30 years later, tourists roll over Prague Anniversary: As summer hordes take over the city's ancient streets, some residents say the Soviet invasion of 1968 might not have been so bad.

Sun Journal

August 21, 1998|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Thirty years ago it was tanks. Today it's tank tops.

As Prague marks the 30th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the city is suffering from a far less violent but still unpleasant assault: the summer hordes of tourists that fill the city's ancient streets.

"You can't get anything done with these crowds," grumbles retiree Jan Kral as he watches the never-ending flow of Germans, Italians, Spaniards -- to mention just a few -- swarming across the 6-century-old Charles Bridge. "You'd think the bridge might collapse under their weight."

Far better, of course, that the bridge should be crushed by tourists in tank tops and walking shoes than scarred by tank treads and army boots, as was the case 30 years ago this week, when Warsaw Pact troops swarmed across the borders to crush the Prague Spring reform movement.

Nonetheless, the summer holiday season has more than a few Prague residents carping that in at least one small respect, the years of "normalization" that followed the Soviet invasion might not have been so bad after all.

During the Communist years, the city was largely closed to the Western world. Only a daring few ventured past the Iron Curtain to marvel at Prague's ancient beauty. Once here, they were treated to deserted streets of centuries-old cobblestones, winding lanes, tiny squares and tinier alleys, gloomy gray vistas of church spires poking their heads through the mist.

One virtue of communism was that the system kept the country poor; Communist officials, like many of Prague's rulers before them, were limited in the number of ill-conceived urban renewal projects they could afford. With a severe shortage of housing, there was no incentive to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new ones.

"Sure, I make money off of these people," said a student who wanted to be identified only as Karel, as he passed out brochures among tourists near Prague's Old Town Square. "But when I was a kid, it was a lot nicer to be here. There wasn't so much commercialization."

But there were difficult neighbors. Early on the morning of Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet tanks rolled across Czechoslovakia's borders to bring a swift end to the democratic changes collectively known as the Prague Spring. Under Alexander Dubcek's leadership as first secretary of the Communist Party, Czechs and Slovaks had been experimenting with "socialism with a human face." Press censorship was abolished, citizens were free to travel abroad and some degree of political pluralism was allowed.

The Soviets, though, saw a dangerous precedent in Dubcek's experiment. After repeated demands that Dubcek reinstitute control, the Soviets engineered an "invitation" from Czech and Slovak Communist hard-liners to help save the country from "counter-revolution." About 400,000 Soviet troops, accompanied by 100,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers, flooded over the borders to reimpose a frozen, sullen communism in Czechoslovakia that lasted 21 years.

Since the end of communism in 1989 -- and the withdrawal of Soviet troops two years later -- the Czech capital has become one of Europe's hottest tourist destinations. Tens of millions of visitors a year -- as many as 70 times the number of pre-1989 tourists -- swarm through Prague, gaping at the sites, taking snapshots and buying souvenir trinkets.

With so many visitors, it can be hard for locals to feel at home. Many Czechs say they avoid the city's historic center during the summer because they feel outnumbered. Those who do venture downtown are often appalled by tourist prices: A pint of beer on Old Town Square can cost 10 times what it would at a pub in an outlying neighborhood.

"Life for residents in the historic core is getting unbearable," says Josef Stulc, director of the national Institute for Historical Preservation. "Prices are higher, and tourism brings noise and different criminal elements -- thieves, prostitutes."

The center of Prague has undergone a remarkable transition since 1989. Instead of slogans exhorting the proletariat to work for the triumph of communism, today's agitprop urges consumption of McDonald's, Pepsi or Coke. Heavy stone socialist-realist architecture, with bas-relief murals depicting hero workers, is giving way to steel-and-glass buildings wearing corporate logos. The main streets leading to key tourist sites such as the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge are lined with fast-food joints, stores selling Czech crystal and souvenir shops offering kitsch.

All of which leaves signs of the invasion and occupation difficult to uncover.

Although the 30th anniversary is attracting more notice than did the 25th, the event is greeted coolly by most Czechs. While the invasion was a seminal event in the lives of Czechoslovakia's 50-and-over generation, the changes of the past nine years have robbed it of much of its significance.

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