by Yale Richmond
We all remember where we were when important events in history occurred – the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-day in Europe, the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the explosion of the atom bomb over Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But the event I recall most vividly was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia because it affected me and my family.
It was the end of August, 1968, August 20 to be exact, and I was returning to my post in Moscow after a month-long vacation in Finland accompanied by my most precious possessions – my wife and our three small children. And filling out the remaining space in our Plymouth station wagon were the many items we had purchased in Helsinki to make our second year in Moscow more comfortable.
To get an early start on the all-day drive from Finland to Moscow, we decided to overnight at a hotel in Hamina, a small town on the Finnish side of the Soviet border, get a good night’s sleep, and leave early the next morning for our non-stop drive to Moscow.
The next morning, Sunday August 21, I rose early and went out to make sure that my car was in good working condition, and try to find an English-language newspaper. As I stepped out of the hotel lobby onto the Hamina town square, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. It was deathly still, and with not a person in sight.
Returning quickly to the hotel lobby, I asked the desk clerk what had happened. “The Russians have invaded Czechoslovakia,” he somberly said, “and we are all listening to our radios to see if Finland will be next.”
The Finns had good reason to be wary of the Soviet Union, having fought two wars with the Russians in the early 1940s. But my concern at that moment was not Finland but my wife and three children, and whether we should stay put in neutral Finland or cross the border and return to Moscow.
Shto delat? “What to do,” as the Russians might ask? There I was, with my entire family, on the Finnish side of the Iron Curtain and heading back into the Soviet Union just as a major military confrontation appeared to be developing in the heart of Europe.
My first task was to get the facts, to find out what was really happening. Like the Finns, I turned to radio to assess the situation. Using the short-wave receiver installed in my station wagon, I tuned in to the Voice of America, BBC, Radio Liberty, the Deutsche Welle, and other international broadcasters. They all had plenty of news about movements of the armed forces of the Soviet Union and four of its Warsaw Pact allies but not much in the way of what the invasion meant for Europe, US-Soviet relations, and most important, whether it was signaling the start of World War III.
After listening to the radio reports and discussing the options with my wife, we decided to return to Moscow. Despite the immensity of the invasion, we figured that it was not going to be the start of another war.
As we approached the Soviet-Finnish border-crossing point at Vaahmaa, it was apparent that the guards on the Soviet side were on high alert. The lines of cars on both sides of the border were much longer than usual, and the Soviet guards were checking passports and vehicles with more than their usual thoroughness.
After a wait of about an hour we were readmitted to the Soviet Union and embarked on our long drive back to Moscow. And so we drove all day and well into the night, going ever deeper into the heart of Russia while listening to increasingly alarming radio reports all the way, and wondering whether we had made the right decision.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia caused a US suspension of high visibility exchanges with the Soviet Union. Scholarly exchanges continued but there were no exchanges of performing artists or exhibitions. In September, the month following the invasion, the University of Minnesota Concert Band was scheduled to tour the Soviet Union, and the USSR Symphony Orchestra was tuning up for an extensive North American tour, including many performances in the United States. But on instructions from Washington, we had to inform the Soviets that we would not issue US visas to the orchestra.
I was summoned to the USSR Ministry of Culture to meet with Deputy Minister Vladimir I. Popov who delivered a strong protest. Using a Russian expression, he said the orchestra members were “sitting on their suitcases,” waiting for their visas. As for the Minnesota Concert Band whose Soviet tour we had postponed, he asked who would pay for the hotel rooms he had reserved, the posters and programs that had been printed, and the other advance costs that had been incurred by the Ministry.
“Charge it up to the costs of invading Czechoslovakia,” I replied. It was an honest answer, I thought, but poor Popov became apoplectic, and that was the only time I thought that a Soviet official might strike me. Years later, it fell to me to receive Popov in New York when he headed a Soviet cultural delegation, but with the elapse of time all was forgiven and he was full of sweetness and light.
As a consequence of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the State Department instructed the Moscow Embassy to limit its contacts with the Soviet government. All routine contacts were suspended, and cultural, scientific, and other exchanges conducted under the intergovernmental cultural agreement were put on hold, except for the scholarly exchanges conducted under the US-Soviet Cultural Agreement. If that was intended to “punish” the Soviet Union, I fail to see the logic in such an action which must have pleased Soviet hardliners who were critical of the cultural and other exchanges. The suspension was not lifted until the start of the Nixon administration in early 1969.
Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.