UK-held Mitrokhin archives reveal details of KGB operation against Prague Spring

The freshly released files of the so-called Mitrokhin archive shed light on Soviet intelligence activities during the Prague Spring of 1968. The files, smuggled by senior KGB officer Vasiliy Mitrochin to the UK in the 1990s, have been opened to the public by Cambridge University. They suggest that the KGB aimed to undermine Czechoslovakia’s democratization process, with Soviet illegal agents targeting dozens of Czech and Slovak public figures.

Pavel Žáček,  photo: Anna Duchková
The Prague Spring of 1968, Czechoslovakia’s attempt to “put a human face” on its communist regime, was very closely watched by Moscow which eventually crushed the experiment in a massive military invasion in August of that year.

But recently released files of the so-called Mitrokhin archive show just how closely the Soviet authorities followed events that were taking place in Czechoslovakia, and that they attempted to undermine the country’s democratization process.

Historian Pavel Žáček is the former head of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regime which administers the files of former Czechoslovak security forces.

“These materials are an important source of information about the infiltration of Soviet agents in Czechoslovakia, and about the preparations for the invasion in August 1968. I believe that in the archives of the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, Mr Mitrokhin found more materials than those already published in the 1992 book, The Sword and Shield.

So I think that more documentation can be found there about the connections between Soviet intelligence officers with Czech and Slovak traitors and people from the Czechoslovak security forces. But there are many more files, not just those about Operation Progress.”

According to the files, Operation Progress was a special campaign launched by the Soviet KGB in May 1968. The KGB sent in a number of illegal agents with the goal of infiltrating several institutions active in the democratization process. ¨

These included Prague’s Charles University, the Czechoslovak Socialist and Christian Democrat parties, the two political groups formally allowed to exist alongside the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, as well as the Club of Committed Non-Party Members, a group of around 15,000 people with political aspirations.

Soviet agents also targeted some of the Prague Spring’s leading figures such as writers Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout and Eduard Goldstücker, the head of Czechoslovak TV Jiří Pelikán and the editor of its news operation, Kamil Winter, as well as other journalists.

August 68 in Prague | Photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
Pavel Žáček says however the operation’s main purpose was to prepare conditions for a full-scale military invasion.

“It was part of the KGB’s plans for setting up the security background for Operation Moldau, a code name for the invasion. They used massive numbers of illegal agents. It was a very sophisticated operation.

“They could work without links to Soviet advisors who officially worked in Czechoslovakia. So they used the operation to prepare for the invasion, and even to control the activities of the so-called advisors.”

But wouldn’t that suggest that the decision to invade Czechoslovakia was taken months before, and all the negotiations between Czechoslovak and Soviet leaders in the months ahead of the invasion were meaningless?

“Well, that’s the question. One thing is the political situation and the relations between Czechoslovak and Soviet officials, and another is the military preparation, and then there is the security and intelligence situation.

“We know that some KGB officers and advisors played a huge role in this process. They had so much power in the Soviet political system, and they were trying to get the situation in Czechoslovakia under control, and they were really trying to crush the democratization process.”

The KGB’s Operation Progress in Czechoslovakia is just one of many activities of the Soviet intelligence services recorded in the Mitrokhin archives. Ironically, however, it was the invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact armies which led KGB officer Vasiliy Mitrokhin to start copying the archive files, according to journalist Karel Pacner who specializes in the history of the Czechoslovak secret services.

“Just like many other Soviet intelligence workers, Mitrokhin was shaken by the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. When he oversaw the move of the KGB archive from Lubyanka to its new headquarters in Yasenevo, he went through the files and made detailed notes which he kept in his dacha outside Moscow. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, he decided to travel to Riga and offer the files to the Americans.”

One page of Mitrokhin archive,  photo: Jiří Hošek
But when Vasiliy Mitrokhin rrived at the US embassy in the Latvian capital Riga in 1992, embassy officials did not take him seriously, and said they was receiving many similar offers.

“He left the building and saw the British flag so he went to the British embassy where he was lucky to be received by an MI6 officer who spoke Russian. She looked at the files, and asked him to bring more files. Several weeks later, Mitrokhin took a night train to Riga with his backpack filled with materials relating to the UK.”

It took the British seven years to process all the documents delivered to them by Valisiy Mitrochin, relating to events ranging from 1917 to the early 1980s. UK experts say there are only two places with such materials – the other being the inaccessible KGB archives themselves.

The Brits closely cooperated with other Western intelligence services because the files contained information about spies, retired and active, in many countries including the US, Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK, and other countries.

In Britain, the materials led to the identification of the UK’s longest-serving Soviet agent, Melita Norwood, who passed classified information about British nuclear research to the Soviets for four decades.

The archives also revealed that one of the operatives involved in the KGB operation against Czechoslovakia was Vasiliy Gordievsky whose brother Oleg, also a KGB officer who became of a British secret agent in 1972. Historian Pavel Žáček again.

“He was one of the people who probably influenced Oleg Gordievsky’s decision to defect. From the strategic point of view, the invasion was a big problem for the Soviets because many people had been to Czechoslovakia and saw there was no counter-revolution going on as the Soviet propaganda claimed. This was the beginning of a process that led to the Perestroika reforms of the 1980s.”

Cambridge University’s Churchill Archive Centre has opened 19 of the Mitrokhin archive’s 33 volumes to the public. They are Russian-language versions of Vasiliy Mitrokhin’s notes; the original manuscripts and notebooks remain closed.