In May 1968 the Prague office of Izvestia gained a new employee. “Although I did not understand what this new colleague was supposed to do, I was not interested in that. It was better to mind your own business,” recalls Vladen Krivosheev, Izvestia’s Prague correspondent at that time. “Then I got a second company car, a new Volga, and my new colleague started to use it.”
Few weeks later the Czechoslovakian press reported a discovery of a secret arsenal in Western Bohemia. “Weapons allegedly belonging to counter-revolutionaries were found under a bridge; there was even an appropriate photo,” says Krivosheev. “But it was enough to take a good look to see that these were old guns wrapped in rags. It looked odd, silly.”
Czech journalists quickly established that a Volga car was seen in the vicinity of the bridge on that day. One of them called Krivosheev and said, “Listen to me, have you recently been in Western Bohemia?” He denied, but the caller insisted: “Your car was seen there.” “How come?” asked the correspondent of the Soviet daily, “it is parked in front of my house.” “But you have two cars, and the second one was there.”“I immediately realized that my new colleague must have been involved,” Krivosheev admitted many years later.
The Izvestia journalist guessed that his new co-worker was a KGB officer. He realized, too, that the KGB activities where preparations for a military intervention. “From May or June 1968 it was clear that the invasion was only a matter of time,” he recalled in an interview published in the book 1968 Invasion: the Russian Perspective (2011), edited by the Czech TV correspondent in Moscow (and more recently in Warsaw and Ukraine) Josef Pazderka. But what alarmed him the most was that the Soviets apparently were happy to see anything that might indicate a threat of a “counter-revolution” in Czechoslovakia. He could not understand why this was happening. What interest the Kremlin could possibly have in stirring up emotions in a “brotherly country”?
A document discovered in Leonid Brezhnev’s desk after his death (and disclosed in 1995 by Izvestia) says literally: “The political situation in Czechoslovakia is now [that is, in the spring of 1968] relatively complicated—it must be made even more complicated [sic!]. To do this, a wide range of special disinformation actions must be taken.” In May 1968 the KGB was headed by one of the most influential members of the Soviet leadership, Yuri Andropov. He was the mastermind behind the operation, carried out with a flourish.
KGB was given the task to heat up the mood in Czechoslovakia, to fabricate evidence of the existence of a “right-wing opposition,”“armed counter-revolution,”“revanchist elements,” etc. “A profusion of civic initiatives and critique of Stalinism was interpreted as evidencing sinister plans aimed at tearing Czechoslovakia away from the socialist camp,” says Nikita Petrov, a historian of the “Memorial” Association. During the night of 20th August 1968, three-hundred-thousand strong Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia. A month after the invasion Pravda published a programmatic article entitled “Sovereignty Versus Internationalist Obligations of the Socialist Countries.” It says that the security interest of the “socialist community” is more important than the interests of its individual members, and therefore “you cannot oppose the sovereignty of individual socialist countries to the interests of world socialism.” Soon, the Western media have described this text as the “Brezhnev doctrine.”
The Soviet leader was triumphant. First, he consolidated his position in the Kremlin (Brezhnev took power in autumn 1964 as a result of an internal party coup against Khrushchev). Second, he filled a yawning gap in the western flank of the Warsaw Pact (between the Soviet Northern Group of Forces stationed in Poland and Southern Group of Forces in Hungary—as early as 1966 Brezhnev demanded from Antonín Novotný, the then Czechoslovakian leader, to allow the deployment of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia). Third, he introduced new rules to the game regarding the relations of the Communist Bloc with the West. During a meeting of the CPSU Central Committee in October 1968, he unequivocally commented on the reaction of European capitals to the occupation of Czechoslovakia: “The protests voiced by the governments of these countries have, in fact, been purely formal, symbolic. They do not have a slightest impact on our relations, including economic ones. Now no one can doubt that when the CPSU and the Soviet Union say that they are definitely ready to prevent even a single element of the socialist chain from dropping out, it is not just empty propaganda.”
On the other hand, hopes for help from the West—entertained by many residents of Central Europe—proved futile. “The ‘bourgeois world’ wanted only one thing: stability,” believes the Russian historian Olga Pavlenko. “In such circumstances, Moscow had a free hand within its sphere of influence.”
Of course, the methods of provocation and disinformation tested almost half a century ago are strikingly similar to the methods currently used by the Kremlin against Kiev. But more important is that—like then—the “bourgeois world” wants only one thing: stability. The situation of the West is indeed in many ways more difficult than in 1968. First, the subsequent acts of the Middle Eastern drama going on since 2003 are more of a challenge and threat to the security of Europe than the Vietnam War ever was for America. Second, students, leftists, baby-boom generation pacifists and their Eastern European peers—dissidents— who are “demanding the impossible,” have been replaced in the West by anti-European nationalists and Islam-haters, and in the East by advocates of financial oligarchy and supporters of “illiberal democracy.” Third, since the 9/11 attacks America sees Russia as a necessary element stabilizing the world order—and in the Kremlin they know it and draw appropriate conclusions.
But the biggest problem is the hubris of the leaders of the major powers. This hubris makes them sit at a separate table even at formal dinners, consuming caviar and champagne among themselves. “I could not drive away a quite crazy thought that at this particular table they would again chop all of us sitting at other tables like sprats, without asking us for our opinion,” said Vaclav Havel at Harvard in 1995. “But hubris is what leads the world into hell. I would suggest something else: a humble responsibility for the world.”
Today, a humble responsibility for the world would require from the leaders of states and societies in Central Europe a joint reflection on the future of the region. True, such a postulate sounds completely unrealistic, naive, ridiculous even. But that is our problem, not of the superpowers. There is no Big Brother you can blame your own stupidity on.
PS. Václav Burian, my friend, poet and translator, editor of the bimonthly Listy, one of the leaders and perhaps the last Mohican of cooperation in Central Europe, died suddenly on 9th October 2014 in Vienna. He was 55. He contributed to Aspen Review from the start, he wrote an extensive review for the previous issue. I hoped that from then on he would find the time to publish regularly on the pages of the “competition”… But he got a better deal from the Editor of Human Souls… Goodbye to you, Vašek.
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