I was a child when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in November 1956. I only noticed because our parents helped host Hungarian refugees who fled to Pittsburgh, seventy miles north of our home. A student protest had grown into a Hungary-wide uprising against Russian control. Brutal repression by the USSR left thousands dead.
Twelve years later, troops and tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, another Soviet satellite. I had fallen in love with Prague while researching a term paper on medieval Bohemia. A visit deepened my affection. Czech culture flourished in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, with an end to censorship and travel restrictions. I grieved at the Russian-led invasion that August and the clampdown that followed.
This year in Ukraine, it’s déjà vu all over again. Did we misread the Cold War so badly that we thought its end meant an end to Russian aggression? Did we imagine the biggest Russian fault lay in its economic system, abandoned after 1991? Russia’s main threat to the rest of us was an authoritarian, totalitarian regime that used blatant violence to repress dissent and to impose its power over supposedly independent countries. Little of that has changed.
Image: Soviet tank in Prague's Wenceslas Square, August 21, 1968. (AP Photo/Peter Winterbach)
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.