On the night of 20–21 August 1968, the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in order to quash the liberal reforms instituted by Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring. Over 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks were sent in and were able to occupy the country the very first day. The nation would have to wait another 20 years before those dreams of freedom and democracy were realized. In one of those ironies of history, Czechoslovakia and the invincible Soviet Union would face off, not once but twice, in the March 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships in Stockholm. Hundreds of thousands of Czechs would gather in Prague to bask in a small but satisfying bit of payback.
Kenneth N. Skoug was born in North Dakota in 1931 and served at Embassy Prague during the Soviet invasion. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy from ADST in August 2000. These excerpts are taken from the Czech country reader found on the ADST website.
SKOUG: As the tanks came through the city in the night to take over the downtown area, they then went for the radios…. I had gone back to report from the embassy. The radios by this time had come on and they were broadcasting for all they were worth, and they were broadcasting that a group of students and civilians were trying to keep the tanks away from the building. You could hear the firing, the heavy machine gun firing, which shattered concrete walls…. They were firing on the Radio [Prague] station. And then finally there was a very poignant moment when the radio announcers said, “We’re going to have to sign off the air now. When you hear the radio again, you’ll hear other voices, but don’t trust them.” It was really quite something, and then you heard the Czech national anthem, which is particularly beautiful. And then there was just the firing, gunfire following, and there was silence on the radio. And then it came back on, but they were not the bad guys after all. The Czechs had been prepared. They thought the Americans or the West Germans might invade the country, and they had a whole elaborate scheme for broadcasting. For one thing, they broadcast from hidden facilities in the radio [station] itself. The Russians didn’t find them for a couple of days. And in addition, they began to broadcast from transmitters which were mobile, and they began to pass from hand to hand, not only in Prague, but in 15 or 16 points throughout the country. And it was those radios that told the world that the Czechs were still resisting…. [Some 20 people were killed before Radio Prague was recaptured.]
Politics on Ice
Ironically, the European hockey tournament [which doubled as the World Ice Hockey championship] was supposed to be held in Prague, but they transferred it to Stockholm because they didn’t feel that they could provide the right atmosphere – this was after the invasion. They didn’t feel that the Czechs would be very receptive to a Soviet hockey team. They expected that this would be bad, so they got the tournament transferred to Stockholm. The Czechs played the Russians, and the Czechs, with the whole country watching, defeated the Russians two to nothing. And the television played this up by showing the defeated Russians. It did everything that a clever television crew can do to accentuate the defeat. The Czechs refused to shake the Russians’ hands. They did all the things that the people wanted, that the audience wanted. Well, that night there was a demonstration in Old Town Square, and some Czechs were arrested. This fact was mentioned briefly in the paper. This was one of the interesting things. It never would have been printed in the paper in the bad days of Novotny. What the arrested demonstrators said was: We were arrested because we said the Soviets didn’t bring their tanks to Stockholm and so we beat them. You could read in the paper what the defendant was saying. Well, that let any intelligent person know that there had been a demonstration.
The Czechs had to play the Russians a second time…and the Czechs beat them again. And this time I, like any observant Czech, knew what was going to happen. As soon as the last strains of the Czech national anthem being played in Stockholm were over, my television set was off, and I was running for the downtown area. Extra streetcars had been laid on for this for some reason. Everyone came to the heart of Prague. The score was -3, and this was shouted over and over, with someone pounding out the numbers on buckets. People were shouting, “-3” everywhere. What it meant was “The hell with the Russians!” You had to know it. It wasn’t a sports demonstration; it was a demonstration of national pride by over one hundred thousand people, and it went on for hours. In Vaclavski Namesti [square], you could hardly move. [The Czechs would end up with the bronze medal.]