The impossibility of communism with a human face. Op-Ed by Victor Pelin

“After the invasion of Ukraine by the Putin regime, the Moldovan authorities apparently understood how important it is to have the Chisinau Airport back under government control, in light of the past experiences when control was lost of the Prague airport in August 1968 and the failed attempts to seize the airport near Kyiv in February 2022...”

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

On 21 August 1968, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to quell the reformist government’s intentions of putting a human face on the Soviet-style communist regime in that country. After a coup d’état in 1948, the Czechoslovak society had gone through the same building stages of a totalitarian dictatorship: the dominance of a single political force – the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), nationalization of private property, forced collectivization, mass repressions, and so on. It’s worth noting that the reformers within the KSČ were inspired in their efforts by the revelations of the XX Soviet Union Communist Party Congress about the crimes of Stalinism, as well as by the processes initiated by Khrushchev’s thaw. Moreover, the January 1968 takeover of the KSČ leadership by a reform-minded group led by Alexander Dubček was tacitly sanctioned by the Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev, who wouldn’t support the veteran KSČ first secretary, hardliner Antonín Novotný, saying the KSČ leadership change was an internal party issue.

Following that leadership change, Brezhnev met several times with Dubček, during which he didn’t show any signs of dissatisfaction of how things were going in Czechoslovakia. So, nothing predicted that the Soviet Union leadership was going to get involved in the internal affairs of the KSČ and of the country. But things unfolded very quickly, with the Soviets realizing at a certain point that they were losing control over the cadre policy of the Czechoslovak reformers. It was precisely this that made the Soviet leaders launch the invasion, code-named Operation Danube. First-hand details about how things actually unfolded can be found in Zdenek Mlynar’s memoir called “Nightfrost in Prague”. An intellectual serving as KSČ Central Committee secretary at the time, Mlynar was one of the Prague Spring ideologues.

Today, Moldovans could find it useful to recall how Czechoslovakia was invaded, in light of our own current vulnerabilities. The invasion of Czechoslovakia started at 02:00 AM on 21 August 1968, with a ruse. A Soviet AN-24 passenger aircraft, which was supposedly flying to a destination in Germany, requested to make an emergency landing at the Ruzyně Airport in Prague. Air traffic controllers cleared the plane to land only to discover it was packed with special operations troops. The Soviets went on to take control of the command center and all airport facilities to ensure an uninterrupted landing, at intervals of about 30 seconds, of roughly 800 An-12 transport planes carrying paratroopers and military equipment. The rapid occupation of the capital Prague, of its key nodes, was aimed at preventing the organization of resistance against the invasion carried out by the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary. The borders of the victim state were violated from all sides by about half a million invaders supported by more than 6000 tanks.

A day and a half later, the entire territory of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Soviet and allied troops. Resistance was mercilessly suppressed, with over a hundred people killed and several thousand injured. The Soviet Union went on to impose its terms: the Czechoslovak leadership had to be replaced and a treaty had to be signed allowing Soviet troops to be “temporarily” stationed in the country (this military presence was to last for 23 years). This is how the Prague Spring was eventually frozen by the “liberators”.

Operation Replicate

Curiously, the 1968 Operation Danube in Prague was preceded by large-scale military drills carried out in 1967 in Ukraine as part of Operation Dnieper. The purpose of Operation Dnieper was to impress the international public, to instill the idea that the Soviet military might was such that any resistance would be futile. About 55 years later, the Putin regime acted quite similarly, conducting large-scale military exercises throughout 2021, with the involvement of over a hundred thousand troops, along the entire perimeter of Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Also curiously, the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022 with the attempted occupation of Hostomel Airport, near Kyiv, in a bid to paralyze the country’s command centers. Not long before this, in January 2022, the Russian airborne troops had a big, fat morale boost successfully participating in quelling a mass unrest in Kazakhstan. Hence the fatal misbelief that Kyiv would “fall in three days”, blitzkrieg-style, as was the case in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere.

But things turned out differently. Later this week, as Ukraine will celebrate its Independence Day on August 24, it will already be a year and a half since the Russian invasion. It was enough for the Ukrainian army and political leadership to put an existential fight from the first hours of the Russian aggression and the blitzkrieg crumbled, eventually morphing into the most destructive and exhausting war on the European continent since the Second World War. Today, Ukraine receives help from much of the international community because it had the courage to fight in order to defend its identity, sovereignty and independence. But this aid is not enough to end the occupation. This bloody war is still raging and there is no telling when it will end. 

Symbolism matters

The August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had a devastating repercussion that manifested exactly twenty-three years later, during the Soviet coup d’état of August 1991. It proved that whatever is destined to perish will perish eventually. But symbolism matters a lot. On 21 August 1991 in the evening, Gennady Yanayev, who was the vice president of the USSR and the leader of a group of high-level Communist and KGB hardliners resisting the wind of change, signed a decree dissolving the GKChP. Thus, the attempt to save the Soviet Union resulted in its collapse. Yanayev’s decree was followed by a chain reaction of declarations of independence by the former Soviet republics: Armenia on August 23, Ukraine on August 24, Belarus on August 25, Moldova on August 27, and so on, culminating in December 1991.

De jure, the independence of the Baltic States, declared back in 1990, and that of Georgia, declared on 9 April 1991, were recognized on 6 September 1991 by the Soviet Union State Council. The independence of the other republics was formally recognized on 26 December 1991, immediately after Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as President of the USSR on December 25. Gorbachev’s resignation had been preceded by the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Signed on 8 December 1991, the CIS founding agreement proclaimed the dissolution of the USSR in the very first sentence of its preamble: “We, the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation (RSFSR), Ukraine, acting as the founding states of [the USSR], declare that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceases to exist as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality”.


The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia demonstrated once more that communism cannot, in principle, have a human face. That is why the USSR, as the hegemon of the communist regimes, was doomed to fail. Indeed, communist states that tried to distance themselves even a little from the model imposed by the Soviets were pressured or invaded by the USSR. A few examples stand out: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968. When direct intervention was not possible, high-level assassinations would be planned. This was the case with the Yugoslav leader Iosip Broz Tito, only that the plan to assassinate him was canceled immediately after Stalin’s death. It is no coincidence that the “General Architect” Deng Xiaoping made a U-turn on the relationship with the Soviet Union in 1979. Consequently, in April 1979, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the country would not renew the 1950 “Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance”, considering the USSR as enemy number one and formulating the doctrine of the international united front against Soviet hegemony.

After the invasion of Ukraine by the Putin regime, the Moldovan authorities apparently understood how important it is to have the Chisinau Airport back under government control, in light of the past experiences when control was lost of the Prague airport in August 1968 and, more recently, the failed attempts to seize the airport near Kyiv in February 2022.

Belatedly, the Moldovan authorities also adopted a policy aimed at gradually withdrawing from the CIS, a Soviet Union surrogate of sorts, where Russia projects its hegemonic claims through the concept of “Russkiy Mir”, developed and promoted in cooperation with the likes of Alexander Dugin and Alexandr Prokhanov, ideologues of Russian imperialism and red fascism. The latter openly identifies as “red-brown”, in which capacity he became the founder of the Moldovan branch of the Russian Imperialist Front, alongside some leaders of the Moldovan Socialist Party.

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