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Czech Republic: 1968 Viewed From The Occupiers' Perspective

By Matt Frost/Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Thirty years after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, many of the main political actors in the drama are no longer alive.

An abundance of published material exists detailing the Czechoslovak reactions to the events of 1968 but relatively little material has been made available in recent times of the invaders' views.

A series of interviews with some of the participants by Czech TV has been made available to RFE/RL. The interviews were conducted at the beginning of this year. The interviewees included two senior Soviet generals who led the invasion forces; a CPSU Central Committee member responsible for relations with Socialist countries, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his former senior advisor Aleksandr Yakovlev.

What emerges most clearly from the interviews is the degree to which Alexander Dubcek and the Czechoslovak Communist leadership had been naive.

It was indeed an irony that Dubcek had spent much of his youth in the Soviet Union and was well liked by the Soviet Communist elite. Leonid Brezhnev himself took part in the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 and one of the generals he sent to crush the Prague Spring also fondly remembers the warm reception given to the Soviets by the Czechs and Slovaks at the end of World War II.

Dubcek thought all that mattered. When the tanks rolled into Prague, he is reported to have gasped, "How could they do this to ME?"

But, as the following interviews indicate, none of the personal ties mattered much. The Soviet Union's leaders could not afford to be sentimental and they had no illusions about the mechanism of Soviet power and its exigencies. They clearly saw the danger of allowing policies to be dictated from below and the potential challenge that the Prague Spring posed not only to the Czechoslovak Communist Party, but to the Soviet Union's entire Eastern European empire.

Konstantin Katushev, the Soviet Union's Central Committee Secretary for Socialist Countries in 1968, says in the interviews the decision to invade was necessary because of pressures from leaders of other Warsaw Pact countries.

With censorship gone and the instruments of coercion withdrawn, the Soviets believed, according to the interviews, that the Czechs and Slovaks would not be satisfied with "Socialism with a Human Face" for very long. Nor with the country's colonial arrangement with the Soviet Union within the Warsaw Pact. That belief was reinforced with the publication of Ludvik Vaculik's 2,000 Word declaration in June 1968, which directly challenged the Communist Party's leading role in Czechoslovakia.

In the interviews, Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, say that at the time Vaculik's words were viewed as "counter-revolutionary." And as Gorbachev would learn a generation later, reforming the Soviet system indeed meant relinquishing the Soviet empire.

The events of 1968 shattered many illusions about Socialism and the Soviet system -- both in Czechoslovakia and in the West. But what remains interesting is the way some leading Soviet participants to this day reflect on them. Whether they see the invasion as a necessary evil or condemn it, whether they profess to like the Czechs and Slovaks or dismiss them, they still see them as Russia's "little Slavic brothers" and misjudge, to a large extent, the impact of the invasion and the 40 years of Soviet domination on the Czech and Slovak psyche.

One of the Soviet generals who led the invasion says that he still has many Czech friends, who continue to thank him for his role during World War II. To him, 1968 was a necessary correction, to set the Czechs and Slovaks on the right path, and he says many Czechs and Slovaks now understand this.

Katushev points to the large amount of Soviet investment into the Czechoslovak economy, which followed the 1968 invasion, while Gorbachev, who condemns the invasion, still faults the Czechoslovak leadership for not consulting closely enough with Moscow on its reform plan. Had they been more submissive, he suggests, perhaps Moscow could have pointed Czechoslovakia in the right direction without occupying the country.

But as has been demonstrated with many other empires, whether British, Spanish, French or Portuguese, their collapse may be relatively quick, but getting used to their absence takes a lot longer. And the consequences of collapsed empires can haunt the mother country for years after that.

As the Russian historian Rudolf Pikhoia says in the interviews:

"One of the main and unfortunate consequences of 1968 is that it opened the way for NATO's latter-day expansion to the is the price for Russia's past imperial ambitions."

Alexander Dubcek's attempts to create "socialism with a human face" are often seen as historical and ideological fore-runners to Gorbachev's reform policies of glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s. Gorbachev himself clearly identifies with Dubcek in the interviews, saying Dubcek suffered the fate of all true reformers.

Gorbachev seems characteristically undecided about whether the Prague Spring could have been saved. He says "Dubcek was a serious person," adding: He believed he could build socialism with a human face. I have only a good opinion of him." Gorbachev, speaking in his trade-mark third person, notes that:

"The problem of Dubcek was the same as the problem of Gorbachev -- we did not have the benefit of experience in transferring to a different model of liberal democracy."

But at the same time, Gorbachev reiterates the party line that the departure of Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw pact was totally inadmissible - indicating that no matter how much experience Dubcek might have had, it probably wouldn't have saved Czechoslovakia from the invasion.

Gorbachev says one of Dubcek's greatest mistakes was not developing better relations with the Soviet leadership to gain prior approval for his reform package. Gorbachev's emphasis on getting approval from Moscow appears to be a reflection of the former Soviet Union's colonial attitude.

Gorbachev does admit some shame at his own role in 1968 and describes how the experience changed him.

In 1969, Gorbachev carried out propaganda work in Czechoslovakia, where he was to reorganize the party, and in particular youth organizations which had strayed far from the party line during the reform period.

He recalls the intensity of anti-Soviet sentiment in the country, describing his visit to one factory near Brno:

"We walked among people with their backs turned to us. Not one face greeted us, not one person turned around. It was like walking through a furniture store...The trip to Czechoslovakia opened my eyes. I saw that we had humiliated a nation."

Gorbachev concludes that by not allowing the reform movement in Czechoslovakia to proceed, the Soviet Union had missed a great chance:

"What took place in Czechoslovakia was not the same as what took place in Hungary. It was not a counter-revolution....If we had given them the chance to realize these reforms it could have led to the opening of doors for the reforms in other countries..."

Gorbachev says one profound effect of his Czechoslovak experience -- which was to have repercussions some twenty years later when the specter of intervention in Eastern Europe again became a very real possibility -- was that once he became General Secretary he vowed "never to interfere in the affairs of other communist parties in the Socialist camp."

Aleksandr Yakovlev, former senior advisor to Gorbachev, and a key reformist figure of the Soviet Union's "perestroika" era, was flown to Prague on the evening of August 22 - just a day after the invasion. Yakovlev says his mission was to coordinate the activity of a group of Soviet journalists covering the events for the official Soviet media.

But others say Yakovlev was in fact charged with coordinating the broadcasting and publishing of Soviet propaganda. He pleads innocence, saying such activities were coverted by the military and other departments, and pointing to his total "lack of any technical ability."

For someone identified with bold revelations during the Gorbachev era about past Soviet crimes and repressions, Yakovlev's memory on the topic of 1968 is strangely fuzzy. At first, Yakovlev says that in retrospect, he views the Soviet-led intervention critically.

"The reason (for the invasion) was stupidity and the absence of any analysis or perspective...why keep Czechoslovakia by force under our regime? "

Yakovlev notes that at the time, by his count, 90 percent of the Soviet people were against what happened. All the Soviet journalists, "down to the last man," he states, were against the occupation.

But he hastens to add that "at the time, we didn't understand a lot." And as for any guilt, Yakovlev feels none and the question angers him:

"It's not all so clear...and if you're looking for guilty parties, look for them in your own country...that's always the thing to do. When people start to tell me that Russia is guilty for this, and that, I always tell them: my dears, look for everything at home - in your own history, behavior, for it at home."

One other thing is clear to Yakovlev. When asked whether Czechoslovakia should have offered resistance to the invasion, Yakovlev answers with a resounding "no".

"I am certain that had there been any military resistance on the part of the Czechoslovaks, that our military people would have been delighted to give the West a lesson at Czechoslovakia's expense ... It would have led to humiliation and death, death, death."

In many respects, Konstantin Katushev, the Soviet Union's Central Committee Secretary for Socialist Countries at that time, most clearly expresses Moscow's viewpoint at the time.

While Gorbachev attempts to shrug off any sense of individual or collective moral responsibility for the crushing of the Prague Spring, and draws a mixed lesson from the events, Katushev explains it all straightforwardly.

Katushev, who became the Central Committee's Secretary for Socialist Countries in April 1968, states that, contrary to later speculation, there was no difference of opinion within the ranks of the Soviet Politburo on the decision to invade Czechoslovakia. From Leonid Brezhnev, to Nikolai Podgorny and Alexei Kosygin, all were united in the belief that they could not allow Czechoslovakia to become the weak link in the Warsaw Pact.

Podgorny was Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and Kosygin was prime minister.

"The versions now making the rounds, that the Politburo was not of one mind regarding Czechoslovakia, do not correspond to what I saw and took part in. And I was close to those who took the decisions -- I mean Brezhnev, Podgorny and Kosygin and the other Politburo members. There were no dissenting voices...."

Katushev also describes the pressure that Brezhnev was under from the other leaders of Warsaw Pact countries, who saw their own regimes threatened by the liberalization movement in Czechoslovakia.

If the Socialist camp was to collapse because of the winds of change emanating from Czechoslovakia, it would be the leaders of Hungary, Poland and East Germany who would feel the effects first.

"The decision (to invade) was necessary because our allies were even more worried than we were by what was going on in Prague. (Polish leader) Gomulka, (GDR leader) Ulbricht, (Bulgarian leader) Zhivkov, even (Hungarian leader) Kadar, all assessed the Prague Spring very negatively."

In the end, Katushev says, the decision to crush the Prague Spring was inescapable.

"The decision was necessary...The decision was very tough, and all who took it realized that this action was taken in relation to a people, the Czechs and Slovaks, who had the most friendly ties with Russia and the Soviets. We were fellow Slavs, bound by a long and friendly history. "

As he points out, in the end, it did not matter. Dubcek only understood this in Moscow after the invasion, but it was already too late.