Alfonso Modonesi and the tale of a trip to Czechoslovakia with Carlo Leidi at the beginning of Normalization

“As soon as we passed the Czechoslovakian border, we thought we would find Russians everywhere, in the streets, in the offices, in the Prague buildings, but nothing. There were many checks at the Austrian border, some Cyrillic writing, silence somewhere between disturbing and discreet: the Russians, in fact, were all there. It is not known, whether due to slyness or logistical necessity, that they were taking up quarters around the capital”.

The testimony comes from Alfonso Modonesi, aged 80, the Italian photographer of Prague 1968, “of Autumn, not Spring”, he is keen to point out, but also of the May 68’ in France, and a hundred other great services.

On that occasion, he went to Czechoslovakia, occupied two months earlier by Soviet soldiers, and with him was Carlo Leidi, a great notary from Bergamo, a traveler-thinker-patron who passed away a few years ago, with whom Modonesi divided the historical photographic reportage of October ‘68.

The Italian Cultural Institute in Prague celebrates them both , with a major event, organized in 2018 for the fiftieth anniversary of the historical and dramatic events that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The exhibition, set up in the prestigious spaces of the Baroque Chapel and the Chapter House, also includes snapshots from the Czech photographer Pavel Šticha and the Swedish Sune Jonsson.

- How was the idea of that Prague trip born?

“Everything happened so simply”, explains Modonesi. “We proposed the idea to Tommaso Giglio, director of the weekly magazine L’Europeo, with whom I collaborated. Giglio was an atypical communist, he came from the Unità (newspaper of Italian Communist party – the PCI), but had left the PCI after The Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Initially, he reacted with hesitancy, the Soviet invasion took place in August, so Czechoslovakia was heading then towards the destiny of normalization, but then Giglio also understood the importance of recounting what was happening, and the atmosphere that was breathed in the city”.

- How did you get an entry visa?

“The official reason for our visit was the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic, on October 28, 1968, and therefore formally we arrived almost as simple tourists. I was shooting photos for L’Europeo, while my friend Carlo Leidi collaborated with the Historia magazine. Carlo, at that time, was enrolled in the Italian Communist Party and I must say, that despite being an excellent photographer, in coming to Prague he had above all a political interest, he wanted to understand what was happening, what opinions people had”.

A strange couple of “tourists”, in short, for a country still in a highly agitated state: the left-wing Catholic, and the “atypical” Communist, two natives of Bergamo, recovering the traces of an event that would leave its mark in the history of Europe.

In Prague Husák’s “normalization” was yet to arrive, but the signals of return to alignment and Soviet orthodoxy were multiplying: “The paradox that struck us”, continues Modonesi, “was above all the atmosphere of the magical city. We expected a devastated centre, chipped buildings, burnt houses, barriers and barbed wire everywhere. Yet, apart from a few buildings hit by bullets, such as the main building of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square, there was none of this: the Czechs reacted with a deafening silence to the Soviet invasion and the sister countries, as they called themselves”.

The photos of the Leidi-Modonesi duo were diffused around the world, and had a great impact: “Carlo and I were fortunate amateurs” explains the artist, “having grown up with the myth of the “told image”, of the “slow” journalism of “Life”. Beautiful stories of men, and of personalities. And we were alongside giants of the profession as Gianni Berengo Gardin, Ferdinando Scianna, and even Gianfranco Moroldo. For the weeklies such as L’Europeo it was fine, the newspaper was born precisely for long reports, photographers (I am speaking of half a century ago) in the editorial staff had the same respect, the same consideration of journalists. I could exchange opinions and maybe clash with Enzo Biagi, Guido Gerosa, or Giancarlo Fusco: and this happened on an equal footing, we worked together with great spirit of collaboration, something frankly inconceivable today”.

Then, the encounter with the Prague reality: “We wanted to meet Alexander Dubček, the “fallen” leader, at all costs, but there was no way during those ten days of our stay, and it is worth mentioning that our interpreter-guide, Jitka, was a well-known character in that turbulent Prague, having been a national basketball player, who understood Russian and German. We did meet Josef Smrkovský however, who seemed to be the most “revolutionary” of all. It was not possible to meet the Czechoslovak president Ludvík Svoboda, whom we had sought to contact through an acquaintance of Carlo, and we could not even trace Dubček, who was totally unreachable, as if a barrier separated him from the rest of the world”.

- Did not you feel the seriousness of the moment, the tension in your interlocutors?

“Yes and no, this was the paradox, something quite surreal. It was possible for the police to stop you, and question you for three hours just for taking an “unseemly” picture, maybe of a soldier in the centre, in Wenceslas Square. However, you could easily stroll around the countryside, the agricultural cooperatives, and the peasants, and the workers declared themselves to be for Dubček, for the government of Spring: this Czechoslovakian revolution was the last one “in favour of the government”, and not against”. Modonesi recalls.

“Perhaps, since we were in October of ‘68, the “normalization” was not fully realized yet, and the Soviets themselves had to take the exact pulse of the situation. We also went to the ČKD, the factory where in the days of the Soviet invasion the 14th clandestine congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was held.
We managed to get the photos to Italy thanks to the Alitalia staff, who did not search through them, and we entrusted with our rolls of film”.

- Do you meet Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer who became famous precisely for his photos of Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague?

“Not during our visit in October 1968, but Koudelka was no stranger to us, as we got to know him earlier, when our city, Bergamo, organized an exhibition of international photography, “Europa 1968”.It was indeed that young Czechoslovak photographer, who won the first prize for his reportage made about the Roma communities of Slovakia. Let’s say the truth: Koudelka had already done the job for everyone during the days of the invasion. In August ‘68, as said later, the journalists and western photographers present on the spot were very few. Among the Italians, perhaps only Enzo Bettiza, Lino Jannuzzi and the correspondent of “l’Unità” were there when the tanks arrived. So everyone, inevitably, used his shots, in those days signed only with the pseudonym P.P., “Prague Photographer”. Koudelka was a master in telling stories through images, he had a sense of great reportage. On that occasion he did it suddenly, pushed by sensitivity for an unrepeatable event. Carlo Leidi also looked at him admiringly”.

- You were also the witness of another ‘68, that of the French May…

“The two revolutions had nothing in common: those who compared them have made a great falsification”. Modonesi then clarifies “The May of Paris was essentially a “bourgeois” revolution, made up of university students and intellectuals. In fact, the real France, did not understand it, and almost dismissed it after a short time. In Prague and its surroundings, there were also intellectuals, and informative magazines, but soon the Spring became a movement of people, of ordinary people. You could interview any citizen and they all said the same things: “We want a socialism with a human face, we are not against the Russians. We want reforms in the economy, the abolition of censorship, freedom to travel abroad”. But we are and remain communists. Carlo was amazed and indignant: how could you crush such an orderly protest? That experience in Prague was decisive for the political choices that led him to leaving the Communist Party, and after a few months founding the newspaper il Manifesto”.

- Did you happen to meet collaborators, Czechs siding with the Russians?

“Things were quite blurred, there was the possibility of talking to them on the already “normalized” television, but Carlo refused in disgust. The only active collaborators were German DDR officials. We met them in offices, in hotels, we saw them everywhere They seemed to be shocked by the situation, the interpreter Jitka translated their speeches. They seemed more orthodox than the Russian invaders themselves: I could not understand … Years later I went to the DDR and it started to make sense. There was still a martial climate, and East Berlin was still displaying all the ruins from the Second World War, a gloomy, oppressive atmosphere for everyone that explained many things”.

- Did you come back to magical Prague?

“Several times, especially Carlo. He also came a few months later, it was January 1969, and there was Jan Palach’s funeral, that long and dignified procession in the centre of the capital, then the flight of intellectuals, a very heavy climate. On other occasions, Carlo wrote for Il Manifesto, but I went only after the fall of the Husák regime. The long winter of repression had prepared the flowers of freedom, but the seeds of those flowers, I am sure, were always those of the Spring of 1968”.

by Ernesto Massimetti