From Paris and American university campuses to Prague and even Moscow, young people challenged the existing order in 1968. But the Prague Spring was far more significant than its Western counterparts—only here did a Sixty-Eighter named Václav Havel come to power as the boomerang of the protests flew back.

In the West it was about something different. In April 1968, just as the petals that had bloomed in the Prague Spring were being crushed by Soviet tank tracks, Michelangelo Antonioni started shooting the film Zabriskie Point.

After a session of free love in the desert, the girl from Zabriskie Point used her mysterious mental powers to blow up her boss’s super-modern residence. For a few minutes, the confetti-like shards of bourgeois civilization hovered in slow motion in the summer sky as a soundtrack from Pink Floyd played. At the end of the movie, we see the red desert sun setting—or perhaps rising—to a Roy Orbison song entitled “So Young” (“Young, so young, love was meant to be wild and free…”).

Antonioni sought to capture the spirit of 1968, but his film failed to capture his audience. In actual fact the great Italian was shooting his protest work for MGM, then Hollywood’s main studio and the epitome of bourgeois decadence.

You can’t even make a Molotov cocktail without cashing a check from your father, as Bernardo Bertolucci’s film about 1968, The Dreamers, showed us. And in Paris, as the political scientist Jan Werner Muller notes, the staunch anti-Americanism of May 1968 eventually ended up in globalization, American style.

In the West, 1968 very soon became an aesthetic protest, one more about lifestyle than about real political change. In 1973, the left-wing intellectual and great film director Pier Paolo Pasolini perceptively noted that the hippie long hair had lost its countercultural meaning. “What was that hair saying? It was saying, ‘I am a bank worker, a student, the son of people who need to make money and who now work for the gas industry, I know Europe, I read, I am a bourgeois and here is my hair that testifies to my international modernity of the privileged kind.’”

The Prague Spring was altogether more serious. Only when the Soviet tanks arrived did it become about the identity of Czechoslovakia. As Milan Kundera wrote in his novel Ignorance: “The country had never been so thoroughly a homeland, or the Czechs so Czech.”

The idea of Alexander Dubček’s reformist government was to create socialism with a human face and bring people’s heart back to where it belonged. It was the true story of the elderly Czech lady who wrote a letter to the Nobel Committee, asking it to award the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Dubček’s predecessor, Antonin Novotny, for “his ability to transplant people’s heart up USSR’s ass.”

They didn’t plan to dismantle socialism, just as the Soviet dissidents, who formed their movement after the arrest of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965, did not think about overthrowing the Soviet regime. They demanded respect for the Soviet constitution and an open trial for the two writers, as well as justice in other cases that were springing up like mushrooms. Unlike their anti-capitalist French and German counterparts, who disdained any democratic procedures, including elections, the Soviet dissenters were not opposed to using institutions of government.

Defense attorneys who made a name for themselves over dissident trials didn’t fight against the Soviet regime, either. Their daring idea was simply to literally interpret the Soviet legislation and constitution. As the famous attorney Dina Kaminskaya wrote in her memoirs, this was the time when merely staying silent would no longer suffice. It was time to speak up.

What happened in the East didn’t resemble the unrest in the West, if only because the price to pay for protesting was much higher. Everyone who took to the streets in a totalitarian state knew that they would be sent straight to jail, in keeping with the teachings of Lenin, Mao, and the other idols of the 1968 Paris protests. Western protesters faced police brutality, but generally when their protests had already turned into street riots.

In Prague, the tanks were a sign of weakness, not strength. As a Czech dissident in Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll explains, “it’s the neighbors worrying about their slaves revolting if we get away with it.” Forty-six years after that, Russia’s current leaders watched Ukraine’s Maidan with horror, the Brezhnev Doctrine was also aimed at avoiding a domino effect. The success of resistance in just one country—especially one as significant as Czechoslovakia—could have inspired liberalization in its neighbors.

The Prague Spring was powerful enough to have a boomerang effect. Twenty years later, one of its young leaders, Václav Havel, became the president of Czechoslovakia.

Nothing of the kind occurred in the West. In a recent interview, French-German politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit—himself a former student protest leader—noted that none of the main figures of the May 1968 protests had ever served in a position of power in France. Capitalism and its elites changed and adapted to the new reality. Bourgeois culture absorbed counterculture, after 1968. This was a matter of adaptation, not decline. The Western world continued to “rot” in prosperity, while the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet bloc collapsed.

At the time, the year 1968 seemed to mark the end of the old Western civilization that had preserved itself after 1945. For sure, the reign of bureaucrats and technocrats, bourgeois complacency, and the consumer society that corrupted the working class were on their way out. But the leaders of May 1968 failed to notice the dawn of a different era in which the Western middle class would later assimilate both the revolutionaries and their counterculture, making them serve the new type of capitalism.

In Central and Eastern Europe, 1989, the year of velvet revolutions, seemed to mark the triumph of liberal values and Western democracy. Its countries threw off the dark shadow of the Soviet Union. The expectation was that this part of the world would no longer suffer from an identity crisis now that democracy, liberalism, and Europe’s military, financial, and structural institutions were all made accessible to it. But now a different era has dawned: the era of populism, for want of a better term. 

It’s not so easy to label the former left and the former right now. The new angry advocates for the old strain of democracy and liberalism are taking to the streets of Warsaw and Budapest, protesting against their own governments, which are practicing a new kind of tyranny under the populist banner. In France, people calling themselves the “Black Bloc” vandalize a McDonald’s and a Renault dealership in Paris, protesting against capitalism just as they did fifty years ago.

Just as in 1968, the Eastern European supporters of universal democratic values appear more noble and peaceful than the Western European protesters unleashing what can only be called mindless chaos. Just as back then, Eastern Europe is seeing anti-totalitarian dissent, while the Western movement is stuck in an old rut. The phrase “history is repeating itself” will no longer do. A new era is unfolding before our eyes. What butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis on both sides of the now invisible Iron Curtain? 

  • Andrei Kolesnikov