Anatoli Sofronov told me an anecdote about Stalin. He told it tenderly as a tale of the old man’s lovable foibles.
“Stalin liked to watch films alone late at night in his cinema in the Kremlin. On one occasion, not long before his death, he invited the director of a new Russian film to a private screening.
“While the film was running, Stalin’s secretary came in with a letter. Stalin looked at it and said: ‘Wyet horos ho’ (no good). The director fell down on the floor in a faint. Well, Comrade Stalin watched the film through to the end, then asked: ‘Why is this man lying on the floor?’ ‘He fainted, Comrade Stalin; he thought you meant his film was no good.’
“Stalin revived the director and said to him: ‘Your film is not bad. Don’t be afraid, comrade. Half the world says I am no good — but I do not faint’.”
Sofronov is editor of Ogonvok, the Russian equivalent of Life magazine. He told me the anecdote in his office in the new Pravda building in Moscow. He told it, not in Stalin’s lifetime when such stories were often used by Soviet Communists to illustrate a point, but only a few weeks ago [in 1968]. Sofronov spoke with earnest naivete, as if nothing had happened in the 15 years since Stalin’s death: no Khrushchev speech condemning Stalin’s crimes, no official dynamiting of Stalin’s statue in Prague, no changing the name of Stalingrad to Volgagrad, no removal of Stalin’s body from the Red Square Mausoleum. We had been discussing the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia and he used the anecdote to indicate that I should not worry because the action was opposed by Western opinion, including that of a majority of Western Communist Parties.
“I am glad we intervened,” he emphasised. “And my staff are glad. The Soviet people are glad.”
What kind of man is Anatoli Sofronov? Had you been with us in his office, you might have sensed ruthlessness, even brutality, in his manner, yet he is capable of jovial moments and writes comic songs, which he will sing when drinking cognac or vodka. One of his songs, Dear Comrade Vassilief, was addressed to the Pravda chief accountant during the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, when Sofronov overspent his expense account.
He is about the biggest man I ever saw. Heavy jowled and extremely fat, he must stand at six feet four. His steel-grey hair is cut short against his square head. He is in his mid-fifties. He has been married three times. He divorced his first wife, a doctor, his second wife died after a short illness. He was grief-stricken, but recently married a beautiful woman in her thirties. He has a son who is, like many of the children of the privileged bureaucracy, something of a waster.
Sofronov is of part Volga German descent. This whole race was suspect during the war and Sofronov had a difficult time in the party for a while. “I had to be more Catholic than the Pope,” he once said.
As well as being an efficient editor, he is a poet and playwright. I have never read a line of his verse. Sinyavski held a poor opinion of it: his last published essay in Novi Mir was entitled The Poetry of Anatoli Sofronov. It was so scathingly critical that wags in Moscow literary circles alleged that Sinyavsky got his seven years for attacking Sofronov, not for smuggling out the novels of Abraham Tertz.
I have never seen his plays, but read one about Russian immigrants in Australia. Quadrant published it without comment as anti-Soviet propaganda. A joke is a joke, but Sofronov does wield enormous power, especially in publishing and the Writers’ Union. With his closest friend, Nicolai Gribachov, and the novelists Sholokhov, Charkovski and Kotchetov, he leads the extreme dogmatic “left” in the bitter struggle which has characterised the Soviet literary scene since the death of Stalin.
Some idea of their influence can be gained from the fact that Kotchetov edits the magazine October, Gribachov, Soviet Union, and Charkovski, Literary Gazette. Like Sofronov’s Ogonyok, all are hard-line journals. With Mikhail Sholokhov making the occasional outburst from the shores of the River Don, they are a formidable combination of unashamed Stalinists. Gribachov, for example, wrote a long article in Pravda supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia. What it lacked in facts and logic it made up in vehemence and colourful metaphor. During one of my previous visits (1963), he recited his poem Under the Banner of Stalin at a party in his Moscow flat. Young writers who criticise Stalin, the poem argued, have achieved nothing, but under the banner of Stalin we built the Dneiper Dam and defeated the Nazis. I remember having difficulty to avoid bursting out laughing. Poor bastard, I thought, he really believes it, but he’s harmless. I was laughing on the other side of my face listening to Sofronov quoting Stalin in 1968. Rather than directly express my opinions about the Czechoslovak crisis, I had been asking Sofronov questions. He has connections with the KGB and I wanted to visit Prague after Moscow.
He covered the whole gambit of Soviet justification for the intervention: the military threat from West Germany, the danger of ideological subversion (“peaceful counter-revolution”), and underlying it all the essential fear of freedom and democracy that characterises the Soviet bureaucracy.
All that and a certain implication that they had secret information. Sofronov spoke of a Czech “old Communist” saying to him at an international peace meeting, “Bad people, counter-revolutionaries, have seized control of our party. Tell your leaders.” He had told them. Then, on a visit to West Germany, a Russian emigre had told him that Czechoslovak writers visiting Bonn “didn’t speak to writers there, they spoke to CIA agents.”
When I asked who had invited the troops into Prague, he replied: “We will tell the world later who invited us.”
“In the first days after August 21 the Soviet press called Dubcek a leader of the counter-revolution,” I said. “Yet he is still general secretary of the party.”
Sofronov replied, “Later. It is a local question, but he will be removed later.”
Anatoli Sofronov was, and remains, a true heir of Stalin. Our talk was the first of several I had with Soviet writers. It confirmed a fear that had grown even before the Czechoslovak crisis that Stalin’s heirs were seizing the reins of power in Moscow. The later talks did little to disperse that fear. Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote the poem The Heirs of Stalin in 1962, and it was published in Pravda at the insistence of Premier Khrushchev himself. A few extracts, even in rhymeless translation, reveal the great poetic force behind Yevtushenko’s warning.
… just pretending to be dead
… He was scheming, had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our Government,
petition them to
the sentries guarding the tomb
And stop Stalin from ever rising again
And, with Stalin, the past.
… the neglect of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
Honestly we marched, joining the ranks
But Stalin feared us.
We carried him from the Mausoleum
But how to remove Stalin’s heirs.
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement
Thinking in secret
Their enforced leisure will not last
Others from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
But, at night, yearn for the good old days …
They, the former henchmen,
Hate this era of emptied prison camps
And Auditoriums full of people listening to poets …
I wonder if the poet who wrote it, the leader who had to intervene to enforce its publication, or those of us who read the poem as it charged like a bilingual bull across the frontiers of language could really have believed that Khrushschev himself would be tossed out on his ear by Stalin’s heirs, that poetry readings in Moscow would cease, that the camps would begin to fill again, that Soviet tanks would rumble into Communist Prague.
Khrushchev himself, when told of the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia, said to friends, “I believe that the 1956 intervention in Hungary was justified — but I cried for three days after I made my decision. This intervention was not justified — and these men did not cry.”
The unceremonious removal of Nikita Khrushchev from all positions in the Soviet Party and state in 1964 shocked observers, but few saw it for what it was: the beginning of the end of the show that had begun with the death of Stalin. Of course, Khrushchev himself was fettered to the Stalinist past and capable of all kinds of illiberal attitudes, but it was he who crystallised the yearnings of the Soviet people for an end of the oppression. His speech and the whole liberal trend of the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 held out hope for them and for millions of Communists throughout the world. The practice of Marxism took its first hesitant steps back towards democracy.
A renaissance of Soviet literature began, and names like Yevtushenko and Solzhenitsyn made their way around the world. The first steps toward decentralising industry and dismantling the bureaucracy were taken. The policy of peaceful coexistence began to have reality. The camps were emptied of their millions of the survivors of the terror. Rehabilitation of the innocent proceeded apace. In the last months of Khrushchev’s rule there were inspired rumours in Moscow that Stalin’s main ideological enemies, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev — even Trotsky — would be given their true place in history.
But Stalin’s heirs skulked in the shadows waiting their chance — and it came when Khrushchev’s agricultural policy failed. The Stalinists said that Comrade Khrushchev was removed because he left the people without bread, but the true reason was that he had left them without Stalin and his methods. They even planned the open rehabilitation of Stalin himself at the Twenty-Third Party Congress in 1965, but relented when leading nuclear scientists threatened to expose them before the world.
The new leaders slowly reversed the liberal trend until Stalinist norms were the order of the day at home (the Sinyavsky case, etc) and abroad (Czechoslovakia, etc). Like Stalin, they fear the people and the truth. Their adventure in Czechoslovakia was not a mistake but a consistent logical result of their theories, which in turn arise from their need to perpetuate their own power and privilege.
They trot out old dogmas to justify their actions (the Stalin theory that class struggle grows sharper as socialism grows stronger) and invent new ones (the theory of their right to invade other countries to defend the socialist commonwealth). They mask their own lack of ideas behind schematic cliches and systematic lying. They so much fear an informed people that their censors peruse every word that is to be printed. On August 22 they restored the jamming of foreign radio broadcasts; they even banned from sale foreign language Communist newspapers such as the Morning Star and the Australian Tribune.
I first visited Moscow in 1951. I saw what I wanted to see and wrote a book called Journey into the Future (the title taken from Lincoln Steffens’ remark, “I have seen the future and it works”). With a whole generation of idealists I was caught in the web of Stalinism.
But disenchantment with the Soviet brand of Communism slowly crept upon me, and in 1962-63 I spent eight months travelling in the USSR, determined to write another, more truthful, book. I called it They Eat Their Babies in Russia. This title was based on an Australian anecdote. During the hungry 1930s, an anarchist was addressing a meeting. He spoke of many things, finally of the Soviet Union. He enumerated all the real and imagined benefits of Soviet society, ending each point with the words, ‘They are building socialism’.” At last, an interjector yelled, “Get out, you mug, they eat their babies in Russia!” The anarchist considered for a moment, then replied. “Perhaps they do, comrade, but they are building socialism.”
There is a moral in that story. And I found much to praise in Soviet society; the overcoming of illiteracy, the universal education and culture, the lack of open racial conflict, the stress on creative labour, the lack of philistinism. But the negative aspects were so appalling that I withdrew the manuscript from the publishers: at the extreme, I found a state farm where no wages had been paid for nine weeks and the workers had no means of redress. I found a girl named Vera Petrova in Banaul who was jailed for eight days for dancing the Twist. And I could see evidence everywhere that Stalin’s heirs were crawling out of the woodwork.
The situation now is much worse. Stalin’s heirs occupy all the positions of power. They created the Czechoslovak crisis and used it to intimidate the positive forces which oppose them at home.
The old methods of administrative pressure, blanket censorship, and even naked terror are on the way back.
Twenty feature films have been withheld from screening in the past two years; the brilliant writer Aksyonov, author of one of the great short stories of the century, Halfway to the Moon, has had four plays accepted, only to be withdrawn by Gratlit (the office of censorship); eighty poems previously published in the USSR have been deleted from Yevtushenko’s new collection of verse; Constantin Simonov’s war diary for 1941 has been banned because the footnotes indicate errors made at that time. The late Vassili Asheyev saw his novel about the purge years banned shortly before his death of a heart attack last year; Solzhenitsyn’s two most recent novels, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, have been rejected. One could go on ad infinitum: Solzhenitsyn’s wife, a scientist, recently won first prize in a competition, entitling her to work in some top-secret project. When the authorities discovered the identity of her husband, they said, “Your husband has restrictions on his passport; he cannot live in that place, so you may not take up your prize.”
Solzhenitsyn lives on 70 roubles a month. He can get nothing published and will refuse to accept royalties for the unauthorised publication of his books in the West. He has written to the authorities disclaiming responsibility for these editions and begging them to permit publication in the USSR.
Nothing can get past the eagle eye of the censors, and a tremendous assault is being made against Soviet literature on the most narrow ideological grounds. Anatoli Sofronov, in Ogonyok, launched the current campaign to drive progressive critical plays out of the theatres with an article alleging that unhealthy drama was being performed and Aesopian language used to introduce “alien ideas”. One example cited was The Naked King, a play written in 1935 by a man named Swartz, but banned until 1956 only to become one of the most popular plays. Ogonyok alleged that it criticised the Soviet Union under the guise of criticising fascism, and it was withdrawn from the repertoire of the Contemporary Theatre.
Literature will perish in this atmosphere, even though some of the best writers continue to work, knowing that much of their output will remain in the bottom drawer.
Some who were riding high during the thaw years are in deep creative trouble. Vasha Aksyonov, for instance. I well remember him standing proudly in the lobby of the Contemporary Theatre accepting congratulations on the success of his brilliant play Everything Can Be Bought For Money in 1965. The dogmatic critics slammed the play as “looking on the seamy side of life”, but it was a huge success with the public. Now Vasha can’t get his plays performed and is reduced to translating from the Cossack language. Indeed, the only materials being performed and published are safe neutral pieces, criticism of Western evils and hack work. Would-be writers without principle write the latter, and favoured themes are praise of Stalin and support for the Czechoslovak adventure. Literary speculators send such works from all over the USSR and as far afield as Bulgaria to willing editors. During the first couple of days this trip I rang Yevtushenko’s Moscow flat, but there was no response.
On the third day, the phone in my room at the Pekin Hotel rang: “Is that the bloody Australian bastard?”
“It is, you bloody Siberian bastard,” I replied. It was Yevtushenko, expansive and bawdy as ever, ringing to suggest lunch — without an interpreter. “I’ll call for you by car.”
I found him waiting in the hotel lobby: tall, wearing a raffish cap, woollen jacket, and colourful scarf. “We meet in strange times, my friend,” he said, eyes narrowed, teeth bared in that quizzical grin of his. “I wrote to my government to oppose the action in Czechoslovakia. Now they say I am the enemy of the state. To whom shall I write?”
He drove along the Leningrad road towards the airport metro station near which he lives. “I’ll pick up Simonev’s son, Alusha. He is a good friend.” Yevtushenko’s English is amazingly fluent, bearing in mind that he arrived in Sydney in 1966 with only a smattering of the language. Alusha was not at home, so we left a message with his wife, Oola, and went in search of a restaurant.
He fell silent, as he sometimes will in company, as if withdrawing into some private thought or fragment of verse. At last he said, “You know, I laugh when I remember you and our adventures. But when I saw you coming down the stairs I wanted to cry. We meet at a moment of truth.”
My reaction had been similar. We had become very close since our first meeting in the middle 1950s before great fame had fallen upon him, leaving him unspoiled at least in his attitude to his closest friends.
Mostly I remember his incredible tour of Australia in 1966, reciting his poems in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, marauding through the days and nights like a cloud in trousers. We had left a trail of confusion and gossip behind, but the halls were always full, and he captured the heart of unpoetic Australia with his histrionic genius and unbounded zest for life. “What will you drink, Frank?”
“Only French champagne,” I replied. And we roared laughing, remembering. In Australia he instructed me to eat only the most expensive courses and drink only French champagne. We drank champagne by the gallon and had a visiting card printed: ONLY FRENCH CHAMPAGNE. ONLY ONE NIGHT ONLY.
“Incredible,” it is his favourite word. “And what about that last television interview, eh?” What about it! He had gone shopping on his last day in Australia, and I — exhausted from the unaccustomed reciting in public, the carousing, the lack of sleep, the champagne hangovers — crept into his bed in the Chevron. While I slept soundly, he returned, and an ABC television crew set up their lights and cameras in the room to tape an in-depth interview. In the middle of it I awoke, disheveled, unshaven, bleary-eyed, just as Keith Adam asked Zhenya, “In one of your poems you say that the poet is always lonely.” Deadly earnest at first, Yevtushenko replied, “Yes, it is true.” He placed his long fingers over his heart with a Napoleonic air, then, espying me out of the corner of his eye, he grinned and said, “It is my black fate, my friend. Turn your camera on to my bed. In Sydney there are thousands of beautiful women, but who is in my bed? The ugliest man in Australia.” All Australia saw the scene on television, laughed, and wondered where the two women had got to. So from time to time since we have sent each other a telegram which sets the CIA or KGB or ASIO reaching for the code books: “Only French champagne.” We had to settle for Georgian champagne that day in Moscow. We drank and talked about Czechoslovakia until Alusha came. Then we ate and roved over many subjects related to Communism and democracy. Of course, we also talked of lighter things and laughed. Night caught up with us, and the club filled with music, dancing, and clinking glasses. A woman kept asking Yevtushenko to dance. I said to her in mock earnestness, “He cannot dance at a time like this; all he wants to do is praise the government for invading Czechoslovakia.” ”What do you think of Czechoslovakia?” she asked.
“I think the armies were right to intervene,” I said, probing for her true opinions.
“So do I,” she said. “They had to stop the Germans from starting a counter-revolution.”
Later, Zhenya said to her, “Go away. I don’t talk to people who support our armies attacking a Communist country.”
She pouted, “Zhenya, please, I only said that because he is a foreigner.”
It was difficult to find out what people are really thinking. Walking around Moscow (a city of which I am very fond: life can be full there if you know your way around), I studied the faces in the streets, but they wore masks revealing nothing. Yet I knew that the Soviet tanks moving through Prague had rumbled in every house and heart of this vast city.
The passing days brought some hard facts, many rumours, a lot of gossip. About the Czech crisis most people were poorly informed. Peasants in the villages had begun to buy up salt, soap, and flour — and waited for the Germans to come again. Workers had attended large party or union meetings and been given the line without opportunity of discussion. The understandable fear of Germany and the determination that no more wars will be fought on Soviet soil was cleverly exploited by the establishment.
I said to one pleasant young woman at a party, “I believe that Czechoslovakia would have become a centre of world Communism, a free, rich state.”
“You are wrong,” she replied. “The West Germans would have prevented it. That’s why our government had to act.”
Fear of Germany operates like a Pavlovian reflex, like fear of Asia in Australia: this was my conclusion after many conversations through interpreters or in halting English or Russian, with taxi-drivers, waiters, writers of the left, right, and centre, translators, people in the metro.
But mainly I found that people just refused to discuss Czechoslovakia. It was difficult to guess what lay behind this evasiveness. I had lunch at the Writers’ Club with Boris Polevoi and Constantin Simonov. The atmosphere seemed to lack the usual jocularity of previous years. The events of August 21 in Prague must have dominated their thoughts as much as mine, but were mentioned only once. I asked for Czech beer, which can usually be had in the better restaurants. Simonov, who is president of the club, consulted the waitress, then the manager. “Czech pevo nyet.” I commented, “Now I know the action in Czechoslovakia was a mistake. No Czech beer in Moscow.”
Boris Polevoi replied, “Life would be simple, Frank, if every moral crisis could be resolved so easily.”
Otherwise we talked off the top of our heads and, of course, they encouraged me to tell my latest bawdy Australian yarns. Anything but the Czech crisis — we were conversing through an official interpreter.
I like both of them and admire Simonov very much as a novelist and poet, but I couldn’t help thinking: they must know what my view is; why should we surrender in silence to the new assault of Stalin’s heirs? (As it so happened, I learned later that Simonov had a few days before refused, with two other secretaries of the Soviet Writers’ Union, Leonov and Tsardovski, to sign an official union declaration, and, of course, Polovoi soon afterward made a statement in Venice, guardedly supporting Dubcek and the post-January Czechoslovak policies.)
Russians these days know more than they are apt to say. Some of them manage to find out what goes on in their own country and abroad. Frankly sceptical about the veracity of their own newspapers, they read between the lines. If Pravda attacks certain foreign Communists, they glean the essence of the ideas attacked and usually agree with them. If Pravda publishes statements by only a few foreign Communist parties, supporting the Five Power Intervention, they deduce that the majority oppose it. They listen to foreign broadcasts in English, a language which many young people understand (only the Russian language broadcasts seem to be jammed). If only a few Soviet writers support the Czechoslovak action in the press, they guess that the majority reject it — and they are right.
Only the Sofronov group went on record in unqualified support. That’s if you don’t count James Aldridge as a Soviet writer. He wrote a fawning piece for Pravda, and told the dogmatist leaders of the union, “Don’t hang your heads, comrades, soon the whole world will know you were right.” And, of course, Mikhail Sholokhov did the right thing. A real Vicar of Bray, Sholokhov supports whoever is in power. But his influence is slight now: people have never forgiven him for his unbridled attack on Pasternak in 1957. He called Pasternak “a spiritual emigre”, and backed the move to have poor old Boris deported. He called the Nobel Prize committee “reactionary” because it gave Pasternak the prize — then accepted the same prize from the self-same committee a few years later.
The official Writers’ Union declaration remains unpublished to this day because few would sign. A compromise letter addressed to the Czechoslovakian Writers’ Union, much milder in tone, found 34 signatures, but still the majority would not commit themselves.
Most taxi-drivers were evasive, but one told me frankly, “Pravda writes a lot of rubbish about Czechoslovakia. I fought there during the war. They hate Germans. They are anti-fascists. They don’t need our army to teach them to be Communists.” Several people gleefully reported an assault on correspondent Yuri Zhukov in the Pravda snack bar on Thursday September 26. A stranger walked in, asked for Zhukov, and said, “I want to show my gratitude for what you write in Pravda about Czechoslovakia.” With that he flattened Zhukov and kept punching and kicking him. He then walked out unmolested.
Rumour? And on the other side of rumour?
The main gossip concerns division on the presidium of the party over the Czechoslovak invasion. Four out of 11 are said to have opposed it. The names are always the same: Kosygin, Shelepin, Suslov and Rashidov.
Rumour? At the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference held in Tashkent the first official function was listed as “Reception to delegates by Comrade Rashidov, sixth secretary of the CPSU.” It was marked off the program, cancelled without explanation.
No rumour, the demonstration in Red Square. Everybody knew about it before the trial and savage sentences.
Nor was it rumour only; the story of the writer who stood on the table in a restaurant on August 22 and harangued the diners who were afraid for him and for themselves: “You are slaves! I am a slave! We are ruled by gangsters who have sent our armies to invade a Communist country.”
And no rumour the fact that 150 writers who signed a protest against the jailing of Ginsberg last year were placed on a blacklist by editors and publishers — and the seven Communists among them were expelled from the party.
Yevtushenko and I attended the Afro-Asian Writers’ Symposium. We weren’t sure whether we were supposed to be Africans or Asians, but we had a lot of fun.
One night, Borodin, the Uzbek novelist, threw a party. Everyone present was on public record in support of the Czechoslovak invasion — except me and Yevtushenko. It was a typical privileged class banquet, the tables laden with the best food and drink, while weary proletarian chauffeurs slept uncomfortably huddled in official cars at the gate.
Zhenya got a bit full and moved a toast “to writers and would-be writers”. The satirical inference from his own poem was not lost on those present. “I defended men of talent, branding the hacks, the would-be writers.” Thus emboldened, I moved a toast to “forbidden subjects”. I listed some of the forbidden subjects I’d written about, but said I was more interested in gambling, women, and beer than in politics.
My toast, a forbidden one: “May it be some day possible to again buy Czech beer in the Soviet Union.”
Silence. Watch the faces. For a fleeting moment the majority seemed pleased. Secret opponents? Perhaps I imagined it. Several failed to raise their glasses.
Next day, Alexei Surkov invited me to have lunch at the Hotel Tashkent. He is a good man, compromised like all of us by the Stalin years, but a good man. After preliminary pleasantries and toasts to wives and children and peace — the usual unintimate friendliness one often strikes in the USSR — it became clear that he was disturbed by my toast of the previous evening. “Dear Frank, what do you really think of the Czech situation?”
“What do you think of it?” I replied socratically. He made no bones about his support, shouting and gesticulating.
“Who invited the Soviet Army to come in?” I asked. “History!” he yelled. “We need no names. History invited us.”
Trying to calm him, I spoke allegorically, intending to be funny. “Alexei, the Chinese Communists say that the Soviet government is counter-revolutionary, is restoring capitalism. What if they sent their tanks into the streets of Moscow?”
His eyes blazed, he raised his fists, and yelled, “Let them come. They would like to do it. Let them come. We will kill them.”
We have known each other 20 years: which of us has changed?
Years ago, a Soviet writer told me, “In our Communist Party are some of our best people and all of our worst. Most party members join to make a career.”
I could not accept his word then, but the evidence of the years has convinced me. In the USSR a privileged bureaucracy rules supreme: some 10 million party members and about the same number of non-party professional men and officials.
The vast majority of them are careerists and philistines who pay only lip service to Communism to preserve their own power.
The old Bolshevik morality has passed into history and nothing has replaced it.
The Soviet bureaucracy has more in common with the American power elite than with any socialist or communist movement. The workers only appear to own Soviet industry just as wealthy families only appear to own American industry. The two power elites are really in control and are moving into unholy alliance to divide the world into spheres of influence. Of course, they continue to make propaganda against each other. The alliance is aimed at self-preservation and has the positive aspect of freeing the world from the threats of war between Russia and America.
In Russian terms, the Soviet bureaucracy is as privileged and wealthy as the American power elite. Indeed, the gap between the rich and the poor in Russia is, in many ways, as great as in America.
And they have the additional privilege of the “White Tass.” Tass agencies send news from all parts of the world, little of which is published in the press. But it is all published in the “White Tass” and distributed to the bureaucracy.
The bureaucrats have chauffeur-driven cars, private cars, a city flat and at least one country home. They travel widely on fat expense accounts. In the “party shops” they can buy goods on steep discounts and obtain local goods that are in short supply. While sneering at, or even jailing, so-called hooligans for buying foreign goods from tourists, they themselves use only the best foreign liquor, cigarettes and clothes, again purchased in the “party shops”. As their black official cars speed through the streets, the policeman’s whistle blows them through the red lights. Many of them complain that their children will neither study nor work consistently, but fail to admit that wealth has spoiled them. A generation has already grown up that has inherited wealth: cars, houses, personal goods, money.
One of the first decrees written by Lenin after the revolution was one cancelling the law of inheritance. The Council of People’s Commissions also decreed that no party official could earn more than the average skilled worker; this was known as the Party Norm. In the early 1930s Stalin cancelled both of these decrees as a calculated move to create a privileged class absolutely loyal to him.
In 1965, during dinner in novelist Kotchetov’s dacha, I suggested, in a joking manner, that these two decrees should be restored. State Prize-winning writers or painters of the Stalin school and their philistine wives, they turned on me like a pack of wolves. Why shouldn’t their children have the advantage of their labours even after they were dead? Didn’t Stalin say that without material incentives Communism could not be built?
No fool, Kotchetov toned it down: “One day, under Communism, everyone will have everything they want. Then these laws will be redundant.”
Meanwhile, the bureaucrats earn the “long” rouble and philistinism has come into its own. One is constantly struck in Moscow by the similarity of view between the Russian establishment and the establishment of Western capitalist countries. And their disagreements on major issues may be more apparent than real.
The philistinism has begun to infect the masses. Lack of commitment, pleasure-seeking, cynicism are rampant. “Prague is a long way away. Let the trouble stay over there”, shout the official slogans. “It is possible to live well — if you keep your nose clean.”
Undoubtedly the living standard has risen in the past three years, even for the lower income bracket. Some consumer goods are unobtainable or in short supply or of poor quality — but the privileged class grows larger and the unprivileged ones can aspire to “join the club”.
I was driven to the conclusion that the average Soviet citizen has little interest in politics. He has become disillusioned by the twists and turns of policy, with the lies told about history, with the unfulfilled plans, such as the absurd 1963 claim that the “material and technical basis of Communism” would be laid in 20 years at a time when flour was rationed.
They are proud of the achievements of the Soviet state with a fervour that sometimes amounts to great-nation chauvinism, but they are disgruntled with the way the government administers their lives.
The youth begin with idealism and end with cynicism. They no longer believe their leaders. They don’t read the press. They were on vacation when the Czechoslovak events occurred and I was reliably informed the majority strongly opposed it. Their reaction? “There will be trouble in our country in a few months — but nothing can be done.”
I had liked to believe that the younger generation growing up would transform the situation until a Leningrad writer told me, “That’s where you are wrong. Men like Sofronov are dreadfully mistaken, but you can struggle against them because they believe in something. The younger ones coming up believe in nothing — except their own power and privilege.”
It is a bleak thought, the older bureaucrats poisoned with Stalinism, the younger with cynicism, but there are processes at work that can change the situation, even if slowly. The main one is that the Soviet economy will begin to lag behind the technological age unless it is decentralised, unless it loosens up and grants more freedom. The liberal intelligentsia has great influence on the people. The more liberal concepts of Khrushchev still have millions of supporters. The youth are being superbly educated and a shift of forces at the top and a return to the days of the thaw would see them regain their idealism. The working class, although it has never experienced democratic processes before or after the revolution, is now skilled and educated and is historically bound to move towards self-management.
Meanwhile, what is likely to happen?
The bureaucracy will assuredly continue its dogmatic, aggressive policies at home and abroad. Further arrests of writers and anyone else who dares protest are on the cards. (Many of the KGB men who conducted the purges are still alive and working.) Censorship will remain complete. Further military adventures against socialist states, possibly Yugoslavia or Rumania, probably China, cannot be ruled out. But, as they have tolerated Tito’s defiance for 20 years and Rumania is a classical Stalinist one-party state that presents no ideological dangers, the eyes of the Soviet leaders are likely to watch the East more closely than ever. There is great fear of China in the USSR, and with good reason. The Maoists do not hide their ideological contempt for the Russian party or their determination to claim vast tracts of Siberia as traditionally Chinese.
Among the Soviet leaders, fear of China has replaced fear of West Germany and the USA. Indeed, the stage of Soviet diplomacy seems to be set for a secret deal with the USA to contain China. They still justify the pact with Hitler and would make an alliance with the devil if their power were at stake. If the Kremlin had a deal with Johnson, then it needed Humphrey, and they apparently persuaded Hanoi to parley with Washington at a convenient time a few days before the US elections. The move just failed, but now they must seek a deal with Nixon.
In these circumstances, the policy of peaceful coexistence becomes more important than ever. If the Soviet leaders become isolated, they will lash out at home to finally defeat the democratic trend.
Liberal, democratic Communists I met in Moscow feel that the Western European Communist Parties have been too soft in their criticism of the Czech invasion. They are convinced that only resolute public demands and an insistence that Stalinism as a political system be analysed and abandoned can save the situation.
Perhaps the influence of these parties is overestimated, for all the signs are that the Soviet leaders hold them in contempt since they have ceased to be instruments of Russian foreign policy. And leaders of the Italian, French, and British parties complain that they no longer even “speak the same language” as the Soviet leaders.
Indeed, Stalin’s heirs seem to be making moves to exploit the splinter groups that support the Czechoslovak action in several parties with a view to establishing breakaways. This certainly applies in Australia. In Tashkent on September 28 Yevgeny Yevtushenko read his verse in public for the first time for more than a year. Significantly, he read a new poem called Carpenter or Executioner about Peter the Great. It is a powerful poem on the same theme that while Peter was a carpenter as well as an executioner, Stalin was only an executioner.
The audience reaction was as unexpected as it was extraordinary: they clapped rhythmically and chanted for several minutes: “Recite Stalin’s Heirs, Zhenya!”
One is constantly aware that, in spite of everything, there is a giant sleeping in the USSR — a kindly, democratic giant.
On my last night in Moscow, Yevtushenko arranged a farewell party at his flat, of painters and writers. He explained impishly that they were good, trustworthy people — because all, including himself and Galia, had had at least one blood relation killed in the purges.
All things come to an end, and, in the small hours, I headed for the taxi rank, after saying goodbye to Zhenya and Galia Yevtushenko. Vasha Akyonov walked to the corner of the Aeroport Metro with me. It was hard to believe that this jovial, bull-necked man of 35 was, in fact, the baby Vasha in his mother’s book about the purges, Into the Whirlwind, who was brought up in those most evil of all 20th-century institutions; the homes for children of “Enemies of the People.”
As we parted, I had a terrible premonition that it will all happen again and that we were seeing each other for the last time.
He was looking at a 1969 calendar in a department store in Lungman Street. He might have walked out of an illustrated edition of The Good Soldier Schweik, with his turned-up nose, plump figure, and an expression that could convey stupidity or enigmatic wisdom.
Schweik studied the calendars earnestly and finally chose one. “There’s a bloody optimist,” I said to Hela Volanska, the Czech writer, “buying a 1969 calendar.”
Her round face lit up with a ready smile and she told him what I had said. “I need it,” Schweik said simply, “to count the days until they go away. In Prague, the most normal action can in some way be connected with the Soviet occupation and its consequences.
And Prague seems normal enough, but it is haunted by the ghosts of Schweik and Kafka’s Josef K, as the Russians strive with ruthless patience to add syllables and create normalisation.
Normal the lovers cuddling in Jan Neruda’s immortal little quarters of Prague; normal the long-haired hippies imitating Western patterns with an absurd zeal the Russians mistake for counter-revolution; normal the traffic jams aggravated by the eternal repairs to the city allowed to crumble by Novotny; normal the Tuzex girls fluttering hopefully in the lounges of the tourist hotels; normal the tankards of bubbleless beer in the profusion of small pub restaurants and the champagne corks popping in the Aleron Hotel; and the feeling of long history emanating from the St Vitus Cathedral, Hradcany Castle, and the Jan Hus statue saying: “Truth will prevail!” Normal the first taxi driver asking about Australia until he reveals the motive for his searching questions.
“Yes, Australia will be my homeland soon. If the Russians don’t go away, I will migrate to Australia. You can’t trust the Russians.”
And after looking in vain for the address I sought, he muttered, “They’ve taken the numbers off the houses, so the Russians can’t find anybody. Trouble is, neither can a taxi driver.” And normal my chat over tea with Hela Volanska and her husband, Joe, a television producer, about Australia and Russia.
But their main interest in Australia was to discover the attitude of the Communist Party to the intervention of the Five Powers. And about Russia, Hela asked, “Are there many who support us there? We heard on the BBC that Yevtushenko sent a telegram of protest.”
They listened avidly to my experiences in Moscow and Tashkent. Hela asked me to see her brother in Sydney and tell him she will never migrate. “I have experience with jail (I was once sentenced to death by the Germans); I have experience of concentration camps and guerrilla warfare in the mountains. I am too old to want those things again, but I will stay here no matter what happens. I have fought for the party all my life.”
And the Writers’ Club seemed normal. But I knew that until recently 140 Russian soldiers had been in occupation, and they had stolen union and party money, ballpoint pens, and all the hard liquor, they had broken chairs and lightshades and, using one large room on the fourth floor as a toilet, covered the floors with human excreta.
The young captain in charge had told the women office staff who re-entered the building that he didn’t like the Czech youth because the men wore long hair and the women short skirts. He had said there were 40,000 counter-revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia and he would bring his soldiers back if they were not found.
Normal the group huddled at the next table — until you learn that they are discussing a letter that was sent protesting against the “lying and slanderous” article in Literary Gazette, the organ of the Soviet Writers’ Union, attacking the president of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, Dr Edward Goldstucker.
“A gross violation of all principles of decency … We demand that the executive of the Soviet Writers’ Union repudiate this article and apologise for its publication. Otherwise, to our deep regret, further development of friendly relations will be placed under a serious threat.”
The students laughing as one reads from a newspaper. It is the newspaper News printed by the Russians in Dresden and distributed free in Prague. Deadly earnest in every line. One Czechoslovak journal described it as the only counter-revolutionary paper in Prague: it publishes stupid propaganda that makes a laughing stock of the occupying forces.
Normal Wenceslaus Square until you see the 2000 bullet holes in the walls of the museum gaping down like idiot mouths. And the burned-out buildings around the Prague Radio, grim reminders that the Russians were here and still lurk in the woods beyond the city boundaries.
Even in the city itself you may see them drive by in jeeps or larger vehicles while the locals pass without a sidelong glance. Normal to watch the intertel transmission of the Manchester United-Estudiantes Soccer match with Rudolph and Marta, and argue whether the last goal was disallowed for offside play or because the final whistle had blown. Normal until you remind yourself that Rudolph’s surname is Slanski and he is the son of the Rudolph Slanski who was executed for being a Zionist spy in 1952. And that Marta is his tragic sister, the youngest political prisoner in history, banished into exile before she was two years of age.
I had planned to go to Prague before August for a complex of reasons. Most important, I had begun work on a long novel seeking to explain in human, literary terms the political tragedy of my generation of Communists born in the year of the Russian Revolution — and that novel was to be set in three cities: Sydney, Moscow, and Prague.
“I will take my epoch upon my shoulders and answer for it — this day and for ever.” Part of the answer lay in Prague before August; now perhaps the whole answer lies here.
And I had been anxious to confirm that, at the end of a 30-year rebel journey that had begun with compassion and idealism, I could, after the blind faith defending the indefensible, the sense of guilt and the disenchantment, in the end find “socialism with a human face”.
The Czechoslovaks look back on the months between January and August 1968, as Australians look back on the 1890s as a time of national greatness passed into legend. They had proven that Communism could be democratic, that the repressive centralised norms of Stalinism, far from being an inevitable consequence of socialist production relations, were, in fact, foreign to them. They had proven that the press could be freer than even in the most democratic Western states, that workers would control production, that art could flourish free and untrammelled where Marxism held sway, that the innocent could be rehabilitated and guilty pardoned. They had proven that a Communist government could win the full, enthusiastic support of a whole nation.
I shared the ambivalent attitude of the Czechoslovaks to the tanks that surrounded the city, and to the uniforms of the men in the tanks. This army had once come here as a liberator, and I had seen it as the liberator of Europe and all humanity from the scourge of fascism.
But this army was here now as an oppressor that had crushed the dreams of a whole nation and the chance of rebirth for a whole generation of Communists into the cobblestones of Prague. And we wished they had not done it, as much for their sakes as for ours.
And always, whether I talked to writers, party or government officials, friends or casual acquaintances, the final question was: why?
You can get a variety of answers to that question in Prague, and perhaps it is true that no man, no party, no nation does anything for only one reason. Perhaps the Soviet leaders really believed there was an immediate military threat or a real danger of counter-revolution (perhaps they had even been fed false intelligence information by the CIA a la Tuckhachevski), or a fear that Czechoslovakia’s increased trade and contact with the West would lead her ultimately out of the socialist camp and the Warsaw Pact.
In the end, the main reason had to be fear of democracy, above all the fear that it would spread from Prague into Eastern Europe and finally into Moscow itself through the traditional lifeline by which progressive ideas traditionally reach the heart of Russia — the liberal intelligentsia.
Sometimes, walking in the streets of Prague at night, I had to shake my head to believe it had all happened, but I guess Prague would have seemed normal on the surface during the Nazi occupation — and the Czechs resisted them, actively as well as passively.
There is no counter-revolutionary movement in Czechoslovakia — there never was. But there is a party and a nation determined to build a democratic Communist society.
I believe that the Czechoslovak Communists and the Czechoslovak nation will not be diverted from this path by the monumental error of the Soviet occupation. But my journey to the new Mecca had the other purpose of gathering material and atmosphere to create the Czechoslovak characters and chapters of my novel. Chance is always on the side of he who places himself in the stream of history. One day I was talking to Gustav Bernau in the offices of the DILIA Literary Agency about my book on the Australian Aborigines, The Unlucky Australians. The appalling situation of our Aborigines seemed almost trivial and irrelevant in occupied Prague, and we discussed problems of translation in a desultory manner.
Suddenly he leaned over and said softly, “That woman who has just come in is Slanski’s widow.”
Slanski’s widow! I had begun to create characters: the widow of a composite Communist leader in Prague who fell victim in the “Moscow Trials” of 1951-52 and her daughter. I hadn’t known that Slanski’s widow was alive or if she actually had a daughter.
Bernau introduced us. She would be glad to welcome me at her flat at 5 o’clock. Her daughter would act as interpreter. I found the Slanski apartment on the outskirts of Prague. Mrs Slanski greeted me, a woman in her mid-fifties gone to fat and nervously chain-smoking, but the anguish etched on her face could not conceal a former beauty.
We conversed haltingly in her limited English and my atrocious Russian until her daughter, Marta, came home from college, where she is studying political science. Marta is a tall beauty of only 20 years who manages to be optimistic and a very modern girl in spite of her nightmarish childhood.
Mrs Slanski proudly showed me the Order of Socialism framed on the wall, which had been presented to Rudolph Slanski in 1951. It was to be the highest Czechoslovak Communist decoration, but only one was ever presented — for three months later Slanski had been arrested. His oldest friend and the very man who had signed the order, Clement Gottwald, gave way to pressure from Moscow and charged Slanski with being a Zionist spy. Slanski was eventually executed in the dungeons of Pankrac prison.
She told me she had written a book, Report On My Husband, which was published in London by Hutchinson. She had begun work on the book while still in exile because she decided “to tell my children the truth about their father. They had read only bad things about him.”
She told me she had stopped work until Pavel Kohout condemned the Slanski trial at the Writers’ Congress in 1963. She approached him and he encouraged her to work again on the book. When the Novotny leadership was defeated in January 1968 the book was accepted for publication. Extracts appeared, but after the occupation the book itself was struck off the publisher’s list.
Rudolph Slanski Jr came home from his work at a factory that produces office furnishings. He is 35 years of age and wears his black hair brushed back. He lived in Moscow with his parents as a child during the war and was exiled with his mother to a village known as the “Czech Siberia”.
After his father’s rehabilitation in the early 1960s he joined the Communist Party. He is extremely interested in politics and has one of the best Marxist minds I have ever encountered.
I sensed he might be trying to prove something by following his father’s footsteps, but he said, “No, I remember my father as a good man and a sincere Communist, but I do not idealise him. In his two volumes of writing there are good articles but also bad ones.”
Mrs Slanski said the main evidence against him had been his insistence on the Czechoslovak brand of socialism.
A cartoon had been published at the time picturing Slanski playing a pipe marked “Treachery” with the lyrics coming front it “Czech Road to Socialism” and the eleven “rats” charged with him followed behind. (Russian thinking hasn’t changed much since 1952, I thought.) She continued, “Many reckon that his article on the occasion of Gottwald’s 50th birthday about the Czech road to socialism gave people the idea for the January Program.”
“It made a great article,” Rudolph admitted, “but he also wrote stupid dogmatic articles.” He said his father was a product of his times. Not only he but Gottwald expounded the Czech road to socialism idea — but only until the Cominform attacked Tito in 1949. After that the “Soviet-model” line was adopted by Slanski as well as Gottwald.
Mrs Slanski said her second reason for writing her book was to help prevent such terrible things happening again.
They are all supporters of the January Program. “We have shown that socialism can have a human face as well as economic progress.” Mrs Slanski said that she refused to discuss the Soviet occupation.
Mrs Slanski talked of her exile in the Croatian village “Siberia.” It was extremely cold in winter and Marta contracted pneumonia six times; she, herself, developed chronic asthma. “And our guards slept with us in the same bed, a woman with me and a man with Rudolph.”
She admitted that once, for a brief moment, she believed her husband might have been guilty when she was told that Stalin knew of his guilt. But after her first prison meeting with her husband she knew Stalin was a liar.
I was to see them often during my fortnight in Prague. They are the stuff of which tragedy is made, yet there were moments when they seemed a normal family with normal problems.
The search for novel atmosphere took me to the grim shadows beneath the walls of Pankrac prison. I went there with Marta Slanski in a taxi.
Recalling my strange memories of this jail I forgot for a moment that her memories were of a more bitter, tragic, guiltless variety. The taxi driver said, “The prisoners are in that building.” “No, my friend,” I thought, “they are in the dungeons below, most of them.”
For I have the dubious honour of being perhaps the only foreigner ever to penetrate Pankrac’s bars into her deepest dungeons with the probable exception of the Russian secret policemen who plied their trade here in the 1950s.
I visited Pankrac in October 1951, about a month before Slanski was arrested. I went there naively by one of those strange twists of fate that my generation of Communists seem to have been prey to. A Prague publisher had asked me to write a piece about Julius Fuchik, the official hero of the Gottwald regime. He had written a book called Notes From the Gallows right here in Pankrac jail during a torturous imprisonment by the Nazis, which had ended in his execution. Julius Fuchik was a Czech Communist intellectual who was arrested after becoming editor of the illegal party newspaper Rude Pravo, in 1940. He was a man of truly heroic proportions and his book had deeply moved me.
I readily agreed to contribute the article. But I needed more material. The publishers were very co-operative: they arranged for me to meet Fuchik’s widow and the ex-warden who had smuggled his manuscript out of the jail, sheet by sheet.
Then I asked to inspect his cell and the dungeon torture chambers of Pankrac, which, judging from photos in the English edition of the book, had been preserved in their “natural state”.
My request was greeted with awkward silence, evasion and delay. It should be remembered that I enjoyed a special position in the estimation of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, just as I did on my most recent visit for different reasons. In 1951, I was a virtual emigre living in Dobschesh, the Czech writers’ retreat. I had left Australia after my acquittal in the Power Without Glory criminal proceedings in June 1951, because fears were held for my physical safety and because I was believed likely to be one of the first victims of the ban on the Communist Party, planned to result from a referendum held in November 1951. I returned to Australia only after the people voted “No” in the referendum.
I waited naively for my apparently reasonable request to be acceded to. I had not even begun to shake off my blind faith in Soviet Russia which had grown in me during the hungry 1930s when I looked to Communism as the lever that could overturn the society that had heaped such indignity on my generation.
Looking back through the 17 years between, I realise that the past remembered is never the past as it actually happened, but truth means more to me now than even self-respect, and, recalling the incident as clearly as I can, I must record my state of mind as I went to the gates of Pankrac in an official black car with an interpreter.
I believed that not only the dungeon, where Fuchik had lived out his agony, but the whole of Pankrac prison would be a museum to remind the Communist present of the fascist past — and anyway, if I had known the place was full of prisoners, I would have, actually did, believe them to be either criminals or counter-revolutionary enemies of the Communist state, who deserved nothing better than prison.
To my astonishment I found the place packed with prisoners in drab uniforms — and the escorting prison officer made no attempt to hide the fact. Far from it. Having guided me down a dark staircase to the first basement, he opened a door to reveal a large room in which six or seven men, wearing artists’ smocks, were painting at easels. One had almost completed an excellent portrait of Stalin.
Was this some nightmare? Artists in jail painting portraits of their jailer? The uniformed officer explained through the interpreter, “They are preparing for the celebrations of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution; they have made banners as well as portraits.”
Celebrating the revolution in jail. I must he dreaming. No, the eyes of those men are full of anguish — and hatred for me who comes when even their relatives may not — are real. I fled that dreadful room.
The official led me down another flight of stairs deeper into the dungeons and, coming up yet another flight, I saw several women dressed in prison uniforms. They carried buckets, brooms and mops. They hurried, to the insistent urging of a warder behind them, into a room full of women, cleaning and scrubbing the floors and walls. I could scarcely drag my feet across the threshold.
Inside I managed to mumble, “I would like to speak to some of them.” The officer called out in Czech, “Does anyone speak English?” A beautiful Czech woman with black hair came towards us.
“I speak English,” she said with little accent.
“Why are you here?” I stammered.
“For hiding a boy.”
“What had he done?” “I don’t know. He was running from the secret police and I hid him. He was my friend.”
“How long will you be here?”
“I don’t know.”
“How are you treated here?”
“Not worse than in any prison, I suppose. But why are there so many?”
I could think of no reply.
“Why are there so many of us here?”
I turned toward the door trembling. Outside, I told the young interpreter, who seemed as aghast as I was, to never repeat what she had said. She had enough trouble. Then the officer led the way down to the deepest dungeon, to the Fuchik museum.
A museum for nobody. Nobody ever visited this dreadful place from the past, because to enter they must witness the dreadful present.
Inspecting the Nazi torture chamber, the racks and whips and bloodstained walls — I had to repulse a horrible, treacherous thought that perhaps this was not a museum at all but a torture chamber still in use.
The memory of that weird hour has pursued me down the years like the hound of heaven. I have often in a quiet, guilt-ridden moment pondered why the prison official showed me so much, what had become of the black-haired girl. And why haven’t I written it before? Simply because, enmeshed in the web of Stalinism, I believed that to do so would have been an anti-Communist act.
I can claim to have written with truth and integrity — but for a Communist born in 1917 there were some truths that could not be told. At least that is what I used to believe, that is how I used to react as in a Pavlovian reflex.
Now I want to write the whole truth whether it harms Communism or not. And it will be not me, but those who commit crimes in the name of Communism, who harm it.
I had intended reserving that incident for my novel, but I am glad it is over with. I got out of the taxi to take notes and make sketches. A guard in a tower looked down suspiciously. Marta said, “They will think you are planning an escape.”
We inspected the High Court building in front of the jail. Her father was tried here. She told me that the executioner who had supervised the killings had recently said on the television in Italy that her father was the last of the 11 to be shot in Pankrac dungeons. He had died bravely.
A van drove up. The automatic prison doors closed behind it. She became too distressed to stay longer, and we drove away, soon to pass the headquarters of the Soviet occupation troops in the Russian language school building. Two tanks stood in front and guards on every door and gate. I glanced at Marta, who sat with pouted lips, limp and sad, and I wondered what she was thinking.
The events of January to August 1968 in Czechoslovakia had a strong element of spontaneity: the leaders tended to be carried along by the mass explosion; the leaders did not create events, they tended to be created by them. But after the second Moscow Conference the situation was reversed. The people waited for the leaders to take the initiative.
The Russians had insisted that the discussions be kept secret but, in fact, a full account had reached as far as the presidiums of regional committees of the party.
The tone adopted by the Russians had been quite as brusque as at the first conference. Brezhnev began by saying that there was nothing to discuss — except that the Czechoslovaks had carried out only three of the 15 points agreed upon in August. When the Czechoslovaks complained that 6000 of the army officers had had to leave their homes and quarters in favour of Red Army officers, they were told, “There are plenty of places to send them, the Chinese border for instance. We have power to send them there under the Warsaw Pact Agreement.”
The Czechoslovaks tried to quote statements by Western Communist Parties but Brezhnev interrupted. “They have gone over to reformism. We are not interested in what they say. There is no hope of revolution in the West. We must consolidate the Socialist Commonwealth.”
At one stage the Russians threatened to dissolve the Czechoslovak party and set up a military government. They insisted that Dubcek revoke the program of April 1968, and tell the people it was against their interests and criticise his whole post-January policy.
They gave example after example of inadequate censorship of the mass media and insisted on further tightening up. They demanded that the Czechoslovaks admit there had been a grave danger of counter-revolution and that the Five Power occupation had been justified.
The recent appointments to the National Council must remain, with no election to be held. The Fourteenth Party Congress must be declared illegal and the delegates co-opted from it to the Central Committee sacked. The Party Congress must be further postponed and new delegates elected. The plan for a congress to form a Czech Party as part of the move to federalise the country into two states and parties must be abandoned.
They asserted that “real” Marxist-Leninists like Indra and Holder should be given more power in the party and state. Joseph Smrkovsky, president of the National Assembly, replied that Holder was a drunkard without mass support who had been recalled from parliament by a petition of 30,000 of his electors and that they could scarcely be expected to give Indra more power after he had tried to sentence them to death in August.
But the Russians insisted that Indra replace Spacek in charge of party rules and organisation and that Bilak take over the international department. The Russians also demanded the arrest of counter-revolutionaries. They did not, as at the first Moscow Conference, emphasise the threat from the West’s intelligence agencies and anti-socialist elements, but seemed to be looking for counter-revolutionaries within the party itself.
“What kind of police chiefs do you appoint?” Brezhnev asked. “No one was arrested between January and August. We asked for a change and you appointed Belnar and he arrests no one either.”
News travels fast by word of mouth in a city where none is published. Within a few days of the return of Dubcek from Moscow, the people knew much of what had happened — and they waited.
“Before August the leaders always told us everything,” people said, “and all issues were discussed in the mass media, now only silence.”
The city was alive with rumours that Dubcek (and other leaders) would resign, and most people seemed to hope he would. Then they would know who they were fighting. “We want to struggle, make gestures, but we are afraid to embarrass Dubcek.”
Then Dubcek addressed some factory workers. Part of the speech was televised and the whole nation watched with bated breath.
I watched the television. It was a strange, contradictory mixture. Even without knowing the Czech language, you could judge from Dubcek’s face and delivery when he was stating his own ideas from his heart (fluently with a ready smile) or ideas insisted upon by the Russians (with a stammer and a pained expression).
Public reaction was complex. People had read the truth between the stammers and smiles, but they were, at first, frankly disappointed.
One writer told me, “It will be terrible if the Russian leaders achieve their aims in Dubcek’s name. That would be the biggest tragedy of all, for him and for us.”
Then, gradually, one main idea dawned on the city like the rising sun. Dubcek had, in fact, defied the invaders. They had asked for arrests, none were made; and he had not criticised the Action Program, nor welcomed the troops, nor accepted that there had been a danger of counter-revolution. And there was no sign that the censorship had become any more strict.
The situation became transformed. People began to dream again and prepare to act to make their dreams come true. As is often the case in modern reform movements, the initiative in Czechoslovakia passed from the intelligentsia to the working class. The writers were hesitant to act for fear of appearing to confirm the Russian accusation that they were a centre of counter-revolution, but the workers had no such qualms.
Resolutions poured into the Central Committee from the factories, making three main demands: that they be told the truth about recent events; that the lying propaganda of the Five Powers be answered; and that no further concessions be made.
Even Kosygin’s visit to sign the treaty legalising the presence of some foreign troops did not dampen the new fighting spirit. The television coverage showed the Soviet leader managing a sheepish smile like a child caught stealing sweets, but the cameras panned on to Cernik scowling, Smrkovsky shrugging, Dubcek on the verge of tears, and Svoboda proudly aloof — and the people knew that the presence of troops was not the final issue.
The final issue was: could the Action Program be implemented, could a return to Stalinist norms be avoided?
The Czechoslovak dispute cannot be posed simply as one lying between the Communist Parties of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. For the truly Marxist democratic ideas which are dominant in the Czechoslovak Party exist in the Soviet Union and the dogmatic distortions of Marxism that dominate the Soviet Party exist in the Czechoslovak Party through Indra and his supporters. In fact, both of these trends exist in all Communist Parties (and that is leaving aside the complication of Maoism).
So the struggle for democratic Communism concerns the Russians as much as the Czechoslovaks and, in attacking it by force the Soviet bureaucrats acted as much out of fear of their own masses as of the Czechoslovak masses.
There remains an extreme probability of an open split in the leadership of the Czechoslovak Party. If a split comes it could favour one side or the other according to the circumstances. Of course, if the Russians ever permit the Fourteenth Party Congress to be held, it will undoubtedly elect an entirely democratic presidium. Everyone believes Dubcek is a “good honest man”. He is still very popular but his whole experience has been in the party apparatus, which renders him prone to seek solutions at the top. But this very “goodness” might lead him to suddenly revolt against the inhuman pressure the Russians are keeping on him — and he would know how to use the apparatus for this purpose.
What can the even now dominant Dubcek-Smrkovsky group achieve under present circumstances? Well, they are in a stronger position to resist the Soviet dogmatists than they were in August, probably in a stronger position than they themselves realise. For one thing, the Russians are not so insensitive as not to realise what a mess they have got themselves into with the world Communist movement scattered to the four winds and their ideological authority in the world at an all-time low. They might be prepared to cut their losses and settle for a “Hungarian-style” solution. That is the gradual restoration of Stalinist norms with modifications and the eventual withdrawal of troops, in the hope that Dubcek or one of his associates will slowly, if reluctantly, turn into a Czechoslovakian Kadar or Gomulka.
Of course, the whole Czech tradition lends itself to such a solution, but all the signs are that the Dubcek group is well aware of its place in history and will resist the very thought of it being achieved in their name. So the situation remains explosive and pregnant with contradiction and change.
The clash of wills could not be sharper. The Czechoslovaks want to proceed with the Action Program and to restore democracy; the Russians want to destroy the Action Program, restore Stalinism as a political system, and arrest “counter-revolutionaries” to justify the invasion.
It would be a brave man who would try to prophesy what will happen, but there are many pointers to dramatic change taking place.
With nationalist feelings boiling over, a recurrence of the demonstrations and students’ sit-ins which occurred on October 28 and November 7 might be touched off by any crisis or even by a seemingly trivial incident.
The Russians and the Indra group want to ease Smrkovsky out of positions of power. Many factories threatened strike action when he was replaced as president of the National Assembly. He remains on the party presidium. Television workers threatened with the sack have been invited to work in various factories under the protection of the Workers’ Militia.
The Russians deeply resent the sullen hostility with which they have been greeted since August 21. Like the Americans, they want to be loved. Both peoples are badly infected with great-nation chauvinism. Within the present power structure they are impelled to do hateful things, and, paradoxically, this makes them desire all the more earnestly to be loved. The Russians have insisted that Soviet plays be performed in the theatre and on television. They want Soviet films in the cinemas (there was one on when I was there and the hall was empty). Madame Furtsov, the Soviet Minister of Culture, is asking for bigger and better cultural exchanges.
The censorship is another explosive point. It is one thing to impose it, quite another to implement it. Censorship was the main bone of contention at both Moscow conferences. The Russians have had some successes: books like Dr Zhivago, Mrs Slanski’s Memoirs, and the play on the Slanski trial have been struck off. Firm censorship has been imposed on the Party daily, Rude Pravo.
But when the Russians insisted the Czechoslovaks sack its editor they were furious when an even more democratic man was appointed in his place. Then the journal Politika, also published by the party, began to publish political articles far worse from the Russian point of view than anything ever published in Rude Pravo. Now the Russians have threatened to close down Politika. They banned the Journalist Union’s newspaper, Reporter, but it resumed publication after a threat of legal action by the union.
The cartoonists are still having a field day. One showed a politician landing at Prague airport with mass media people rushing to interview him. “Before I say anything I want to telephone the Ministry of Pensions,” he announced.
The occupying authorities insisted that all anti-Soviet slogans be removed from the walls of Prague. One of the most offensive was the battle cry of the Czech International Brigade in the Spanish War, now applied to the Russians: “They shall not pass.” No sooner was it removed from the wall than it appeared on a matchbox issued for the 50th anniversary celebrations.
Dubcekites remain in most of the key mass media posts. The press and television have begun again to publicise openly critical resolutions from the factories, and Dubcek himself invited polemics in reply to the propaganda of the Five Powers in a recent speech.
The adoption by the students of self-immolation, an extreme obviously foreign to the Czech tradition of intellectual passive resistance, measures the fervour of the feeling for freedom.
The workers insist that no further concessions be made, they oppose the treaty legalising the occupation, and they demand to be told the truth. Their potential for struggle goes deeper and is greater than that of the intellectuals. The writers, for instance, can survive by translating; they can work on their books and wait. But the workers need the Action Program for their very living standards and they are more naturally interested in the economic reforms.
For example, 140 large factories had prepared plans to set up employees’ councils for self-management of industry aimed at increasing productivity and living standards. The occupation authorities have said no to these councils because they savour of Titoism, but the factory plans proceed.
The workers are demanding that all aspects of the economic reform be proceeded with. This will be impossible without decentralised production, increased trade with the West as envisaged, and full democracy in the party and the country. The Russians will not agree and living standards are sure to fall.
The situation is such in the factories that a general strike could easily occur. In fact, widespread strike action is certain if the Dubcek leadership is deposed or resigns, or alternatively indicates that it wants open resistance. If either the Russian or Czechoslovak leaders lose patience, open struggle is sure to break out.
Short of using naked force against the whole working class, upon what forces could the Russians rely? At the top, only on Indra and his few discredited supporters and Novotnyites appointed to key positions in the trade unions and the party. The postponement of the various congresses and elections is aimed at giving the Novotny forces time to regroup, and for the Russians to find a centre grouping, possibly led by Husak, who will “accept the inevitable”. And if the Czechs agree to put Indra in charge of party organisation, he might be able to promote a few more dogmatists. There are signs that a small minority of the Czech secret police are prepared to co-operate with the Russians.
Apart from this, the only support the dogmatists have in the country seems to be unpredictably among the Moravian Roman Catholic vineyard state farmers, who grew rich under Novotny and feel threatened by the economic reforms, and predictably among the 300 “old Communists” who met recently.
But the Czechoslovak party called a mass meeting of “old Communists” which demonstrated that the 300 are only a small minority. So that, if the Czechs baulk at the Russian pressure, as soon they must, the occupation forces have no real base in the country.
Something is sure to crack; someone is sure to lose patience. Something will happen. No one can predict exactly what.
The clash of wills is likely to lead to a result that is no one’s aim.
Time would appear to be on the side of the Soviet bureaucracy (in the final analysis a lot will depend on a change of heart or leadership in Moscow). But, in the long run, time is on the side of the Czechoslovak democrats. The Dubcek brand of democratic Communism has an air of historical inevitability about it.