Fifty years ago I was woken up in the small hours by rough knocks on the door of my room at Prague’s Hotel Esplanade and an anxious shout: ‘Wake up, wake up! They’ve come, they’ve come!’
None of the hotel guests had to ask who ‘they’ were – a Russian-led invasion force sent in to end the Prague Spring reforms launched seven months earlier when a Slovak politician, Alexander Dubcek, came to power and began to work towards what he called ‘socialism with a human face’. This was meant to embrace freedom of the press and of speech, free travel abroad and curbs on the power of the omnipresent secret police.
In Moscow, the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev had watched what was happening in Prague with growing concern. It turned to alarm with the publication of Dubcek’s ‘action programme’, a blueprint for change that asserted Czechoslovakia’s right to find its own way to socialism rather than follow the model of the Soviet Union.