This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The invasion and subsequent occupation of the nation was intended to put an end to the liberal policies enacted by reformist president Alexander Dubček‘s that began after his election in January 1968. Dubček’s democratic reforms included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel as well as other general acts that partially decentralized the economy. The Soviet Union saw these particular measures as a threat to the cohesion of communist bloc nations in Eastern Europe and after several failed negotiations with the Dubcek government, invaded the country along with several other Warsaw Pact nations ( the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary) on August 20th, 1968.
During the invasion , 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed with close to 300 severely wounded. Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist yet ,throughout the nation, there was scattered resistance in the streets. In a clever (and humorous) act of defiance, road signs in towns were removed or painted over—except for those indicating the way to back to Moscow. Many small villages renamed themselves “Dubcek” or “Svoboda” (Slavic for “freedom” or “liberty” ) making it impossible to navigate the countryside without navigational equipment.
Milan Kundera, a Czechoslovakian native, experienced the Soviet invasion first hand and incorporated the event into the setting of his popular and critically acclaimed 1984 novel ‘ The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. What may come as a surprise to many who are familiar with his novels is the fact that Kundera actually joined the Czechoslovakian Communist Party in 1947 and was originally a supporter of the Communist takeover of the nation in 1948. Despite his party affiliation and support, however, Kundera was expelled from the party in 1950 for making several statements that upset the parties leadership. After a considerable amount of time had passed, he was ‘forgiven’ of his sins against the party and was allowed to become a professor at the Prague Institute for Advanced Cinematograhic Studies, a position that was short lived.
In 1967, Kundera published The Joke, which became a wildly popular “cult book” of the Prague Spring of 1968 which once again upset the party elders and the Soviet Union in particular. Once President Alexander Dubček’s reform movement came to a tragic end after Czechoslovakian governance was ‘normalized’ by party hardliners and occupying forces, Kundera was promptly deprived of his “privilege of working” ( a fate shared with many of the characters in his novels) and he sought exile in France in 1975 where he has been living and thriving as an author ever since.
Kundera became a very outspoken critic of the Communist regime in his native country, and was considered a dissident at the time, along with the likes of Havel, Milosz, or Solzhenitsyn, although he never saw himself as such. Kundera saw beyond the ‘political’ problem of communism and sought to alert people to a broader menace threatening European culture as a whole, stating “I have always, deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it in an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality”For Kundera, the novelists role is to be an “explorer of existence,” not a prophet or a historian.
All this aside, Kundera’s novel undoubtedly spoke directly to the hearts of many, and in particular, the Czechs who endured the repressive, post invasion period that was the setting of his story. It is Kundera’s insistence on keeping the novel ‘art’ as opposed to a work of political or moral outrage, however, that has allowed it to endure as the Eastern bloc of Marxist Europe fades away in our collective memory. The work, although firmly rooted in its time, has not dated and is as relevant today as it was when the book was published. This is because, more than anything, the novel was about the struggles and joy – the heaviness and the lightness- of life itself.