Rita Klímová: Story of An Exceptional Woman

Václav Klaus (center), Rita Klímová

Rita Klímová started out as a staunch young communist who helped to build a totalitarian regime in the 1950s. A decade later she was among the most enthusiastic reformers who tried to change the system during the Prague Spring of 1968. After being expelled from the Communist Party, she turned dissident and was one of the key people who helped to jumpstart the democratic reforms of the 1990s.

Rita Klímová had Eastern European Jewish roots. Her parents were born at the beginning of the 20th century in what was then the Austrian province of Galicia. Historian Martin Groman tells the story of her family:

“Rita Klímová’s parents, Stanislav Budín, and his wife Hana left today’s Ukraine after the Russian Revolution of 1917. They gradually moved westward and finally settled in Prague. Hana’s parents moved to the city of Iași in Romania. When she became pregnant with Rita in 1931, they agreed that the two young Bolsheviks in Prague shouldn’t be trusted to care for the baby. So, Hana Budínová went to her parents’ home in Romania to give birth.”

After the birth of her child, the young mother moved back to Prague where Stanislav Budín was a prominent Communist journalist. With the looming threat of the Nazi takeover, the Jewish family wisely decided to leave Europe:

“Rita left for the United States when she was eight. So, her world, her memories, start in America. She remembered very little from Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, if anything at all. She always talked about America when she spoke about her childhood. And then, all of a sudden, when she was a teenager, they said: you are going back to Europe.”

Václav Klaus | Photo:archive of Czech Radio

Rita finished her secondary education at the British International School and went on to study economics. By that time, the country had been taken over by the Stalinists and she herself became an ardent young communist. Her friend, colleague, and later president of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus retells some of her memories from that time:

“She married Zdeněk Mlynář, a prominent young communist who at that time was studying in Moscow. In the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, she was often telling us stories of how she became familiar with “Mishka”, as she called him. The future leader of the Soviet Union was her husband’s roommate at the student hostel of Lomonosov University. Rita jokingly used to say: ‘I am the only Czech who know Gorbachev’s shoe and shirt sizes.’ At that time, there was a shortage of everything in the Soviet Union. When Mlynář came for holidays, we had to buy everything for Gorbachev!”

Mikhail Gorbachev | Photo: Vladimir Vyatkin/RIAN,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Gradually, Rita Klímová joined the communist reformers in the 1960s and became one of the leading economic minds of the Prague Spring of 1968. This attempt to liberalize society and economy was quickly crushed by the Soviet-led military intervention. Klímová like hundreds of thousands of other reformers was expelled from the party and lost her job. Nevertheless, she continued to lead an active social life and became one of the most prominent personalities among the dissidents who were fighting for some of the basic human rights denied by the communist regime. Václav Klaus met Rita Klímová frequently:

“I visited her many, many times, both in her apartment here in Prague and at her country house. And I think we were quite close. She knew how to meet people and charm them. She had a kind of a ‘salon’ at her home. Even though she had been expelled from the party and lost her job, she would still hold these parties where you could meet the “who is who” of Prague at the time. She brought me to the Literární noviny monthly in 1968 and introduced me to A. J. Liehm, one of the editors, and so I started writing one of the regular columns. Later on, in the 1970s and 1980s, we kept in touch. When in 1989 Communism started to fall apart and the Civic Forum was founded, she said it could not be led just by actors and intellectuals. She called me, and the next day we contacted Václav Havel.”

Alexandr Vondra is now a conservative Member of the European Parliament for the Czech Civic Democratic Party. Back in 1989, he was one of the youngest leaders of the Velvet Revolution. This is how he remembers Klímová’s importance as a spokeswoman and communicator:

“As soon as press conferences started to take place, Rita Klímová’s role became crucial. Thanks to her excellent English, the world could learn what Václav Havel and the people around him thought and what they were planning.”

Rita Klímová | Photo: Czech Television

It wasn’t long before the leaders of the Velvet Revolution found a new role for Rita:

“Very soon, I think it was already in December 1989, we started to discuss how we should communicate with the United States and who should be the person responsible for that. Logically, she became the key candidate. She had the right age and experience and already existing contacts in the United States. Plus, she had the language skills and was a competent economist. And we knew we would need someone able to communicate in the US to get American support for the inevitable economic transformation.”

So, Rita Klímová was appointed ambassador to the United States.  But there were still many people around who remembered her as an ardent young communist back in the 1950s. There were inevitable questions about whether she could be trusted. Was an ex-communist really the right person to represent the country at such a crucially important diplomatic post?  Alexandr Vondra:

“Especially the older people in exile had some reservations. They had some bad memories of her as a young communist in the 1950s. But for us, a younger generation, what mattered was what she was saying in 1989; we did not have that negative experience. I do not remember any substantial opposition to her nomination among the Czechoslovak dissidents.”

Not only was she a Czechoslovak representative to Washington, DC. The Czechoslovak Embassy there was notorious for being one of the main centers of communist espionage. Most of the spies had diplomatic cover and Rita Klímová was now tasked with finding and recruiting new diplomatic staff to replace the “old communist guard”:

Alexandr Vondra | Photo: Jana Myslivečková,  Czech Radio

“We had nobody who could all of a sudden become a competent and reliable diplomat. All the potential candidates were too young; they were only starting to learn the trade. There was no pool from which to select completely new personnel for our embassy in Washington, from the head of the mission to the lowest-ranking diplomat. Nevertheless, Rita Klímová herself was trying to recruit new people.” Alexandr Vondra again:

“Unfortunately, she did not have much time to complete her work in Washington, DC. Her health started failing and doctors soon confirmed that she was suffering from leukemia. She resigned from her post in August of 1992 and died the year after. Alexandr Vondra was then a foreign policy advisor to President Václav Havel. Despite the generational gap he was very close to Rita.

“I remember her as someone who played a crucial role in the transitional period. She successfully proposed and supported Václav Klaus as a new member of the leadership who openly said that he wanted to reintroduce capitalism in the country. She greatly helped to re-direct our foreign policy and establish new relations with the most important powers of the Western world. With her excellent language skills and flawless English, she was able to translate and interpret the ideas of the Velvet Revolution leaders to the Western media. I think in these three areas she played a more important role than many people remember today. In my opinion, that assured her a positive place in our history.”

“I think, in a way, it was a kind of redemption for the sins of her youth, when she had helped the totalitarian regime. She did not help the Communists come to power, but she assisted them and was part of their regime during the first years of its existence.”

Rita Klímová’s life in a way symbolized the whole post-war story of her country. Enthusiastically supporting communist ideology at first, she became disillusioned and tried to reform it. When that did not work, she started fighting it with all her will and intellectual skills. She lived long enough to see the communist demise, but not long enough to see her country join the Western fold in the European Union and NATO. This year she would have been ninety.