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Demonstrators protest against invading Soviet troops in Prague, August 1968

‘Before 1968, we had nothing against Russia or the Soviet Union’ How Soviet invasion changed the Czechs forever. A report from Prague, 50 years after the end of ‘socialism with a human face.’

Source: Meduza
Demonstrators protest against invading Soviet troops in Prague, August 1968
Demonstrators protest against invading Soviet troops in Prague, August 1968
Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images

Before dawn on August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia and shut down the Prague Spring, ending the nation’s attempt to put a “human face” on socialism. In 36 hours, as many as 406 people were killed. Afterwards, many more were arrested, fired from their jobs, or forced to leave the country. The subsequent effort to “normalize” Czechoslovak stagnation would continue until the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. Meduza special correspondent Konstantin Benyumov went to Prague and learned how the Soviet invasion 50 years ago still affects the Czech Republic and shapes attitudes about Russians today.

On the evening of May 9, 2018, Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague witnessed two demonstrations. The first group (about 500 strong) showed up around 6:30 p.m., assembling outside the city’s National Museum to protest the return of Communists to the country’s ruling political coalition — the first time Communists have held any power since the Velvet Revolution. An hour later, a second group, organized by “Prague’s Russian-speaking residents,” gathered to mark the anniversary of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany. They arrived in cars decorated with the St. George’s ribbons (a modern-day patriotic symbol), Soviet flags, and signs written in Russian. Objecting to this demonstration, the anti-Communists blocked the road and ripped the flags from the cars, shouting “Disgraceful!” “Russian pigs!” and “the Czech Republic is not Russia!” In the end, police officers had to separate the two groups.

It later turned out that the Victory Day celebrants didn’t know about the anti-Communist demonstration in Wenceslas Square. The motor rally’s timing and location, however, couldn’t have been worse: In 1969, in protest against Soviet occupation, a Czech student named Jan Palach burned himself to death in this same square. In late August 2018, the city would stage an event here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the invasion.

The occupation of Czechoslovakia by four Warsaw Pact countries, which ended the 1968 Prague Spring, still traumatizes Czech society. The reforms of that era are remembered only loosely today, historians told Meduza, but the Soviet occupation and the consequences of the “normalization” period that followed continue to influence Czech politics and everyday life.

“Before 1968, we had nothing against Russia or the Soviet Union,” says Oldřich Tůma, a historian at the Czech Modern History Institute. “Unlike Poland or Hungary, there was never any doubt about the Red Army’s role in liberating the country from the fascists. But after the invasion anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiment started spreading. To some extent, this sentiment is still alive in the Czech Republic.”

A Communist coup and a president from London

“Unlike the Hungarians and Poles, we elected the Communists willingly,” says Petr Pithart, an editor at the influential Literární Noviny independent magazine during the Prague Spring, who later became a dissident and one of Václav Havel’s associates, ultimately serving as Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist prime minister.

Across postwar Eastern Europe, Communists seized power in two stages: first they entered the government through elections, and then they completely usurped the country’s state bureaucracy and society. In Czechoslovakia, the process was nearly the smoothest of all.

In elections for a Constituent Assembly in 1946, Communists won a majority in the Czech Republic and finished a distant second to the Democratic Party in Slovakia. By February 1948, however, they’d seized power across the entire country. Today, these events are remembered as a coup, but formally at least the Communist Party managed to take control without even removing President Edvard Beneš (who wasn’t a Communist, and had spent the war in London heading a government in exile).

A rally in support of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in Prague’s Old Town Square, February 21, 1948
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Czechoslovak Prime Minister and Czechoslovak Communist Party head Klement Gottwald addressed Communist supporters in Prague’s Old Town Square, February 21, 1948
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Shop window in Prague during the February 1948 events
Everett Collection / Vida Press

“By 1948, the Communists had managed to infiltrate almost every sphere — not just the government ministries, but also, for example, the academic world,” says historian and archivist Lukáš Cvrček. “Whatever the organization, they could squeeze out anyone who disagreed with them.”

On May 9, 1948, a new constitution was adopted, declaring the formation of the Czechoslovak People’s Republic and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Under pressure from the USSR, the authorities also launched a Stalinization program, purging any dissenters from the Czechoslovak Communist Party (which until this time had planned to build socialism according to its own blueprint, maintaining some private property and a multi-party political system).

There was also a series of show trials, including cases against Communists with “international” roots, such as Germans, Jews, and Spaniards. In 1952, the state executed the party’s general secretary, Rudolf Slánský, and another 13 prominent Communist figures (11 of whom were Jews) on charges of plotting a Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist conspiracy.

The thaw that came too late

Now a German citizen, Georg Shoer was born in Prague in 1947 under the name Jiří Šramek. Shoer’s father, a devout Communist named Adolf Shoer, was a German living in Prague. When war broke out and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, Adolf Shoer was arrested and imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp for his views. Six years later, when he was freed in 1945, he returned to Prague.

Shoer-Šramek says his father didn’t lose faith in communism when the country aligned itself with the Soviet Union, but he apparently understood that the system needed reforms. He made no effort to bring about these changes, however. “He had two kids, after all.”

Georg Shoer didn’t share his father’s enthusiasm for left-wing ideas, but he grew up “like everyone else.” In school, he became a svazak (a member of the local Communist Youth League). “It had no special political meaning for us,” he told Meduza. “To study or to work, you had to join the svazaki.”

By the early 1960s, there were little indications that a thaw was brewing in Czechoslovakia, which actually lagged behind the USSR in undoing Stalin’s personality cult. Until 1962, Prague was home to Europe’s biggest monument honoring Stalin, and those convicted and executed in Rudolf Slánský’s show trial weren’t rehabilitated until 1967.

Czechoslovakia’s thaw got underway when the USSR’s thaw was already ending. “Leaders realized the need for reforms back in the early 1960s,” says historian Oldřich Tůma. “In 1963, they were already preparing new economic policies.” The reforms weren’t seen as a departure from communism, however, but as an attempt to improve it by making the state more effective and humane, Tůma argues. The political slogans didn’t come until later, he says, and they started among the intellectuals.

Prague in the early 1960s
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Future dissident and prime minister Petr Pithart joined the Communist Party in 1960. By his own admission, it wasn’t ideological convictions that drove him to become a member: “I was thinking about completely different things back then. My head was empty,“ he recalls today. “I was writing poems, doing sports, and politics didn’t interest me.”

Soon, however, politics forced its way into Pithart’s life. In the second half of the 1960s, the magazine Liternaturnaya Gazeta, where Pithart worked as an editor, became the country’s leading voice for reforms. With a readership of roughly 300,000 people, the publication reported to the Writers’ Union. After this organization's annual conference in 1967, where several Czech writers (including Milan Kundera) called openly for political reforms, Liternaturnaya Gazeta was moved to the Culture Ministry’s jurisdiction, where it faced tighter control. By early 1968, however, the authorities were implementing their own reforms, and state censorship was the first policy rolled back.

Officially, state censorship was abolished in June 1968, but in reality the government’s control over the media ended in March. “As an editor, I had to go [to the Culture Ministry] for to get their approval,” Pithart told Meduza. “And then one day they up and said: well it’s just a formality. Screw it.”

Historian Oldřich Tůma says the Czechoslovak authorities weren’t worried about the consequences. The country’s journalists and writers, after all, were Communists and members of official labor unions. But what followed were new independent associations and the reemergence of a non-Communist opposition that demanded expanded political reforms, including the return of a multiparty system.

“We couldn’t talk about it directly, recalls Jiřina Rybáčková, who during the Prague Spring helped found the Club of Committed Non-Party Members, which became the leading opposition group at the time. For several months in 1967, she used a typewriter to reproduce revolutionary texts from Czechoslovak writers, sharing them with friends. “Despite the suspension of censorship, nobody dared to demand regime change openly,” Rybáčková explains. “It was just unthinkable [then] that someone could say, for example, that we needed capitalism. Maybe it was a kind of self-censorship. But we knew that cosmetic reforms weren’t enough, and that the country’s transformation needed to be more profound.”

In April, when the Czechoslovak Communist Party released its “Action Program,” it became clear that the authorities were planning nothing profound. The roadmap, which officially promised to renew “all layers of life in Czechoslovakia,” didn’t mention a word about ending the Communist Party’s uncontested rule, or reinstating the country’s independent foreign policy. Rybáčková says she became convinced that Alexander Dubček and the other reformers in the party “couldn’t step beyond their own communist consciousness.”

Slovak federalism, “Two Thousand Words,” and Soviet tanks

For Alexander Dubček, who became the first secretary of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Central Committee in January 1968 (effectively serving as the head of state), it wasn’t just “socialism with a human face” that mattered, but also a political reform that had nothing to do with communist ideology or civil rights. “He started his career not as a reformer, but primarily as a Slovak,” says Petr Pithart.

According to Pithart, Slovaks never forgot in 20 years that, unlike the Czechs, they hadn’t elected the Communists in 1946. “Back then, they like to say that Slovakia was the world’s only country where communism came from the west [from the Czechs],” the historian says. While Czechs wanted broad reforms in 1968, the main issue for many Slovaks was the country’s federalization. Despite generally enjoying equal rights under the Czechoslovak state (according to most of the historians who spoke to Meduza), Slovaks sought additional constitutional guarantees as an ethnic minority.

Dubček advocated for Slovaks’ rights, fighting with his Communist Party predecessor, Antonín Novotný, a man Petr Pithart calls an “enthusiastic Czech nationalist,” as well as a conservative who participated in the repressions of the 1950s. In April 1968, Novotný finally stepped down from his last formal position of power, the country’s presidency.

While Dubček was trying to renew socialism and change the country’s national structure, Czech intellectuals started demanding more serious reforms from the government. The writer Ludvík Vaculík wrote a manifesto, titled “Two Thousand Words,” calling for reforms within the Czechoslovak Communist Party itself. The party refused to consider the document, but it was published in June 1968 by the magazine Literární Listy (the newly rebranded Literární Noviny). For Soviet leaders, this was the last straw.

Officials in the USSR started criticizing Czechoslovakia’s reforms almost immediately, but the publication of Vaculík’s manifesto triggered Soviet accusations of “ideological sabotage” and “counter-revolution.”

According to archival records, as early as the spring, Moscow started developing “Operation Danube” — a plan for a joint invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact. A directive issued on April 8, 1968, described the alliance’s “international duty” to deploy troops to Czechoslovakia to “assist the Czechoslovak army in protecting its homeland from the looming danger.”

Demonstrators rally in support of reforms in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, 1968
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Demonstrations in support of the Prague Spring, Wenceslas Square, March 1968
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“I don’t think it was [Dubček’s] reforms that scared the Soviet leadership,” says Oldřich Tůma. “In Moscow and in East Berlin, they were a lot more afraid that he would lose control over the country.” Between May and August, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev met several times with Dubček and spoke regularly on the phone, demanding assurances that the reforms wouldn’t get out of control.

Far from everyone in the Czechoslovak Communist Party supported the reforms, and some radical Communists turned to the USSR for help. “In any case,” Tůma explains, “Dubček had very little room to maneuver: on one side were the Stalinists, on the other side were the civil activists demanding more radical reforms, and Moscow was at his back.”

The heads of the Warsaw Pact nations twice discussed the possibility of invading Czechoslovakia. At the first meeting, held in Moscow in May, Hungarian leader János Kádár warned against military intervention, stressing the need to avoid a repeat of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which Soviet armed forces crushed at the expense of several thousand lives.

On August 18, at a second meeting of the Eastern Bloc leaders, a decision was reached to provide “military aid” to Czechoslovakia. Two days later, the armies of four Warsaw Pact nations entered the country.

In total, as many as 500,000 soldiers and roughly 5,000 tanks took part in Operation Danube. Soviet troops were joined by the armed forces of Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria. East German troops ultimately decided to sit out the intervention, amid concerns that German soldiers invading Prague a few weeks shy of the Munich Agreement’s 30th anniversary might provoke the locals to take up arms.

“I saw bodies covered in blood and wrapped in the Czech flag”

Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda appealed to the nation, asking the public to avoid bloodshed. At the very outset of the Soviet invasion, Dubček and the other Prague Spring leaders were arrested and taken to Moscow. “Many will tell you that these were wonderful days,” says Petr Pithart. “For the first time in history, the Czech people found themselves without their rulers. There was no one controlling them, no one giving them orders, and the nation was true to itself. The people were clever, resourceful, and they even showed a sense of humor.”

Everywhere they went, the invading soldiers faced passive resistance: Czechoslovaks staged protests, and they painted swastikas and anti-Soviet slogans on Soviet tanks. Pithart recalls people in Prague removing the address numbers from their buildings and switching the road signs.

Georg Shoer has less romantic memories from the invasion. “The Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee building was just around the corner from us,” he says. “That morning, my father woke me up and said the Russians had occupied us. An honest communist, he went off to work. I bolted for the woman I’d later marry. Just as I passed this building, right there in the center of the city, I saw bodies covered in blood and wrapped in the Czech flag.”

Prague during the invasion by Warsaw Pact armies, August 21, 1968
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Tanks and demonstrators on the streets of Prague, August 21, 1968
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Prague, August 21, 1968
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There are two plaques today outside the Czech Radio Building on Vinohradská Street in Prague: one honoring those who died in the May 1945 uprising against Nazi occupation, and another commemorating the people killed on August 21, 1968. On the morning of the invasion, Soviet troops moved to seize the Czech Radio Building, which at the time was the country’s main source of information. When civilians tried to stand in their way, the soldiers opened fire, killing 15 people and injuring dozens more.

According to archivist Lukáš Cvrček, a total of 406 people were killed in the 1968 invasion. (Estimates here vary, and the most common figure cited is 137 deaths, though many scholars believe this number is too low.) There’s no precise information about the number of people wounded in August 1968, as many victims were afraid to report their injuries, fearing further punishment.

The active phase of Operation Danube lasted just 36 hours. By the morning of August 22, invading troops occupied the entire country. The political crisis continued for another five days, however, until Alexander Dubček and the other Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders finally agreed to sign the Moscow Protocol, laying the groundwork for “normalizing” the country's situation. “From that moment, everything only got worse and worse,” says Pithart.

“The borders remained open for a year, to give oppositionists the chance to get out”

“I think everyone who was in Prague then still remembers those days right down to the smallest details,” says Karol Sidon, now the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. In the 1960s, Sidon worked with Pithart at Literární Noviny and also collaborated with “Two Thousand Words” author Ludvík Vaculík on Czech radio. “I think the arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague was for us what it was like for Americans on the day JFK was killed.”

The future rabbi’s father was killed by fascists in the Second World War, and his stepfather spent time in two concentration camps: one Nazi and one Soviet. “Unlike other families who fell into a communist euphoria after the Red Army liberated the country from fascism, we had no illusions about the Soviet Union,” Sidon recalls. During the 1968 invasion, he says he basically lived at Literární Listy's office, feeling alienated from the reformist Communists so inspired by the Prague Spring.

“Politics never interested me. I was interested in creativity — I wanted only to write,” Sidon says. His first book, “A Dream of My Father,” came out in 1968, incidentally. After that, he wrote his books and plays while making his living as a handyman. Like most Prague Spring participants, he was booted out of the profession he had before the tanks rolled in.

Refugees at the Czechoslovak-German border after the invasion by Warsaw Pact armies, August 25, 1968
Reg Lancaster / Express / Getty Images

After Literární Listy was closed down in 1969, Karol Sidon found work reading water meters, shoveling coal, and selling magazines from a kiosk. In those days, he says, he “wrote more than ever before in his life.”

Mass emigration swept the country. Jiřina Rybáčková left for the United States (where she worked for many years at Princeton University and did what she could to maintain ties with those who stayed behind) and Georg Shoer moved to West Germany (where he welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall more than Prague’s Velvet Revolution in 1989). “For roughly a year, the borders remained open, to give oppositionists the chance to get out,” says Shoer. Those who stayed in Czechoslovakia and kept their jobs had to appear before a special commission and testify that they supported the military intervention as necessary for the suppression of a counter-revolutionary insurgency.

In August 1969, Sidon also left the country, but his emigration lasted just two weeks. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d be better off at home than living abroad, reduced to following those who stayed behind like I was hysterically watching them through a peephole,” he says.

Sidon returned to Prague, and sometime later he was arrested.

One day, having received a fresh supply of newsprint to sell, Sidon noticed in one magazine a “disgusting article” about his old friend, Ludvík Vaculík. To avoid spreading this “vile libel,” Sidon decided to cut out the article from every copy of the publication, and he then sold it only to his regular customers, telling others that his stock had run out. One of the people he turned away was a “young man whose face made it immediately clear” that he was from the secret police, Sidon says. After the man left, a particularly attractive young woman came up to his kiosk and asked for a copy of the same magazine. Sidon decided to sell her a copy, even though he says he realized at once that he’d made a mistake. Twenty minutes later, the cops arrived, and he spent the next four days in jail. The officers never found the pages Sidon cut out or the scissors he used to do the deed (he’d managed to discard all the evidence), and he was ultimately released.

Dissidents and participants in the “Charter 77” civic initiative meet at the American ambassador’s residence in Prague in 1986. Farthest from the right is Václav Havel, the future president of Czechoslovakia.
Sovfoto / UIG / Getty Images

The next time Sidon drew the authorities attention was as a participant in the dissident “Charter 77” civic initiative, many members of which went on to important roles in Czech and Slovak politics, like future President Václav Havel and future Prime Minister Petr Pithart.

“We used to say that anybody, even an innocent person, could end up in prison once. If they’d been to prison twice, it meant something, and if three times, then you could definitely trust that person,” says Pithart, who served a single prison term.

Honoring Stalin with a pseudonym

The worst thing about “normalization” (which continued right up until the fall of the Communist regime in 1989) was Czech society’s “moral decline,” says Pithart. “How can people today remember those wonderful few months of the Prague Spring, if almost everyone then renounced it?” he says indignantly. “I think the defeat was irreversible, but the choice of how to endure it was in our hands.”

To this day, Pithart holds Alexander Dubček chiefly responsible for the country’s “moral decline,” saying that he “lacked the courage either to refuse to sign the Moscow Protocol or even to support those who took to the streets during the invasion.”

Few people in the Czech Republic today consider Dubček to be a hero. “Maybe he’d have been a more popular figure, if they’d executed him [like Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution],” says historian Oldřich Tůma. After his arrest in 1968, Dubček returned to Prague and even continued serving as first secretary until April 1969, when he was finally replaced by Gustáv Husák, another Slovak who’d spent time in prison for nationalism under Novotný. In the beginning, Husák had supported Dubček’s reforms, but after the Soviet invasion he “demonstrated ‘realism,’ and Moscow endorsed his candidacy,” says Prokop Tomek, a scholar at the Prague Military History Institute. Husák then oversaw the adoption of a new constitution that finally brought federalism to Slovakia.

In 1989, Dubček tried to stage a political comeback, resurrecting the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia and representing the party in the Federal Assembly, until he died in a car collision in 1992. “I think he still really wanted, after 20 years, to build his reformed version of socialism,” Prokop Tomek says, “but by that time people didn’t want to hear about any socialism.”

Václav Havel at the first permitted demonstration by the Czechoslovak opposition, December 10, 1988
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Anti-Communist protesters, November 20, 1989
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A demonstration by students in downtown Prague, November 17, 1989
CTK / Camera Press / Vida Press

After the Velvet Revolution, dissidents and human rights activists led by Václav Havel and Petr Pithart came to power and adopted a law on lustration — one of the strictest implemented in any of the former socialist countries. According to the new policy, former Communist Party functionaries lost the right to hold state positions, and anyone who’d worked for or collaborated with the state security agencies was stripped of the right to serve in the police.

But the law couldn’t keep all former Communists from Czech politics, it contributed to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and it drove a wedge between the people and the Communist regime's former opponents. “Dissidents who came to power after 1989 had paid for this power in full,” says rabbi Karol Sidon. “The rest of the country wasn’t coming from the same place. Almost everyone in Czechoslovakia had either cooperated with the regime or passively supported it.”

In 1989, the Czechoslovak Communist Party had 1.7 million members — in a country whose 1992 population was 15 million people. According to historian Petr Blažek, the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia may have been the biggest (per capita) in all the socialist countries. In 2008, Blažek helped found the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which among other things studies secret police archives.

Another consequence of the country’s lustration was that the ideology of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (now called the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) didn’t change whatsoever, and it essentially remained a neo-Stalinist platform, according to Blažek. Now locked out of all public office, the country’s Communists had no reason to feign remorse about the past.

The party’s leader, Blažek says, was a secret police agent who adopted the pseudonym Jozef, in honor of Joseph Stalin. “According to our data, this was the only person in the state security agencies who chose such a pseudonym for himself,” the historian says.

After 1996, the Communists typically won between 10 and 18 percent in parliamentary elections (restrictions imposed by lustration didn’t apply to elected positions). In the most recent elections, held last year, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia won just seven percent, but its seats helped form the country’s ruling coalition today, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, an ethnic Slovak and the head of the populist Action of Dissatisfied Citizens movement.

Babiš has been called the Czech Donald Trump and a typical heir to the country’s socialist nomenklatura. He owes his fortune largely to the ties he made when working in foreign trade during the socialist period. Slovakia's Institute of the Nation's Memory (similar to Blažek’s group) says it has documents proving that Babiš collaborated with the secret police in the early 1980s. In June 2018, four months after the Bratislava Regional Court rejected his lawsuit the Institute of the Nation's Memory, Babiš filed a lawsuit against Slovakia in the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that he never knowingly acted as a police informant. (None of these records would be in the Czech Republic, at any rate, because the state security archives were divided when the country split up in 1993.)

“The Czech Republic now has people in power who view the events of 1989 as a defeat, not a victory,” says Blažek. “These sentiments are typical for everyone in the Communist Party, and for a large part of the Social Democrats and the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens movement [which make up the country’s ruling coalition.]”

Once a young revolutionary, Jiřina Rybáčková is now 76 years old. In the early 1990s, she left America and returned to Czechoslovakia. An enormous bookshelf takes up an entire wall in her Prague apartment today, holding hundreds of books, several with spines showing Cyrillic letters. Russian classics make up a significant part of her library. Almost everyone who spoke to Meduza about their participation in the events of 1968 confessed their love for Russian literature, but they say they haven’t uttered so much as a word of Russian in the past 50 years.

Demonstrators protest against Czech President Miloš Zeman in Prague, November 17, 2014
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Much of the country, however, harbors no hostility for either the Russian language or Russia itself. At a minimum, this describes the nearly 40 percent of Czech voters who in January 2018 reelected President Miloš Zeman, one of Vladimir Putin’s most loyal supporters among European leaders. “My son lives in America, and he’s unhappy with Trump. I live in the Czech Republic, and of course I’m not too happy with Zeman,” says Rybáčková. “I’m old now, but don’t go thinking that I’m ready to give up the ghost; it’s just that I’ve decided not to waste time on useless anger.”

Konstantin Benyumov reporting from Prague. Translation by Kevin Rothrock.

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