Jaroslav Šabata (Czechoslovakia dissident), 1993

Jaroslav Sabata Prague, Sept 15, 1993 (with Ivan Fiala)
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

Ivan Fiala facilitated the other interviews that were done on my behalf by Ctibor Latsina, to whom I gave a list of questions to be discussed, mainly with former leaders in the Prague Spring.

MS: … Can you tell me anything that would shed light on these contacts?

Sabata: First I would just like to say that I am extremely excited and happy that you are dealing with this topic. I have something in common with this topic! But I have to start digging in my memory. There is a small story. I read an article from Ambartsumov when I was in prison at the beginning of the eighties. At that particular moment [it made me realize?] that we had some kind of allies over there. At that particular moment I was really trying to get in touch, to find some relations surrounding — I sent even a letter to Mr. Ambartsumov. I know that there were some people alive and I expect that the person who would know most details about these people; Milosz Hajek was the chairman of the Obrada movement— these ex-Communists. People [in Prague were trying to do the same thing] like me, which means to reach a kind of relation, contact for him, people surrounding Gorbachev at the time. And we were just half successful in that. This is the first information. The basis of this information is the following: that people who more or less awoke the so-called “Prague Spring” knew that in the Soviet milieu there were many persons who more or less sympathized with the Prague Spring development. They naturally knew that without some changes in the top levels of the society in the Soviet Union that changes in the Czechoslovak Republic are not possible. This is the basic recognition. It was the opinion of these intellectual ex-Communists who focused the Prague Spring in ’68 that without changes in the top level management in the Soviet Union, changes in the Czech Republic are not possible. Finally, in the second half of the eighties, these people gathered together in this Obrada movement I mentioned — Milosz Hajek. This institution had information. In the very beginning the man number one in this was Zdenek Mlynar.

MS: Unfortunately, he would not allow me to interview him.

Sabata: Why not?

MS: His wife said no. She thought he was too busy.

Sabata: I will try to facilitate that interview for you.

MS: I must leave immediately after we finish talking. But I will pay someone to interview him for me.

Sabata: I will speak with him about it. So we see this is related. I am convinced that the influence on the Soviet intellectuals from the Czech people — this was more or less a general influence. They realized there was something like a development as a big phenomenon. And in order to understand this the phenomenon, they tried to construct their own reformistic reform, in order to understand the feeling, the development, the phenomenon of the Czech one. The majority of the Russian intellectuals were in deep sympathy with the Prague Spring development, so that the intervention, the occupation, by the Warsaw Treaty armies brought a frustration to those intellectuals in Russia. Without that frustration we cannot easily explain Gorbachev. That was the whole spiritual atmosphere that existed— the whole milieu! This we can easily try to prove. It is not easy, though, to analyze the concrete relations that existed between specific people in the past. I wasn’t informed in advance what you were going to ask in this interview, so I was unable to review; unfortunately I have not been involved in it for seven years, you know, and these are just pieces of things that are in my head that I will try to make some more comments.
As for significant information, now I am speaking about Gorbachev already in power. (We could make an analysis about the period of time when he was not in power, even before. Those are two different questions.)

Nearly the same day that Gorbachev was elected, we published the Prague Appeal. I know positively that this text was discussed in the Soviet Union. Through my friend, a former Russian citizen, I was in touch with the consulate in Brno. The text was discussed because it was mentioned, so the German question was discussed; it was launched at that time [in the Prague Appeal] and immediately, the day afterward, I got a visit from the State Security police and the officer asked me whether I had sent the text of this in a letter to Mr. Ambartsumov. You must bear in mind that we were under such strong control that normal human relations were not possible. Even despite the fact that this group of consultants was very liberal, and Bogomolov and Ambartsumov belonged to them, obviously they were not able to get in touch with people who were understood as in extreme opposition, so direct communication was even for these people not possible. Because of the fact that relations were much more complicated [? between ’85 when Gorbachev came to power?] this information that the appeal was discussed in Moscow was confirmed by others in END. Maybe some of them remember that. If it was discussed in Moscow, it was not because of it, it must because of the influence of E.P. Thompson and Mient-Jan Faber — these kind of people. Because of people who were understood as a part of the peace movement. Pro-reform people in the Soviet Union were just interested in these people. I would not under-estimate the influence of these people (END and IKV) in the framework of your topic.

MS: But you are saying you don’t think it was so important what happened in Czechoslovakia?

Sabata: Yes, for them it was not important. There was an easy explanation. This was only one of the countries. Changes would be coming in these countries only if their own big country was changed or reformed. This is why; they were people in power in the Soviet Union and the Czechs were in official opposition. I repeat, this cannot be seen in Canadian and Western European measures, for [the dissidents here were like what would be seen in Western Europe] as criminals. That was the position understood here. It can explain a kind of distance which they kept from us. Though the Western European movements regarded us with positive affection and as very important, we just didn’t represent that phenomenon for them. So this was a different approach.

I was an ex-Communist and I was drafting that Prague Appeal. I [wrote it with a group of people from the seventies appeal] or a group of people who launched that appeal in Prague ’85. The appeal was actually coming from the ex-Communists in Charter 77. As for more substantial informatin, Bogomolov and his crew started to come to Prague in those years, after ’85. They were in touch with economists in official institutions. I can investigate who were those persons. I may have this information from Milosz Hajek but I am not completely on the safe side. And I would say that the Czech opposition started to be in touch with him as well — with Bogomolov. And I would say that Bogomolov’s institute and the Czech people here were in a kind of relation. It was regarded as revisionist, this institute of his. People from this institute were very interested in Ota Sik. He as much as Mlynar was a key name from ’68. He is an extremely important name who must be taken into consideration. Sik was in direct contact with different meetings and conferences of Soviet delegations because he was not staying in Prague anymore. He emigrated to Switzerland and lives in Geneva.
Not only Sik and not only economists had an influence in this direction but the key influence in this area because the Czech ex-Communists in exile, headed by Jiri Pelikan, publisher and editor of Listy. In about ’88 I sent a friend of mine to Moscow, Dana Ferenckova. She attended a meeting. Adam Michnik was present and Mient-Jan Faber and among others during this meeting my contribution was read during the debate. It belongs as well to this kind of relations in the more developed stage. And when Dana came back to Brno she said the Czech exile it is obviously influencing the Russian intelligentsia. So that they Czech emigrés, they are in strong ties with this type of Soviet Russian intellectuals. I would say it would be very important to speak to Jiri Pelikan and I am sure that he will not reject you.
By the way, the majority of my contribution to that meeting that Dana Ferenckova attended was devoted to the German question. It has not been understood. Many of our problems are coming actually because the question was not understood at the appropriate time or the appropriate way. Speaking about the content of these questions discussed in Moscow and Prague, among the opposition in Prague, for example, and amendment to the meeting in Moscow and to Dana Ferenckova. It is important that such a meeting took place in Moscow at Bogomolov’s institute. I cannot anymore remember who was chairing that meeting. But the information that I received from Dana, she informed us that there were people present who very strongly opposed any kind of change. Also I think Mary Kaldor may have been present. My personal relations with Mient-Jan Faber were rather frequent in those days. It could have been that we saw each other twice or three or four times a year.

MS: When I see Mient-Jan I will ask him.

Sabata: Ask him exactly about this meeting. [MS: I did. See the joint interview with Mient Jan Faber and Mary Kaldor, where they discuss the event in Moscow.] It is significant because Adam Michnik attended the meeting as well. You know that after the coup d’etat of Jaruzelski, Michnik was in prison. This was one of the big signs proving the destruction of the whole structure of the politics. But we should admit that the whole situation in Poland was much easier and more relaxed than in the Czechoslovak Republic. From a remark which I can just now mention, from the very beginning when Gorbachev entered power people started thinking about the his visit to Prague. He came at the end of March or the beginning of April ’87. The visit was a big disappointment, by the way, and if you are looking for the faults of Gorbachev, on this visit here, in an unbelievable way, he was actually depriving all the opposition or freedom-oriented forces here in this country, to the disappointment of these people. The after-November development toward the right was actually caused by Gorbachev. And I swear that this was a fault that he was not forced to undertake.

MS: He openly supported the government?

Sabata: The main idea is not the fact that he supported the government in international debate because he visited the government. The visit was completely okay. The speech he launched here was a good speech — a very good speech, with a vision of a new Europe. The wonderful “European House” was discussed and clarified, elaborated much deeper. And this is actually something which was actually raised from the Prague Appeal ’85. Shakhnazarov confirmed this guess of mine later when I met him in 1990, as chairman of the international committee of the parliament. Shakhnazarov told me I had been right in my estimate, that it was based on the fact that the discussions in the streets downtown, when people were depending on every sign and word, he had given three or four sentences with different consequences which was understood by those who had been involved in ’68 as an expressive confirmation of Husak’s position. Even today when I speak of it, I don’t feel well. Even to be silent would have been better. Not to speak out in that way. In the big speech of course it was not mentioned. But speaking with the ordinary man in the street, surrounded by journalists, of course, then he could say something that 90% of the citizens of this country were expecting of him — with admiration, with expectation. [?Which was active in ___ in the region.?] This _____ from 90% sympathy for Gorbachev you could get 10% in the population of the Czechoslovak republic. This was an unbelievably hard thing. This was something that influenced deeply the development, not only in Czechoslovakia, the shift to the right, the restoration tendency, pro-capitalist open restoration tendency in the Czech citizenship. And this I am saying as a representative of the Czech left.

MS: When Shakhnazarov spoke to you later about it, what did he know about it?

Sabata: He said that he was simply too much under the influence of this [?Jakes?]. He is not strong enough and was too diplomatic.

MS: This was not the first time Gorbachev was in Prague. He was here in ’69. Do you know anything about what happened in ’69?

Sabata: No. I didn’t know.

MS: The reason that I am curious about it is that it is a trip that is rarely, if ever, listed among his travels. It’s as if they don’t want it discussed.

Sabata: I guess that he accepted the counter-revolution. Certainly he would not have become the leader if he had not. This is also incorporating the problem of the boss, the chief, and the consultants, you know. Of course the consultant could go much further. This is not a question of I.Q.!

Summarizing, I am open about the influence of Czechoslovaks on ’68, their contacts, their possibilities. And available texts, which are available from the Czech intellectuals. Relations and contacts of different people made in exile. The second stream was the Helsinki Process, as such, new opposition was not limited by former Communists or Communists. They belonged to that group as well, but they had a significant part of the new opposition. Mainly some signs were shown which came through the peace movement.

MS: You mean HCA? [Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a movement in which I was deeply engaged for several years.]

Ivan Fiala: He means not the HCA as such, but the Prague Appeal.

MS: I left names here of Silhan, Langer, Mlynar, Vaclav Slavik, Mrs. Klimona. How would I reach Jiri Pelikan?

Fiala: I will handle that address and Sik’s.

See also
Jaroslav Šabata (Czechoslovak HCA), 1992
Jaroslav Šabata (Charter 77 leader), 1994

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