Exactly thirty years ago, Václav Havel was in Moscow meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the pact on the total withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia was signed. That very day, the first soldiers began pulling out, as a brass band struck up the “Internationale”, while outside the garrison gates locals bid them a less-than-fond farewell.
According to historical records, the first railroad flatcars were loaded with Soviet soldiers and their families, and dozens of T-62 tanks, BMP armoured personnel carriers and lorries, departed from the Moravian town of Frenštát pod Radhoštěm at about 2:40 in the afternoon.
Dalibor Norský, now nearly ninety, remembers it well. At the time, he was the local spokesman of Civic Forum, the movement Václav Havel and other dissidents founded during the Velvet Revolution, less than three months before.
“It was a wonderful day – the most beautiful day of the year! On the 26th of February, here in Frenštát, the first Rusnaci [‘Russkies’] left! We all played a role, myself included.
“Earlier, I’d seen some officers going to see the mayor, or rather then the local ‘Nation Council’ head, and found out it was about the withdrawal. I knew it would take a long time. That’s when I got involved. I said Civic Forum had to be a part of it.”
Back in Moscow, Havel told reporters after meeting with Gorbachev, that to his mind, the invasion and subsequent Soviet occupation – “the deepest wound in our society” – had become a “thing of the past, especially this evening when a treaty of troop withdrawal has been signed.”
Civic Forum members in a nearby garrison, in the town of Pohrany, had staged a demonstration that drew 6,000 people, demanding Soviet troops leave by 21 August – the 22d anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion – at the latest. But the logistics were daunting.
As Dalibor Norský predicted, the pull-out indeed “took a long time”. In Frenštát, for example, convoys departed twice a day in March, nearly every day, until the 4,000 strong garrison – stripped of anything of value – was finally emptied. Norský did his best to motivate them to go.
“When I met soldiers by the barracks, I told them, ‘Look, Gorbachev promised Soviet troops will be gradually withdrawn from Europe. And there are hundreds of thousands of you, maybe ever a million. Think about it! Those who go back first will get into the barracks. It will be chaos – those who go later will be worse off’.”
(In fact, when the pull-out began thirty years ago, even the commander of the Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia, Eduard Vorobyev, had acknowledged nearly two-thirds of returning soldiers had no housing waiting for them.)
Czechs are known for having a dark sense of humour. A joke circulating in the autumn of 1968, when the invading Warsaw Pact troops stared being replaced by a “temporary deployment” of Soviet soldiers, captured the mood; Jaká je jednotka dočasnosti? Jeden furt (What’s a unit of ‘temporariness’? It’s one ‘forever’).
In fact, it was not until June 1991 – nearly 23 years after the Soviet Union and a demoralised Czechoslovakia signed a treaty for that “temporary deployment” of 75,000 troops – that the very last conscript left Czechoslovak soil.
Along with 1,220 tanks, 2,505 armoured vehicles, 77 combat aircraft and 146 helicopters, they abandoned 83 garrisons in total, and scores more military zones. Despite promises that the Soviet army intended to leave the sites “ecologically pure”, till this day the clean-up has yet to be completed.