Grinding

August 21, 1968

The relentless grinding woke him up.

It was a slightly warm night — the kind of night where you yearn for a slight breeze, even if your dreams have taken over your sleep. Pavel still hadn’t managed to get his fan fixed. For all the talk about a socialist paradise where everyone was equal, Pavel knew the truth — some people were more equal than others, who could grease the right palms to get anything they wanted. Including Western air conditioners, and fans that didn’t break down frequently.

The first thing he thought when he woke up was, they’ve come, the Russians have invaded. He’d seen it coming. It had happened before, hadn’t it, back when the Hungarians dared to do things differently? Hadn’t they been mercilessly crushed by their fraternal socialist allies in Moscow, for going against their wishes? Now, 12 years down the road, it was Czechoslovakia’s turn to understand the consequences of angering their friends in the Kremlin.

Pavel dressed quickly, pulling on a shirt and a pair of worn trousers, wondering if he’d come back to his room. After all, wouldn’t the dreaded KGB round up anyone who supported Dubcek’s reforms? What would happen to him then? Nothing pretty, of course. But he couldn’t afford to think about that right now. He had to get out on the streets, see what was happening and warn Karla and Miklos.

Stepping out onto the street, he was greeted by a sight that explained the relentless grinding. Tanks! A column of steel-bellied monsters, treading their tracks over Prague’s ancient cobblestones, making their way towards Wenceslas Square.

“It’s the end, isn’t it?”

Pavel turned around, and recognised a neighbour he didn’t talk to much. “I don’t know, Geza,” he shook his head. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“It was bound to happen. Did Dubcek think he’ll get away with it?” shrugged Geza. “I respect him for his courage, but the Russians were bound to respond!”

Pavel turned away and looked at the tanks, and noted their markings. “See something odd on that tank there?”

“What? I don’t see it.”

“They’re not Red Army,” explained Pavel. “Those tanks there have the Bulgarian flag on them.”

“That means — ”

“This isn’t just the Soviets,” Pavel cut his neighbour off. “This is a Warsaw Pact invasion.”

He waited for a response, but Geza didn’t know what to say. Pavel decided to walk across to Wenceslas Square and get his bearings on the invasion — it made more sense to know exactly what was going on, something his friends might find useful. As he walked on, he thought about the last 8 months, since Dubcek had come to power, and initiated his reforms that had rattled their allies, and shown them that there was a different path to socialism. He thought about his work at the university, teaching history and how he may never teach again. He thought about his friends, and how they were all in danger. And he felt bad for Dubcek, who only wanted to bring Czechoslovakia into a prosperous age where she’d be a bridge between East and West. He thought of all the shattered dreams, all the missed opportunities, and how he’d never fled West, thinking he’d build a better world here.

How did it go wrong so fast?

Is the freedom to speak our minds so elusive, so dangerous? Is that the kind of world I want to be a part of?