Helen Womack and Kate Connolly: Prague Invasion ... 40 Years On

Roundup: Talking About History

[Helen Womack has written articles published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. Kate Connolly is the Guardian and Observer's Berlin correspondent, also covering central and eastern Europe and Scandinavia.]

When the refrigerator mechanic and young conscript soldier Anatoly Babi was given the chance in the autumn of 1968 by his military superiors to 'see the world', he leapt at the opportunity. The son of peasant parents born in the Soviet republic of Kirghizia, set off in an army lorry to Hungary, where he joined a large force of his fellow Soviet soldiers.

What Babi did not realise then was that he was part of a 100,000-strong force of troops from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact that, exactly 40 years ago this week, were to roll into Czechoslovakia and crush the 'Prague Spring', the liberalisation movement led by the country's Communist party First Secretary, Alexander Dubcek. His attempt to introduce democratic reforms into the rigid socialist state and give socialism a 'human face' had captured the world's imagination. It led to six months of reform - from abolition of censorship to the recognition of human rights - an extraordinary period in Cold War history, which the Czech documentary film-maker and historian Jan Kaplan described to The Observer as 'a brief loosening of the straitjacket of party rule, a deep breath of fresh air before being submerged again'.

Babi, then 26, soon realised that his adventure was far more dangerous than his commanders had let on. The Russian-Ukrainian soldier was with the artillery that was to go into action if full-scale war broke out. 'We were given gas masks. We were told to sleep in our clothes. We were told to expect big exercises. But when we were given real bullets and set off in a convoy on rails, I understood that it was no game,' the now retired father of five told The Observer in an interview at his house in the country outside Moscow.

'The commanders said there had been a coup, an uprising, and it was our job to make sure there was no repeat of Hungary 1956,' he said, referring to the revolt against Hungary's Stalinist government. 'We were told we were fulfilling our international duty,' he said.

He recalled the reception they received from Czechoslovak citizens. 'They threw bricks and cobblestones at us and even tried to set fire to our vehicles,' he said. 'I understood then that they didn't see us as liberators.' The hatred culminated in injury for Babi when an angry old Czech man threw a grenade at him while he was trying to disarm a band of resistance fighters.

In the week when tanks have again been dispatched by Moscow to another country, Babi has allowed The Observer to publish his snapshots of that time, including a ghostly image of his comrades in a pine forest and one of himself standing next to his lorry. 'Because we lived under communism, we assumed the Czechs were happy with that system too,' he said. 'If I had known then what I know now, I would not have been so desperate to go ... but would have stayed at home and fixed fridges.'..

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