Dubcek and Brezhnev: the last conversation

Alexander Dubcek, Leonid Brezhnev

35 years ago just before midnight on 20th August 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, bringing the brief reforms of the Prague Spring to an abrupt and violent end, shattering the dreams of the reformist leader Alexander Dubcek and millions of Czechs and Slovaks. Dubcek had grown up in the Soviet Union, believed passionately in the ideals of communism, and was sincere in his dream of "socialism with a human face". But Dubcek was also naïve. He never dreamed that his beloved Soviet Union would resort to invading his homeland, to halt the process of reform. A week before that nightmare became a reality the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev phoned Dubcek from Yalta in the Crimea. The two spoke together in Russian, their last conversation before the occupation.

Brezhnev:"Alexander Stepanovich, I need to talk to you urgently. I rang first thing this morning, and throughout the day, but you were in Karlovy Vary the whole time. Then you tried to call me, but I was speaking with my comrades, but now I am back."

For nearly thirty years nobody knew what was said during the two men's 80 minute conversation, but in 1994 the chief archivist of the Russian Federation uncovered the transcript of the conversation and made it available to Czech historians. In this programme we'll be dramatizing parts of this extraordinary and unnerving exchange, which remains largely unknown beyond a small circle of historians.

The conversation took place some two weeks after the Czechoslovak and Soviet leadership had held a crisis meeting in the Slovak-Ukrainian border town of Cierna nad Tisou. Brezhnev had insisted on broad purges in the party leadership and in the media. For Brezhnev the growing freedom of the Czechoslovak press and television was a particular bugbear. He warned Dubcek again a couple of days later in Bratislava, reinforced by the presence of the leaders of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the German Democratic Republic. Dubcek, through weakness or an awareness of his own powerlessness, put up little resistance.

Then, on the 13th August, Brezhnev phoned Prague. After the usual formalities he accused Dubcek of ignoring the resolutions of the two meetings and of giving the Czechoslovak media - or as he put it, the organs of mass propaganda - a free rein. We join the conversation with Dubcek trying to justify his position:

Dubcek:"Leonid Ilyich, we have been working on these things and will continue to do so. As far as I know there have in recent days been no further attacks in the press on the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet Union and other socialist countries."

Brezhnev:"What are you talking about, when literally all the papers, Literarni listy, Mlada fronta, Reporter, Prace, are coming up every day with anti-Soviet, anti-party articles?"

Dubcek:"That was before the Bratislava meeting. It wasn't afterwards."

Brezhnev:"What do you mean, before Bratislava, when only five days ago an article appeared in Literarni listy that was an aggressive attack on the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet Union and all our brother socialist states? That was on 8th August - after we met in Bratislava."

Dubcek: "We have held a meeting with press representatives. We condemned the unsuitable work of reporters from the papers you speak of, and we agreed to put a stop to all polemical articles."

Brezhnev: "But Sasha, the problem isn't in that fact that you met with journalists. We came to an agreement when we met. We agreed that all mass media, the press, radio, television, will be brought under the control of the central committee of the Communist Party and the government, and after Bratislava, that all anti-Soviet and anti-socialist publications will be stopped. In the Soviet Union, we are keeping our side of the deal and are not engaging in any open criticism of Czechoslovakia. But as far as the Czechoslovak organs of mass communication are concerned, they are continuing unhindered to attack the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet Union and there have even been cases of attacks on leading figures in our party. They are calling us Stalinists and things like that. I ask you, what is that supposed to mean?"

Dubcek responds with silence. As the conversation goes on, Brezhnev's tone gets more aggressive. Again he wants to know why the reformists have not yet been purged from leading positions. Dubcek's justification, on the basis that decisions have to be taken collectively, is worlds away from the simple, unbending truths of real-socialism, Brezhnev-style.

Dubcek:"Leonid Ilyich, this issue cannot just be solved by a directive from above, coming into effect everywhere at once. We have to wait until both Slovaks and Czechs have agreed to a suitable solution. That's why the party leadership can only solve this question by telling the government and the minister to prepare suitable arguments for a final solution to be carried out a little later."

Brezhnev:"How much later?"

Dubcek:"In October, the end of October."

Brezhnev: "What can I say, Sasha? This is nothing but more deception. This is more proof that you are deceiving us. I can't put it any other way. I will speak quite bluntly: if you prove unable to solve this question, then it seems to me that your party leadership is no longer in control."

Dubcek: "But this isn't deception. We are trying to fulfil the obligations to which we committed ourselves. But in a way that is possible in the current complex situation."

Brezhnev: "But understand that this situation - your stubborn attitude towards the commitments we made at Cierna nad Tisou - changes things completely. We must take issue with this and have no choice but to reassess the situation and take new, independent measures."

Dubcek: "Comrade Brezhnev, take whatever measures your politburo considers fit."

Brezhnev: "If you answer me like that then I have no choice but to tell you, Sasha, that that was an ill-considered statement."

Dubcek:"I can´t give you any other answer. We are trying our hardest to put into place the agreements we reached, but we can't do it just in ten days or a week. We have done all we can. What can you possibly do in such a short time? This is a complex process, which concerns the whole party, the whole country, the whole nation. The party has to get control of these processes, to lead the whole country in the process of building a socialist society. That's where we see our debt, that's where we see our obligation, but that's not possible in the short time you are giving me, comrade Brezhnev. With all responsibility I am telling you that if you do not believe us, if you consider us to be crooks then take whatever measures your politburo considers necessary."

We know only too well what those measures taken by the politburo were. At the time of Brezhnev's phone call, 100 000 Warsaw Pact troops were already massed close to the Czechoslovak border, waiting for Kremlin orders.

Dubcek was powerless, trapped on the one hand by his broken faith in the Soviet Union, and on the other by the unyielding, bullying power of his one-time friend Brezhnev. As the conversation continues Dubcek's answers to Brezhnev's questions become gradually more repetitive and incoherent, and as we hear in this last extract, Dubcek is increasingly unable to control his emotions. Brezhnev preserves an icy cool.

Brezhnev: "Alexander Stepanovich, I'm sorry that you are getting so upset. In important matters emotions cannot save the day. What is needed here is healthy common sense, good judgment, strong will, and emotion has no place here."

Dubcek: "I'd rather give all this up and go back to my old job. Why am I so upset? Because we are talking, working, doing all we can to fulfil the agreement reached in Cierna nad Tisou, and you do nothing but accuse us. This is our second conversation where you have accused me of deceiving you, of not trying to solve the questions on which we agreed."

Brezhnev: "Sasha, I'd like to believe you, but understand. What disturbs me most of all is that you still haven't sacked those rightists that we agreed to remove. I can't help asking myself: if you really do agree on the need to sack the likes of Cisar, Kriegl and Pelikan, and I for one am quite convinced that they have to go, if you really want to remove them, then I have no doubt at all that you could do so quickly and easily."

Dubcek:"But why does everything have to be so rushed...?"

The answer to that question came a week later. On 17th August, the Kremlin took the decision to occupy Czechoslovakia. On the night from the 20th to the 21st August, the occupation began. Over twenty years later Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had launched very similar reforms in the Soviet Union to those of Dubcek in 1968, apologized to the people of Czechoslovakia.