Lone car passing dozens of Russian tanks during Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia during Prague Spring. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
rare photos

Prague Spring: A Paradise Lost

For several months in early 1968, Czechoslovakians reveled in newly won freedoms. Then Soviet troops invaded.

Photos by Bill Ray

"Communism with a human face." That was how First Secretary Alexander Dubcek described his liberal reforms after assuming leadership of Czechoslovakia in 1968 from President Antonin Novotny, who had been forced to resign earlier that year.

Under Dubcek, the communist country tiptoed toward democracy, with increased freedom of expression and the beginnings of a decentralized economy. This jubilant period became known as Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" — but it would be short-lived. With Soviet concerns over Dubcek's liberal policies mounting, 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops were deployed to Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, bringing an end to the country's blissful idyll. Soviet forces would remain in Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic and Slovakia) until 1991.

During this tumultuous period in 1968, celebrated LIFE photographer Bill Ray found himself dispatched to the Central European country, twice: first, in early 1968, when he captured joyful men and women in the countryside and bustling capital city; and later, as tanks lined the streets of Prague and protesters rallied against the occupation.

Here, Ray takes FOTO on a trip back to Czechoslovakia through his images — many rarely seen until today.

CZECH REPUBLIC - CIRCA 1968: Czechoslovakians in traditional costumes. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images HAPPIER TIMES With Dubcek's ascent to power — hard on the heels of Novotny being ousted by a citizenry impatient with his lukewarm reforms — Czechs began enjoying a way of life they hadn't experienced since before World War II. In short order, the mood of the whole nation seemed to shift — something Ray witnessed first-hand as he spent a month driving around Czechoslovakia in early 1968. "Everybody was just so relieved and so happy. It was like the whole country took a breath," Ray recalls. "It was just a marvelous experience, and, you know, you never ran into anybody that minded you talking or photographing." (Pictured: Czechoslovakians in traditional costumes.) CZECH REPUBLIC - CIRCA 1968: Peasant women bundling flix with their feet an occupation that has been practiced for centuries. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images WAY OF LIFE Ray photographed women working in the field, bundling straw with their feet in an age-old process. "Things may have changed now, but that's how it was in '68," Ray tells FOTO of this pastoral scene.

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CZECH REPUBLIC - CIRCA 1968: Czech model posing in hostess pajamas. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images STRIKING A POSE Snapshots of city life in Czechoslovakia also seem quaint in retrospect. "There was a little fashion industry there in Prague," Ray recalls. "And that was a model showing off one of their fashions." Lone car passing dozens of Russian tanks during Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia during Prague Spring. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images THE DAY EVERYTHING CHANGED Then, on August 20, 1968, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to halt Dubcek's reforms. And with this abrupt — and, at times, violent — occupation, life became restricted once again. BORDER PATROL Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images BORDER PATROL In this rarely seen image, Ray captures the strict measures put in place to protect the border — measures even he would run afoul of. "It was hard to get back in," Rays tells FOTO of his return trip to Czechoslovakia after the invasion. "They sealed off the borders, and I tried to go across a border and actually was arrested." Ray was questioned and released several hours later. He cooled his heels in Germany for a few days before eventually being granted passage.

To his credit, Ray now recalls this harrowing border experience with some humor: "It's very, very funny because coming from Germany, there were all these huge trucks that were going to Czechoslovakia to get beer. As though Germany doesn't have enough beer! But apparently they love Czech beer."
BATTLE SCARS Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images BATTLE SCARS Once over the border, Ray's movements were restricted to small pockets of Prague — he wasn't able to venture out to the countryside like he did during his earlier visit. Even within the city limits, danger lurked — the evidence of which is visible in this rarely seen photo. "There was a huge crowd that gathered every evening as it started to get dark in Wenceslas Square," Ray recalls, "and the Russians would always disperse them by firing heavy-caliber machine guns right over their heads. We'd all run. The buildings around the square were all pockmarked with hundreds and hundreds of bullets." IN TEARS Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images IN TEARS Though citizen protests were largely non-violent, there were still casualties of the occupation. (Dozens of civilians lost their lives.) In Prague, Ray stumbled upon the aftermath of a shooting — a mother named Marie had been killed by soldiers while disembarking from a streetcar. In this rarely seen image, a woman mourns at the scene. "[The soldier] thought he was provoked in some way," Ray says of the shooter. "I never got an explanation that made any sense. But, you know, these things don't necessarily make any sense." A RARELY SEEN IMAGE OF A MAKESHIFT MEMORIAL FOR THE SLAIN WOMAN Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images A RARELY SEEN IMAGE OF A MAKESHIFT MEMORIAL FOR THE SLAIN WOMAN Russian troops, one holding a copy of the newspaper PRAVDA, lounging around by their tanks during the Soviet invasion. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images DOWN TIME "As I recall, this was shortly after I got there, and [the soldiers] were just standing around almost in as confused a state as everyone else," Ray tells FOTO of this curious image. "But they got more organized as time went on and more disciplined. You could really be in serious trouble if one of these Russians decided they didn’t want you taking pictures." POLITICAL CARTOONS POLITICAL CARTOONS Czechoslovakians made their voices heard, through demonstrations, yes, but also in quieter, humorous ways. "It was very common for people to ridicule the Russians, to put things up," Ray says of caricatures captured in this rarely seen image. "Another trick that was a favorite was moving street signs around so the Russians couldn't find where they were trying to go. The Czechs are like that — there wasn't a lot of direct confrontation but they did everything they could to make life tough." Czechs holding flags in fore of statue during Prague Spring Russian invasion (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images A LONG WINTER Ultimately, these small — and large — acts of rebellion would be mostly unsuccessful. A Soviet military presence remained in the country until the early 1990s, when the country was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia and converted to a parliamentary republic. Yet, these scenes will long be emblazoned on the hearts of the Czech people — and Ray. He recalls one chilling scene in his book, My LIFE in Photography:

"Late into the night, long after every living soul had found refuge behind a bolted door, the shooting went on and on, and I could see red tracer bullets arc high over the city from my hotel window... On August 21, 1968, the Prague Spring and the dream of freedom died."

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