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Author: Avery11
Genre: Gen


SPRING THAW 

Prague
April, 1968
 

     They wandered up Dlouhá Street, basking in the warm Spring sunshine -- just a couple of workers out for a Sunday stroll. Illya adjusted the collar of his sports coat, twisting his body slightly as he did so, the better to monitor their surroundings for signs of the Státní Bezpečnost, Czechoslovakia's despised Secret Police apparatus. Beside him, Napoleon angled the brim of his hat and did the same.

     “I'm not picking up any tails,” Napoleon said quietly. “How about you?”

     “No, but that is no guarantee where the StB are concerned. We should remain on guard.”

     “Agreed.”

     “That is a ridiculous hat, by the way.”

     “I think it looks jaunty. Besides, you said we should try to blend in.”

     Illya snorted. “Blend in, yes. Just not with the Von Trapp family.”      


      They turned onto Parížká Street, the major artery leading out of Josefov, the city's Jewish enclave. They passed the old cemetery with its ancient, lichen-covered headstones, and the synagogue, closed and silent. Their cheap shoes clattered on the cobblestones.

     “My feet are killing me,” Napoleon muttered as they made their way along the crowded thoroughfare. “Is this torture really necessary?”

     “Your expensive Italian loafers would have been noticed in an instant, Napoleon. Only on the Black Market could a Czech citizen find such shoes, and they would cost a small fortune. No, a few blisters are a small price to pay for preserving our anonymity.”

     “Tell that to my aching feet.”

     The crowd ebbed and flowed around them, friends and neighbors enjoying the beautiful Spring weather. Schoolboys, free of their stiff uniforms for once, scampered between the legs of the adults, playing kick-the-can to loud protests from the throng. Mothers in homespun dresses pushed prams with squalling infants; Fathers in shirtsleeves carried small children on their shoulders. Plump, scarved babičky hobbled behind, toting their empty sacks, hoping to come upon an unannounced sale of meat or milk or toilet paper along the way. In a nearby alcove, a cluster of aging War veterans watched a chess match in silent fascination.

     Napoleon noticed a group of young men threading their way through the crowd. The men went from shop to shop, shaking hands with the proprietors and plastering colorful posters to the walls. People stopped to read; many nodded and smiled their agreement. A few even applauded. The men grinned and bowed, clearly pleased with the reception they were getting. “What's that all about?” Napoleon wanted to know.

     “Calls for a new trade union for artists,” Illya replied, “laced with a few mild anti-Soviet polemics.”

     “Remarkable.”

     “Dangerous.”

     Napoleon glanced sharply at his friend, but Illya's expression was bland and unreadable behind his dark glasses.

     They passed a popular hospoda; the aroma of stuffed cabbage emanating from inside made Napoleon's stomach rumble. “I don't suppose you're hungry, tovarisch?”

     That drew a tense smile from the Russian. “Always.” He glanced about. “But not here. Too many ears. I know a better place.”

     “Lead on, MacDuff.”

     They crossed the Vltava via the Cech Bridge to Letenské Sady, and entered the large park.

     “There is a beer garden, not far from here, where we can eat,” Illya said. “It is more private than the pubs, and has a fine view of the river and the Old Town. The food there is cheap and good, and the beer is cheaper and better.”

     “Sounds perfect.” Napoleon hesitated. “Listen, what you said about those men with the posters --?”

     “Look at all the swans on the river,” Illya interrupted in rapid-fire Czech. He smiled and pointed. “More of them every year, aren't there, Tomás?”

     Napoleon fell instantly into his role, nodding and smiling as if he had any idea what Illya had just said. He scanned the thinning crowd, and spotted a man with a jovial face and cunning eyes observing them from twenty yards away.

     Illya slapped Napoleon on the back, “Let us hurry, Tomás, before all the tables are taken, and we are forced to drink standing up.”

     They picked up their pace.

     “Have we been 'made?'” Napoleon whispered as they sauntered away across the lawn.

     “I do not think so,” Illya replied quietly. “It would seem that the agent was merely suspicious of two strangers entering his purview. However, we would do well to be careful.”

     He chose an empty table in a far corner of the garden, under the elm trees, and they ordered beers while they waited for their food.

     Napoleon took a sip of the local brew, a pilsner, appreciating its clean citrus aroma and bittersweet aftertaste. He sighed, and wiggled his toes inside the cheap shoes. It felt wonderful to sit down. “So, where's our little friend gotten off to?”

     “He lost interest in us several minutes ago, and left to follow someone else.”

     “I hope he gets bunions.” Napoleon leaned forward. 'Okay, tovarisch, enough of those long, brooding looks of yours. You've been uptight ever since we arrived in Prague. What's wrong?”

     Illya threw an arm across the back of his chair, and glanced nonchalantly about. Despite his casual pose, he seemed tense, coiled for action. “Did you notice how happy everyone was on the street today?”

     This was not what Napoleon had expected to hear. “Sure, I guess, now that you mention it. It's Sunday. I suppose they're glad to have the day off.”

     “It is more than that. Everywhere we have gone this week, people have been the same -- loud, confident, boisterous. Careless. As we passed through the crowd today, I heard conversations about freedom of the press, an end to censorship, limiting the authority of the secret police, and the need for free elections. Sheer insanity; anyone could have been listening.” He shook his head. “People are growing reckless with the new reforms. They are drunk with the thought of freedom.”

     Napoleon frowned. “But that's natural, isn't it? I mean, they've waited a long time for someone like Dubček to come along, someone willing to modernize the country, loosen the reins a bit. Why not celebrate their new-found freedom?”

     Illya's expression was bleak. “Because it cannot last.”

     The waiter arrived with their meals just then -- a platter of smoked herring with sweet pickles, cabbage salad and bread -- and Napoleon was forced to wait in silence while Illya chatted with the man about the likelihood of showers later in the evening.

     “I don't understand,” he said once the fellow had departed. “Why can't it last? Dubček is shrewd politically; he's being very careful. He hasn't uttered so much as a word of criticism against his predecessors, or against the Communist Party. In fact, he publicly calls what they've accomplished so far 'magnificent.'”

     “'The Triumph of Socialism.' Yes, I have read the speech.” Illya took a long swallow of beer.

     “He isn't trying to tear down the Communist system, Illya, just modify it. 'Socialism with a human face.'”

     “'Socialism must be more than the liberation of the working people from the domination of their exploiting class masters. It must also make provisions for a fuller life of the individual.' Yes, Napoleon. I have read that speech as well.”

     “It's a brilliant concept,” Napoleon replied a bit defensively, “a fusion of the old with the new. It's years ahead of its time.”

     “Precisely the problem. Dubček's plan is 'years ahead of its time.' And Moscow is not ready for it.”

     Napoleon took a forkful of salad, and chewed thoughtfully. “You think they'll push back, don't you?”

     “Don't you?”

     “Not necessarily. The Cold War is thawing. Life Magazine even featured the Soviet lifestyle on their cover a few months back -- everything from arts and culture, to family life, to fashion models and heart surgeons. The West is starting to see the Soviet people as human beings instead of demonizing monsters. Why should the Kremlin risk losing all that good PR?” He served himself several smoked herring from the platter. “Besides, with the long transition period Dubček is proposing, there's plenty of time for Moscow to get used to the idea of reform. Surely ten years is gradual enough, even for the Politburo.”

     Illya sighed. “You think like an American.” He nodded toward a grassy area, just beyond the grove of elms. “Do you see the statue of Lenin over there?”

     Napoleon nodded.

     “A dozen years ago, a different statue stood in that same spot -- a memorial to honor Joseph Stalin. 'Hero of the Proletariat,' it was called. The statue took six years to create, and cost nine million rubles, a great deal of money in a country that can ill-afford such excess."

     "Nine million rubles?" Napoleon whistled. "Must have been some statue."

     Illya scowled. "It was a travesty. Party leaders poured their energy into its creation, overseeing the construction of a huge, garish monument designed with one purpose in mind -- to curry favor with Moscow. The result was a work of art as monstrous as its subject, an ugly blight upon the beauty of the park. The monument was dedicated at a lavish ceremony in March of that year. It was a propaganda coup, broadcast throughout the country on State television. A few months later, Kruschev denounced Stalin before the Parliament, repudiating his shameful actions. It marked a stunning shift of power within the Kremlin. Stalin was subsequently 'erased' from the history books, his monuments demolished.”

     “I still don't see --”

     “A few short months, and a statue that took six years and millions of rubles to create is torn down and replaced. That is how fast things can change inside the Kremlin. Czech Party leaders were caught off-guard by the suddenness of the power shift. They had attached themselves to Stalin's memory, only to find that they had 'backed the wrong horse,' so to speak. The leaders were replaced; most were never heard from again.”

     “And you think that will happen here?”

     Illya nodded. “It is only a matter of time.” He sprinkled paprika onto a pickle, and took a savage bite. Napoleon watched the juice dribble down his chin. “Even if Moscow were willing to wait -- and I find such inaction highly doubtful -- the people are not. Already they are becoming impatient. They fill the streets, demanding investigations into government corruption, power for the trade unions, the right to bargain for better wages -- demands to which Dubček must eventually accede, but which Moscow will never permit.”

     He seized the loaf of bread, sliced it with surgical precision, and separated the slices. “This is what they fear in Moscow: the breakup of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies into separate, independent states, and the decentralization of their power base. If one country succeeds in its rebellion, it stands to reason that the others will soon follow.” Illya leaned forward intently. “This is what the Kremlin fears most -- this domino effect. Their hold on power has always been absolute, unyeilding. Power is to be held in an iron fist, not shared with a velvet glove. Should anything threaten this world view, they will fight back with all the desperation of drowning men.”

     “The Czech people will resist.”

    "And they will lose."  Illya shook his head. “Hungary could not withstand the combined military might of the Warsaw Pact nations. Do you really think Czechoslovakia will fare better?”

     It seemed there was nothing to say after that. They finished their meal, and sat nursing their beers as the sun dipped low in the sky. The river turned to burnished gold, the gathering clouds to crimson. Napoleon picked out the ornate spires of Saint Vitus Cathedral on the horizon of Old Town, and the gleaming tip of the Orloj, the city's famous astronomical clock tower. High on the hill, the Prague Castle, ancient abode of kings, glowed as though infused with some arcane magic. He was struck by how beautiful the city looked from their vantage point. And how peaceful. It saddened him to think that that might change.

     He watched the last sliver of sunlight drop behind the Oré Mountains, casting the city into shadow. Illya is right, he realized with an aching heart. Dubček's revolution is doomed. For an instant, he felt his soul stray close to edge of the darkness, teeter precariously upon the cusp of despair. But no, there was always hope. There had to be! A fierce, defiant fire kindled in his heart. “They can cut down the flowers,” he murmured, “but they will never keep Spring from coming.*”

     “The inevitability of change?”

     He shook his head. “The courage of the human soul.”

     Illya gazed out upon the city, watching the lights flicker on in countless homes, watching the gentle persistence of the stars put lie to the darkness. “Ah, Napoleon,” he replied quietly, “on a night like this, you almost make me believe it.”
 

*/*/*/  

(*Napoleon is quoting the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.)

 


(Prague during the August, 1968 invasion.)

(Letenske Park today)



 

 

 

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