad goes to a non-display compartment of the fitment and gets a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy and suitable glassed.
“Here's to you!".
“To both of us", Anna replied and the glasses are downed. After a pause Vlad says,
“I wonder how our Vladko's getting on in England."
“We've got a telegram from him!" she takes it from her handbag and reads aloud:.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOTHER STOP HOPE YOU AND DAD WELL STOP THINGS FINE IN BIRMINGHAM STOP YOUR LOVING SON VLADKO".
"Sounds hopeful doesn't it "said Vlad -"Seems so recently he was just a little boy, even his birth on the first day of the Povstanie."
“August 29th 1944: no, we'll not forget that! And I'm glad I was doing What was important and necessary in those days —starting the family. And you did the right thing too-being with me in those first weeks ".
Vlad observed: " If, when we were aged twenty, we had looked forward, tried to imagine what it would be like being the ages we are now -it's definitely better than we thought isn't it"..
“That's a strange question" replied Anna,..
“Yes suppose it is -though it's difficult to separate the well-being and vitality in one's own body and mind from what's going on around us -and that hasn't exactly been better than I'd hoped."
“But there's times like now when we can shut it all out and just be ourselves together "
“Yes- though sometimes it can be in dreams only".
“Anyway: let's hope that these
current changes don't foul things up", Vlad replied. Anna quickly gets up to
turn the radio on: the programme has a mixture of Slovak folk songs and
indeterminate, often rather sickly, light music. Returning to her seat she gave
her own take on the changes:
“We need more freedom right enough: I'll back you a hundred percent on that. But I'm old enough and ugly enough to know that, if you're being offered something, check, check and check again that nothing important's going to be taken away: like plenty of jobs, a decent pension and a proper health service; finance to help young people like Vladko get to college in the first place. Some of the reformers really do support a democratic socialism, but intermingled in with them there's others...I daresay they'd claim their policies were compassionate, socially responsible an' all that but the unemployment and division their policies would create, the cold and hunger of a lot of older people, they'd all be just the same as if they'd simply said outright what they believed in and had done with it. This idea of trying to attract West German capital - that scares me- It's a capitalist country, much more powerful than us, and they'd be wanting something for their money: what are they playing at...! If it were East Germany I could go along with it ... This economic competition business; how can we have socialism and competition at the same time: it doesn't make sense. Either they don't know what they're talking about or they're lying -or are they talking about 'Socialist Competition' again?"
“No, they won't have "Socialist Competition":whatever else they are they're not Stalinists".
Anna refills their glasses and Vlad says:
"Let's turn to more pleasant things. ..So, you've got a letter from your Mum and Dad . How's things with them in the beautiful Beskidy?"
"They're both well and looking forward to our visit. They've been having good weather. The Spring flowers are beautiful, and the cherry trees and fruit bushes are doing O.K. Should be a good harvest this year".
“Yeah, it's good of them to let us have all that fruit every year, though getting it back here's a problem: half-hour walk to the station there an' so on. Never mind, if things go on as they are we should get a car in two years." Anna said:
"Do you think so?...While you help me with the work-, it's me that preserves and bottles all the fruit. Slovakia would grind to a halt if it weren't for its women. But I'm lucky in having you as a husband: you're a good man —as men go".
“What d'you mean, 'as men go'? O.K.: it's pretty impressive, your fruit preserving effort
Sometimes when I go to that cupboard to get an old newspaper –“
“You and your old newspapers...! if you had your own way you'd never throw away a single copy of Bratislavska Pravda . Old magazines, old tram tickets, postage stamps- old papers of all sorts: should we apply for a larger apartment to house these -archives?"
“You store the old Slovak dresses and musical instruments for that cultural outfit you're in".
“Don't come up with that one again. They're of recognised cultural significance, used in our
Events and endorsed by the National Committee - and also available for Vladko's wedding,
as and when".
“Yeah: still no regular girl friend: he's slipping! Never mind, there's still time ...this trip abroad: it'll give him more self-confidence... I've got an idea".
“Well, you know that recently, instead of keeping one archival-type item each week, I've cut
it down to one every month-"
“I should hope so : not before time".
“Well, I could go through all the old stuff and randomly select a third of the items and throw away the rest, unless there was something you or I really thought worth keeping. Reading through the old stuff is interesting: keeps me occupied on evenings when you're out at your
cultural meetings 'n that" .
“Now you're talking": She embraces him again .
“Anyway, I was going to say: Whenever I open that cupboard I'm always impressed by the
serried ranks of jars of preserved fruit. They really do last us through the winter."
“That's it: most work is done by women. Anyway, it's time we dressed up a bit -and had some of the cake". That they do, and manage to feel a real sense of occasion, albeit just the two of them and just in their own home . Now they've put a vinyl record on the turntable: ballroom dance music and they dance to it. The sun is setting now, the blue mercury vapour streetlight is flickering in to life. and the record, one of the old seven-inch 45 jobs, finishes and Anna says
"Time for another drink,"
Vlad replies "Once again Happy Birthday! Forty-six: still a young age...this must be our third nip..."
"It is, but who’s counting...!". So far as Vlad was concerned, there's was something good about their being in their best clothes on occasion: kind of romantic, sexy. Anyway, they both were happy . By this time the street loudspeaker atop its pole was silhouetted directly against the sphere of the setting sun and they both noticed it. Vlad said
“Wonder what our local loudspeaker has to say to us?"
"You mean: the Oracle of Trencin". They then, having just about remembered to take the precaution of re-playing the record on the turntable, engage in fantasy take off the loudspeaker:
"Citizens of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Townspeople of Trencin -all fifty thousand of you! The following is decreed: There will be no censorship, all will be entitled to travel abroad as they wish-"
“All workplaces will be organised non-hierarchically with full participation of all employees-There will be friendship and economic co-operation with East Germany" Anna rejoined:
“Slovakia is declared an independent sovereign State."
Together they finish by saying:
" Long Live the K.S.C.-Communist Party of Czechoslovakia".
Now they listen to the radio simply
because they like the music being broadcast.
We are in a room in a student residence in Leningrad (previously and later St. Petersburg), in June 1968. It is a drab, sparsely furnished room. There are two narrow single beds with battered chests of drawers next to them, also a couple of chairs and a table with various study books and papers and bottles of apple juice on it .There are a few pegs on which some outer garments are hung. The walls are bare except for a faded poster from the previous year commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution and a couple of sheets of what look like rules and regulations for the students. Vladimir ("Vlad") Voroshilov is at the open window. Both the inner and outer casements are open to a luminous, fine evening and, while his face is visible, his gaze is outwards towards the sky. Footsteps are heard from the corridor and he looks back towards the door as the person is directly outside the room. Vlad calls out to him,
"Lenov!" They are both in their early twenties, dressed neatly but not stylishly in trousers and open-necked white shirts. "How did it go?".
“It's fine: I passed". Vlad slaps him on the back and they shake hands.
“Well done Lenov! Now all our group's home and dry. Come on..." The premises were officially 'dry' and the rule was generally observed by them but this was different: the culmination of four or five years' work, and the rarely -used cylindrical bottle of vodka with its stained label and the two rarely-used glasses were extricated from the back of one of the drawers. They drank, first "k'chertu" (To the Devil), then, as Lenov put it, "to all our families, our friends, our teachers -and all who helped us along the way", before putting the glasses and bottle back into the drawer. Lenov asked:
“You'll be going back to Vologda then...?"
"Yep: can't wait to be back there: see the family and friends there; do the walks along the river, reading just what I feel like, about anything and everything. And after this four-weeks' much-needed break I'll be working for the Raion administration. An' how about you? You'll need a break too, before you start with the Metro extension team here"
"I've still got some National Service obligations -six months in Slovakia; I think that's where they said. I'll be joining my unit three weeks Monday, so can have a rest until then. Should all be straightforward-a bit dull most likely. Anyway, roll on the time to be back here again! I don't know much about Slovakia :I've heard that the scenery's very attractive".
"Wasn't it there, or that area- maybe it was Bulgaria, Bohemia or somewhere-they're having those political developments we were reading about?"
“Could 'ave been. Not much relevance to a conscript soldier I daresay... Maybe I'll get to meet and get to know some ordinary Slovaks or whatever they are where I am: a chance to find about what's going on wherever it is .But probably I'll meet no one except fellow squaddies. Never mind, there'll be time for finding a quiet spot for reading .Then it'll be back to Leningrad. It'll be good to be involved in really making a difference, a tangible improvement to people's daily lives: the new Underground extension will. It'll be a total design solution to a problem... The buses and trolleybuses can't cope on their own, leading in years to come to more people getting and using cars, leading to yet more congestion. We've got to break the vicious circle. Then with more lines we'd have the city sown up. It could rival the Moscow system. Mind you, coming from Kaliningrad I'm nearly a Muscovite myself and I always took it for granted I'd go back to the Moscow region, yet I'm going over to the rival firm. There's various factors: it's a beautiful city, one has to hand that to them-and there's this sense of space and openness, near Finland and under the great sky, along the banks of the Neva..."
“But there's something -or rather someone- that's a factor for you isn't there? "
“What do you mean -well yes-there are some -people of interest in this city in that way-"
“Come on: don't hold out on me: it's Valya Petrovna! "
Lenov's reply is hesitant at first:
“Yes.. It's Valya Petrovna. I did fall for her and such feelings contributed to how I feel about the place in general. I thought probably she wouldn't be interested to that extent in me so I haven't, so far, done anything about it. Yet there is the hope, and it helps to keep me here."
"How can she know you love her if you don't say so? Success is not guaranteed: there's a risk of rejection. But I'm sure you're in with a good chance. She should be coming with us to the Nevsky tonight".
Lenov is now more determined:
“If she does come and if I get a chance- I'm goin' to take it...TO THE DEVIL! Anyway, whatever the outcome, it's a good place and we can enjoy our night out".
Vlad slaps him on the back:
“That's the spirit! ...Yeah, it's a good place we're going: spacious, tasteful, a good orchestra, dancing, a glamorous but wholesome atmosphere, champagne in moderation; dancing may be against the rules but they allow it - an ideal place to be with people you know but want to know better - and the ice cream's not bad either. Couldn't afford it often but this is our special night... .Remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained."
“Me too." Lenov looks at his watch " The hour is here".
“What are we waiting for then "!
Spontaneously they start to scurry about .combing their hair, putting on jackets and ties then rushing off. As they leave the room Vlad is heard to make a joyous shout as they run off down the corridor. Four hours later, nearly midnight, they return, also in high spirits, singing a Russian folk song. Lenov exclaims:
"That was a damn good night out so
it was!... Anyway that was my last fling as a single bloke. I'm to marry a
Vologda girl -we'll be reunited an' that'll be that: one stage of life ending
and another beginning."
“Thanks mate- and judging by the way Valya was spending a good chunk of the evening with you I’d say there's room for cautious optimism for you too."
“I think there is, and I don't say that lightly, having been disappointed before in that department .That's it: we walked to the Vitebsk station, talking about different things or, it seemed just quietly being pleased to be with each other. Said she had to rush to catch her train but before she went she gave me her home address and asked me to write to her from Slovakia or wherever it proves to be, then she rushed off."
“There's no real knowing of what a young lady's thinking and feeling, but I think we can say you're your love's probably going to be requited."
“That's two of us then! Shall we have some more of the dog that bit us?"
"You bet ! To the bottom !". After Vlad had put the bottle and glasses away for a second time, Lenov observed:
"We really should try to arrange a reunion, or at least stay in some kind of contact. You and I'll stay in touch of course but-the group as a whole..."
"That's true. I'll see what I can do while you're in the Fraternal Socialist State you're in". Lenov gets a book from his locker and reads,
“As Tolstoy said on Page 177 Volume 2 of War and Peace: "Da yego nikto nie imeyet,,tak shto zhay vy xhotitie? " There's three other volumes of it like this."
“That's a natty edition you've got there. Can I have a look?" Leonov hands him the volume:
"Yeah: Brand new, 1968 edition, with illustrations. Nice" .
"I read it for the first time in my
last school summer holidays - my mother and sister said that I should use the
chance of summer and leisure to go for a walk in the woods instead of reading so
I simply went to the woods, found a quiet spot and carried on reading: I was
hooked on that philosophical stuff. But it's time now to be reading it again".
... .So, now John was back: back in the West, back in Britain, back in his own home with father and his neighbours Mr and Mrs Reynolds. Yet he felt almost still where he had been over the previous few days: almost simultaneously in two places except it was sort of three places, or maybe two plus four quarters. One was where he was- in the living room of his home at Sparkhill, Birmingham. Two was the streets of Bratislava, amidst the crowds, the tanks, the chaos - and the Quarters were made up of the hour after hour of train travel across Austria and West Germany and Belgium, there and back respectively, the Slovak industrial town of Dubnica Nad Vahom ninety miles from Bratislava and the seafront of Ostend with its pervasive British influence . So, as he now sat, having arrived home exhausted, had a bath and change of clothes with a mug of hot strong British tea in his hand ready to recount his experiences to his father and neighbours who also had mugs of tea tiding them through, he felt almost as if he were s simultaneously in all those six situations. Of the six, the sense of being on the streets of Bratislava was the strongest, excepting the Sparkhill sitting room which had the unfair advantage of its being the present physical reality.
So normal sense of time seemed partially suspended . The British front room seems to have, instead of a window giving on to a small front garden and a Birmingham street, a jagged gap with a barbed wire barrier, behind which is notionally Bratislava in August 1968.. Apart from relief in being home again he was feeling pretty demoralized .His neighbours and especially his father had been concerned for him - and relieved to see him back. None of the three were what you would call cheerful. There was nothing cheerful about what had happened over on the other side of Europe as far as they were concerned. There was just a different kind of sadness with them: a sort of cynical resignation whereas for him, twenty-five years younger, he really had believed that the seemingly impossible-a free and democratic society with the best elements of the West and the East -had been coming in to being. But one thing was for sure :none of them would be really happy again for quite sometime....
This freshening-up had been his father's idea, thinking that after forty hours or so with little to eat and almost no sleep, he would if left to himself fall asleep in his disheveled state and wake up, totally out of phase with everyone else, about three in the morning. In one way things seemed normal :he was able to walk, talk, have a shower and change clothes, and get back home in the first place, even to think up to a point-it seemed in a way as though all this seven or eight hours of the twenty-four taken up by the human race with sleep was time wasted and that he had found a way of dispensing of the need for it. At the same time...
"John: wake up: tea's ready"
Now his father and Mr and Mrs Reynolds were looking at him. He took a swig of tea.
"So, tell us all about it, son!"
“I want to, but there's so much I don't know where to start....!"
"Try the beginning lad" said Mr Reynolds That was just what the returning Briton did.
“I had a sense of optimism as I walked to Stratford Road to get the bus in to town, all that time ago - well, last Monday morning. I'd got the unemployment behind me, had been in a job nearly four months and was simply taking a holiday like any other worker. And as you know I wanted to go to one of them East European countries to see what they were really like and-better still-I was actually going to visit some Slovak people in their own homes. Even as I'd woken up that morning I'd thought: this is the day: this is it!"
"That's something I remember from my youth-optimism" his father interjected. There was in fact also another reason, no less important - indeed its hoped-for achievement was what first came to mind as he woke up that long-awaited morning: there was a young lady in Slovakia whom he he'd met when she had visited Birmingham six months before and hoped to have as his girl friend. The debacle of two years back-his refusing to move with his firm out of the city - was a story in itself, well-known to the three others in the room and not what they wanted to hear repeated, yet he couldn't stop his mind running over the outline: the steady job at the Birmingham works where he'd not long completed his apprenticeship, his girl friend whom he'd had his doubts about but was going steady with, his vain protests against the firm moving out to a small town thirty miles away, his taking for granted that she, a city girl through and through as she had seemed, would support him in his stand yet had turned against him, railing at him for not taking such an opportunity, and ditching him ;the unemployment that ensued, followed finally by his present, better, job at an engineering works still in the city...
"John, wake up!" This time it was one of the neighbours...
"I'll pour him another tea" said his father...
"As I was saying "said John as he sipped the fresh cuppa, " the journey in this country - coach from Digbeth coach station to London, and then train to Dover, went O.K. and the crossing was all right too. But it was longer than I thought :there's literally hours between losing sight of Dover and seeing Belgium. The train from Ostend to Vienna was already waiting so there wasn't time to have a look round the town."
His father said,
"The train journey must be interesting, going through all them countries"
“Yeah: it was a good journey. I thought of the train journeys we used to have for our annual holidays when Mum was still alive: Snow Hill station to the West Country : the journey was part of the holiday."
“Oh John... those were the days!" His father seemed on the verge of tears but got over it with a biscuit and a swig of tea..
“Yep: those were the days. So, the train went via Bruges and Ghent. I could see they were interesting towns. We went on, right through the middle of Brussels There's three or four main stations you go through: you're in a big tunnel through a lot of the city. You can see the life of the city, a few feet away: people thronging the platforms and in commuter trains; cars and people on roads next to the track: there's that feeling of closeness through Belgium -the train passes right next to streets, people's houses, we went through an upland area, through Liege then we passed in to West Germany. There wasn't the same sense of closeness to what we were passing: instead of being feet away they were yards away .There was some good scenery there too. We came close to the river Rhine, then it was dark. In theory you can go to sleep but in practice passengers get in to and out of the compartment, there's ticket checks and border controls- and maybe you get an hour an' a half. Soon the train journey wasn't feeling so much part of the holiday as something to be endured.”
“I've heard Austria's a beautiful country" Mrs.Reynolds was saying .
“Yeah - there's some fine scenery there as well There was a group of teenagers: smart, well-behaved like, carrying violins, with labels on the cases with the letters: ESSM. They were on the train right through to Vienna .1 don't know who they were. Anyway, the journey at that stage was as good as it could be given the sleep problem".
"That's a city I'd like to see one day: so romantic...." Again it was Mrs.Reynolds talking.
“It seemed that way to me too but I hadn't thought to get a guide book so didn't know what I was looking at. But there were some fine buildings arranged around a circular park . Oh yeah, there was a museum an' art gallery place, called the Kunstmuzeum: that was quite interesting... I made my way to the South station and finally I got the train to Bratislava. There were only two trains in the whole day yet they're two major cities only forty miles apart. The Austrian-Czechoslovak frontier conies towards the end of this journey There was a half- hour wait at the Austrian customs and a one-and-a-half hour wait at the Czechoslovak customs, and we didn't get in to Bratislava until after 11 at night"
"The Soviets don't exactly make it easy to get into their empire do they" his father said.
"Nor to get out of it", rejoined Mr Reynolds.
“There were Yugoslavian women in my carriage who were suspected of being smugglers but I don't think they were the cause of the delay. I tried to make my own way to the hotel, but didn't manage it and eventually got there at two in the morning. I was tired after the 40-hour journey but I hardly minded or even noticed at first I was so chuffed at being in Slovakia at all. Come to that being abroad was in itself a new thing so I didn't know what to expect. I savoured just being there: the station name boards which said "Bratislava Hlavny N.", the trams, the lack of adverts or brashness, the big painting or mural depicting a cheerful scene on the walls of the booking hall. There seemed to be an element of spontaneity and vitality, also a sense that things were planned on some notion of what was needed .
On the one hand you could see a lot of austerity and drabness but on the other hand some really modern, flash interiors of some places, ahead of most of what we have or so it seemed -and some impressive new buildings. Things there were, well, different. I had this sense of excitement that I'd made it: I'd got abroad, I'd got across the Iron Curtain and could see it all for myself, that this could help in my problem, that this was a country that would help to solve the world's problems: an historic compromise or something like that.”
“Well, I daresay there's some good over there, not just bad", Mr Reynolds observed. "So, at least it wasn't all drabness and dreariness there”
"There were few advertisements as such but there were what looked like slogans on billboards and posters. There weren't many people around but those I spoke to seemed to be friendly and helpful .When I was still at the station I saw some posters with the letters S.N.P on them-I later found that they were a commemoration of the Slovak National Uprising - the Povstania - that had commenced twenty-four years ago. Others had something about "1948-1968"-or maybe "1918-1968". As I left the station I waited for a while taking in the scene. There was a sort of open air postal sorting depot next to me and a parcel fell off one of their wagons . I picked it up and took it to them. The man said what was likely to be 'thank you' and that little incident made me feel just a little bit integrated there. Early in my two hours of peregrination I saw a young man run to catch a trolleybus as if his life depended on it, which didn't suggest to me they ran frequently as they like to make out in these Eastern Bloc countries.
"It was the last service of the day most likely", Mr Reynold said.
“Someone told me of a tram-electricka- that went past the hotel, but I'd none of their money to pay the fare, there was no place I could get it and I hadn't been able buy any at a bank in this country, so I just walked on. Now army lorries full of soldiers were going past. At first I assumed they were Czechoslovak Army but then some lorries were pulled up by the side of the road and I noticed that some of the soldiers had an Asiatic appearance, and the number plates on the lorries had some strange letters when all the notices and signs I'd seen had at least been in our alphabet. Soon I saw that there were hundreds of soldiers with tanks and armoured cars lining the main streets, apparently Russian-well, you know what I mean.”
"Yeah, some of them would have come from those other areas they've got", his father observed. Mrs.Reynolds was altogether less prosaic:
"So, you experienced the last hour of Czechoslovakia's- Slovakia's- freedom and peace."
"Maybe I did... Well, The next day, having finally got to bed at 3.00 a.m. after the forty hours on the go, I didn't wake up till 10.30 a.m.. There was no breakfast being served so I sallied forth, so to speak. On leaving the hotel one became caught up in a very large demonstration. About a hundred yards down the road there was a square at the intersection of several main streets .Here a meeting was just ending as I reached it, and a march of several thousand young people was taking place. It was in support of Dubcek and Svoboda, with rhythmic chanting of their names. The whole central area was packed with thousands on thousands of people, mainly young, milling around. The streets were now lined with troops and troop carriers etc. on both sides. Inside these Russian troops were standing or sitting. They looked very young and did not have very purposeful expressions on their faces. Around every Russian vehicle a group of Slovak young people had gathered and engaged in earnest discussion of a political nature. The Russian soldiers did not talk much but did give brief replies from time to time. The discussions looked to be good- humoured. I got to the Bank soon after 11AM but it had already closed for the day and that was that: : I had to be content with things that didn't cost anything. At one point I saw a petition which people were signing .A young man said something to me which appeared to be an invitation to sign it but I wasn't going to sign something I couldn't read." Mrs Reynolds observed:
“That's it: they call themselves socialist those countries but they never give anything away, I've heard that in Russia they have to pay for prescriptions and to go into museums when here it's free"
“Probably not, though to be fair I didn't ask for anything for free. At various main street intersections two or more tanks had been placed, facing in different directions, sometimes covering the tramlines. No trams were running. Traffic was light so there was little impedance for the demonstration marchers. I walked on, along one of the main thoroughfares. At that moment they began to use the tanks and a shell could be seen, like a large orange spark, moving at great speed above and past us with a sort of rushing sound . All around me people, maybe five hundred at once, many screaming or exclaiming, rushed in to a side street. I saw a soldier don a sort of face mask before getting into a tank and firing it. He had a sort of grim expressionless face and there seemed to be no obvious reason for him to be doing what he was doing.”
"It ALL seems so pointless," Mrs.Reynolds said.
“That's it: and amongst all the other stuff was an anti-aircraft gun even. I certainly didn't see what the point of that was".
“Just a routine measure for an
invasion force ", his father said. "It's like what they did in Hungary in
1956 you know. They shot up people there for no reason at all: it could
happen in Czechoslovakia yet - maybe is at this moment: you did the right
thing in leaving!"
“The crowd soon stopped running and some walked back as if to see what was going on. I still didn't really know why the Soviets were there: I couldn't speak Slovak of course..."
“Couldn't you have tried some words of French?" asked his father: "You must've remembered some from what you learnt at school .People know French all over the Continent don't they?"
“Dunno: I sort of didn't think of it .And as time went on things seemed to be getting gradually hairier and I was less and less keen for people to notice that I was a foreigner anyway . I was pretty disorientated. After all, it all seemed it'd been settled before I left Birmingham: they had that conference in Cierna nad Tisou and then they had another in Bratislava-it was in the Post and the Mail wasn't it... The Soviets seemed to be accepting the situation and were actually moving forces out of the country only a few weeks ago. So, I could only wonder if the Czech government in Prague had some hand in it inviting the Russians. Maybe they didn't invade the Czech areas-"
"THEY DID!" His father briefly filled him in on how the situation was known in Britain: that not only Slovakia but the whole of Czechoslovakia had been overrun, that in the Czech areas there had been considerable opposition, with demonstrations and some stoning and chalking of swastikas on tanks though no organised armed resistance.
"Yes", John said, "there was some of that chalking on swastikas, also writing of special notices a list of registration numbers of cars described as Kolaborantov ".
“Didn't you do some of that then lad, chalking on the swastikas?" Yes, Mr Reynolds often had this hearty approach verging on the bantering when talking to John.
“No, it didn't cross my mind. I was still in a bit of a blurred state as to exactly what was going on and anyway, when I was packing my suitcase I thought of shirts and socks but not a packet of chalks. I didn't see any stone throwing myself but I picked up a newspaper on the train this morning which said that somewhere in the Slovak area it had happened and that a fifteen -year- old girl who had wanted to be a nurse had been killed when the Soviets fired at random into a crowd. You weren't there and I was but being there in the thick of it means that half the time you can't see the wood for the trees while you back in Britain have had news in your own language and could get a general picture like. At times it was hard to know what to think... if they genuinely were there to deal with fascist or counterrevolutionary elements they seemed to be very careless to fire tank shells in streets crowded with ordinary people.
“I decided to walk through the side streets to get an idea of what Bratislava was like as a town. For some while the heavy gunfire continued to be heard. There were fine buildings and well laid out streets and squares in the city centre and it was a quite pleasant walk through the streets; I suppose by then the gunfire had eased off . Here were what looked like Slovak headquarters of the national airline and the national tourist office. There was also a night club."
"I didn't know they were allowed night clubs in these Communist countries" his father said.
“It seems that they are. Some of the buildings were flats, some offices, but you had to look closely to tell the difference. Not like in this country where you can tell at a glance. A shop had some Western long-playing jazz records on sale."
“There again", his father observed, "I thought communist governments only allowed propaganda songs or old folk music: one lives and learns".
"So, I reached a main street near to the river Danube. There was no traffic and no people that I could see, then suddenly about a dozen of the tanks roared past. They must have been doing fifty miles an hour: I never knew tanks could go that fast. They made me feel pretty ineffective" .
“They were meant to" his father said.
“I saw some more Soviet troops" John continued, "They did not look angry. Walking along the street by the Danube I got to an area where many of the houses were demolished. One passed close to the Castle walls, immediately below which was a small, antiquated -looking factory. The housing here was of an especially low standard. A bit further along there were some new flats being built and on the other side some new-ish institutional buildings which now blocked the river view. I walked on. The road seemed to veer round away from the river and I soon came to the outskirts of the town. There was a semi-rural area with a zoo and some farmhouses. I walked a mile or two along this road before walking up a side street in to an area of many single houses (up until then there had been flats .) The side streets weren't always metalled. I reached the railway and followed it back to the main station where I'd arrived the day before. Beyond it there was a large area where the Russian soldiers were specially concentrated. This was a green area with some very modern buildings: I think they were government offices. There were the same groups of Slovak people round the tanks. They were mainly young as before but one of them was middle- aged, having an earnest discussion with someone who looked like an officer. I thought that just maybe the impassioned experience of an older person could appeal to the Russian's feelings and make him see reason".
“You're pushing your luck son. Even if he did, what could one Russian officer do to change things? Whoever and Whatever's up there, thanks be to him, her or it for the fact that the violence over there's no worse than it is so far, and for you coming back home. What's been happening over there brought to mind what happened here during the war: things I've tried to forget. The air raids we got here, I could sort of cope with but machine gunning people in the street round the corner in the Stratford Road, that was personal and I tried to wipe it out from my memory: but now you've had to go through something comparable I've got to think about it again. Your mother and I both survived the war but there was no guarantee : it's not what we now know happened, it's what we thought was damn likely to happen when we were going through it." His son continued:
“We'll just have to hope for the best... I can't remember whether it was then in the afternoon or in the evening that day but one of these discussions going on round a Soviet army lorry seemed to be fairly cordial, even maybe seriously constructive, and the soldiers in the back of the lorry invited one of the Slovak youths to climb aboard and join them. In due course, to the accompaniment of a cheer from the group of Slovaks, he did. One of the soldiers also said something to a passing girl which caused her to indicate a ring on her finger, say something probably unprintable and flounce away. But the Russians were definitely not usually saying anything like this..." John paused for a moment and yawned.
"I suggest more tea" . John took a swig from the teacup his father refilled and continued: "As I made my way back to the hotel I noted down the names of the streets so as to remember the way to the station to get there the next morning to go to Trencin. But a Soviet officer was looking suspiciously at me and I stopped writing in case he thought me a foreign counterrevolutionary spy or something. Back at the hotel I started to write this account. Looking from the window of my room I could see a demonstration of about 2.000 young people. They were marching to the city centre, singing the Internationale and carrying the Czechoslovakian flag."
“That's a left-wing song isn't it?" said Mr. Reynolds," The Russians could hardly have moved against people singing that".
“That's what I thought at the time", John replied. " To be fair, they didn't. I was a bit late for an evening meal and some who looked like waitresses etc. were having their own meal but they managed to serve me with one course and a glass of lemonade. Before it was served a man there who knew English asked me why I was looking sad. I said something about being hungry, no currency etc. He said
"It's not our fault, but our friend's -Brezhnev".I know I should have taken the opportunity to ask him what was going on and express some sympathy but, I slipped up there.. .said that I had come by myself. He indicated one of the staff having their meal and said that she had come by herself and was now a manageress. Of course, I'm not a fan of staff hierarchies but nowhere's paradise. At that moment I noticed that one of the "waitresses"-if that's what she was, was talking to a group of Italians at another table-about the only customers there apart from me- and was miming with approval the sub-machine gunning of Russians. This did not seem a hopeful sign. All along I'd hoped there was some sort of innocent explanation of it all, that it was all with the approval of the Czechoslovak government :I just didn't want to face another, more likely explanation. This hope was somehow made a little less faint when I saw a Czechoslovak army Jeep-type vehicle, flag flying, drive at speed past a line of Soviet tanks etc. shouting out loudspeaker messages which the Slovak bystanders cheered or clapped, with no reaction from the Soviets.
"In the evening the situation remained as before, with the same earnest discussions round each tank. I reached the Danube bridge, on the way noticing some knocked-down street lamp standards, presumably hit by tank shells. I walked across the bridge-there was only one bridge over the Danube in the city I think-a low-level metal one which carried the railway as well as the road. There was a long jam of army vehicles on the bridge and on the other side. Here a Slovak or Czech man was reading a small leaflet, printed in Russian, just given him by a Russian soldier. On walking back over the bridge I saw a makeshift secular shrine with lighted candles. I later found out that a Slovak or Czech person had been killed there."
"The next morning I woke up early with the alarm clock I'd brought from home . My brief flash of hope that a new day would see the Soviet Army units gone was quickly dispelled: their tanks, lorries etc. were still there, the only difference being that they were parked on grass verges rather than on the roads . I was able to go to the bank. There was an overhead notice there in English, something about "transactions with parties from the capitalist countries" and I could buy some Czechoslovak money at last. The male bank clerks were dressed like factory floor workers and the atmosphere was generally casual.
“I was not able to walk directly to the station because the Russians had cordoned off an area near those modern buildings I'd passed the day before. So, I just caught the train to Trencin, a steam express, as it was moving off. The train went through the northern suburbs where there were a lot of new housing schemes, flats fairly densely packed, and industrial development. There were some other stations in these outlying areas -Bratislava this, Bratislava that, then after a few minutes we got out of the city altogether. The countryside on the-journey was very attractive, with hills in the distance and for a time it was possible to put the Russian incursion out of one's mind. But, nearing the end of the journey, about eighty miles from Bratislava, there they were again: a line of Soviet tanks along a road on an embankment, silhouetted against the sky. That was it- they were everywhere, they had simply taken over the whole place,"
"They reckon the Warsaw Pact have got half a million troops in Czechoslovakia: meant to shock the Czech-er, and Slovaks-into thinking resistance is useless", his father observed. John continued:
"From that time on there seemed less and less chance of a happy outcome to whatever had happened ...Be that as it may, I changed at Trencin, a middle- sized town, on to a local train for the next town, Dubnica Nad Vahom, a smaller place where the express didn't call.. That local train was antiquated, steam again, the coaches separate from each other-just like in that film we saw about wartime in Czechoslovakia, Closely Observed Trains. Come to think of it Slovakia would be a good country for the steam railway Society enthusiasts : maybe you could organise a trip Mr.Reynolds."
“Maybe - I'll bear it in mind for later: Maybe we could buy some of those old trains off 'em." "Anyway, Vladko - remember, the chap who came to see us here after Easter - was due to meet me at the station and then we were to go on to meet his father at his workplace . Vladko wasn't there . His father met me. He introduced himself - there were few other people coming off the train anyway. He was very friendly, though he didn't know any English. I had my Slovak dictionary, he pointed out the word for "factory" (it's "tovaren" in Slovak) and we went, on foot, to the place he worked. As I say, it's still a fairly small town, about twenty thousand people I should think, mostly quite new. We got to the factory, a large metallurgical works. There was an open air meeting of several hundred workers in progress, inside the factory gates. There weren't many there not at the meeting but he got me a beer: I was thirsty and glad of it though water would have been even better. He introduced me to a couple of his colleagues and they were friendly enough but were keen on listening to the speeches so it wasn't possible to talk with them much.. We were only there for about twelve minutes but I had this great feeling of really being there, really in amongst it all, even if I couldn't follow what was being said. But then Vladimir - that was his name - looked at his watch and motioned that we needed to leave. We walked back to the railway station, past the old pre-war centre, dating back to when the place was just a large village. A Czechoslovak flag was flying next to a black flag. The same inscriptions appeared on the walls as in Bratislava. The station's loudspeakers- loud enough to be heard a hundred yards outside the station, had a man speaking in a solemn and sonorous voice-not about train services that was for sure: I later found that a free Slovak radio station was being relayed. We caught a train back the three or four miles to Trencin and we walked through the streets, about fifteen minutes, to the Dubnica side of town where he and his wife lived. It was a flat like hundreds of others in the town. Inside it was quite spacious but a little bare. They were both hospitable and welcoming, in a subdued and calm kind of way. They entertained me for lunch. We had a course which was a meal in itself but it turned out only to be starters. We then had the main course, a sweet course, coffee and plum brandy: I was pretty full at the end of it-I never knew it was possible to eat so much at one sitting. We made some progress at conversation using the dictionary, and me making a drawing of our house here in Sparkhill, and so on .They were apologetic on behalf of Vladko. It was nice to be with them but communication was, say, limited until a lady friend of theirs came who could speak English. At one point they turned on the radio and listened avidly to the news bulletin. It was only when I was with them that I found out for certain that the country had been occupied by Soviet forces and that they had arrived without the consent of the Czechoslovak government. They explained that Vladko had decided to leave for the West, had had to make up his mind quickly before the frontier was closed .. He was very sorry not to have been there to welcome me to his country and will write to me when he can. I asked whether he had left the country and it transpired that they didn't actually know. They had just seen him off at the station in Bratislava, on to the train I'd been on that crosses the frontier with Austria. His father laughed but in a nervous way I'd come across with Slovak people before. He said that it would be straightforward for him but his eyes seemed to glaze over. The lady said that with the uncertainties of the situation everyone was on edge but they were to an extent comforted by what I'd said about the situation in Bratislava. We talked about the situation in a general way. There was always some music on in the background .I said that I liked it and they gave me the record - Slovak folk songs -on leaving. They told me that a man in Kosice, Slovakia's second city, had opened fire on the invaders with a revolver, to what effect I don't know. They didn't seem wholeheartedly in favour of this type of action.. At one point the locals had placed a barrier on a frontier road and the oncoming Warsaw Pact forces turned back in to Poland. They said that there was now a curfew in Prague and that the situation in Bratislava would be similar and they advised me not to delay any more the return journey to Bratislava, inviting me to see them again when circumstances were more favourable. Vladimir, who accompanied me back to the station, was very subdued and didn't seem to want to talk much. He just said he was glad I'd come and once again invited me back as soon as the situation improved. The return train, supposedly an express, was very crowded at first and took three and a half hours to do the 85 miles or so back to Bratislava. We went through Galanta, a longer way round which worried me a bit. Walking back through Bratislava at about 10.40pm. the streets were absolutely deserted except for me and a few other men walking back from the station and one old woman. There was a group of Russian soldiers standing just beyond the hotel but I got to it and rang the bell. After looking at me very carefully they let me in on showing them my room key. The next morning one of the hotel staff told me that the official advice for foreigners was to leave and go to Vienna as quickly as possible while the frontier was still open. He said that I was the only remaining foreigner and that someone had been shot outside the hotel ten minutes before . I went upstairs to my room to think out whether to act on the advice .Before that it hadn't occurred to me to leave early, but then I started thinking about the situation in a different way. I started to think that they might arrest or shoot foreigners from the West, especially if they were travelling on their own with a list of names and addresses of private Slovak citizens on them. So I tried to look like a Slovak. I know it may sound stupid now but it didn't seem so stupid just then. As I was packing my case machine gun fire could be heard, near the hotel and towards the river, continuing for some time intermittently. There were no demonstrations now, no groups of Slovaks round each tank, only people keeping to the pavements, in large numbers, seeming silently to be going about their ordinary business. I walked in with them, passing armed Russian soldiers at intervals and felt glad of my attempt not to look like a foreigner. On arrival at the station, very crowded, I found that there were seven hours to wait for a train to the Austrian frontier .At noon every available siren and hooter was sounded for some minutes. Some youths removed the station square nameplate and covered it up with a sign bearing the name of Dubcek, with favourable response from those around. In the afternoon I went up a hilly road from which a good view of Bratislava could be obtained .The amount of new housing was very striking. A nearby housing scheme was attractively laid out with areas of green between the blocks.
"The train did not go through to Vienna, only to the Austrian border. The Czechoslovak border control people only seemed interested in whether I had a camera. I didn't and they let me through. I walked along the platform but maybe be there wasn't actually a platform - to the waiting Austrian train which took me to Vienna. I felt a tinge of sadness on leaving Slovakia. Arriving at the big Sudbahnhof (South Station) in Vienna in mid-evening it was pretty quiet except for two or three men engaging in what sounded like a heated political discussion but, not knowing German, I can't be sure, and there was a line of coaches from Czechoslovakia drawn up on the road outside the station. I got a tram to the West station . The tram was nearly empty and the conductress waited patiently for me to fumble through British, Czechoslovak, Belgian and West German small change to finally get hold of an Austrian shilling. I seemed to be unlucky with all the connections, apart from just catching a bus to Sparkhill from the coach station, so that I've actually had two nights travelling coming back. There was a sort of tense atmosphere in West Germany and someone at Aachen, where I'd had to change, shouted at me because I'd placed my suitcase in contact with theirs. Then it was through Belgium again and I had time for a walk along the sea front in Ostend.
There was then a silence that no one seemed to want to break. It was his father who finally
“It's all bloody terrible isn't it ...Anyone like a cup of tea?"
There was then silence again for the minutes while the tea was prepared and distributed. This time it was Mrs. Reynolds who first spoke:
"We’ve got to help those people you know". John, roused somewhat from the lethargy that had relentlessly been getting the better of him, suggested that somehow they organized a meeting locally about the situation in Czechoslovakia. After that the atmosphere eased somewhat. Mr Reynolds said that there was a reasonable chance that the steam railway preservation society which he was in would sanction the use of their duplicating machine while John's father thought that a hall on the corner of Stratford Road and Newton Road could be hired for it.
The neighbours left around five pm. after an invitation to John and his father to go on one of the steam rail excursions . Soon after six John finally staggered off to bed. Now his father was by himself, gazing out of the window, lost in his thoughts .This was a situation that he found himself in more than he would have wished. A year previously, when he was not yet sixty, he had been compulsorily retired from his job as his gammy leg got gradually worse. He was sure that his employers could have kept him on if they'd been minded to but that was the way it was these days. As the years had gone by his friends and relations had died or left the area. It seemd that John and Mr and Mrs. Reynolds were all that were left, and, it seemed, he could have lost John. Again as often happened, his mind went back more and more to his youth: childhood, schooldays, apprenticeship, the War, getting married, being widowed, John
growing up. Sometimes he thought he'd found major lost opportunities "if he could have his life over again" but increasingly it seemed that, given the opportunities and abilities he'd had, he couldn't have done much differently anyway.
The sun was at a low angle now... There was beginning to be a sense of closure on this late Summer day. But now here was a young man coming along the garden path. John's father with some effort roused himself and hobbled off to the front door.
"Well, this is a surprise: Welcome! Take a seat: I'll bring you in some tea...that's the kettle on. Now, I remember how you have tea, less strong an' with a slice of lemon in it".
"Yes, you right. And it is to see you good, and you seem to be well. What is-situation- for John?"
“He's back here: he arrived about three hours ago. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds 'ave not long gone; John was telling us all about it all. He's well, but tired - like you by the looks of it. He's gone upstairs for a rest, but I'll tell him you're here".
"No, please, him rest let. I just want to know he O.K. is. Sorry but cannot stay long. Must to London go tonight. Early tomorrow, I to see other refugees. And British authorities we see. I try to be in Birmingham again in future time but now we in London, in student home: I address give" .
“Thanks ...I know, you can go up and see him in his room. If he wakes up, you speak to him, then you come back down here and we have the Slovak tea.. That way you do actually see him.... So, you left Slovakia..."
“Yes, decide in small time I had to and I decide Britain to come. in my country there is no happiness, no light" .
"We'll try and help".
"Thank you " Vladko shakes hands with John's father.
“The kettle'll be boiling: I'll make the tea for us with lemon, and you can go up to see John: first door you come to at the top of the stairs, after the bathroom." Vladko goes upstairs and soon comes back down.
"He is very big asleep. Please, tell him I say hello and will see him in later time "
A few minutes later Vladko and John's father are sitting in the lounge, drinking tea with no milk and with lemon.
"So Vladko, it looks like things won't be changing in Czechoslovakia any time soon". Vladko replied:
"It seems so, but you can never
It is the end of August 1968, in the student residence in St. Petersburg /Leningrad. Lyudmilla Lermontovna, a middle-aged woman, dressed in clean though worn overalls, is engaged in a thorough cleaning of the room, including washing the walls The beds have no bedding on them and the only things in the way of personal effects are her bag of household shopping, perhaps with a scantily wrapped loaf of bread protruding therefrom, and a newspaper, perhaps Leningradskaya Pravda, on the chest of drawers. Vlad Voroshilov Walks in through the open door.
"Vlad, young man: how nice to see you. How's things?"
“Things are fine with me: after a month off I've started at the Vologda Raion administration . They seem a good bunch and I think I'm going to like it there . It's Lenov I'm worried about: I haven't heard anything -not letter, not telegram not nothing. He was in Czechoslovakia - you know, that place where there was a spot of trouble recently . It's not looking good."
Lyudmilla had heard- and read- the news about Lenov. It suddenly came to her that, if she didn't tell him that his best friend was gone for ever, no one else would, or, as bad, it would be mentioned to him in passing as if he already knew. It wasn't nice to have to do it, but she had had to tell members of her late husband's family that he would not be coming back from the war .She hadn't expected there to be any more situations like this for her country let alone amongst people of her personal acquaintance, but you could never know...
“You'd better sit down." Lenov sits on one of the battered chairs and Lyudmilla sits on one of the beds, about three feet away.
"Whatever happened or didn't happen, we can be sure that he did his duty as a good Soviet Citizen. Vlad", she now held his hand, "our office has received the news from the Authorities: our Lenov was shot and killed when he was not conscious by the counter-revolutionary enemy within the territory of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia". " Thank you for telling me Citizeness Lyudmilla..." His initial reaction was calm, polite and correct enough but then he lost it - who wouldn't. He released his hand from the lady who held it, got up from the chair and opened the window as wide as it would go. He utters the first sentences with feeling but quietly but shouts the last one at the top of his voice at the open window:
"He would have always done his utmost to avoid injury or unpleasantness .He would never have deserved it: he would have been a decent soldier. They've killed a good man: THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO!" He flops back in to the chair and breaks down. "Let me read to you what it says in the Newspaper Item" She gets the newspaper from her shopping bag and reads:
“The bourgeois media in the capitalist world, as we would expect, portray the sons of the socialist proletariat as though they were some medieval horde, or like the Nazis whom we faced in the Great Patriotic war destroying villages and towns and killing people in their thousands as they swept through. But what was the actual situation on the ground? Yes, our forces, along with those of our fraternal socialist allies, have indeed swept into Czechoslovakia in the successful defence of their democratic peace-loving Socialist government, in the still-not-quite-over struggle against those who resort to psychological warfare, Peaceful Counterrevolution and subversion in parallel with West German militarist neo-Nazi revanchism. But there the bourgeois claims and reality part company. The forces of the Warsaw Pact, in a true spirit of humanitarian socialist internationalism, exercised restraint: cities were not bombed, people were not mown down indiscriminately with machine guns. Instead, our Soviet forces entered into conversation and dialogue with the people on the streets of Slovakia: violence was a last and not a first resort and it is to the credit of our forces that, in face of many acts of hooliganism, not excluding some armed provocations, by the reactionary forces seeking to restore capitalism, only twenty-two nationals of the State concerned lost their lives as a result of the Intervention.
“And what of the citizens of the U.S.S.R. who lost their lives in this act of fraternal socialist internationalism? What better case to take than that of Soviet Citizen Leonid Mikhailovich, a native of Kaliningrad-the first Russian town of that name- in Moscow region . He honoured our city by adopting it as his home town, having studied mechanical engineering here and having just commenced work on the extension of our Underground railway system. Leonid entered into meaningful and generally friendly discussion with a group of young Slovak people. These discussions lasted for hours, and all the previous day and night he and his unit had been on the move. It is likely that, in the hurry to forestall the possible blitzkrieg actions of the enemies of progress, this worthy citizen of our Hero-City would not have had a chance either to eat or to sleep for almost forty hours, and succumbed to exhaustion and lost consciousness. And a counterrevolutionary scumbag, who would have lacked the courage to engage his enemy in fair combat, then shot him dead .
"Let us hail a fine example of young people today, a worthy successor to the generation that lost twenty million in the fight for a better world." Lyudmilla down the newspaper. After a few moments of reflective silence Vlad said:
“Maybe we shouldn't have invaded, maybe we should: some of us in our family, among my friends in Vologda, thought one way, some of us thought the other but one thing's certain: there was no way it was right for him to be shot, and what a cowardly way. I know him well enough to know he would have behaved decently to people in Czechoslovakia. We'd known each other for years: he was my best friend for f—s sake! I'm sorry -I'm being uncomradely to use that language in speaking to a woman but I can't help it".
“I'm sorry, very sorry. But Lenov did his duty. You can be proud to have been his friend, this Institution can be proud he was a student here . As you know, my husband died in the Great Patriotic War, along with the rest of the twenty million. We believed that our sacrifice would at last lead to the final end to capitalism, exploitation and war for our country and its socialist neighbours. But there's still a few mopping-up operations needed from time to time I'm afraid: that's the way it is. The newspaper article was right: Leonid's sacrifice in the mopping -up operation was every bit as noble as my husband's, and the millions of others in the main event, which happened when we were his age-so do not think that he died in vain. When I was your age we looked forward to a better future: I had my own dream of a sunlit park, with people walking by, children playing, people on benches reading a book or simply looking at the greenery and flowers. A dream of our country and our our neighbours - and woe betide anyone who tries to take it away. It's the thought of our achieving this better life-for everybody-that keeps me going and inspired me to become a Non-Party Activist. And things ARE getting better. We as ordinary citizens cannot know the ins and outs of the situation in foreign parts; we have to trust our Government and the Party-and support them in actions they decide necessary."
“I want to share the dream, and contribute to continuing the progress . Absolutely I'm proud to have been his friend. But I think that ordinary people like us do need to get to know more about the situation in other countries, to help us in forming our own judgement.. Lenov himself was hoping to do just that: get to know ordinary Slovak people, as indeed he did.... Well, I'm keeping you from your work, so better say goodbye now-and thank you for your support and understanding."
“Goodbye Vlad. Don't forget: come and see us again!"
"I will, in happier circumstances I trust". Vlad's steps echo in the sparsely furnished room, then in the empty corridor and staircase as he leaves.
“Well, back to work: the new
students'll soon be here. It seems almost no time all since Vlad, Lenov and
their group finished their courses.. Will things go on just the same? It seems
so but you can never know ...
Sixteen years have passed : it is Nineteen Eighty-four and time to picture the Trencin flats again. They don't seem quite so modern now: the serried 4-story blocks, within one of which the flat is situated, seem austere and boxy, albeit adequate. There is still the extensive view, hills in the background, the other blocks - the street-light and the pole-mounted loudspeaker in centre-foreground. But Anna and Vlad are no longer here to appreciate, or otherwise, the emanations from this Oracle of state power. The flat is forlornly vacant, the bugged telephone on the floor being all that is standing in the way of total emptiness. From time to time there are clicks and other signs of electronic activity, maybe even a playback of the background music they had hoped would prevent their intimate discourses being eavesdropped. Yet they had been gone for three months : had the Interior Ministry got their wires crossed? After being residents for twenty years with a blameless record as occupiers and neighbours the Co-operative that were the landlords had shown indecent haste in wanting them out double quick as soon as they knew Anna's parents had both died so Vlad and Anna were able to carry out their plan of moving to the Cadza house. But the couple who replaced them in the flat themselves left after only a few weeks: they had managed to get permission for a trip to Vienna and had not been seen since.
The home of Anna's late parents' home, beautifully situated on the edge of the small town of Cadza in the Beskidy mountains, is not bare concrete but is finished in stucco painted in a quiet ochre yellow. It is not in a block but is a house with its own substantial garden. Anna and Vlad are in the garden, glasses of lemon tea in hand, relaxing from berry and currant picking. They say a few words but much is left unsaid. Anna may be reminiscing over her past cultural work while Vlad is thinking about all kinds of snippets of information gained from all kinds of papers and all kind of places within their homeland over the sixty of his sixty-five years that he could actually remember. But there the differences stop. They are both thinking about mostly the same things and they know it: their secure if often tiring and humdrum former jobs, their good luck in having a good bunch of people as colleagues in those jobs, their peaceful and adequately comfortable retirement, the final years of Anna's parents -and Vladko and his family in the English midlands.
Vlad didn't see himself as a wiz in Marxism-Leninism, he certainly wasn't a Party member, but his actual experience suggested to him that what was called "highly developed socialism" had been achieved in Slovakia-now mainly urban, industrial and, well, modern. And all with no free market capitalism in sight. Most likely we'd caught up with the Czechs whatever they might think and we'd done without that vast investment from West Germany that some had called for. Yet there were disturbing things-albeit nothing his wife and himself personally were now threatened by. Marxism-Leninism was supposed to be the leadership of the Working Class-something that had attracted him from the start .He and his wife were as working class as they came-his working life had been on the factory floor-yet power had never seemed in the hands of working people like himself, there were more powerful people above them who set the agenda and called the shots-the Middle Class and/or the Bourgeoisie by any other names. Benevolent they were-up to a point, but the depth of his being he wanted them somehow challenged, the hierarchy above him flattened. They controlled the present, they planned on controlling the future but what right had they to control the past? Actually the wartime Slovak nation-state had not been all hopeless: they had put more villages on the electricity grid and improved social security provision, in the midst of a war-torn continent though they were, but try saying so in public and you could expect a visit from Captain Hodonin in short order. Then there was the Invasion: it was a shock and it still made him shudder when he thought about it. He had always been against it. Yet he was also convinced that free enterprise capitalism, with that massive West German involvement, would have been their lot had the Soviets not intervened. The thought of that also sent a shudder down his spine...well, not everything in life is consistent and readily fathomed.
They missed some of their friends and colleagues in Trencin right enough, and they missed Anna's parents. The long shadow of the interior Ministry had largely faded for them if not for their country -but there had been that final denouement with them, in Sarajevo. Sarajevo? Yes, they had somehow got a pair of tickets, and exit visas, for the 1984 Winter Olympics-and, joy of joys, Vladko, even if not his wife and child, had been able to take two weeks of annual leave to join them there . Yes, the visit of Captain Hodonin of the Czechoslovak Interior Ministry - in Yugoslavia - had been a shock . He had made it clear that they had known of their planned trip all along. And his invitation to Vladko to spy for them in the greater Birmingham area had been really sick. But Hodonin had somehow shown himself to be a human being, and he believed him when he said that, from now on Anna and himself would be left in peace.
Anna was also thinking . She had always believed in Pan-Slavism, yet Russia's behaviour hadn't always lived up to expectations. She too had accepted and believed Hodonin's promise that they were not on the secret police list any more. And, like her husband, important as it had been actually to see their son after sixteen years, more important still was to know that he was well and reasonably happy in that island country far away. When would they ever get a chance to see him, again? They would try to sort out things so they would . One hopeful sign was the new Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko .Andropov had not had time to do much before he snuffed it, poor sod, but Chernenko looked altogether healthier and also seemed a reasonable bloke.
What changes would there be in their lifetime, for good or ill: an independent Slovakia? A return to capitalism? An end to the Cold War? Freedom for them to visit Britain? On the whole, she thought not. But then again, you can never know...