When observers reach for historical analogies to illustrate Russia's invasion of Ukraine, they inevitably point to disastrous events from the years 1938 and 1968. Both, as it happened, directly involved Czechoslovakia. The former is a reference to the Munich Agreement, where the leading European powers, meeting in Munich in late September that year, acquiesced to Adolf Hitler’s demands to annex the Sudetenland, a part of then-western Czechoslovakia with large numbers of German speakers. Hitler didn’t stop there and within six months, he had violated the agreement and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. He then turned his attention to Poland and launched World War II.
The mention of "1968" refers to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August that year involving several hundred thousand troops of the Warsaw Pact. Moscow justified the invasion on grounds that the political and economic reforms that were then underway in Czechoslovakia risked undermining the Communist Party and bringing the country closer to the West (that last part will sound very familiar). The invasion put an end to the reforms and isolated Czechoslovakia for the next two decades. Around 140 civilians died in the attack.
It’s usually problematic to observe current events through a historical lens, and comparing any leader or country to Hitler’s Nazi Germany or even the Soviet Union is almost always a bad idea. There are important differences between what happened then and what’s going on now. For one thing, there’s still little indication (as of this writing) that Putin is planning to expand the war beyond Ukraine (though his nuclear saber-rattling is scary). In 1968, the invading Warsaw Pact armies didn't subject Czechoslovakia to a series of horrific, crippling air and missile attacks, such as what Russia has offered up in Ukraine. With the Czechoslovak army at the time confined to barracks, real fire-fights in 1968 were relatively isolated and sporadic.
Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see the scary, historical similarities. Echoes of the Sudetenland can clearly be heard in what Russia did in eastern Ukraine, using purported ethnic kinship as a justification for splintering off parts of the country and attacking them. As for the notion, in 1968, that the Soviet Union was invading a country to prevent it from falling into the hands of the West – that sounds very much like a line out of one of Putin’s deranged speeches about Ukraine.
It's also not hard for me, during these past few days, to share in the trauma the recent events in Ukraine have reawakened for people in Prague. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have three decades of successful political and economic transition under their belts and have mostly healed from past historic wounds. Yet, news of Russia’s invasion inevitably stirred up painful, long-buried memories that I’ve somehow absorbed through osmosis from living here so long.
While not everyone in the Czech Republic feels this way (the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign has succeeded in clouding some people’s judgment), it's clear that a majority of Czechs views Russia’s horrific actions exactly for what they are: an unjustified attack on a sovereign nation. They know this because they’ve seen this movie before (from a first-row seat). Their moral certainty has helped me to view events in exactly the same way.
There’s another way, too, in which the fates of Czechs and Ukrainians feel intertwined. I don’t see it referenced as much in writing about the current conflict, but I think it bears mentioning. The two countries share a more-recent history of vigorous, nonviolent protest. Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, and the peaceful way that that massive, nationwide demonstration pushed the communists out of power, served as a model for subsequent “people-power” movements everywhere, including Ukraine’s own “Orange Revolution” in late-2004.
During the Orange Revolution, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators occupied the main square in Kyiv and cities around the country to protest allegations of vote-rigging in a presidential election that was perpetrated by the Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. In the wake of the protests the Ukrainian Supreme Court stepped in to annul the vote, and Yanukovych’s opponent, the pro-reform Viktor Yushchenko, was eventually declared the winner.
Ukraine’s reform path since 2004 has been anything but straightforward, and the protesters’ best intentions have regularly been thwarted by corruption, incompetence and outside interference (mostly from the Kremlin). I still feel a kindred connection, though, between the protests on Prague’s Wenceslas Square to oppose Russia's recent attack and the horrific events that have unfolded in Kyiv and other places across Ukraine. In some respects, at least, the aspiration of Ukrainians to build a pro-Western, pro-reform state began in Prague. Whatever happens in this current conflict, the Velvet Revolution (and the other anticommunist revolutions of 1989) remain potent symbols that the good guys can (and do) actually win.
In the summer of 2019, I embarked on a long road trip across Central and Eastern Europe that took me through parts of western Ukraine. I hadn't spent much time in the country before that. Ukraine at the time was so popular among travelers and backpackers that I felt I needed to see it for myself if I wanted to stay in touch with travel trends. The trip was part of a wider journey through Romania, Bulgaria, Northern Macedonia and Greece, and I wasn’t able to spend much time in Ukraine. Nevertheless, I carved out a few days each in the cities of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi. What I found was a charming European country, with a beautiful countryside and culturally rich and interesting cities. The photos I’ve posted here are from that trip.
Finally, for anyone wanting to help Ukraine and Ukrainians in their current distress, I asked friends in the know for ideas on the best aid organizations working in the field. Here are some of their suggestions (click on the link to pull up donation details):