Martin Butora: The Prague Spring

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.
In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.
With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.
Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.
From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.
Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

I belong to a generation which was fortunate enough to grow about in ’60s. In ’60s, it means with I would say all the beauties of that period. In countries like Czechoslovakia, in the communist countries, it meant not exactly the same like in the Western Europe, but it certainly meant more freedom, more open space, more possibilities and opportunities to express, more freedom of expression for artists, for journalists, for students, for simply people who were rethinking what could they do with the state of society.
And the state of society in general, it was very wrong, it was not good. It was not good for many reasons, not only for economic reasons, because Czechoslovakia, which was not only the island of democracy in the pre-second world war world or pre-second world war Europe, but also which was a very well economically developed country, gradually was declining in the period of late ’50s and ’60s. But what was also even more important was that the new generations have been growing, those who simply were not under that horrible pressure of Stalinist period, who have been witnessing the fall of Stalin and who have been witnessing the Hungarian Revolution and who simply also wanted to live a more decent and the life where the freedom would be more present.
What I’m trying to say is that it lasted about five years. And at that time the development in Czechoslovakia, they somehow were following several lines. In the movie, for instance, there was a Czechoslovak new wave, people like Miloš Forman [A noted Czech filmmaker, who left Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion.], who got an Oscar for the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but there were also many other film directors, creative artists, writers, musicians, and journalists. So all of them, in their environment, were opening the taboos, they were naming them, and they were helping people to gradually be more and more aware that the state of the society and the state of the regime is inappropriate.
And I have to tell you that even in those times we were somehow hesitating between a sort of desperation and sort of hope, because the more we were able to write something or to criticize something, then the more we saw, my God, this is still a very strongly centralized, hierarchical communist regime, and practically, the Party controls everything. Then came what was called Prague Spring or Czechoslovak Spring with Alexander Dubček. [Alexander Dubcek was a communist politician. In January 1968, he became General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He unleashed a series of liberalizing reforms in what became known as the Prague Spring. These reforms ended with the Soviet invasion in August 1968.
Dubcek was deposed and spent most of the next 20 years in internal exile. Following the end of communism in 1989, Dubcek was elected chairman of the parliament.] I have to say, this was not quite – I would say, our case because people with whom I worked, they were not reform communists – with all the respect to people who wanted to reform socialism, who wanted to reform the Communist Party and so on – but we were slightly younger, and I would say our thinking and our behaving was not directed at just certain improvement of socialism but rather how to build basic pillars of what one could call – or what is it called today – a liberal, democratic conditions for, you know, how to govern society.
But at the same time we had been following and we had been active, also, in everything what – went on – in those times, in Czechoslovakia, it was a very popular and very wide movement of people who, one can say after 20 years, you know, there was Hungarian Revolution, there were events in Poland, there was Berlin 1953. So almost in many countries of the Soviet Bloc, or there’s some revolts; not in Czechoslovakia. So when it came, there were, I would say, a lot of potential, a lot of energy. There were ideas about economic reform.
There were ideas about how to change the political regime. There were ideas about what to do as for the ethnic relationships between the Czechs and Slovaks. There were ideas how to change the educational system. And I could go on and on. And the censorship was practically abolished at the beginning of March [1968]. And from that time on, the development went like, you know, with the space speed. I know if we compare it with what has happened in Egypt and what has happened in 1989 and what is happening with other revolutions it was still not that quick, but it was something after the years of very tough and cold and bureaucratic regime; it was something new. Then came the Russians.
Then came the Soviet invasion [in August 1968], which was for many people, it was a horrible shock, because people liked Russians. They liberated us from the fascists. They came as, you know, our friends and brothers. Of course, then there was Stalin and Stalinism and Stalin’s allies also in Czechoslovakia. But anyway, I think in general, the relationships towards Russians were relatively good. But this was a shock for the vast majority of population, I would say.
Never in the world history did the Communist Party get such a strong support like in Czechoslovakia. Eighty to 90 percent supported that Communist Party, the reformed Communist Party, or the party, which already has started reform and was on the firm track to continue the reforms. But before that fourteenth congress of Communist Party could take place, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.