It’s 50 years this month since the Soviet Union abruptly ended the Prague Spring. On August 21, 1968 Alexander Dubček’s newly introduced liberal regime with a free press, no travel restrictions and a partially decentralised economy was brought crashing down. By coincidence, just hours after Russian tanks rolled into the then Czechoslovak capital, the USSR State Symphony Orchestra took to the stage at the Proms. Evgeny Svetlanov conducted a programme that included a Czech masterwork, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, played by Mstislav Rostropovich.

During a public discussion at this year’s Proms, I was able to speak about that memorable evening with the Czech-born journalist Sir John Tusa. Tusa, a junior BBC employee at the time, listened to the live broadcast. As was still the tradition, it began with God Save the Queen. Then the orchestra immediately crashed into the bombastic, brassy Soviet anthem. ‘‘It felt like a clear statement,’’ Tusa remembers. ‘‘ ‘We are strong, we are powerful, we are stronger than you.’ The sound of that anthem brought the fact brutally home.’’

Svetlanov enjoyed close links with the Soviet high command; his musicians were kept in line by KGB officers prowling the backstage corridors of the Royal Albert Hall. But the soloist was less controllable. At the end of the concerto, Rostropovich lifted Dvorak’s score into the air, in what was immediately interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the Czechoslovak people.

The Moscow-born musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker thinks that night was the moment Rostropovich was radicalised against the USSR; soon afterwards he angered the authorities by offering shelter to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 1974 he left the Soviet Union for good, his citizenship withdrawn four years later.

Although there were angry protests before the 1968 concert, when Svetlanov raised his baton the audience listened to the music in respectful silence. Many Prommers would have watched the invasion earlier in the day. Czechoslovak state television broadcast live coverage; the Soviets failed to cut the link to Vienna, from where the images were broadcast around the world. As the Guardian’s television critic Stanley Reynolds wrote the next day: ‘‘Thus what had been television’s first revolution ended with what was television’s first invasion.”


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