50 years ago my Dad, Keith Collins, was caught up in an historical event that shook the world – the Russian invasion of Prague. I had spoken to him many times about this amazing episode in his life, but sadly he died suddenly in January this year and never got round to penning a first person account. This account is based on those conversations, between father and son, the last of which happened at Christmas.
My Dad was 26 years old, an adventurous traveller, having travelled extensively across 1960’s Europe from the North to the South, as shown by the array of stamps in his well used passport.
In the spring of 1968 he started to plan a trip with a friend to Prague, the then capital city of Czechoslovakia; a jewel of a place, resplendent in medieval architecture and famed for its bohemian qualities. This difficult trip was something that most twenty somethings would never have dreamt of attempting in the 1960s, with the US and USSR at loggerheads during the Cold War.
This journey would be, unbeknown to them when they left London, a huge adventure, travelling beyond the iron curtain which had descended between East and West dividing Europe in the post 1945 world. It would be a trip when Dad got caught up in history in real time in a way that he could never imagine, creating vivid memories that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Going through my Dad’s passport I got a real and tangible sense of this trip of a lifetime. I can imagine the excitement as the days passed and the time to set off got nearer, packing your bags (have you got enough films for the camera and the right clothes for high summer?) and making sure that all the paperwork is in order.
Prague is a beautiful city and it has drawn generations of visitors. For nearly five decades it was cut off from most travellers unless they had a real determination to make it to this place steeped in history and overcome the burdensome red-tape in a world of visa’s.
Dad and his friend arrived in Prague on the 20 August, around a week after they had entered the country. They’d made it through to this magical place through countless checkpoints and overbearing bureaucracy.
Arriving in the city, tired from the long journey, they managed to find a B&B in a fairly central location. This would be an ideal spot to explore the city, gripped by such social and cultural change, trying to build a sense of identity removed from the conformity of the Soviet bloc. The spring of that year had seen the uprisings in Paris and young people across the world were hungry for change and had a thirst to move on from the age of post war austerity and rationing.
The owner of the B&B suggested a place for dinner, and a few beers later it was late and time to get some sleep. But their sleep was brief, and in the early hours of the 21 August, there was a loud knock at the door. The owner of the B&B, in an excited state, shouted: ‘the Russians have invaded’. Bleary eyed Dad and his friend pulled back the curtains to see Russian tanks rolling down the street. To say that this wasn’t something that they had bargained for, was an understatement. I can’t begin to appreciate what it must have been like to see the tanks right in front of your own eyes (surely this only ever happened on the news) and then for the sense of nervous energy kicking in about what to do next.
Shocked by what they were seeing their pragmatism took them off to the British Embassy. Surely this would be a haven in what appeared to be the Russians wanting to impose direct rule on this troublesome member of the Soviet sphere of influence? Banging on the door, a window finally opened and they shouted up to the member of Embassy staff that the Russians had invaded and asked what they should do. In a classic example of British understatement the staff member shouted to come back in the morning when the Embassy opened at 9am. Why panic and upset the British way of doing things? How typical.
They laid low until 9am and joined other visitors at The Embassy hoping for refuge. It was suggested they try to get a train out of the city, so they headed to the main station in Prague, hoping that they could at least get a train and head east towards safety. However, after waiting hours with hundreds of other anxious travellers, everyone in the station was rounded up and escorted off of the premises. What to do next? They had to get out as fast as possible and avoid getting caught up in the fast changing events across the city.
Somehow they found themselves talking to the teachers in a school group whose coach was heading back to West Germany. A lucky break and their journey to freedom. All seemed to be going so well until they reached a checkpoint that had been set up by Russian troops. They boarded the bus and looked at Dad and his friends paperwork. Suspicious of why these English men were on a bus full of German schoolkids one of the soldiers singled dad out, held a gun to his throat, and demanded to see his papers. The stand off and tension built. Imagine that a loaded gun shoved in your throat, your life flashing before you and drops of sweat rolling down your face. In a stroke of sheer luck and quick thinking, one of the teachers said they were English teachers with them on the school trip. Thankfully the soldier believed this story and the coach made its way to the border and on to West Germany.
Unfortunately Dad and his friend didn’t get the opportunity to take any pictures of their few hours in a city turned upside down and collapsing from hope to despair. Though in hindsight this was pretty lucky as it would have potentially becoming a massive hindrance to their journey out of the city.
Dad would develop a lifelong love of Prague and had the opportunity to visit this remarkable city after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Whenever he told the story it felt as fresh as though it was only yesterday and it was something that he talked about over the years with a slight glint in his eye, even then not quite believing what had happened.