1968 was a tumultuous year in world politics. Authority was being challenged in various ways in different parts of the world. The Tet offensive by the Viet Cong had dealt a psychological, if not military, blow to the American government and gave a huge impetus to the war’s opponents. Matters reached a head when protesters were brutally put down by the police outside the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago.
At the Mexico Olympics, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their iconic black power salutes in protest against racial segregation and racism in sports. Their country was still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The athletes were ostracised by the authorities
In Paris, leftist students, railing at the establishment, teamed up with millions of workers provoking riots and strikes. For a time, they threatened to bring down the government, until the dissent was crushed. The same thing happened in Poland when students demanded more freedoms after the Communist authorities banned a play that they claimed contained anti-Soviet references.
In the then Czechoslovakia, a country under the Soviet yoke and, like Poland a member of the Warsaw Pact, the government under Alexander Dubček had instigated democratic reforms and decentralised the economy in a period they called the Prague Spring.
Visiting Prague in August of that year was a young British student named Robert Aish who had been inter-railing around Europe and was enjoying the sights, sounds and beer halls of Prague. He was to witness how the heady and optimistic atmosphere of the Czech capital was to be brutally cut short.
Worried that the reforming zeal of the Czechs might spread within his zone of influence and cause the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, on August 21 Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev ordered 200,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks into the country and overthrew the government. Any hope that the Cold War might be thawing was shattered.
Armed with his Rolleiflex camera, Aish captured some of the events of that day. Four of his pictures, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, are featured in a small exhibition entitled The Day Spring Ended at the Bartlett School of Architecture, part of London University, where Robert Aish is a Visiting Professor.
Aish uses different visual techniques to characterise the different moments in the progression in which his photographs are exhibited. He uses greyscale for the protestors, and black and white or green and grey for the invaders. The photos have been blown up to provide more of a sense of what it felt like to be there.
The invasion was totally unexpected and was greeted with a mixture of horror, fear and disbelief. The invaders initially showed restraint. The sign on the vehicle in the picture at the top of this article says “Russians go home”. Aish recalls how the ordinary citizens clambered on to the tanks to engage their occupants and protest the invasion. “Some were pointing out to the soldiers that the tanks they were riding in were actually manufactured in Czechoslovakia,” he told me.
A previous generation had witnessed German tanks invading their country. For these protesters, it would be more than two decades before the Velvet Revolution of Vaclav Havel overthrew Communism and ushered in democracy.
Looking at the photos, you get a sense of the sound, the smell and the emotional turmoil in what was going on. “I hope that when people view the images, they might reflect on how these events affected the lives of the thousands of people, particularly those exiles who made the UK their home and have contributed so positively to their adopted country,” says Aish.
In the final picture he uses the original colour to represent the confrontation between invaders and the invaded. It’s blurred as he was literally being carried along by a wave of protesters. The image has something of an abstract painting about it. A tank’s gun barrel is visible between the sea of heads.
For Robert Aish, the images in The Day Spring Ended both remind us of an important historical event and also serve a warning about the corrosion of democratic values in this so-called “post-truth” era.
“New challenges to our freedom may not come in the obvious physical form of tanks. Instead we have important institutions simply dismissed as ‘enemies of the people’. So we can use images, which speak directly to the emotions, not just to remind ourselves of the past but hopefully to prepare us to recognise and address future challenges. ”
The Day Spring Ended is showing at the Bartlett School of Architecture, 22 Gordon Street, London WC1H 0AJ until August 28.
The images are courtesy of Robert Aish.