Invasion of Prague

Photograph by Josef Koudelka

You cannot rely on your memories—but you can rely on your pictures.

Josef Koudelka

Invasion of Prague

  • Josef Koudelka
  • 1968

The Soviets did not care for the “socialism with a human face” that Alexander Dubcek’s government brought to ­Czechoslovakia. Fearing that Dubcek’s human-rights reforms would lead to a democratic uprising like the one in Hungary in 1956, Warsaw Bloc forces set out to quash the movement. Their tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968. And while they quickly seized control of Prague, they unexpectedly ran up against masses of flag-waving citizens who threw up barricades, stoned tanks, overturned trucks and even removed street signs in order to confuse the troops. Josef Koudelka, a young Moravian-born engineer who had been taking wistful and gritty photos of Czech life, was in the capital when the soldiers arrived. He took pictures of the swirling turmoil and created a groundbreaking record of the invasion that would change the course of his nation. The most seminal piece includes a man’s arm in the foreground, showing on his wristwatch a moment of the Soviet invasion with a deserted street in the distance. It beautifully encapsulates time, loss and emptiness—and the strangling of a society.

Koudelka’s visual memories of the unfolding ­conflict—with its evidence of the ticking time, the brutality of the attack and the challenges by Czech ­citizens—redefined photojournalism. His pictures were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and appeared in the London Sunday Times in 1969, though under the pseudonym P.P. for Prague Photographer since Koudelka feared reprisals. He soon fled, his rationale for leaving the country a testament to the power of photographic evidence: “I was afraid to go back to Czechoslovakia because I knew that if they wanted to find out who the unknown photographer was, they could do it.”

See the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia through Josef Koudelka's lens

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