Czechs Keep Chins Up as Soviets Leave : Pullout: Men are shorn of beards they began growing 23 years ago to protest the invasion.
Down at the foot of Wenceslas Square on Monday, about 20 to 30 bearded men elbowed their way to the center of a milling crowd of onlookers to undergo a ritual barbering, thus fulfilling a promise made 23 years ago--to go unshaven until Soviet troops departed their native soil.
The Red Army troops, which led a five-nation Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, have now pulled out of the country. The last trainload of 1,653 soldiers, civilian personnel and dependents chugged across the border crossing of Cierna Nad Tisou on Friday.
Only the commanding general and his immediate aides--mostly civilians--remain, and they will be leaving today.
Prague officially celebrated the event Monday with a pop music concert, capping the day with a fireworks display and a laser light show. The city worked hard, in patented Czechoslovak fashion, to keep the affair lighthearted in spirit and without acrimony.
“Adieu, Soviet Army,” said signs around town advertising the concert by Czechoslovak musicians and the fireworks. Cartoons adorning the posters showed a line of Russian matrioska dolls in military belts, receding into the distance.
The Soviet withdrawal actually began in February, 1990, and has been followed closely in the press, so the events surrounding the final pullout have assumed a somewhat anticlimactic air. But the invasion of Aug. 21, 1968--marking the end of the “Prague Spring” of liberalism and the opening of a 21-year, hard-line Communist deep freeze--remains a seminal memory in the minds of many citizens here.
Among them was Antonin Lukas, 47, his curly beard graying at the fringes, who showed up on the square Monday for his shearing. He recalled that he was hunting in a Bohemian forest on that fateful day, emerging from the woods to find a stalled Soviet truck carrying soldiers who told him they were “on maneuvers.”
“My 8-year-old daughter has never seen me without this,” shouted one hirsute celebrator, submitting his chin to the inexpert ministrations of an announcer who wielded scissors in one hand and a microphone in the other. Passers-by paused to watch and laugh--and now and then wince, for there were nicks aplenty.
“I know some people are not too excited about it anymore,” Lukas said. “There has been so much news about it already. But me, I’ve been waiting for this happy day for 23 years, the day I will shave and the Czechoslovak nation will be free.”
It was a theme echoed by Michael Kocab, a folk singer and member of Parliament who promised his constituents that he would resign his seat just as soon as the Soviet army left. Kocab has been involved in the negotiations for the Soviet withdrawal.
Kocab’s performance in a Prague hockey rink Monday night drew a mostly young crowd of about 10,000, including President Vaclav Havel. Although Kocab was one of several performers, he was clearly the headliner.
“There are several things to be depressed about,” Kocab said Monday night. “First, it was a tiring experience. And the other thing is that we are becoming responsible for our own fate, and we won’t be able to blame someone else for our problems. But I am glad the whole thing is over.”
The Soviet commander in Czechoslovakia, Gen. Edward Vorobiev, seemed equally glad the whole thing was over. He declined, reportedly on higher orders, to participate in a ritual helicopter liftoff after the concert--amid what was envisioned as a blaze of fireworks, lasers and cheering Czechoslovak youth. Instead, Kocab and the concert organizers had the helicopter lift a huge, inflated rubber matrioska doll, done up like a Soviet soldier.
The general will make his exit today, and he tersely described its key elements for Prague’s newspapers Monday.
“After signing the (withdrawal) agreement,” Gen. Vorobiev said, “I will drive my car to the airplane. Then I will drive my car into the airplane. I will take off in the airplane. You will never see me here again, unless as a tourist.”
The tone of Vorobiev’s remarks seemed to sum up the attitude some Czechoslovaks have attributed to the departing soldiers, who numbered 73,500 when withdrawals began last year. They are leaving, it is said, in a mood of zloba, which could be loosely translated as “in a huff.”
Since the withdrawals began, some soldiers have been quietly hawking the unboltable hardware of their installations, fixtures of lighting and plumbing, lengths of copper pipe, television sets from home--anything to bring a few dollars of hard currency to cushion the return to the Soviet Union.
But they will leave behind a serious environmental mess--not only in Czechoslovakia but also in Hungary, Poland and eastern Germany, where the last troops are not scheduled to withdraw until 1994.
A Czechoslovak deputy foreign minister said the Soviet Union has agreed to pay $165 million in damages, but the Soviets argue that they should receive $65 million for buildings and other facilities they leave behind.
In Hungary, where the last Soviet troops departed last week, the government has presented the Soviets with a bill for 60 billion forints (about $750 million) for environmental damage. The Soviets countered with their own bill to the Hungarians for left-behind facilities, from 50 billion to 100 billion forints, a demand called “incomprehensible” by the Hungarian Defense Ministry.
In Poland, the government is claiming $4.6 billion in environmental damages, $2 billion of it for soil and water contamination, apparently stemming from faulty Soviet fuel dumps leaking into the soil. After a fitful beginning with negotiations, the remaining 50,000 Soviet troops are expected to be gone by mid-1992.
Kocab, meeting with reporters before his concert Monday night, put a more hopeful spin on negotiations here. “There is a draft treaty being considered by both sides,” he said. “The Czechoslovak government feels the draft is acceptable, and the Soviet side is expected to express its views in a few days.”
Few Czechoslovak citizens hold out much hope that Soviet compensation for the environment will cover the actual losses, no more than it can recover two decades of lost time. But, among the mellow celebrators of Prague on Monday, there was for some a sense of having the last word--modest enough but gratifying.
“Ouch,” said the first of the bearded men submitting himself to the scissors. “Be careful. These are historical whiskers.”