As far as I know, I was the only foreign photographer who was in Prague at the time of the Russian invasion, other than the German photographer Hilmer Pabel, who was working on a movie. I got in when everybody else was turned back, thanks to a bit of chat at the border, and some luck.
Everybody knew something was going to happen. I had a visa prepared but nothing happened and then my visa expired. I had a call from my then bureau chief in Paris to say that the Russians were moving into Czechoslovakia, and did I want to go? He said Don McCullin’s already on his way, and that was like a red rag to a bull for me, so I said “I’m on my way!”
I went to the Czech embassy, got a visa, and by the time I got to Heathrow, the flight to Vienna–the obvious place to fly to–was full. But, next best thing, I got on a flight to Munich, rented a car, drove towards the border, where there was a crowd of journalists, who said, “They’re just turning everybody back, you won’t get in.”
"Apart from the officers, most of the Russian soldiers didn’t know where they were; they thought they were in Germany"
- Ian Berry
I had read on the plane that there was going to be an architect’s conference happening in Prague. I came to the border, and just as I got there, the Russians took over. I think the Russian officer wanted to show the Czechs that he was in charge, and I told him that I was going to this architects’ conference, even though I had camera bags in the back seat of the car. He wanted to show them, so he waved me in–and I was the only one to get in.
As I was driving, tanks were coming the other way. I checked into the main hotel there, but the problem was everything was closed. For four days the hotel restaurant was closed, the kitchen was closed. Everything was shut down. I couldn’t get anything to eat, and I don’t speak Czech.
I was just shooting in the street while all of this was going on, the Russians coming in and the Czechs were protesting against them. Apart from the officers, most of the Russian soldiers didn’t know where they were; they thought they were in Germany.
I had two cameras under my coat. I always have my jacket too big for that reason. And I just shot whatever was going on. If the Russians saw you, they would chase you, fire over your head. We would run, and the Czech crowd would fall in behind you to block the Russians following you. You’d run off down the street and somebody would grab you into a house. They just chased people. That happened to me two or three times.
"You’d run off down the street and somebody would grab you into a house"
- Ian Berry
Apart from Pabel, and Czech photographers, of course, including Josef Koudelka, I had this story to myself. That was it for three or four days, and then I had a guarantee for Paris Match, so I had to file. On the fourth day other people started to get in so I left. I put all of my film in the hubcaps of my Volkswagen Beetle and inside the door panels, but when I came to the border the Russians didn’t look at me, they just waved me straight out.
"It was night and I hadn’t slept for three or four days, so I fell asleep and wound up in a ditch "
- Ian Berry
It was night and I hadn’t slept for three or four days, so I fell asleep and wound up in a ditch in the car. Luckily, a farmer came by, went and got his tractor to pull me out and that was it – I went on to Munich. The car was a bit bent.
I caught a flight out and made the Paris Match deadline.