Notorious Czechoslovak Communist party hardliner Vasil Bil’ak dies at 96

Vasil Bilak, photo: CTK

Former Czechoslovak Communist party ideology chief Vasil Bil’ak, the last surviving hardliner who sent a letter of invitation to Soviet leaders, officially justifying the Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968, has died in Bratislava at the age of 96. Bilak was charged with high treason in 1991 but the case was later closed for lack of evidence. I asked prof. Jan Rychlik, who specializes in Czechoslovak history, how Vasil Bil’ak will be remembered.

Vasil Bil’ak,  photo: CTK
“Well, certainly I will not cry for him, that I can say for sure. And I don’t think that – with the exception of his family - anyone in the Czech and Slovak republics will cry for him and he will certainly be remembered as a traitor and as a Soviet agent. But, on the other hand, we should keep in mind that he was removed from political power already in 1988, i.e. before the fall of Communism, because even then the Communist party leadership understood that he was politically unbearable and intolerable. I think we do not need to kick dead bodies and he had been politically dead for over a quarter of a century.”

He was actually never convicted of treason because there was not enough evidence –apparently Russia never handed over the letter of invitation. Do you perceive that as a problem in terms of settling with the past?

“I think that now, seen from a quarter of a century after the fall of communism, it is not a problem because he is completely forgotten. By the way, with the evidence, it is very problematic because to write a letter to the Soviet leadership is not a criminal activity –everyone is free to write a letter to anybody –and it would be a mistake to overestimate his influence, to think that the Russians came because Vasil Bil’ak invited them – they would have come anyway. The problem is that in Slovakia, after the split of Czechoslovakia he as a Slovak citizen living in Slovakia could not be tried according to Czech law. And Slovak legislation was not like ours in lifting the statute of limitations on certain crimes. So in Slovakia he was investigated for several years but in fact there was no provision in the penal code according to which he could be charged. And when he was already over 80 the Slovak authorities stopped the procedure because they thought he couldn’t serve a sentence anyway. So I don’t think that it is a big problem, but certainly he will remain in the memories of Czechs and Slovaks as a traitor and a very problematic personality. Certainly we are not proud of him.”

Warsaw Pact invasion in Prague in 1968 | Photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
Do you think that he acted out of his strong convictions as a communist or was he simply a careerist?

“Well, that is a question which only he could answer. I personally think he was a deeply convinced communist which of course is not an excuse for his actions. Certainly he would not have played any role without strong Soviet support. On the other hand, we should say openly that the Russians did not trust him much because they knew that he had no support in Czechoslovakia and so they used him as a watchdog against (president) Gustav Husak and the relatively more moderate people in the party politburo. So he played a role which I think he was not proud of himself. But to answer your question I think he was a convinced communist from the very beginning to the end of his days.”