All of my childhood, and indeed the first thirty-five years of my life, was spent with Europe separated by an iron curtain behind which lurked the spectre of communism.
This post war balance of world power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989 and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world. During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last few years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.
In 2006 I visited the Czech Republic and went to Prague Castle, which, according to Guinness World Records, is the largest ancient castle in the world and stands proudly at the top of a very steep hill. It was already getting warm and the walk was pleasant. We decided not to go in straight away and we walked instead to discover the Hradčany area that had a regal air full as it was of old royal palaces and government buildings.
We walked to the top of the town, which brought us out close to the observation tower that we had climbed yesterday and at the top we stopped and admired the view over the city and hurried past a beggar with no toes just in case he was a leper. He didn’t have a little bell however and on reflection I guessed that it was more likely that he had just enjoyed a spell in a Gulag in Siberia and lost them all to frostbite.
This was quite likely because one of the principal features of Stalinist Communism was the vigilant exposure of the alleged enemies of the state and the political purges in Czechoslovakia from 1950 until Stalin’s death were on a larger scale than in any other Eastern European country. Thousands of accused individuals were coerced into admitting to crimes they hadn’t committed for which they were sentenced to years of slave labour or if they were lucky very quickly executed.
In 1968, the Prague Spring was a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union. It began on 5th January, when reformist Slovak Alexander Dubček came to power, and continued until 21st August when the Soviet Union and other members of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country to halt the reforms. The restructuring, you see, especially the decentralisation of administrative authority, was not received well by the Soviets who, after failed negotiations, sent thousands of troops and tanks to occupy the country. A large wave of emigration swept the nation and Czechoslovakia remained occupied until 1990.