Czech historians focus on more than 20 year stay of Soviet army in Czechoslovakia

Czech historian Prokop Tomek is the co-author, together with Ivo Pejčoch, of a new book about the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia that started in August 1968 with the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces and ended in 1991 when the last troops withdrew.

Prokop Tomek,  photo: Jana Chládková
The book could be translated in English as “The Black Book of the Soviet Occupation” with a sub-heading “The Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia and its victims.” In particular it lists some of the deaths resulting from the occupation not just in the early days of opposition but also in the following years, mainly as a result of road accidents involving the occupying force.

The authors say that one of the aims of the book when they started out to put it together was to fill in the many blank spaces and uncertainties concerning the more than 20 year uninvited stay of more than 75,000 troops, their relatives, and military hardware on Czechoslovak soil. Unfortunately though the picture of the everyday life of the Soviet troops in one of the key front line countries in the Cold War still more than a bit hazy with Russian archives and other sources still untapped.

I asked Prokop Tomek, an historian at Prague’s Military History Institute, how the latest book differs from those that have gone before on the Soviet-led invasion, occupation, and withdrawal.

“It is the first book which is focused on the whole period of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Historical books before were almost always focused on the first period, the first months of the occupation in 1968, and also some books related to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1990-1991.”

And what do you think you discovered that has not been discovered so far?

The rate between the crown and the ruble was set at a very, very unrealistic level and it was also one reason why the occupation was very disadvantageous for Czechoslovakia.

“For me and my colleague, the most interesting issue was what the stay of the Soviet troops looked like and the relations between the people, the citizens, and the army. For me that is the most important issue and, let’s say, some development in historical research. We were able to find some facts about casualties during the Soviet stay in Czechoslovakia. I think that is the most important issue.”

Coming back to the start of the occupation, a lot of that was sorting out at first the administrative details, who paid for the occupation, where the troops would be based…How complicated was that both for the Soviet side and the Czechoslovak authorities?

“It was a very complicated development because after the occupation in the autumn of 1968 relations between the Soviet politicians, [Leonid] Brezhnev and other politicians in Moscow, and Czechoslovak politicians like [Alexander] Dubček were very unsettled and the Soviets did not trust their comrades in Czechoslovakia. So it was a very difficult development and in the first months and years relations between Czechoslovak citizens and Soviet troops were, there were a lot of disturbances and a lot of attacks and Soviet politicians were very unhappy about this unrest.”

'The Black Book of the Soviet Occupation'
Regarding the specific details, who actually paid for the occupation?

“We must say that Czechoslovak citizens finally paid for the occupation because according to the treaty which was signed in October 1968 the Soviet side would pay for all the expenses of the stay of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia. But in fact the Soviets used many military bases, barracks, and also flats for relatives of officers, and the Czechoslovak side during all the 20 years of occupation was continually investing in the flats, into the many facilities which were necessary for the stay of the Soviet troops and their relatives and also for military exercises and military training.”

Also, the Soviets set a rather advantageous exchange rate for themselves regarding operations between the two countries if I understand correctly?

“Yes, it is true, the Czechoslovak side sold goods to the Soviet troops and families such as food and other supplies. But the rate between the crown and the ruble was set at a very, very unrealistic level and it was also one reason why the occupation was very disadvantageous for Czechoslovakia. But it is very hard to find final figures to show how much Czechoslovakia paid for the occupation.”

It was for the Soviet Union a very important position and country for a possible war.

One ironic thing, it seems, is that the actual number of Soviet troops was not known until they started leaving?

“It is true that the Czechoslovak side was not well informed about Soviet troops here. It was a secret. But in the time when the withdrawal of troops was happening the Czechoslovak administration knew that there were 75,000 soldiers, about 40,000 relatives and several thousand tanks, heavy weapons, and aircraft.

“It was only one of the Soviet army groups in Europe. It was called the Central Group of Forces in Czechoslovakia. There was also a group in Germany, the northern group in Poland, and the southern group in Hungary. So it was only one part of a wider complex. But it was for the Soviet Union a very important position and country for a possible war.“

Over time, how would you describe the actual relations between the civilians and troops? And is there much information on the troops themselves that you could get to or is it mostly Soviet sources that aren’t so accessible?

There were not that many really good relations between citizens and Soviet troops.

“There are not any accessible sources on the Soviet or Russian side about the inner life of troops. It’s a fact that Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia lived in very closed areas and the bases were closed to citizens. The relationship developed. In the beginning, people were very angry as a result of the occupation and there were a lot of quarrels, fights, and misunderstandings between troops and citizens. But over the years there was political pressure from the Czechoslovak Communist Party which pushed the people to accept the occupation as a friendly act. So on the one side the people showed they were not so angry and that they were friendly to the Soviet troops. There was also cooperation, that is some help given by the Soviet troops, for example in agriculture or construction in Czechoslovakia. And it’s a fact that a lot of people tried to get some benefit, some profit, from the stay of the Soviet troops, for example by black market deals over fuel or coal and other commodities. But it’s true that there were not that many really good relations between citizens and Soviet troops. Only in the areas around the bases were there some normal, let’s say, closer, relations. “