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General Semyon Zolotov´s Retrospective Account of the Šumava Military Exercises
Our Source: Navratil, Jaromir.
"The Prague Spring 1968". Hungary: Central European Press, 1998,
Original Source: “Shli na pomosch´druz´yam,” Voenno-isoricheskii zhurnal, No. 4 (April 1994), pp. 15-18.
Translated by: Mark Kramer, Joy Moss and Ruth Tosek
Comment: These are parts of a memoir written by a Soviet Lt. General Semyon Mitrofanovich Zolotov about the Šumava maneuvers.
/…/ In mid-May 1968 they informed us that in the very near future, joint military exercises involving troops from the member states of the Warsaw Pact would be held on the territory of Poland, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Issues concerning the organization and conduct of the exercises were examined during a visit to those countries by the commander-in-chief of the Joint Armed Forces, Marshal of the Soviet Union Yakubovskii. Originally, the exercises were intended to be live military maneuvers with significant military contingents taking part, but at the insistence of the Czechoslovak side, they were carried out simply as command-staff exercises. I learned about this, having been at the Main Political Directorate of the Soviet army and Navy.
After the May holidays I went with a group of comrades from the headquarters and the Political Department of the army to one of the garrisons, where I scrutinized the state of educational work and military discipline. Here we were given orders that the troops and command organs of the army would have to be brought up to combat readiness. It was up to me to return immediately to the headquarters and get in touch on a secure phone line with the leadership of the district's political directorate.
Within several hours, our plane touched down at Ivano-Frankovsk. The field command, the military communications units, and the support formations for the army staff were already prepared to march out. New formations bad been added to the army's lineup, and these had been fleshed out with personnel called up from reserves. The situation was reminiscent of combat.
All the officers from the headquarters and political department of the army were in the military units. I met with political workers who had recently traveled around the units and formations. We reviewed a number of practical matters. We agreed, in particular, to keep each other informed about the exercises.
On 12 May our front-line units advanced to the region along the state border with the ČSSR. In Uzhgorod we held a meeting to consider matters of party-political work under field conditions and the organization of special propaganda for the upcoming exercises of the allied armies.
In the evening of that same day, the army commander, Lt. General A. M. Maiorov, got together with the commanders of the formations and units to consider matters connected with garrison service and the activity of military traffic control. On 23 May we were at the Transcarpathian Oblast Party Committee, where we had a discussion with the party Secretaries, Yu. V. Il´nitskii and B. I. Belousov. They briefed us on the situation in the Oblast and told us about the preparations for the upcoming Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship meeting in the region of Uzhgorod.
At the end of May, I was again summoned to Moscow to get instructions for the upcoming exercises on ČSSR territory. The instructions were given to me by the head of the Main Political Directorate, Army-General A. A. Epishev, and by other senior officers in the MPD. The discussion did not last very long. A. A. Epishev issued a series of orders about the work to be performed, and be formulated guidelines for the behavior of Soviet soldiers on ČSSR territory, warning that any hint of insouciance or loss of vigilance would be impermissible.
Then we were received by A. A. Epishev’s deputy, Col.-General N. A. Nachinkin, who bad been given command of the party-political work during the preparations and conduct of the exercises in Czechoslovakia.
Early on the morning of 18 June 1968, the operational group of the army's field command crossed the state border of the ČSSR. The group was ordered to move expeditiously to the designated region to begin preparations for a regimental tactical exercise involving live fire. The group was commanded by the deputy head of the department for combat preparations, Colonel M. G. Popov; and the senior officer from the political department was Colonel K. A. Lebedev. At the border there was a low-key friendship meeting. The Slovak friends organized a warm reception for the Soviet soldiers.
Within three days, the main forces of the army that bad been selected to take part in the exercises crossed the Soviet-Czechoslovak border. The weather did not cooperate: A torrential rain continued the whole night, and thunder bursts blinded the drivers. The narrow, winding mountain roads and the huge stream of military vehicles complicated matters even further. There was a danger of transport incidents on the road. the column rolled back for dozens of kilometers. Several vehicles stalled, and three swerved off into a ditch. However, all this transpired without loss of life or any other serious consequences.
From the very outset of the meetings on Czechoslovak soil it became clear that changes bad occurred in the outlook and behavior of a significant proportion of Slovaks and Czechs. We did not sense the fraternal warmth and friendliness that bad previously distinguished the Czechoslovak friends; instead, they seemed apprehensive.
On the night of 22-23 June our troops were concentrated at-a training center in Libavá. It was located around 400 km from the state border with the USSR. The whole day bad been spent on readying the facilities. The army commander summed up the results of the march along the roads of Slovakia and Moravia and specified future tasks. He demanded that the commanders, staffs, and political organs ensure a worthy military performance and the exemplary behavior of Soviet soldiers on the territory of friendly Czechoslovakia.
The commander-in-chief of the Joint Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact member states, Marshal of the Soviet Union I. I. Yakubovskii, and his staff were based in Milovice. They ordered the army commander and me to come there, so that we could brief them on the march along the roads in Czechoslovakia and on the readiness of the staffs and troops for the exercises. The officers attending the briefing including the chief of staff of the Joint Armed Forces, Army-General M. I. Kazakov, and the deputy bead of the Main Political Directorate, Col.-General N. A. Nachinkin.
The leadership, in particular, pointed out the inadequate study that bad been done of the situation in places where troops were deployed, and recommended a more active effort to expand links with the Czechoslovak side. The army commander, Lieut.-General A. M. Maiorov, was assigned a task for the command-staff exercises, which bad been given the codename Šumava We learned that staffs and troops from the ČSSR, Poland, the GDR, and Hungary would be taking part alongside us.
During the exercises there were numerous meetings and conversations between Soviet soldiers and the Czechoslovak friends. These encounters were frank and often polemical. We were convinced of the complexity and contradictory nature of the situation in the ČSSR. Thus, on 28 July the army commander and I were ordered to meet with the administration and workforce of a metallurgical combine in Nová Hut´. This meeting left a bitter aftertaste. "How could the Czechoslovak people have become unrecognizable in such a short time?" I wrote in my diary. "They're no longer comfortable with the idea of friendship with the Soviet people . . ."
When the exercises were nearly done, a meeting of the political workers of the friendly armies took place in Milovice. All the leaders of the political organs of the Joint Armed Forces attended. In their speeches, many of them noted the signs of unfriendliness and even hostility on the part of some Czechoslovak citizens toward the allied soldiers. Slanderous attacks against the allies appeared in the press and on television. Especially fierce attacks appeared in such major newspapers and magazines of the ČSSR as Mladá fronta, Literárni listy, Student, Smena, and Svobodné slovo. In June, one of the issues of the provincial newspaper in central Slovakia, Smer, featured a long article about the supposedly disgraceful behavior of Soviet serviceman during the Šumava exercises, having depleted them as drunks, marauders, and rapists. Underneath the article in small print a brief message was published saying that a check over the article bad established that the facts were not corroborated. This underhanded approach-first to commit slander and smear with dirt, and then, as if by chance, to mention in passing that nothing of the sort ever occurred-was widely employed at that time in the Czechoslovak mass media.
On I July 1968 the command-staff exercises concluded. On the following day an assessment took place. Those taking part included the commanders of the Joint Armed Forces of the Warsaw Pact member states, the party and state leaders of Czechoslovakia – L. Svoboda, Dubček, Černik, J. Smrkovský, and the Minister of National Defense Col. – General M. Dzúr and the military attachés of the socialist countries. The assessment of the exercises was conducted by Marshal of the Soviet Union Yakubovskii.
The Soviet and foreign press widely covered the exercises. In addition to the objective coverage of the exercises, attempts were made in the foreign press to depict these measures, which were carried out within the framework of treaty obligations, as some sort of "instrument" with which the USSR was trying to "impose its own strategic concepts on its allies." For the sake of objectivity, one must acknowledge that during the exercises a number of matters connected with the introduction of allied troops onto the territory of Czechoslovakia were settled.
On 12 July the newspaper Krasnaya zvezda published a lead article entitled "Invincible Combat Commonwealth," which summed up the results of the command-staff exercises of the armies of the socialist countries. It noted, in particular, that the command-staff exercises aimed "to work out matters of mutual assistance between the allied troops and their command-and-control while conducting modern operations, to raise still higher the combat readiness of the troops and staffs, and to further strengthen the friendship of the fraternal peoples and armies." True, the article did not mention certain things.
Although the tasks set for the exercises were in fact achieved, the allied troops still bad not received orders from the command of the Joint Armed Forces to leave Czechoslovakia and return to their permanent bases. The reason for this was that negotiations were due to take place at Čierna nad Tisou in the very near future between the leaders of the CPSU and the CPCz. The timeframe for the withdrawal of the troops of the Warsaw Pact member states depended on the outcome of these negotiations. It was not by chance that during the assessment of the exercises, Marshal of the Soviet Union Yakubovskii emphasized that although the exercises formally were over, the participants in the maneuvers would not be leaving the territory of the ČSSR. One cannot exclude the possibility, he said, that our military presence will continue here for quite a long time.
Events, however, developed in a way contrary to the scenario devised "at the top." A correspondent from one of the central Soviet newspapers who was covering the exercises in the ČSSR prematurely relayed a feature about the conclusion of the exercises. This information prompted the Czechoslovak side to lodge a protest about the continued presence of the allied troops in their country and to demand the withdrawal of the units and formations as quickly as possible.
On 22 July a group of the highest-ranking officers of the CzPA, headed by the chief of the Main Directorate of the Ground Forces, Lieut.-General E. Blahut, came to the headquarters of our army. In the name of the ČSSR minister of national defense, they approached us with questions: Why, despite the promise made by Marshal I. I. Yakubovskii to pull out all Soviet troops by 21 July, were they still deployed in the area of the exercises? Why were we delaying, and what were our future plans? Having expressed their readiness to offer any sort of help to expedite the withdrawal of army troops, and even offering to create a special operative group for this purpose, the Czechoslovak comrades demanded, in the form of an ultimatum, immediate responses to the questions they raised. In a private conversation with me, Lieut.-General E. Blahut expressed bewilderment at our "prolonged and pointless presence" on their territory and said that "this situation does not serve the cause of our friendship and the strengthening of mutual relations."
We were left in a very difficult situation. This was precisely the time when the army commander, Lieut.-General A. M. Maiorov, was in Moscow, having flown there to see the defense minister of the USSR to get instructions on how to handle the pressure being exerted by the Czechoslovak government.
On 24 July the army commander returned, and I learned that we bad permission to begin the withdrawal of troops. We promptly informed representatives of the CzPA about this. At the same time, in accordance with the instructions we received, we let the Czechoslovak comrades know that a large number of our vehicles were in poor technical shape after having traveled 50 many kilometers, and this could not help but take its toll on the rate of our movement back home.
On the way back to the motherland, our serviceman took part in meetings with Czechoslovak workers and soldiers from the CzPA.
Our personnel bad already spent more than two months in field conditions. Physical and psychological fatigue was palpable. Those who were especially impatient to return home were the ordinary residents of the Transcarpathian region who bad been called up from reserves for the exercises. Their bard work was needed at home for the harvest which was already in full swing.
On I August we finally learned on our way back that the meeting of the leaders of the communist parties of the USSR and the ČSSR at Čierna nad Tisou bad ended. The participants bad suggested holding a conference in Bratislava as soon as possible among officials from all the socialist countries. This provided a basis for a certain degree of optimism.
Soon after we laid flowers and a wreath on the graves of soldiers who bad perished during the Great Patriotic War and were buried in the Dargov cemetery near the city of Košice, we crossed the state border into the Uzhgorod region and within several hours were back at our garrisons.