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Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov’s Memoir of the Pre-Crisis Period (excerpts)
Our Source: Navratil, Jaromir. "The
Prague Spring 1968". Hungary: Central European Press, 1998, pp. 23-25
Original Source: A.M. Aleksandrov-Agentov, Ot Kollontai do Gorbacheva: Vospominaniya diplomata, sovetnika A.A. Gromyko, pomoschnika, L.I. Brezhneva, Yu V. Andropova, K. U. Chernenko I M. S. Gorbachev (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1994), pp. 144-147.
Translated by: Mark Kramer, Joy Moss and Ruth Tosek
Comment: Andrei Aleksandrovs memories of the period before the military intervention.
Brezhnev always believed that our relations with Czechoslovakia were one of the central elements both of our European policy and of a reliable balance of forces between East and West. He regarded Czechoslovakia, along with Poland and the GDR, as the core of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, and also the most reliable and trustworthy component of this core (both politically and economically).
Leonid Ilyich knew and loved Czechoslovakia. The main reasons for this were: the memories he still had of the joint military operations in which he took part with a Czechoslovak brigade in the Carpathian region toward the end of the war; his personal friendship with the brigade commander, Ludvik Svoboda; and his close friendship with the circles who had led the antifascist national uprising in Slovakia in 1944 (Šverma, Husák, etc.). It is undoubtedly not by accident that one of the first official trips in Europe by Brezhnev when he was the young chairman of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was his visit in May 1961 to Czechoslovakia, (It was precisely during that visit that my job with Brezhnev began.) Prague, Bratislava, Plzeň, Ustí nad Labem - Brezhnev toured all these cities and several other settlements during his visit to the ČSSR. He spoke frequently at meetings both inside halls and outside the Prague Kremlin, on the squares of Bratislava and Ustí, and at large factories. In addition he held many meetings and negotiations with Czechoslovak leaders.
Over the years Leonid Ilyich's wife, Viktoriya Petrovna, often visited the spas at Karlovy Vary.
During discussions about economic ties with the CMEA members, Brezhnev invariably gave Czechoslovakia one of the top-priority places.
Relations with the ČSSR leadership were always regarded in Moscow as good overall. No serious political disagreements had arisen, and any problems that did emerge (mainly about economy issues) were resolved peacefully in some way or other and in conformity with normal procedures. As far as personal contacts with the leaders in Prague are concerned, the picture was more complicated. In general Brezhnev and his colleagues got along well with the president of the republic and leader of the CPCZ, Antonín Novotný, and they regarded him as a loyal ally. Nevertheless, it was evident, and Leonid Ilyich mentioned this in private numerous times, that Novotny was not an especially strong leader: He bad a poor grasp of economics and lacked great political authority; be basically bad to work cabinet-style. ("He's not a Gottwald or a Zápotocký," said Brezhnev.) There were times when Brezhnev, during his conversations with Novotny, would explicitly criticize certain aspects of Novotný's policies, for example his tactlessness in dealing with the Slovaks and the tendency toward wage-leveling. ("What good is it when a qualified engineer and a simple worker receive the same salary? This is too hasty a transition to communism!") Novotny would accept these remarks calmly and without taking offense, but it seemed that in practical terms be never derived any special conclusions from them.
The members of the Czechoslovak leadership to whom Brezhnev was closest included the following: the Premier Jozef Lenárt; the Second Secretary of the CC Presidium Vasil Bilák; the Chairman of the Central Auditing Commission Miloš Jakeš; and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Václav David. Brezhnev was more guarded in his relations with such officials as Oldřich Černik and L. Štrougal, believing that they were too "technocratic" and therefore might be too inclined to "lean toward the West." Brezhnev had a very low opinion of the CC Secretary J. Hendrych, regarding him as merely an ambitious apparatchik-careerist. Relations with Dubček, when he was CC first secretary in Bratislava, were fine.
As for the segment of the Czechoslovak "nomenclature" that became the backbone of the future "Prague Spring," and reflected the aspirations chiefly of the pro-Western intelligentsia (for example, Kriegel, Cisař, Pelikán, Šik, Smrkovský, etc.), Brezhnev and his colleagues, in my view, simply knew nothing about them and did not even take them into account (unless, of course, definite information came in from our embassy).
In short, by the end of 1967, when the situation within the Czechoslovak leadership sharply deteriorated and dark clouds began to hang over Novotný, it was not wholly unexpected for Brezhnev and other members of the Soviet leadership. But they bad not foreseen and did not expect the negative sentiments among the masses, as manifested in the events of the "Prague Spring."
It was clear, however, that Novotný’s position was under threat and that the replacement of him might have unforeseen political consequences. The officials who were closest to us (Lenárt, Vasil Bilák, etc.) warned us about this via the Soviet ambassador.”
And that is when Brezhnev decided on a step unusual for him, but characteristic of his belief in the possibility of "personal diplomacy." Toward the end of December 1967 he unexpectedly flew to Prague where, without losing any time, he entered into direct personal discussions, one after another, with all the most prominent and influential members of the Czechoslovak leadership in order to prevent a crisis, mollify the disputing sides, and "save" Novotný. All the negotiations were one-on-one (the only others present were the Soviet ambassador and the author of this memoir), and they continued for 18 hours without a break-by day, by night, and into the next morning.
This was an attempt to persuade the leading officials of the CC Presidium at that time to avoid threatening the stability of the party and the country, and to avoid endangering the normal course of development of Soviet-Czechoslovak cooperation. Most of the officials who took part insisted that Novotný was no longer capable of effectively leading the party and the country and bad lost his authority. These accusations typically focused exclusively on personal matters, and none of the officials, as far as I remember, said even a word about changing course internally, much less in foreign policy. They complained about Novotný’s arbitrariness and obstinacy, which in their view would create social and ethnic tension in the country. Dubček even had tears in his eyes when be complained that he, as CC first secretary of the Slovak Communist Party who had lived for many years in the USSR, had been passed over by Novotný for the delegation celebrating the 60th anniversary of October in Moscow. And when Brezhnev directly asked the CPCz CC Secretary Hendrych who, in his view, had sufficient skill and authority to replace Novotný in his posts (the secretarial and presidential), Hendrych immediately replied, without batting an eyelid: "l do." When Hendrych left the room, Brezhnev only shook his head in dismay and spat."
In short, the 18-hour negotiating marathon essentially produced no results. He had not succeeded in persuading the Czechoslovak officials to join ranks. The whole affair ended when Brezhnev, having finally given up, said "Do as you wish" and then flew back to Moscow. That determined Novotný’s fate and also the further course of events.
All evidence suggests that neither Brezhnev nor the other members of the CPCz CC Politburo could begin to imagine the full scale of the process that had already begun to eat away at the CPCZ and Czechoslovak society, or the depth of the protest against the administrative-bureau- critic regime that had been established in the country. Nor could they imagine the scope of organisation and activity of anti-socialist forces in the country (above all a significant portion of the intelligentsia) and the strength of their ties with the West, especially with the social democrats.