In January 2011, the Slovak government’s special prosecutor’s office, “due to the lack of witnesses”, decided to close an investigation into the former head of the Slovak Communist Party, Vasil Bil’ak. At the time, Bil’ak, was 93 years old and the only living person who signed the letter inviting Warsaw Pact forces to invade Czechoslovakia. All other “comrades in crime” had passed away.
Bil’ak, along with other conservative CSSR Communist functionaries, had been charged with sending Brezhnev “the letter”, where they asked for “fraternal aid” in fighting “rightist’ forces” with “all means available.” Subsequently, on August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia and stayed there until 1989. Bil’ak remained in power as a member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (ÚV KSČ Secretary). He also retained a hardline reputation, resisting Gorbachev’s perestroika until the end.
The reason the investigation dragged along for more than 20 years was the reluctance of witnesses to give testimony, as well as, and most importantly, the refusal of Russia to provide the original copy of the letter. Available copies went through countless graphology assessments, which were not conclusive enough for the newly independent legal system. Ironically, Bil’ak and his comrades were eventually protected by the democratic system that they were fighting. Slovak Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský said in 2001 that he would not ask Slovak President Rudolf Schuster to grant an amnesty to Biľak.
It is peculiar that, for a long time, those who signed this infamous letter refused to confirm it. Thus, the names of the signatories remained secret, at least until the end of the communist rule. Another mystery has been how the letter was actually handed to the Soviet leaders over the heads of the Czechoslovakian rulers of the time (Alexander Dubček and Oldřich Černík).
Enter Petro Yukhymovych Shelest [Петро Юхимович Шелест] who, from 1963 through 1972, was the First Secretary of the Communist party in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR. What is less known about him is that he was very deeply involved in shaping Soviet policies toward the “Prague Spring,” which resulted in a military invasion and the removal of the country’s leadership. A recently released edition of his diaries („Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. Diaries and memoirs of the CPSU CC Politburo Member” Moscow, Tsentrpoligraph, 2016) sheds a new light on some of the “mysteries” still surrounding events prior to and during the Soviet military invasion.
Shelest, a hard line Communist, very early saw the Czechoslovak reformist movement as a threat to the Party rule. In his diary, which he (unusually for a Soviet nomenclature member) kept since 1953, Shelest recorded his frequent discussions with the CSSR Communist leaders as well as with his boss – Leonid Brezhnev. He also described in detail meetings of the Warsaw Pact leadership that dealt with the CS events. According to Shelest, Brezhnev’s position, at least initially, was to trust Dubček, or at least to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was Communist leaders from Poland (Gomulka) and the GDR (Ulbricht) who insisted on using force.
Shelest, whose country shared a border with Czechoslovakia, used regional/oblast Communist leaders ( and presumably the KGB) for keeping close contact with the developments in the neighboring country. This insider information was periodically reported to Moscow, but apparently, Brezhnev, unlike Petro Shelest, did not believe that situation was getting critical. This eventually allowed the Ukrainian leader to place blame on Brezhnev for letting events develop in a way that made military invasion inevitable.
The only trusted comrade and friend in the CSSR who had Shelest’s complete trust was Vasil Bil’ak. Bil’ak who, according to Shelest, considered himself a Ukrainian (although his biographers insist that he was from a family of Rusyn ethnicity) had been his confidant and kept asking for the harder action towards the Prague leaders who he considered “revisionists”. Eventually, Shelest insisted that Bil’ak and his conservative comrades write a letter to the Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders asking for “fraternal help”.
The story of this letter and its delivery to Moscow deserves to be told in detail. Bil’ak agreed to deliver the letter at the end of July 1968, during the WP leadership meeting with the CZ counterparts in Čierna nad Tisou. On August 1, 1968, Shelest came to Bratislava where he met with Bil’ak and asked about the letter. He said that the letter would be delivered the next day. It had been indeed delivered under the most conspiratorial precautions with the help of a KGB officer named Savchenko. At 20.00, on August 3, 1968, in a BRATISLAVA PUBLIC TOILETT (!) BIL’AK HANDED THE LETTER TO SHELEST. Savchenko supplied security.
The letter said that “Socialism is under threat” and the Soviet comrades should “stop counter-revolution and prevent civil war and bloodshed”. It had been signed by Indra, Bil’ak, Kolder, Babirek, Kapek, Rigo, Piler, Švestka, Kofman, Lenart and Strougal. Shelest delivered the letter to Brezhnev who did not expected it and “took it with his hands shaking and looking shocked”. Later, Brezhnev thanked him and said “they” will not forget Shelest’s help. As the former Ukrainian leader ironically added in his memoirs: ”Brezhnev did not forget me, indeed, and soon get rid of me as unneeded witness and active participant of his dealings with Czechoslovakian crisis”.
The decision to invade was discussed with the leaders of the WP (with exception of Romania) and “wholeheartedly approved”. Shelest’s memoirs include some of the interesting and little-known details about the invasion planning and execution.
Getting ready to invade Czechslovakia?
The following are some of the details:
- ▲ Prior to invasion, the Soviet Minister of Defense, Marshal Grechko, called his Czechoslovak counterpart General Dzur. Grechko said that if the Czech army fires even one shot at the Soviets, “Dzur will be hanged on the nearest tree…” In the fist two days of invasion (21-22.08), the Soviets’ losses consisted of 20 killed, 65 wounded, 10 tanks and one helicopters. General Dzur was not hanged.
- ▲ Brezhnev ordered the KGB and military to detain and forcibly deport from the country Dubcek, Cernik, Smrkovsky, Kriegel, Špacek and Šimon. The head of the Ukrainian KGB, Nikitenko, received orders from Moscow to prepare isolated locations for 6-8 people (not a jail). He asked Shelest for advice, who suggested special government dachas near Uzhgorod, Ukraine. On August 22, 1968, all six detainees, separately from each other, were taken by the BTRs to the Trans Carpathian location called Kamenets.
- ▲ Initially, Dubček and Černík were very agitated and cried, asking about their future fate while Smrkovsky and Kriegel behaved defiantly and even “arrogant”. The following day they were moved to Moscow where they were joined by Svoboda, Husak, Bil’ak, Indra, Piller, Dzur and Kucera. In Moscow, according to Shelest’s account, the Czechoslovak delegation constantly argued, while Dubček “was drinking a lot and having hysterical bouts”.
The Czechoslovak delegation had been forced to sign the so-called Moscow Protocol, which allowed Warsaw Pact troops to be permanently stationed in their country. Shelest remembers that this signing took some “persuasion”, which kept the Czechoslovak delegation in Moscow for four days before they signed. The only person who refused to sign was Kriegel. That infuriated Brezhnev, who refused to allow Kriegel to return to the CSSR without signing the document. Svoboda and Bil’ak asked Shelest to help persuade Brezhnev to let Kriegel go. This was not an easy task: Leonid Ilyich only agreed after Podgornyi, and Kosygin insisted that, by keeping Kriegel, Brezhnev would make him a hero back home. Eventually, the whole delegation came back to Prague on August 28, 1968. Later, Kriegel said that he thought that he would be sent directly to Siberia and “he was prepared to go”.
A final note about Bil’ak. At the time of the invasion, his wife, son and daughter were in Kiev, “as political immigrants”. Prior to the WP invasion, his daughter had been with a tour group in London. Bil’ak asked Shelest to help bring his daughter to Kiev immediately. Shelest remembers that, “through appropriate channels”, Bil’ak’s daughter was secretly delivered to Kiev, which apparently caused quite an uproar in the U.K.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some historians and politicians have claimed that Shelest was removed from his position as First Secretary of the Ukrainian CP due to his “nationalist” policies. However, the diaries show him a rather conventional Soviet party apparatchik whose national policies were based on loyalties to both Soviet Ukraine and to the greater Soviet Union. His removal was due to disagreement and criticism of Brezhnev’s ruling style, as well as his role in the Czechoslovakia invasion, which, according to Petro Shelest, could have been prevented by an early removal of Dubček and Černík or an introduction of martial law.