Bryan Caplan  

Remembering '68

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It's the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Many Czechs and Slovaks remember, but here's a shocking factoid:

In a 2006 visit to the Czech capital, then-president Vladimir Putin expressed Russia's 'moral responsibility' for crushing the Prague Spring.

However, a recent poll found that 70 per cent of Czechs younger than 20 have 'no opinion' on the events of 1968.

I suspect that if you asked young Czechs how they felt about the "Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia" they'd have an opinion after all. But I continue to be disappointed by the failure of the Soviet experience to fill Eastern Europe with revulsion against all things socialist. The sad truth is that propaganda works.

Still, I'm not one to dwell on the negative. The members of former Soviet bloc - including Russia itself - are not free. (Hey, neither is the U.S.). But they are far freer than any reasonable person would have guessed in 1988 when a few Czech and Slovak emigres were protesting the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their homeland.

HT: David Cesarini

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Jim Glass writes:

I was in Prague as a student as the invasion happened, and I'll for remember it always. It provided a view of the world that other Americans of the "Summer of '68" sure didn't get.

I don't know how today's young Czechs think of those days, but I do know some 20-odd-year-olds who were born in the former East Germany and spent their first dozen or so years under it, and they are near totally oblivious to the pre-1989 world of Communism that they and their parents lived in.

Their parents sure remember it, but they say they don't want to burden their children by dropping all that on them. Some of those kids, children of East Germany, could be from California.

Jonathan Bydlak writes:

I don't think I'd go so far as to say that "propaganda works," but rather that people instinctually fear (or are uncomfortable with) what they don't know. Just like Bryan's talked about "fear of the other" as a motivation for anti-immigrant sentiment, it seems plausible that those who grow up under socialist regimes don't have the knowledge base about (and therefore trust of) markets that the rest of us take for granted. Sure, propaganda works to some degree, but more because people don't hear the alternatives -- not because they're necessarily swayed by the propaganda itself.

WanderingTaoist writes:

I'm Slovak and I too am saddened by the fact that despite the experience of communism the people still very much favor authoritarian leaders who misuse their powers. I think it goes deeper in history here: both Slovakia and Russia never knew democracy until very recently. And what's even more important in my opinion, both countries didn't know true private ownership until only recently (Russia since 1990, Slovakia during periods of 1918-1939 and 1945-1948 and then since 1989). The attitudes towards private ownership are therefore still only developing and people are suspicious of it. For politicians it is then easy to denounce some freedoms connected with private ownership and people don't object due to lack of experience.
To compare, look at e.g. Czech Republic or Ukraine, both countries have a historical tradition of private ownership (in the sense that people-peasants could own the land on which they worked). In Russia and Slovakia, the land was owned by aristocrats and worked on by peasants, who got part of produce as a repayment. Although in Czechoslovakia the land owned by big landlords has been sold out to people in 1918 (and there were attempts at land reform before that, both in Czechoslovakia and Russia), the forced collectivization took place only 30 years later, thus never developing the basic tradition of private ownership. And I'm sliding off-topic, so I'll rather stop :)

reason writes:

What has an imperialistic invasion got to do with Socialism? The Prague Spring wasn't necessarily a capitalist couterrevolution. There may be perfectly good reasons to distrust socialism but Russian Imperialism is not necessarily one of them.

Alex Lefter writes:

Being Romanian myself, I think

"the failure of the Soviet experience to fill Eastern Europe with revulsion against all things socialist"

may also be due to people's rational irrationality in equating the Soviet experience with 'the Russian experience' rather than 'the socialist one'. And this is most sad for Russians themselves, who in some significant numbers may resort to thinking markets are bad simply by being sort of an American invention.

Kurbla writes:

I'd agree with reason. If one blames socialism for what Soviets did in Czechoslovakia, he could just as well blame capitalism for what France did in Algeria. People are generally not very wise, but they are, however, quite able to separate these issues.

Kurbla writes:

And also for propaganda. Those people in ex communist countries have seen and experienced the both, the communist propaganda and regimes and the capitalist propaganda and regimes. If "everything else is the same" they should have more balanced views than those who experienced only one kind of regime and its propaganda, i.e. those in Cuba or in US.

Of course, everything else was not the same. The capitalist countries had not so overwhelming propaganda as the socialist countries, but their citizens were, however, exposed to some propaganda organized by state, and also, the fact that the owners of the media are, by definition, capitalists probably had (and still has) some influence on the contents of the media.

Which propaganda was more effective? It probably depends on person. I believe I'm better in resisting "Mao is the greatest leader world ever seen" type of propaganda than subtle and not centrally organized mix of say, 20% of bias into the balance. Maybe I'm wrong.

reason writes:

a more telling example would be to blame capitalism for American Imperialism. Surely Brian is aware that Russians were Imperialistic both before and after socialism (like last week). I trust the Czechian(?) youth to be able to perceive the distinction. I wonder why Brian can't. Or was he just Caffiene deprived when he wrote this post?

Jim Glass writes:

Any attempt to imply some sort of equivalence between "capitalism/American Imperialism", "Communism/Soviet Imperialism", and "monarchist/Tsarist Imperialism", by applying the same word "Imperialism" in all the cases, is naive or sophistic at best

One will be quickly corrected of the notion by looking at the count of civilian deaths imposed by the various Imperialisms. DeLong gives one, and there are many others. There's going to be one hell of margin of error needed in those counts to equalize the -isms.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was not an attempt to assure a power's security and influence in its near abroad, as the US has in Panama, Grenada and so many other places in the western hemisphere since announcing the Monroe doctrine ... or the Russians arguably just did in Georgia ... or the Tsars did around their periphery through all their time.

The Czechs in 1968 were rock solid in the Warsaw Pact, and the regime had in fact gone to great pains to assure the Soviets and other member of the Pact of the fact.

The Soviets invaded to reinstall internally in Czechoslovakia a totalitarian police state, that the Dubcek regime had been moderating. The re-establishment of the authority of the secret police was a specific primary demand and motivation of the invaders. The invasion was to save and reinforce a gulag social order.

It is one thing for a powerful state to use force topple a local regime that is going "loose cannon" or trying to escape its sphere of influence, to enforce order from the top down. It is another thing for a powerful regime to invade another nation (an avowed ally, even) to enforce totalitarian police state control through the entire population.

To indiscriminately call both cases "Imperialism" because a nation is using force in its own self- interest does not indicate equivalence between the two.

"Totalitarian Imperialism" is a separate, far nastier species of the beast.

To see that quantified, check the body counts, for instance in the Black Book of Communism.

reason writes:

A quick internet search tells me that 108 people died in the Russian invasion of Czechoslavakia, and the causalties in Georgia are unclear but here is a paragraph from Wikipedia

"From 8 to 13 August, the Tskhinvali hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. Fourty-four bodies had been brought to the hospital; these represented the majority of Ossetians killed in Tskhinvali, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity.[139] On 14 August South Ossetian officials claimed they have identified 200 corpses of South Ossetian civilians, saying that 500 are missing; at the same time, Russian investigators said they had identified a total of 60 civilians killed during the fighting.[141] By 18 August, following an investigation in South Ossetia and amongst refugees, the number of dead civilians identified was put by Russia at 133[citation needed]; nevertheless, South Ossetian officials said 1,492 people died.[13]"

Blind adherance to ideology is a terrible thing, whichever ideology it is. Please check your facts before banging on the keyboard.

reason writes:

I just noticed this:

The members of former Soviet bloc - including Russia itself - are not free. (Hey, neither is the U.S.).

Why is that Libertarians think that freedom is a black and white thing (i.e. that such a thing as absolute freedom is possible, short of having your own planet)!

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