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The Prague Spring Fifty Years On: Meaning, Legacy, Future Prospects

September 20, 2018September 21, 2018


An International Conference of Scholars

  • What:  A conference probing the legacy of the Prague Spring of 1968, fleshing out its lessons for important domestic and international issues today, and producing a volume of essays.
  • When:  September 20-21, 2018
  • Where:  The Smith and Robins Rooms of the Roberts Building, Ostrove Auditorium and the Atrium of the Diamond Building, and Given Auditorium in the Bixler Building.
  • Who: An invited group of internationally recognized politicians, academics, activists, and cultural figures.
  • Why:  An opportunity for students, scholars, policy makers, and activists to come together and use a major historical event as a gateway to discuss important current domestic and international political issues. An opportunity for international scholars and policy makers to discover Colby College and Maine. An opportunity for Colby College to gain exposure in Central Europe.


 In early 1968, after two decades of totalitarian dictatorship under Soviet domination, the Czechoslovak state and society experienced a remarkable period of political and economic liberalization that became known as the Prague Spring. Under public pressure, control of the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) passed to reformist members led by Alexander Dubček, who began partially decentralizing the economy and administrative authority and relaxing restrictions on the media, speech, and travel. This process took place in the broader context of an extraordinary flowering of the arts, including film, music, literature, and theatre, all of which acted as its catalysts. The Prague Spring abruptly ended in August 1968, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by its Warsaw Pact allies led by the Soviet Union, its reformist leaders were deposed, and pro-Soviet hardliners were reinstalled. The processes of political and economic liberalization and cultural renaissance were reversed, ushering in a period of “normalization” and stasis under Soviet military occupation that would last until the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989.

 Conference Purposes

 Taking place on the fiftieth anniversary of the event, the conference has the following purposes, which will directly inform its program:

  1. To revive the memory of the Prague Spring at a time when the majority of its witnesses are dead, its youngest participants are entering their seventies, and the event is fading into obscurity.
  2. To scrutinize the historiography and competing interpretations of the Prague Spring. The event is traditionally remembered as a movement toward liberal democracy and market capitalism, but this narrative glosses over the event’s self-understanding as an experiment in democratic socialism. The conference will reflect on the politics of the event’s representation.
  3. To discuss the role of art as a vehicle of political dissent and emancipation at a time when this role is being increasingly neutralized by the entertainment industry, which absorbs even the most subversive artistic expressions and makes them serve the logic of capitalist market exchange.
  4. To discuss the role of university students and higher education in stimulating social and political transformation at a time of prohibitive college tuition levels, which threaten to turn universities into “pay to play” institutions reproducing standing patterns of exclusion and inequality.
  5. To discuss Russian expansionism and the current political and security situation in Central and Eastern Europe. Although American statesmen vehemently denounced the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, no effort was made to rescue the Prague Spring from its tragic fate. Was this policy sound? What are the lessons for U.S. and NATO strategy in eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, and other pro-Western countries threatened by Moscow today?

Core Participants

  • Petr Pavel: Czech army general. Decorated veteran of the Bosnian War for his service in the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Current Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, French Legion of Honor and U.S. Legion of Merit recipient (2018).
  • Petr Pithart: Czech politician, lawyer, and political scientist. Prague Spring participant and anti-communist dissident. Former Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia (1990-92).
  •  Iveta Coufalová: Czech historian, essayist, and journalist. Editor-in-Chief of Dějiny a současnost (History and the Present) and expert on the historiography of the Prague Spring.
  • Paul Goldsmith: American photographer. Eyewitness of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, owner of a unique collection of prints documenting the event.
  • Mark Kramer: Director of Cold War studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Author of numerous works on the Prague Spring and its significance.


Thursday, Sept. 20

7:30pm:  Keynote Address (Ostrove)

Friday, Sept. 21

9:15-10:15am:  Petr Pithart on the Meaning of the Prague Spring (Roberts)

10am-5pm:  Prague Spring 1968 Photo Exhibit by Paul Goldsmith (Diamond)

10:30-11:30am:  Mark Kramer on the Politics of Remembering the Prague Spring (Roberts)

1:15-2pm:  Paul Goldsmith on Photographing the August 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia (Roberts)

2-7pm:  on-campus film screenings of The Joke (dir. Jaromil Jireš, 1969, 2pm) and Cozy Dens (dir. Jan Hřebejk, 1999, 4:30pm) (Given Auditorium)

2:15-3:15pm:  Iveta Coufalová on the Prague Spring and Czech Historiography (Roberts)

3:30-4:30pm: General Petr Pavel on August 1968 and Russian Expansionism: Lessons for NATO Today (Roberts)

7:30pm:  on-campus documentary screening of Invasion 1968: The Russian View (Czech TV, 2017), introduced by Petr Pithart (Given Auditorium)

                No registration necessary

Sponsored by the Government Department, The Center for Arts and Humanities and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs


September 20, 2018
September 21, 2018


Robins Room, Roberts Building, Colby College
Mayflower Hill Drive
Waterville, ME
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