Klara Rihakova (Northumbria) examines transnational student activism in the Prague Spring of 1968

My BA project examines the transnational elements of student activism in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and the role that Czechoslovak students played in the period preceding the social and political events of the Prague Spring as well as the disappointment following the crisis of August 1968.

Drawing on a range of contemporary newspapers and government documents from British and Czech archives as well as student magazines, the project aims to cover opportunities for interaction between Czechoslovak and British students, mostly at international youth events and national celebrations or conferences. In doing so, it will take into account connections between the National Union of Students (NUS) in the United Kingdom and its Czechoslovak counterpart. At the same time, the project will draw attention to Czechoslovak students who studied or found exile in Britain both before and after 1968. Moreover, the dissertation will highlight the responses of the British student body to the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion. As a whole, my study aims to argue that despite the ‘Iron Curtain’, Czechoslovak students were part of a wider, transnationally dynamic phenomenon of the student activism that covered diverse political persuasions.

View of The National Archives
The National Archives.

The bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History allowed me to undertake three separate trips to archives across England. First, the research took me on a three-day visit to The National Archives in Kew, London. There I had a chance to look at valuable documentation produced by the Foreign Office and the British Council regarding Cultural Exchanges as well as visa correspondence. This material is vital for my project as it demonstrates opportunities for Czechoslovak and British students in establishing transnational networks throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but which became especially handy after the August 1968 invasion by the armies of the Warsaw pact. For instance, it is evident from the archival material that university student exchange and summer camps were resuming during the early 1960s (having been disrupted in the aftermath of the communist coup d’état in 1948). [1]

View of the Labour History Archive & Study Centre
Labour History Archive & Study Centre.

During my second trip, I visited Labour History Archive & Study Centre in Manchester. Research at this archive enabled me to view magazines about Czechoslovakia which were in circulation in the United Kingdom. For instance, the Czechoslovak Digest contains general information about the country, such as political or economic situation, or Czechoslovak Youth which is a great source for case studies of students who were stranded in the United Kingdom after the August crisis.[2] Furthermore, the holdings also enabled me to access material from the Morning Star allowing me to consider representations of the Czechoslovak student movement within the British communist press.

View of the Modern Records Centre
Modern Records Centre.

My last trip took me to Warwick University in Coventry where the Modern Records Centre is located. The documents that I looked at mostly concerned the so-called Czechoslovak Student Fund which was established with the help of the National Union of Students as an aid to students who had to stay in Britain after the invasion. Thanks to this material, I will argue that the transnational connections which the students established, proved to be invaluable.[3] Additionally, although The Student – a magazine associated with the International Student Conference – did not contain as much information on views that the British student body held on the Czechoslovak student movement as I had anticipated, it has opened up an opportunity to evaluate my, perhaps too hasty, assumptions and conclusions.

Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Society for the Study of Labour History for this bursary. It has enabled me to go the extra mile in my research and find sources that are vital for my dissertation. Not only has it covered the cost of trips but also the fees for photocopying the material and delivery of a document relating to a travelling scholarship through Czechoslovakia from the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.[4] I am confident that the material gathered with the Society’s support will allow me to produce an interesting dissertation.

Klara Rihakova is a student of English Literature and History at Northumbria University

[1] The National Archives, Kew (hereafter: TNA), BW 27/28, ‘UK-Czechoslovakia Programme of Cultural Exchanges 1964-1965’, 1964.

[2] Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester (hereafter: LHASC), CP/CENT/INT/35/05, ‘Mostly cuttings, pamphlets and reports re Czechoslovakia incl material on student movement and 10th congress of International Union of Students’, 1965-70.

[3] Modern Records Centre, Warwick University (hereafter: MRC), MSS.280/29/1, ‘Czechoslovak Student Fund’, 1968-71.

[4] Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, MNHD0018, ‘Book describing a visit taken by the travelling scholarship through Czechoslovakia’, 1969.

Find out more about SSLH bursaries.