Coups in the Kremlin
What the History of Russia’s Power Struggles Says About Putin’s Future
For the first time since the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia, liberalizing forces are emerging and making headway. In 1963, ten years after Stalin's death, one of the last bastions of classical Stalinism began cautiously to de-Stalinize, rehabilitating the ghosts of the Slansky trial and purging from the government some of those who were most responsible for Stalinist crimes. Up to the fall of 1963 the most significant event in this evolution was the dismissal, on September 20, of the Prime Minister, Viliam Siroky, an old-time Stalinist wheel in the Slovak Communist Party, along with a number of other members of the government who had been deeply compromised by their activities during the period of the "cult of personality." But others, primarily President Antonin Novotny himself, still held the reins of power and were consequently dragging their feet in implementing a process that ultimately was bound to cause their own downfall.
How far the process would go, spurred by internal economic and political unrest, depended on the interplay of a number of national and international political factors. One was the extent of the régime's control over developments at home. Specifically, what means of pressure or coercion could Novotny and his group still employ against the opposition, which had emerged into the open and had become an acknowledged fact? Another was to what extent the demands for a serious revision of Stalinism and the liquidation of its residues were, in addition to being a conflict between the intellectuals and the party, a conflict also between the Czech and Slovak Communist Party apparatuses. If the latter, it would indicate a more serious power struggle.
It appears that Novotny had this contingency very much in mind when he appointed another Slovak, Jozef Lenart, to succeed Siroky in the post of Prime Minister. Lenart is less well known than his predecessor and held no important position during the Stalinist period. He was graduated from a Moscow Central Committee cadre school in the 1950s, after Khrushchev had come to power, and should therefore be more acceptable to the Slovak Communist Party.
The Czech Communists, well-conditioned apparatchiks, have invariably been the first to follow the lead of their Soviet comrades and are among the most obedient of all the satellites. Yet Khrushchev must have worried at the continued presence of an unrepentant Stalinist in control of the country. While Novotny ostentatiously sided with Khrushchev in the Russo- Chinese ideological dispute, the unpopularity of his régime remained an embarrassing problem, as did the danger that the revolt of the Czech and Slovak intellectuals might undermine the stability of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.[i]
By its structure and character the Novotny clique in Czechoslovakia, like that of Walter Ulbricht in East Germany and Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in Rumania, belongs spiritually in the tough Chinese camp.[ii] The Czechs and East Germans are, moreover, on the most exposed flank of the Soviet bloc, geographically and politically. Presumably, de-Stalinization could put them more securely on Khrushchev's side; but de-Stalinization in those two countries is fraught with danger. The instability of the Ulbricht régime is notorious, but the elimination of it could have unforeseeable consequences, as was demonstrated by the July 1953 uprising in Berlin. And whatever happens in Czechoslovakia is likely to affect East Germany, for the two are joined together like Siamese twins.
The problem of de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia has hinged on the trial of Rudolf Slansky, former secretary general of the party and second most powerful man in the state, and his 13 co-defendants. According to the rules, it was the most perfect postwar Stalinist performance. Slansky's execution paved the way for the complete take-over of power by Klement Gottwald and his followers within the apparatus. (Novotny was a leading member of Gottwald's group and succeeded him as President of the Republic on the latter's death.)
Two weeks after Slansky and those tried with him were executed, on December 3, 1952, Karol Bacilek, Minister of National Security, publicly thanked Gottwald and members of his group for their help in bringing the trial to a successful conclusion: "With the great assistance of comrades Gottwald, Zapotocky, Dolansky, Kopecky and, most of all, of comrade Novotny, materials were acquired from the party apparatus and the various ministries. Of great value were materials from the Ministry of National Defense, gained with the active help of comrade Cepicka . . . and from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where comrade Siroky personally aided in evaluating the information."[iii]
In 1954, in the period of the thaw that followed Stalin's death, the Minister of the Interior, Rudolf Barak, a relatively new man who held no top party or government position during the Stalinist terror, and who therefore can be considered comparatively uninvolved, became the chairman of the commission for revision of the political trials (1948-1952). Presumably, the constitution of this commission was meant to usher in a new era and serve as a lever for the liquidation of the "cult of personality."
Novotny, however, steadfastly refused to consider any kind of revision of the Slansky verdict, and as a result the work of the commission was largely shelved.[iv] Damaging material, however, remained in the possession of Barak, who had become Minister of the Interior. In 1961 he and a group of his supporters judged that the situation was ripe for action. Novotny succeeded, however, in ousting him from his key position, and replaced him by his own nominee and supporter, Lubomir Strougal. Ostensibly, Barak was on the way out.
At a session of the Czech Communist Party Central Committee in November 1961, Novotny again rejected any "irresponsible and unjustified" demands for a revision of the Slansky trial. What followed is not clear. According to some sources, Barak and police troops supporting him were ready to move in at a given moment and arrest Novotny on a charge of "violating socialist legality." Novotny, however, outman?vred Barak, had the latter arrested on February 9, 1962, expelled from the Communist Party and charged with sedition, corruption and economic crimes.
Interestingly enough, in November 1961, three months prior to Barak's arrest, the Albanian Communist Party organ Zeri i Popullit suddenly unleashed a full-scale attack on Barak, calling him a spy and Khrushchev's agent, and predicting that he would be arrested and tried, thus revealing an inside line between the Albanian Communists and the Novotny group.
If we believe the Albanian Communists, who seem to have been well informed on the Barak case, it is not improbable that Khrushchev may have chosen Barak to effect a gradual change in Czechoslovakia from within the apparatus, with the ultimate aim of increasing the popularity of the Czech régime, which in the last few years has been in critical need of a larger popular basis. In any case, for as yet unexplained reasons, in the course of preparing for Barak's trial, the charges of sedition were dropped and only those of corruption and economic crimes retained. This providential circumstance most probably saved his life and prevented another trial on the Slansky model. Barak was tried in secret by a military court and sentenced to 15 years in prison for misappropriating state funds. Thus Novotny succeeded in eliminating the only member of his équipe who was not involved in the crimes of the Stalin period and barred any possibility that a general change would be forced from within the apparatus.
His victory was short-lived, however. The intensification of the Russo- Chinese conflict and worsening economic conditions in Czechoslovakia put new pressure on Novotny and made it in Khrushchev's interest that the rigid and unpopular Czech government undergo a transformation, even if gradual. Some pressure may have been applied. The alarming increase in food shortages in Czechoslovakia may be partly because the Soviet Union has not fulfilled its commitments for agricultural exports to that country. (Czechoslovakia was forced to buy 300,000 tons of Canadian wheat in 1961 and another 120,000 tons in 1963.) Novotny himself complained, at a meeting of the Central Committee on April 12, 1962, that socialist countries had failed to meet their export quotas.
But the failure of the Soviet Union to meet its export commitments to Czechoslovakia is by no means the most important reason for the country's protracted agricultural crisis. This is rooted in the national economic planning and has affected the industrial sector of the economy as well. Novotny put his finger on a fundamental cause for shortages and the low standard of living when he revealed, in a remarkable interview with a correspondent of the London Times, that more than one-third of the national income was being reinvested. He admitted further that billions of crowns had been lost because of faulty planning.
Despite the internal economic difficulties, Czechoslovakia dispenses more development aid than any other member of the Soviet bloc except the Soviet Union itself. It spends more than all the other peoples' democracies combined in development aid and arms deliveries to the Middle East, the Far East and Cuba. This fact is widely advertised as "aid to brother countries." Naturally it is unpopular with people who must stand in a queue for hours waiting for their meat ration. The public demonstration in Prague on May 1, 1963, when several hundred people shouted anti-régime slogans, was a manifestation of wide discontent.
A separate problem and one that has acquired new force in the past year is the dissent voiced in Slovakia, where national aspirations and an anti- collectivist mentality have created opposition to the Prague régime from the outset. Also a more liberal spirit and a comradely enthusiasm pervaded the ranks of the Slovak Communist Party, partly because of the esprit de corps of the Slovak resistance, partly because the jump from an underdeveloped, agricultural land to a modern industrial state inspired a strong revolutionary order.
Following the Communist coup d'état in 1948, Slovak autonomous institutions and their leaders, officially labeled "bourgeois nationalists," were among the first victims of the purges. Nearly every Slovak Communist leader of the postwar ruling group was liquidated in the early days of the Czech Communist régime: Vladimir Clementis was hanged, Gustav Husak and Laco Novomesky were jailed, others were sent to concentration camps.[v] The one exception was Karol Bacilek, then secretary general of the Slovak party. Bacilek, in fact, played the determining role in the liquidation of his "bourgeois nationalist" colleagues.
During 1963 pressure for de-Stalinization increased in Slovakia. It came not only from the intellectuals but also from within the Slovak Communist Party apparatus. At the Slovak writers' congress in April 1963, a demand was made for the speedy rehabilitation of "our dear friend and comrade" Vladimir Clementis. This was the first time that a member of the Slansky group had been referred to in public as "comrade." The speaker was Laco Novomesky, who had survived the purge and been readmitted to the writers' union. Significantly, the imminent arrest of Bacilek, who was directly responsible for the liquidation of Clementis, was already known at that time in Slovak party circles. The public announcement that Clementis and other members of the Slansky group (except Slansky himself) had been formally rehabilitated came in June, two days before the Berlin meeting between Khrushchev, Ulbricht and Novotny. It evidently had been under consideration for some time.
The writers' congress proved to be a forum for expressing general dissatisfaction with the Czech government. One of the writers, Vladimir Minac, called for basic changes in the moral atmosphere of the state. Man, he said in effect, does not live by bread alone, but "seeks things of a higher nature: truth, right, justice." He continued:
The presence or absence of these in the life of a society directly influences the moral atmosphere. . . . After the 20th Congress [of the Soviet Party] we wanted to create normal conditions for literary work; we wanted to, but we have not created them yet. Under the label of the struggle against revisionism, the fight has started again against thinking as such, against motion as such. . . . An elephant has been made out of a mosquito, and an elephant is here for the purpose of stamping on things.[vi]
In Czechoslovakia as in the Soviet Union it has invariably been the writers and intellectuals who have expressed most openly the desire for a renovation of the basic tenets of society. Depending on the climate of the time, they have been suppressed or used as political tools, as the Yevtushenko case demonstrated.
An even more significant article appeared in Pravda, the organ of the C. P. in Slovakia, written by the editor, Ladislav Zajac. He said:
It is characteristic of the period of the cult [of personality] that Marxist science does not interest itself in the role of the masses or the problems of the trade unions. So many shortcomings in the work of the trade union organizations make for an erroneous and narrow theoretical interpretation of the mission of trade union organizations. ... In socialism it is also the task of trade unions to take care of the vital interests, the social and cultural needs, of the workers and to defend the inalienable rights of the workers (italics mine).
In support of his thesis, Zajac dug up a quote from Lenin:
Our state is a workers' state with bureaucratic flaws. . . . Even in a state of this type, in which the trade unions should not have anything to defend, would it be possible to do without them for the defense of the material and spiritual interest of a one hundred percent organized proletariat? This is theoretically an absolutely erroneous opinion. Our present state is such that a one hundred percent organized proletariat has to defend itself and we have to use this workers' organization in defense of the workers from their own state as well as the defense of our state by the workers.
In other words, the central organ of the C. P. of Slovakia reached the conclusion, supported by Lenin, that it was necessary and legitimate that the workers defend themselves against the all-powerful, bureaucratic "workers'" state. This was indeed something new in Marxist polemics.[vii]
With criticism mounting in Slovakia, Novotny in April reluctantly sacrificed two old-line Stalinists from his équipe, Bacilek and Bruno Köhler, former secretary of the Central Committee. Very little publicity was given to the purge of these two men who, with the exception of Novotny himself, were the most obvious targets in any change in the direction of de- Stalinization. Bacilek, as we have seen, was Minister of National Security during the worst period of the Stalinist terror; in the same period, Köhler was chief of the party cadres and thus directly concerned with the liquidations.
About this time, too, the régime began to proceed slowly with a strange sort of dismantling of the Slansky verdict. The concept of a two-phased rehabilitation was established. Slansky was to be rehabilitated because the procedures and material used during his trial were "incorrect" and "a breach of socialist legality." On the other hand, he was not to be rehabilitated politically, having been a promoter of the now condemned cult of personality. This split conception of the Slansky case was clearly designed to provide a political avenue of escape for Novotny and other members of his ruling group. The official announcement that Slansky and his accomplices had been legally rehabilitated was made on August 22, 1963. By this decision, Slansky himself and a number of his co-defendants were not posthumously readmitted into the party, because of "serious infractions against socialist legality" and because they were promoters of the "cult."[viii]
Apparently, the Central Committee had reached a decision during its plenary session on April 3 and 4, 1963, that it was time to admit that the grounds on which Slansky was hanged had not existed. This information was first circulated to important party members through channels and then fed to the public in small and easily assimilable doses. Thus the only paper to carry the most important part of the decision was a Slovak agricultural paper, Rolnicke Noviny, which stated on May 28:
As is well known by now, the special commission of the CC CPCS (Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party) has established that neither the anti-state conspiratorial center nor the specific group of bourgeois nationalists ever existed, and that the charges on the basis of which the purported members of these so-called groups were tried and sentenced were fabricated.
Similarly, the information that Cestmir Cisar had been appointed secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, an important personnel change connected with the de-Stalinization, first appeared in a small musical review, Hudebni Rozhledy (No. 9, 1963).
Apparently in response to pressure from left-wing intellectuals at home and abroad, the Czech Communists felt compelled to reëstablish Kafka's position in Czech literature. He had previously been banned as a decadent, bourgeois writer. To determine Kafka's readmissibility, an international seminar met at Liblice Castle in Bohemia on May 27-28, 1963. In defending Kafka at this gathering, Professor Eduard Goldstlicker (who had also been condemned but survived the purges of the cult period) declared: "Many men and women find their own problems and the image of their lives in Kafka. We cannot dismiss work of this genre, simply attaching the label of decadent to it." Possibly he was speaking from personal experience.
Emboldened by the appearance of cracks in the armor of the régime, 44 Slovak journalists convened in Bratislava on May 27 and 28 and unanimously demanded an uncompromising stand in the continuation of the struggle against the remnants of the personality cult. What is more, they stood up to observe a moment of silence in honor of the memory of Clementis, André Simone (also hanged in the Slansky affair) and Ivan Horvath (who died after having been released from jail). A sharp personal attack against Prime Minister Siroky for his role in the Slansky trial was made by Miro Hysko, a well-known professor of journalism at the University of Bratislava. Taking advantage of the official admission that the "conspiratorial center" was a fabrication, Hysko revealed how it was invented and put into operation. Siroky, he stated, first developed a thesis that "bourgeois nationalism" had to exist in Slovakia under given conditions. He then sought likely names on whom the label "bourgeois nationalist" could be tagged to substantiate his thesis. Finally, the material was handed over to security organs which completed the "investigation." Hysko pointed out that certain passages of Siroky's "thesis" had been taken over and incorporated verbatim in the court indictments.
That such an attack should be made against a Prime Minister in office, and published in an official organ, was a fair indication of the climate in Slovakia.
The rising intensity of the criticism forced Novotny to answer. To clarify his position to the outside world, he granted an interview to a correspondent of the London Times, carried in that paper June 12, 1963. Hitherto reluctant to talk to foreign correspondents, Novotny discoursed on a number of crucial matters for a period of five hours.
"There are, I know," he said, "rumors in the West that Mr. Khrushchev and I do not agree . . . that I do not fully accept the liquidation of the cult of personality and that we in Czechoslovakia do not quite follow the decisions of the Soviet party's 20th Congress. That is all nonsense. I greatly esteem Mr. Khrushchev and his views. Two of those views especially will survive in the minds of the people-the idea of peaceful coexistence and the exposure of the cult of personality." As to de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia, Novotny said that all persons who were unjustly condemned had been released. However, the President stated, this did not mean that the rehabilitation would also be political. Slansky and others were "bearers of the noxious ideas that led to the suppression of legality and to the distorted forms of justice." There can be rehabilitation where there was a miscarriage of justice; this aspect, he said, was then being considered again by the Supreme Court which would submit its findings. There would be no rehabilitation, he stressed, for "wrong political methods."
Novotny's insistence that Slansky-unlike Laszlo Rajk in Hungary and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, also promoters of the cult-would not be fully rehabilitated indicated that he did not, in fact, entirely agree with Khrushchev on the cult. Obviously, he was clinging to his last expedient in the struggle to maintain his own political integrity and power. Conceivably one of the reasons which made it possible for Novotny to procrastinate so long may have been the extreme unpopularity of Slansky. For since Slansky and some of his co-defendants were considered responsible for the Stalinist terror, their trial and execution met with popular approval.
In facing his critics at home, Novotny reverted to familiar Communist casuistry and thinly veiled threats. Speaking before a meeting of 3,000 Communist activists in the East Slovakian town of Kosice on June 12, he first replied to demands that the party speak the truth. "What does that mean?" he said. "Did the party not speak the truth earlier? Was the party not right? If the party had not been right, it could not have been the Communist Party. It could not have been the leading force." He accused his main critics, the writers and journalists, of giving de facto aid to the enemy. "Whether consciously or unconsciously," he said, "you are proclaiming what the reaction in the West needs to hear against us! You should at least realize this! Think! Is an abyss not being created between you and the party . . . are you not standing aside or even against the party?" This statement reveals Novotny for what he is-a Stalinist.
As criticism of the Novotny régime continued unabated, the government evidently felt pressed to take more drastic measures, not against its critics, but to satisfy their demands for de-Stalinization and liberalization. On September 20, the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party decided to dismiss Prime Minister Siroky, who had been under steady attack from the Slovak intellectuals, supported apparently by the Slovak C.P., for having been instrumental in engineering the Slansky trials and as the finger man in the liquidation of the "Slovak bourgeois nationalists."[ix] This move was in contradiction to Novotny's implicit defense of Siroky, as late as June, in a speech attacking Slovak intellectuals for their "irresponsible" attitude.
The immediate reaction of Khrushchev, who sent a congratulatory telegram to the newly appointed Prime Minister, Jozef Lenart, might suggest that the Soviet premier was au courant as to Novotny's action. In addition to Siroky, a number of other old party wheels who had been in the government all through the Stalinist period-Julius Duris, former Minister of Agriculture, Jaromir Dolansky, former Vice-Premier and the party's official economist, and others-were dismissed in the government reshuffle. The reasons given were mild and not incriminating. Siroky was dismissed ostensibly because of "insufficient implementation of the party line in government activity, because of some mistakes in his political activities in the past, and due to poor health." The reasons for the dismissal of the other members of the government were not given, and some of them were appointed to new, although subordinate, jobs.
Simultaneously with these moves, Novotny continued to attack the intellectuals, especially the journalists. In an important speech on his program, made three days after the government reshuffle, he said:
Some newspaper writers still usurp the right to criticize the correct and true opinions of others; they accuse those who react responsibly to our way of life, of dogmatism and allege that criticism is being silenced. . . . There are even some who would like to deny the leading role of the Communist Party in the name of some sort of cultural and journalistic freedom. . . . We will not change anything in the policies of the party, because their correctness is borne out by the development of socialist Czechoslovakia. . . . Our party will support any objective, constructive critical voice, but will sharply reject any attempt at criticism that is aimed at weakening the leading role of the party in the state and which would harm the unity of socialist society.[x]
This speech was clear notice that Novotny's line had not changed, and that the few concessions gained by the liberal elements were won only by steady and determined resistance. Although his own position was considerably weakened, his control over the Czech (as distinct from the Slovak) Communist Party apparatus nevertheless appeared intact. Whether he would be capable of maintaining his position for long, however, was a matter for speculation, in that his continuance in power did not depend entirely on internal developments.
Novotny's course in 1963 was to bargain his support for Khrushchev in the dispute with China in exchange for a free hand in carrying out de- Stalinization at home, according to his own interests and using his own methods. How long this jockeying could continue, in view of the rapidly changing international scene as well as the deteriorating state of the Czechoslovak economy, was most uncertain. To Novotny's advantage was the fact that no personality had emerged from within the party structure to challenge his authority. Only Barak, still in jail, or the new Prime Minister, Jozef Lenart, seemed possible candidates to replace him.
[i] A new consideration on the international scene is that the satellites are exercising a greater degree of autonomy. This was evident, for example, from the independent attitude assumed by the Rumanian Communist Party on the Chinese question. Despite Russia's geographical proximity, and the presence of Soviet troops, the Rumanian régime showed a lack of solidarity with the Soviet position. Russian insistence on maintaining the predominance of agriculture in the Rumanian economy to the detriment of heavy industry was the most obvious cause for Rumanian coolness.
[ii] There is a certain analogy between the Rumanian and the Czech régimes, in that Slansky's counterparts in Rumania (Vasile Luca, Ana Pauker, etc.) were liquidated in about the same period (1952), permitting the final consolidation of the Gheorghiu-Dej group in power.
[iii] Speech quoted in Rude Pravo, December 18, 1952. Karol Bacilek, a veteran Communist apparatchik, held local party jobs in Slovakia before World War II. He spent the war in the Soviet Union and was parachuted into Slovakia in 1944. After the war he became the eminence grise of the Slovak Communist Party. Named Minister of National Security in 1952, he was later appointed head of the Slovak party. In that capacity he was responsible for the gradual elimination of Slovak autonomous institutions.
[iv] Some of those convicted were released from jail and began to reappear in public life during Barak's tenure of office, 1955-56, but formal rehabilitations were rare.
[v] Dr. Vladimir Clementis was a well-known Slovak Communist intellectual and journalist. Before World War II he was considered the party's foremost foreign policy expert. He spent most of the war in London, and was made a member of the Czechoslovak State Council. After the war he became Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs under Jan Masaryk, and on the latter's death in March 1948 he succeeded him as Foreign Minister. He was arrested in 1951 on his return from a U.N. General Assembly session in New York. In 1952 he was tried as an accomplice of Slansky and as a "Slovak bourgeois nationalist," he was sentenced to death and on December 3 executed. Gustav Husak was one of the leaders of the Slovak national uprising against the Germans in 1944. After the war he became chairman of the Slovak Board of Commissioners (regional government). He was arrested in 1952 on charges similar to those brought against Clementis and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 1956. Laco Novomesky, a leading Slovak poet, spent World War II in Slovakia. After the war he became Slovak Commissioner of Culture. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was released about the same time as Husak.
[vi] Kulturny Zivot, May 18, 1963.
[vii] In line with this interpretation, the Slovak trade-union paper Práca (August 17, 1963) reported sympathetically on a strike in a carpentry plant, charging the management and trade- union bureaucracy with responsibility for lowering wages and for poor relations with the plant workers. This was the first mention of a strike since the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia.
[viii] The official communiqué revealed that 481 cases were reviewed, but only about 70 names were listed as officially rehabilitated. A compilation shows that 3,357 persons were sentenced between 1948 and 1953 for alleged political or economic crimes (166 to death and 138 to life terms, and the rest to a total of 18,568 years in jail). Characteristically, no mention was made in the communiqué of material damages to the families of those who were executed or to those unjustly condemned to jail terms and later released.
[ix] Another gesture toward liberalization was the release after 14 years in jail of Cardinal Josef Beran and four Czech bishops, on October 3, shortly after the dismissal of Siroky.
[x] Rude Pravo, September 23, 1963. Novotny did not mention the dismissal of his Prime Minister-for "mistakes"-three days earlier.