Today, Pavel Machala is the Charles E. Merrill 1908 Professor of Political Science at Amherst. Fifty years ago, though, he was a rebellious student at Charles University in Prague—and saw the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia firsthand.
Machala, who arrived at Amherst in 1977, has taught many courses on geopolitics and political ideology over the years (including “Taking Marx Seriously”). But few students know his personal story. Now they will. He generously shared his experiences with us, focusing on his youth under communism, and those days in August 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into his city and changed the world—and his own life—forever.
Growing Up Under Communism
KW: You were born in 1947, the son of a civil engineer (father) and pharmacist (mother). Czechoslovakia became a communist country in 1948. What was it like, economically, for your family when you were growing up?
PM: As long as there was bread in the stores, there was progress. Progress was measured by these types of mundane things: enough shoes, socks, toilet paper. Not what type of shoes, but enough shoes. By the mid-’50s, after Stalin died, the regime was starting to deliver what I call “goulash” communism, post-totalitarian communism. It began to legitimize itself by promising and delivering basic material improvements.
KW: I looked up this Russian word, avoska, literally a “perhaps bag,” a bag you always carried in that era, so as to buy something if it were suddenly in stock.
PM: People would always have little bag in the bigger bag or their purse, ready to buy whatever, even if you did not need it. Suddenly there was butter. People would buy as much as they could. Sometimes it would spoil afterward. Because people didn’t trust that they would find butter the following day. But by the mid-1960s, things changed. People wanted better things.
KW: What kind of better things?
PM: They would kill for blue jeans, for example. Blue jeans were symbols of freedom. It was a political statement. For example, you were not supposed to wear them during special communist holidays, like May Day. If you wore them at May Day celebrations, you could be stopped and told that you could not continue. Which was good, because you can leave! So you learned how to enlarge your freedom by knowing how to take advantage of the rigidity, irrationality, of some of the rules.
KW: What was your stance on wearing blue jeans, yourself?
PM: I wore them as often as I could. It was like a competition with my friends. How far can you get without getting too much into trouble? It was a way of having fun. The worst thing about communism for me, as a teenager, was it was oppressive. It was boring.
KW: Were there other such competitions between you and your friends?
PM: Yes, like, “Who will get an exit visa at the beginning of each summer?” First, you had to get an invitation letter from someone in the country you wanted to visit. You had to show that invitation at your local police station in Prague, where you applied for the exit visa. I learned that some workers at one station were part of a stamp collecting club. So I would bring the invitation letter with some stamps on it, but I would glue more, different, stamps on it. As many as I could fit on the envelope. And I would also stick more loose stamps into the envelope. The officer was analyzing them and he was absolutely salivating. It worked like a charm.
KW: The stamps were kind of a mild bribe?
PM: That’s a polite way of putting it. Some people would actually be much bolder. They would just give money, but occasionally that didn’t work. The safer thing was to bribe in a way that didn’t implicate you in the bribe.
KW: But there was no threat of being thrown in jail or sent to a gulag.
PM: Not in my experience, no. I was too young to have experienced much in the Stalinist period. After Stalin died, the communist party dictatorship was legitimated by steady economic improvement. I could sense that the propaganda, from the first seven years I grew up, was gone. Promises of better society, possible communist society, that we were supposed to enter one day into? These were clichés that no one, not even the apparatchiks, took seriously.
KW: Were you involved in protests when you were a student?
PM: My protests belong [on] Saturday Night Live. For example, during political holidays, people had to assemble to hear important speeches by the head of the Czechoslovak communist party and the Soviet leaders. The speeches would be interrupted by government-sponsored applauders, at certain planned times, like canned applause on a sitcom.
We felt that maybe we can applaud spontaneously. One day, it got out of hand—we applauded so much that, an Italian communist party leader couldn’t finish his talk. Because once a few began to applaud, the rest of the people began to think, “Oh yes, we have to applaud now, because if we don’t applaud, we will get into trouble.” We were arrested—technically this was sabotage—and we were brought to the police station. To my surprise, we were released.
KW: You have done research into Karl Marx’s writings on inter-state conflicts. Were you reading Marx as a young man in Prague?
PM: I had a group of friends who fancied themselves as trying to understand the authentic Marx, the Marx that the Soviets would not allow us to read. Like Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which you could only get a samizdat [clandestine] copy of in Czechoslovakia. It’s a book on alienation. And it’s applied to capitalism. In post-capitalist world, human beings were not supposed to be alienated. Well, it didn’t take us too long to realize that we were alienated.
The Prague Spring Blooms
KW: I’d like to get your reaction to the Prague Spring as it unfolded. In January 1968, Alexander Dubček became the country’s leader, the First Secretary of the party, and gave a speech in “Victorious February,” to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the coup that brought communists to power. He laid out a program of economic and civil reform.
PM: Before Dubček, in the 1960s, the regime stopped being able to deliver significant improvements. So they began to panic. Dubček came into power as a result of the recognition that the economy has to be modernized. All over the world, the communist elites were trying to figure out how to make the economic system more productive.
And there was one model that was available. That was Yugoslav communism, which was based on the principle called “market socialism.” The means of production, the factories and stores, would be primarily collectively owned. There would be also state supervision of the management, but the products would be exchanged through the market.
KW: In March, Dubček announced that censorship will be abolished.
PM: By that time, censorship in the newspapers was already not as severe. But I remember that, suddenly, every day there was a new book that was worth reading. There were new authors, journals, magazines. I felt I was in paradise. There was a sense of universal joy, universal self-liberation.
Suddenly, there were public concerts with thousands of people. I still remember when Allen Ginsberg came to Prague. We were mesmerized. The change was so rapid. I also remember that it was a beautiful spring. So it was not only politically significant, but also the weather cooperated.
KW: In April, Dubček announced the “Action Program of Liberalization.” Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, what he called “socialism with a human face.”
PM: Groups began to organize themselves to talk about multi-party democracy. That was revolutionary. It’s like waving a red flag in front of a herd of bulls. Soviet leaders began to realize that what was happening was deeply threatening to the Soviet Union. In retrospect, I realize there was no way the Soviets would’ve tolerated the possibilities of peaceful transition to a totally different type of communism.
The Soviet-Led Invasion Begins
KW: Tension built through the summer, and the Soviets invaded on Aug. 20. Can you tell me where you were when the invasion happened?
PM: I was in Paris. I was following very carefully the events on French television and the newspapers because it was clear that things were getting dangerous. I think somebody woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “The invasion has started.”
My first thought was, “Go back to Prague.” So a dozen or so friends, Czech and French, tried to get to Prague.
But we got stopped at the Czech border with, I think, Germany. It may be difficult to imagine now, but the Iron Curtain was not a figment of imagination. It existed. It was a heavily policed border and some borders were more policed than others. The most policed borders were the German and Czech border. But when we got to the Czech border, the Czech guards were there waiting for us, with beer and bread!
They were telling us how sick and tired they were of this thing and how upset they were. And then they told us there was no way to get any transportation to Prague. Some Western Europeans gave us bicycles, so we biked across the Czech countryside. We passed through multiple Russian, Warsaw Pact convoys, but they didn’t stop us.
KW: I read that the Czechs had destroyed street signs to confuse the tank drivers. Do you remember that?
PM: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. Street signs, road signs, everything. We would come to intersections in the fields, we had no idea if we go left or right. You didn’t know what Czech natives to ask for directions. One in my group had the compass and knew how to follow the sun. So many street signs, road signs, disappeared. Sometimes, they didn’t disappear but were put in different places. We saw one sign for Prague, and it was in the opposite direction.
KW: What were you seeing as you biked to Prague?
PM: The closer to Prague you got, the more people were in the streets and roads. They tried to prevent the convoys from moving, just by surrounding them. I didn’t see any people with guns. No one was trying to attack the tanks. People were putting flowers into the tanks, giving flowers to soldiers, the occupiers. Women were trying to kiss them. People were using their Russian to tell them that it was a mistake.
Some soldiers—and they were from other Warsaw Pact countries, East Germany, Poland, not just Russia—were told that they came to liberate Czechoslovakia from hostile forces. We tried to tell them that there was no threat to our socialism. That we were building authentic socialism, better socialism, with a human face.
KW: Were you ever afraid?
PM: Yeah, I was. When you hear guns or tanks shooting, you see soldiers shooting. They were shooting primarily over our heads. I don’t think they aimed. I don’t know how many people got killed. [In 1990, UPI cited a previously secret Interior Ministry report. It disclosed that 82 Czechoslovakians were killed in 1968 when Warsaw Pact tanks and troops rolled into the nation, with 300 seriously injured.]
KW: Were they shooting to disperse the crowds? Or was it just a show of might?
PM: I don’t know. My hunch is that they worried the crowd was getting too close to them. People were climbing on the tanks. I think the soldiers were more afraid for their own safety. The Soviets were unprepared, militarily, to deal with a public that was welcoming them and, at the same time, being angry at them, trying to reason and convince them that they should go home.
The Aftermath—and Lessons for Our Time
KW: When did you leave Czechoslovakia for the West?
PM: I was very much hopeful that Dubček’s dream, the Prague Spring, would succeed. But I soon realized that the Soviets would not leave. It was quite clear the Prague Spring was over. I knew that the borders were so open, that no one guards them. But sooner or later, everybody knew they would be guarded again. And I just felt depressed. I cannot stay anymore in the country where the Prague Spring was crushed. After two weeks, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to leave. It was a terrible feeling. I left with just my bike and knapsack.
KW: What do you make of the Prague Spring? Its promise and its ending?
PM: I believe now that the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It delegitimated the Soviet ideology and regime in the eyes of progressive people in Western Europe. Many communists in Western Europe were Marxists who, at that point, didn’t dare to criticize the Soviet Union. Now they began to do so. Powerful European communist parties began to claim autonomy. China pulled further away from the Soviets too.
I do believe that an alternative was possible at that moment. A third way, a non-communist way, a non-Western-capitalist way. But 19 years later, when revolutions took place that destroyed communism in Europe, the people lost any interest in a kind of humanizing socialism. They wanted the West. For them, the West was affluence.
The invasion marked the end of opportunity, historical possibility. Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the last attempt to reform communism from within. What was possible became impossible.
If I may say one more thing…
PM: Now we are facing another crisis. In my 70 years of existence on this planet, I have experienced great historical moments. The first one was the end of Stalinism. The second was the end of the democratization of Soviet regimes. The third was the collapse of communism. And the fourth moment is the one that we are living in now: it is the end of neoliberal capitalized democracy.
The global capitalist order is now mortally wounded, both in the United States, because of the trends that produced the current occupant in the White House, and in Europe, because of the re-emergence of Nazi nationalism that is undermining European unity and weakening democracy. If I have a bumper sticker, it is this: The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought us Trump.
KW: You have now been in the U.S. for 50 years. How has it worked out for you?
PM: I was not looking for freedom in the West. I was looking for not being bored in the West—and I succeeded. But I left behind a dream. I’m still very critical of capitalism. I’ve not changed, in some ways: I’m still searching for an alternative to the world we live in.
Pavel Machala is teaching two courses in the Fall 2018 semester: Geopolitics and American Foreign Policy and Populism in the Era of Global Capitalism.