Čestmír Císař (before Prague Spring), 1993

Interview with Čestmír Císař, Prague, 1993(?)
Interviewer — Ctibor Latsina, on behalf of Metta Spencer

Cestmir Cisar: I would correct that the early stage of the reform processes, not in other countries, but in our country we have to start with years 1962, 1963, and then it went on for five years until the Prague Spring.

Ctibor Latsina: In fact it started already in the 50’s, in Hungary it was 1956.

CC: This is not an early stage of the fall of communism. I would say that this is still the resistance to the beginning of communism, the 50’s. This is the resistance to the Stalinist methods, and harsh Sovietization …

Before I forget it, note down the name Zdislav Sulc, he was a journalist in “Rude pravo” in the 60’s, then in 1968 he was the editor in chief of it, together with Josef Sekera. I will give his telephone number to you, for he used to go to Moscow, and also somewhere to Novosibirsk, and the Soviets were extremely interested in all our economic reforms, everywhere they came. Prof Zdislav Sulc, tel. 841 77 62. Please call him, maybe his wife Olga will answer the phone, but you can speak to her as well. She is a journalist too.

CL: Where do they publish now?

CC: Well, Sulc writes rather scientific books, he is an author of several university textbooks of economy, he wrote a large three-volume book “State and Economy”, which was translated still by the recent late Rita Klimova, the Czechoslovak ambassador to Washington, into English. [MS:Klimova was ex=wife of
Zdenek Mlynar, though I know of no evidence the she was acquainted with Gorbachev.] But he could tell you a few things about how the Soviets were interested in it.

“Certain personal contacts” — rarely, there were few opportunities, between dissidents and senior officials there could be only correspondence, which they did not answer; it was a one-way correspondence. For instance my correspondence to Gorbachev, his legislative adviser, Alexander [] – they confirmed after the overthrow that they had received everything but they had not been able to answer. But, you see, even the information from the dissidents was useful. They thanked to me a lot. Those were also whole papers, I wrote a 50-page paper “We and USSR”, which I sent them too.

CL: What was it about?

CC: … I tried to generalize our relationship with USSR especially, because it was written during the Normalization, it dealt with the period of the regime called the regime of Gustav Husak.

“Italian communists” – the Italian communists, together with the French, wanted to mediate in 1968 before the Soviet troops arrived here. Dubcek has died, but Dubcek mentioned it in his memoirs, I believe.

CL: But some of the Italians were working here …

CC: Sure, lots of people were working in “Problems of Peace”, Mr Zielenec’s father, for instance, was there for the Polish Party …

CL: Were you in touch with the people who wrote there?

CC: No, no, the “Problems of Peace and Socialism” were official, they were strictly forbidden to meet with us. And no one even tried to. I don’t know whether with some others. Have you talked to Mlynar?

CL: I was not able to meet him, he seemed to be very busy.

CC: He is always very busy …

“General questions”:

“Contacts with reform ideas and groups”: look, I was at the root, and I can consider myself a co-creator of the reform ideas. I will tell you when I could have decisive influence on it. In 1961-3, I was an editor-in-chief of “Nova mysl”, a monthly, which was not so strictly controlled as “Rude pravo” for instance, or some weeklies, and where we were able to, in theoretical, unending articles, which the party leadership probably had no time to read, where we were able to get through with sharp criticism of Stalinist residues, let’s say – in the ’60’s already, and where it was possible in a number of articles to say that e.g. the economic sphere will have to be reformed, that – and we were engaged with this very much – the sphere of culture and art will have to be liberalized, the space will have to be open.

In 1963, I became, for reasons which are not still quite clear to me, a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, from April till September, when I was removed for alleged excessive liberalization, and simply for excessive opening of space.

During these four months, later called by writers and artists “the merciful summer”, when the secretary I stood in for for this short period – Vladimir Koutsky – who was a sharper, I would say, man although he had also liberal inclinations, he liked Ernst Fischer, Roger Garodi, and all these authors of the 60’s. We started to be interested in Jean-Paul Sartre, and in those things which manipulated the Marxism into a modern position, like the Church tries constantly to modernize Catholicism so that it corresponds with the time, so these 60’s started with the intellectual attempt to treat Marxism in its authentic, I would say liberation aims, which this Marx had on every page in fact … So that the summer when I remember the first nights of Vaclav Havel’s plays – it was where I met him personally first time at the play called “Vyrozumeni” … it was time when the ideas of Karel Teige started to come out again, the pre-war avantgarde was restored … but it has to be admitted that the walls had started to break down in Moscow mainly in the era of Khrushchev …

. . . and in 1963 it was the first time when the breakthroughs were such that it could not be stopped later on, and it continued till 1968.

Then, as I told you, I was removed in September for the “merciful summer” because the space was opened too much, and especially Antonin Novotny, Jiri Hendrych and such ideologists were alarmed by that, even Vladimir Koutsky who returned from hospital … they transferred me to the department of education and culture, where I stayed for two years, and where it was possible to continue in these tendencies. In a parallel to us the philosophers were going who started what they called the consequence of the scientific and technological revolution for the position of a man in the society, they called like somehow like that, at the Philosophical Institute at the Academy of Science, where sociology was restored, too, because sociology had been a bourgeois quasi-science which disappeared under Stalin, and where in 1965 a so called team of Radovan Rychta came into existence, it was about 60 people who produced the famous book “Civilisation at the Crossroads” which came out then sometime in 1967, and which went back to the humanist conception of the socialist ideas – this was a very significant book. A similar impact had the book by Karel Kosik, “The Dialectics of the Concrete”. If this lady does not familiarize with these 60’s, which prepared the Prague Spring, then she won’t understand the Prague Spring because it did not fall down from heaven, it was all prepared through hard meticulous work.

So in 1964-65 I was in this department of education, … in 1965 I was removed from there for continuing in the liberalization. In these years 1963-65 the reforms started to be worked on. The economists were preparing the economic reform which was then realized in 1967, 1968. And it’s interesting that for example in 1968 the production rose by 11 per cent a year, and even in 1969 it was still by 9 per cent. Only in 1970 it went down because they returned the old system and killed the reform. Then they were worried, when it decreased, and thought there was something good in it, but it was too late.

So they sent me to Bucharest, and I was away from these events for two years. … So that these years – 1967, that means the famous Conference of Writers, from which the Communist Party delegation ran away, where Pavel Kohout read a letter from Solzhenitsyn – it was visible already, that the so called civil disobedience was developing at full speed. In 1966 already, because ambassadors were invited to the Communist Party congresses, I was here at the 13th Communist Party congress, and people talked very openly there already. Ota Sik appeared there with great criticism not only of the economic situation, with great criticism of political undemocratic methods. The watchword democratization was fully used there already. So that then the thing was only to replace the leadership who were still delaying it and hindering it. So that the Prague Spring meant the removal of the last obstacle which still prevented the ideas conceived five or six years before from being carried out eventually …

About the groups: Look, around me there were chiefly groups that were either from universities: university teachers, for instance Josef Charvat from the Medical Faculty, he was elected the rector in 1968 but the new regime after the intervention did not acknowledge him. They were people like Frantisek Vrabec, the rector at the Czech University of Technology, it was Ivan Malek from the Academy of Sciences, it was Frantisek Sorm, the then president of the Academy of Sciences. With whom it was possible to elaborate the scientific questions. It must be said that except for Jaromir Dolansky, who was a graduated lawyer, all [the people who had been there before] were semi-educated people …

CL: So you want to say that starting from 1968, educated people got to the government. And this trend endured to some extent in spite of that these people were sacked later on.

CC: Yes, it endured. … Among the economists I was getting on well with were for instance Frantisek Vlasak, Vaclav Vales, Bohumil Sucharda – the then Minister of Finance, Vladimir Kadlec, Rudolf Zukal, Zdislav Sulc, whom I told you about – the reform economists in other words. Everything connected with reforms in various areas was close to me. Of course my own sphere was education, writers, artists – it’s so many friends, – theatres – I went there as if to my family, in theatres. So that these all things were preparing the year 1968 …

Then you have the second question here. Look, I had no particular group. We were doing this in dissent only. I was in three groups: Around Vladimir Kadlec, where there were economists and politicians; the Chartist group, I would say, as far as the fired ex-reformists after 1968 are concerned, were gathering at the young Rudolf Slansky, I used to go there too – this was a group where there was Jiri Dienstbier, Lubos Dobrovsky, who is now at the Castle, where there were people who were close to Havel, at Slansky, I would say, a group that joined the ex-reformists, and the young dissidents were gathering; and then, I would say, a sort of third group, these were the Obroda Club where I worked, and these were the former soldiers as Vojtech Menzl – the former, dismissed, rector of the Military Political Academy – there were historians for the most part, but there were also politicians from 1968, such as Venek Silhan, Zdenek Urban – the father of Jan Urban – and this was I would say a sort of third group.

So I appeared in those three groups, most often in the group of Vladimir Kadlec – but this was dissent already. There was no need to form groups in 1968. Nevertheless, before 1968 we knew one another but we didn’t form groups because there was the threat of expelling all the group from the Party. So we had to work individually, but we knew about one another, and when we met with Sorm, for instance, we knew what we would talk about. But we didn’t form any group – he was the President of Academy, I was the Minister of Education, and that’s all.

As far as the Soviets are concerned, I’ve told you that I was contacted only twice here and it was an invitation to Rudolf Zukal, it was a university professor from Riga who carried out four- or five-hour discussions, [wanted to examine] the situation in detail – but this was in the 80’s already.

CL: This will probably interest her because she is especially interested in the influence on the perestroika … Could you describe it a bit?

CC: The conversation? Look, the conversation was not that he would tell me what was going on in the Soviet Union, but he was exclusively interested in what was happening here, and how we as the dissent regarded all this. So that we were discussing this, Zukal discussed about the economic affairs, and I about the political and cultural affairs. And I described the regime of Husak to him, because I had written hundreds, and hundreds of various samizdat commentaries which circulated about the republic, so I told him in fact the same things which are in the articles.

CL: When was that? Could you date it somehow?

CC: Zukal didn’t tell you that?

CL: He could not remember it exactly.

CC: I will have it in my diaries but do you know what it is to take day after day, and I have them at my cottage, I would have to go through them. I didn’t think of going through them …

Then in 1987 or 1988 after Gorbachev’s visit here, when Gorbachev irritated me terribly when he said how well they were doing it here, I started to write letters. First to Gorbachev, and then I heard somewhere that it was better when Jakovlev got it. This was the first advisor of his, Alexander Jakovlev. There are several of these Jakovlevs but this is Alexander Jakovlev, he has been adviser to Yeltsin to date. He was said to be the proper father of the perestroika, not Gorbachev. Gorbachev was said to shield it because he was a good orator. The truth is that that Jakovlev is a scientist, when you talk to him he thinks aloud, he is no rhetorician, he, when he is making a speech, he has to write it down so as to speak fluently …

So I wrote several letters there, if you were interested in them, I handed them over to the Institute of the Contemporary History, to the director, Mr Prejcan, so that you can ask them that you would like to have a look at them, they could even – you can tell them I agree with that, they can call me – make photo copies for you.

CL: How many letters was it?

CC: It was about six or seven letters. The interesting thing was the way I sent them.

CL: Tell me about that.

CC: I can tell you. Our military pilots were conducting regular flights to Moscow. And they were carrying it there. They got an envelope with the task to hand it over to the secretariat of Alexander Jakovlev. And Jakovlev told me they had been really delivering it there …

The third question “Did you know these people personally, or did you hear of them … “ is unnecessary now because I’ve told you who I met personally. I met this Jakovlev later on, in autumn 1990 I was in Moscow with a rather big delegation. We went there to negotiate with Shevardnadze for some three hours, and I wanted to talk to Jakovlev and he received me, we were speaking for over two hours, he told me that all they had got had been very interesting for them but that I should not be angry with Gorbachev, that he declared in 1985 that the interference with the internal affairs of the other socialist countries was over and that he had to, when he was at the visit here, behave so as not to interfere with the internal affairs. But I told him: Why, he did interfere! He praised Husak, he did not have to praise him. And he said: But this was only in a polite statesmanlike form. But I told him: The Czech public, to the last inhabitant in the last borough, were viewing under the lens what that Gorbachev would say. And he said: Yes, this is in your country. Here five kilometres away from Moscow, no one is interested in such things …

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books