The End of the Prague Spring


“Shoot!” screamed the man in thee blue overalls; Emil Gallo, a municipal plumber in Bratislava, shouted abuse at the crew of a Soveit T-55 tank and tore his shirt open, ready to give his life. The photo, almost a sister image to the Tank Man photo that came out from Beijing 31 years later, was one of the most iconic images of the Prague Spring.

On August 21, 1968, tanks from Russia and four other Warsaw Pact countries rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring – a period of political liberalization under Alexander Dubcek. Ladislav Bielik, the photographer who captured the scene, works for the local newspaper Smena. Together with his colleagues, he printed a clandestine edition of the newspaper with this photo on the front page. A copy of the film reached the German Press Agency on the same day, and the photo was published around the world, although often went falsely or non attributed.

After the revolution failed, Bielik remained in Czechoslovakia, but this meant the end of professional career for this newly-married photographer. He hid his 187 shots from the Revolution in his cellar so well that even the secret police which searched his house several times could not find them. He was dismissed; he continued to work but his photos were not ‘good’, declared the communists. He ended up as a sports photographer and was killed tragically in Budapest in 1984 at a car race. His family rediscovered the negatives after the Fall of Berlin Wall.

As for other players in this drama, Dubcek was forced to withdraw from the public life but lived to see the collapse of the Evil Empire he once opposed. Gallo, a father of four, committed suicide three years after the photo was taken for personal reasons. For other photos Bielik took during the Prague Spring, see here.

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