For the first time Josef Koudelka’s photographs of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia have been shown in Moscow at the Lumiere Brother’s photo gallery near the Krasniy Oktyabr factory. These photographs are accompanied by a number of explanatory comments and some of the slogans that were seen in the Prague in those first post-occupation days. Koudelka himself stated that he never expected to see the day when these photographs would be shown in Moscow. In many ways viewing these photographs in Moscow is an experience quite different from seeing these photographs elsewhere. This exhibition can not really be compared to their exhibition in any other country. As yet I have read little of the Russian reaction to this exhibition.
For me much of the surprise came not just from the images but also from the slogans that were said to be printed on the walls and some of the accounts that the exhibition gives of those days. In many ways the main emotion that gripped me during this exhibition was a sense that this was a turning point beyond which one couldn’t return. The slogan that most fascinated me was the one that stated ‘Lenin wake up! Brezhnev has gone mad!’ as well as another which spoke of expecting an ‘invasion from the West and instead it comes from the East’. The idea that it was during these days that ‘already exisiting socialism’ fatally lost its legitimacy which previously somehow it had held (the graffiti also included the statement that ‘you came to us as liberators in 1945 and now you come as occupiers’ suggest that there wasn’t a prior complete negation of some form of Soviet hegemony) . Afterwards one can always rationalise things by stating that the Soviet system was doomed from the beginning, but there was nonetheless a different sense of reality then. The graffiti seemed to speak of an alternative way of seeing things. The graffiti speaks of a kind of betrayal and betrayal there surely was.
It is hard to imagine the hopes of the early and mid 1960s in the Soviet bloc but these pictures portray an eerie moment in which these hopes were finally stamped on. August 1968 was the moment when hopes were dashed in the most brutal of manners- the decline of an idea and an ideal (some kind of harmony between the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality) which even more than four decades later seems a contemporary tragedy. The world hasn’t lacked invasions in the following decades – Iraq, Afghanistan and so on- what it has lacked is in some way the hope expressed on the eve of some bearable humanistic ideal in which equality and liberty would be reconciled. A kind of hope expressed by two of the most forgotten leaders of the twentieth century: Alexander Dubchek and Salvador Allende. To my mind, nonetheless, two of the most inspiring figures of the past blood-stained century.