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.
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:
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."
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