RIP: Natalia Gorbanevskaya

The death occurred last month of Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013, pictured in 1967), Russian poet and Soviet dissident, and one of the Moscow Seven, brave opponents of the occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  From 1975 she lived in exile, initially in Israel and then in France.  For most of this time she was stateless, and did not have a passport until 2006, when granted Polish citizenship.   As in the 19th century, Russia disowns its best and brightest children.  The Economist has an obituary here.

There was more than this one protest against the invasion, with over 200 people involved in protests elsewhere in the USSR and across the Eastern Bloc.  A list of 160 Soviet protesters against the invasion, prepared by Memorial, is here.  The courage of the Moscow Seven and these others has been recognized by the Czech Republic, but not yet by the Russian Federation.   Indeed, Russia has still to apologize to Czechslovakia for the invasion.

From Gorbanevskaya’s poetry (translation by Daniel Weissbort):

The crime has not yet been expunged,
the hour of truth has not yet struck.
logs in the stove still ticking over,
although the fire’s already out.

Mama don't allow

Norm’s latest entry in his Mommy and Daddy collection of songs is JJ Cale’s version of “Now, Mama don’t allow no guitar playing round here“.   The version of this song that I first recall hearing was that of The Limeliters, who do not refer (as Cale does) to “My Mama“.   So, I’d always understood the song to be about boarding-house owners, rather than natural-born mothers, and hence a fine metaphor for the suffocating nanny culture that was the US of the 1950s.  I cannot find their version online.
Of course, a mention of The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters would be incomplete without a reference to their song about Harry Pollitt, long-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Distortions of history

Surfing idly, I came across this statement:

In 1958 Arthur Lewis married Gladys and moved to Rhodesia. Their first appointment to St. Faith’s Mission in Rusape proved to be something of a nightmare. While the mission had once been very successful, social work and the attached farm had come to take over and the Gospel work was side-lined. Rev. Lewis soon discovered that the farm was also used as a front for a communist revolutionary movement. After much hard work and a determined struggle, Arthur Lewis was able to re-establish the Church and Mission as a dynamic Christian enterprise. Amidst all the trauma of St. Faith’s Mission, their first child, Margaret Faith was born.”  (Source here.)

Wait a minute!  Communist revolutionaries in Rhodesia in 1958?  The first armed incursion in what became the Second Chimurenga took place in 1967 (and was undertaken by South Africans with the ANC, members of MK, and not Zimbabweans), and the war of liberation only took off from the early 1970s.  In 1958, neither ZANU nor ZAPU had yet been formed.  Of course, Doris Lessing and her then husband Gottfried Lessing, and their left-wing Royal Air Force friends in the Southern Rhodesia Communist Party may have counted as communist revolutionaries in the mid 1940s – although they only ever talked – but they had had little impact and were by then long gone from Rhodesia.
After a moment or two, I realized that there was a clue in the location:  St Faith’s, Rusape.  This was the site of a very famous multi-racial co-operative farm founded by Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock in 1950.   In 1957, the Clutton-Brocks and their colleagues on the farm were instrumental in founding a non-racial political movement, the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress (SRANC), which like its South African counterpart (itself founded as long ago as 1912!) called for majority rule.  The SRANC was successful in convincing the then Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister, Garfield Todd, of the justice of their case, but he could not persuade his own party or his (mostly white) parliamentary colleagues.  He was dumped, and the new PM banned the SRANC in 1959.
At no point was anyone a communist revolutionary, unless you happen to believe that running a multi-racial commercial enterprise is communist.  But, of course, many white Rhodesians did!
POSTSCRIPT (2013-07-03):  Molly Clutton-Brock died shortly after this post.

Czechoslovakian betrayals

Czechoslovakians have reason to resent their betrayal by Britain and France at Munich in 1938.  They were betrayed again, by the same nations, when Hitler’s invasion in March 1939 was not immediately resisted by the western allies.  Reading a fine new book by Igor Lukes, it seems these betrayals continued through the post-war period.  Here were three:

Prague was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.  It could easily have been liberated by US forces, which were closer than Soviet troops, but allied forces were stayed.  Against the advice of the US State Department and the British Government, General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, declined to liberate Prague, halting allied troops in Pilsen, western Bohemia.    Stalin, who had threatened dark consequences if allied forces advanced first on Prague, found that bellicosity achieved desired ends, a lesson the Soviets would take to heart.

Prior to Yalta, FDR had appointed Laurence Steinhardt (1892-1950) as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.   Steinhardt took months to arrive in Prague, and spent enourmous time out of the country:  From January 1947 to February 1948, he was away from his post some 200 days (Lukes 2013, page 182).  Most of this time, and even for much of the time he was in Prague, he was busy with his corporate law practice in New York, a business he continued all the time he was employed to represent the USA.  He also ignored many conflicts of interest as people and companies with Czech or Slovak connections used his paid legal counsel while he was Ambassador (!) to seek compensation or redress for various policy actions of the Nazi-era and post-war governments.   Steinhardt was rich and socially well connected, and mixed exclusively in similar circles on his apparently rare visits to Prague.  Despite having a good analytical mind, and despite knowing Stalinism well at first hand (having earlier been US ambassador to the USSR), he was singularly ill-informed about events on the ground in Czechoslovakia.   He was consistently and persistently optimistic in his reports back to Washington about the prospects for democracy against the ruthless thugs of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Ceskoslovenska, KSC), and their Soviet masters.

The US mission to Prague included intelligence-gathering agents and groups of various stripes, some of whom were employed by the US Military Mission.  These groups were apparently infiltrated by Czech and Soviet double agents.  (Some, of course, may have been triple agents – really, at heart, working for the US – but likely not all were.)  They were also spied on by all manner of local employees, contacts and passers-by.   Whether or not the US civilian or military employees were working for the other side, most were incompetent and negligent to the point of malfeasance.   As just one of many tragic examples, the key building occupied by the Military Mission had no late-night access, except through a police-station next door.  Late visitors to the mission were thus readily monitored by the Czech secret police, the StB.   Lukes’ book reads, at times, like farce – OSS and CIA meet the Keystone Cops.

Even after the boost given to the KSC by the presence of the Red Army in Prague in 1945, the coup in February 1948 that took Czechoslovakia from a semi-free country to a police state was not ever inevitable.  The malfeasance and incompetence of US military and embassy officials helped make it so.


Not everyone in the KSC was craven or a thug; the party also included some heroes.

The photo shows Milada Horáková (1901-1950), brave Czech politician and social democrat, imprisoned by the Nazis and then again by the Communists.  After a show-trial alleging treason, she was executed by Gottwald’s regime on 27 June 1950.  Now in the Czech Republic, this date is an official day of commemoration for the Victims of Communism.


Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War:  American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.

Comrade Bourbon

The Bourbons, in Talleyrand’s famous formulation, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.  Further to my speculations as to what Czechoslovakia’s last Communist ruler, Gustav Husak, thought about his life’s work after he was deposed, along comes an interview with Margot Honecker, wife of the last-but-one leader of the DDR, Erich Honecker.   This is apparently her first public interview since defenestration.

Friedler [her interlocuter] said that over the several days he interviewed her, Honecker, who during her 26-year tenure as education minister introduced weapons training to schools, and ordered every teacher to report all incidences of deviation by pupils from the communist line, remained bizarrely detached from reality and resolute in her defence of East Germany.
“Margot Honecker showed no remorse, or discernment, she expressed no word of regret or apology,” he said.”

Her dogged devotion to the cause is to be admired, although it might better be termed recalcitrance. 
In one of history’s great ironies, when the Honeckers were  pushed from office in 1989, they also lost their (luxurious) state housing and benefits.  Having spent both their careers as members of the nomenklatura, they were now homeless, and were forced to ask dissident Lutheran pastor, Rev. Uwe Holmer,  for help in finding somewhere to stay.  He and his family hosted them for several months.   Somehow, one cannot imagine Margot Honecker acting likewise, if the situation were reversed.

Husak Agonistes?

Posting recently following the death of Vaclav Havel, my mind returns to a question that has long pre-occupied me.  What did Havel’s predecessor as President of Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak, think of communism and of his role in it?  What did he think he was doing, at the time and subsequently?
Husak was a leading Slovak communist from before WW II (taking part in the brief Slovak National Uprising in September 1944), and afterwards.    However he fell victim to the Stalinist purges and trials that took place across most of Eastern Europe of the early 1950s (some of which which I wrote about here), and he spent the years 1954-1960 in prison.   Although most of the purges in Czechoslovakia at that time had an anti-semitic aspect, I do not believe he was Jewish. What does such an experience do to a good communist?  Does he, like Koestler’s bolshevik, Rubashov, come to believe that the Party, possessor of objective truth and the imprimatur of history, must always be in the right, and that therefore he, despite the evidence of his own lying eyes, is in the wrong?  Or does he maintain his innocence, believing that some error of judicial process has been made?  Such a view may require courage in the face of injustice and evil, as shown by Husak’s compatriot, the very brave Milada Horakova.   Or does he reject his prior beliefs in communism altogether, turning apostate like Cristóvão Ferreira, Portuguese Jesuit-turned-Shintoist, and the subject of Shusaku Endo’s great novel, Silence?    Or does he become some Vicar of Bray character, sailing – cynically, opportunistically – in whatever direction the prevailing winds point, not really believing or disbelieving anything?   A man is rarely just one straight thing, and someone may be each of these at different times in his life, especially someone sitting in prison with lots of time to think.
Husak was subsequently rehabilitated by the KSC, and served as Deputy Premier of Czechoslovakia from April 1968.  Was he appointed then because the reformers around Alexander Dubcek considered him a reformer too? Perhaps he was viewed by them as akin to the Polish communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had also been detained in the purges of the 1950s (although never tried or convicted, nor even, apparently, interrogated), and later rehabilitated and made leader.  If Husak was indeed a reformer in April 1968, then why did he adopt a collaborationist line after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August?  Was he, like the later Polish leaders, Wojciech Jaruzelski and Mieczyslaw Rakowski, convinced that collaboration was the only feasible and patriotic path for a national state inside the Soviet empire at the time.   General Jaruzelski still maintains this position regarding his imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981.  If, instead,  Husak was a not a reformer in April 1968, was he actively duplicitous, or merely some Vicar of Bray.
And after the fall, when the KSC-dominated Parliament of Czechoslovakia voted unanimously in December 1989 for Havel to be President, what then did Husak think?  That the winds had once again shifted, and that it was time once again for All-Change?  Or that, despite the revisionist winds, blowing this time from Moscow itself,  he had been right all along to be a communist, and that history, far from having ended in the present, would at some future point judge him so?
A Polish journalist, Teresa Toranska, published in the twilight days of Polish communism a series of interviews with leading communists who had led the party at its rise to power four decades before (Toranska 1988).  What was striking to me when I first read these interviews twenty-odd years ago was the variety of responses of those interviewed:  from regret and sadness, through to defiant recalcitrance.   Some begged forgiveness for what they had done or been complicit in.  Some had, apparently, subverted the system from within (for example, Stefan Staszewski secretly printing and distributing multiple unauthorized copies of Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956).  Others thought only that mistakes had been made, although apparently not by them.   Still others, like the Bourbons, had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.  I am intrigued by where Husak would have placed himself in this cabinet of wonders.
And, as always, how interesting it is that colonial empires so often collapse from the centre – France in 1958, Portugal in 1974, the USSR in 1989.
POSTSCRIPT [2012-01-21]:  Some of the diversity of views of Party members is shown in the first part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 parallel-worlds film:  Przypadek  (Blind Chance).
POSTCRIPT [2012-04-08]:  And here is Margot Honecker, as obstinately recalcitrant as a rhodesian whenwe.
Shusaku Endo [1966]: Silence.
Arthur Koestler [1940]: Darkness at Noon.
Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  HarperCollins. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.

Stalinist justice

The Guardian recently carried a brief obituary of Marian Fagan, widow of Otto Sling (1912-1952), one of the accused in the show trials that took place in the CzechoSlovak Republic (CSR) in 1950-1952 while under Communist rule.    The obituary is written by their son, Karel Schling.   Sling had been a communist party official, and was one of the 11 (of the 14) defendants executed.  Fagan and her sons also spent time in prison as part of the investigations.  The show trials were arranged at Stalin’s behest and took place throughout Eastern Europe, with the partial exception of Poland.    The lead defendant in the Czech trials was Rudolf Slánsky, a Deputy Prime Minister who until shortly before his arrest had been Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC).

Apparently, the CSR President Clement Gottwald had initially resisted Soviet pressure to arrest Slánsky, especially because the two men were personally very close from their time in exile in Moscow.   Only when threatened with arrest and deposition himself did Gottwald agree to order Slánsky’s arrest, while still delaying the execution of the arrest warrent.    Sadly, an attempt by Czech emigre anti-communist intelligence organization Okapi to smear leading communist party officials by falsely associating them with western intelligence agencies resulted in an unsolicited letter being sent to Slánsky offering to help him to flee westwards (Lukes 1999), and this letter was then used as evidence for the Soviet allegations of treason against Slansky, forcing Gottwald’s hand.  This false letter appears to have been sent without prior knowledge or consent of western intelligence agencies.

The dialogue of the show trial was scripted beforehand by Soviet advisors to the Czech intelligence agency, the StB.  At least some of the accused had been promised lenient sentences if they followed the scripts provided to them, but these promises were broken.    To ensure that none of the accused spoke off-script (as had happened, for instance, in similar trials in Hungary), the trials were even rehearsed.   However, due either to independence of spirit or to memory lapses (the accused had been held in solitary confinement and tortured in other ways), not all the accused always followed their scripts: at times, defendants answered questions that had yet to be asked, for example. Because the trials were being broadcast live to the nation, the judges of the court – unable or unwilling to improvise responses – adjourned the trial proceedings immediately these off-script statements occurred.

Among those falsely arrested and convicted were some who were not even communists or ones not of long standing, including the economist Rudolf Margolius, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade at the time of his arrest.  Margolius only met his alleged fellow-conspirator, Rudolf Slánsky, at the trial itself.    Despite a promise of a lenient sentence in exchange for following the trial script, Margolius was executed, along with 10 of his 13 co-accused.  Three were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The injustice of this trial and the sentences imposed are not lessened by the observation that Rudolf Slánsky may also have ordered the trial if his and Gottwald’s positions had been reversed, or that others, such as Sling, had been brutal Stalinists when in power themselves.   An innocent victim is still innocent even if he may, in some alternative universe, not be a victim.    According to Lukes (1999), Czech StB agents were appalled by the torture used by their counterparts in Hungary and Poland.   However, what strikes me as very interesting is that the Polish communist party leadership managed to mostly resist Stalin’s pressure to hold show trials and executions in this period, a subject deserving of another post.

Last month also saw the death of Sir Charles Mackerras, US-born, Australian-educated, British conductor and leading champion of Czech music.

UPDATE (2011-09-11):  An explanation for Polish recalcitrance is provided by Stewart Steven, who argued that the post-war Eastern European show trials were the result of a sophisticated and cunning US intelligence operation, called Splinter Factor and using a Polish double-agent, to create suspicions between pro-Moscow and nationalist communists across the region. As with any writings on intelligence, the truth is hard to determine:  there may or may not have been such a US intelligence operation with this goal prior to the trials; if it had existed, it may or may not have been important or catalytic in the creation of the trials; indeed, the publication of a claim of the existence of such an operation 20 years after the trials themselves may itself have been part of some later intelligence operation, and unconnected with the earlier events.


An interesting obituary of Marian Sling in The Independent is here.  If nothing else, it shows that the petty vindictiveness of the stalinists who ran the CSR in the 1950s was not shared by ordinary citizens.

My prior salute to Czech reform communist Zdenek Mlynar is here.  Other posts in this series of heroes are here.


Igor Lukes [1999]:  The Rudolf Slánsky affair:  new evidence. Slavic Review, 58 (1): 160-187.

Heda Margolius Kovaly [1997]: Under a Cruel Star:  A Life in Prague 1941-1968.   New York, USA:  Holmes and Meier.

Ivan Margolius [2006]:  Reflections of Prague:  Journeys Through the 20th Century. Chichester, England:  Wiley.  The Margolius family website is here.

Stewart Steven [1974]:  Operation Splinter Factor.  Panther (Granada, edition published 1976).

A salute to Zdenek Mlynar

Continuing our series of heroes, I would like to honour Zdenek Mlynar (1931-1997).  Mlynar was an idealistic Czech communist who, as the principal author of the Action Programme of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSC), was the key theoretician of the Prague Spring in 1968.  Mlynar had earlier been selected by the party to study Marxist theory and law in Moscow in the 1950s, where he was a fellow student and friend of another young, idealistic communist, Mikhail Gorbachev.   Upon his return to the CSSR, Mlynar worked within the KSC to increase democracy, both internally within the party and in public life, becoming one of the reformers around Alexander Dubcek in the mid 1960s.

After the invasion of the CSSR by forces of the Warsaw Pact in 1968, Mlynar refused to submit to the reimposition of stalinism (during the so-called “normalization” period), and was expelled from the KSC.   After co-organizing and signing Charter 77, he was forced into exile.    In contrast to the courage and integrity of Mlynar, of Vaclav Havel and of their fellow members of the Czechoslovak opposition, the man who is currently Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, kept quiet during this period.

After departing Moscow in 1955, Mlynar and Gorbachev met again next in 1967.   When Gorbachev visited Prague in 1969, he was not permitted to see Mlynar.  They did not then meet again until 1989.    Mlynar was married to Rita Budinova (later Rita Klimova), the first post-Communist Ambassador from Czechoslovakia to the USA.
Archie  Brown has noted that the reformers of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the same generation as those who reformed communism in the USSR twenty years later.  In both cases, the reformers were people who were born in the 1920s and 1930s, and who thus came of age after the imposition of communism.   Also, in both cases, the reformers were true believers in socialist ideas, and neither cynics nor opportunists.  Unlike the situation in Hungary, Poland, and the DDR between 1945 and 1989, change to communism in the CSSR and the USSR came not from below but from above.

Past entries in this series are here.

Footnote:  Not only were the reforms of Gorbachev driven, leninist-fashion, from the top.  Charles Fairbanks [2008, pp. 64-65] has argued that there may be a direct link between the ideas of left-Stalinist Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948), and Gorbachev’s reforms, via Finnish and Soviet politician Otto Kuusinen (1881-1964), Kuusinen’s protegé politician Yuri Andropov (1914-1984), and economists Aleksey Rumyantsev (1905-1993) and Aleksandr Yakovlev (1923-2005).  Rumyantsev was founding editor of the international journal Problems of Peace and Socialism in Prague from 1958-1964, and the journal’s Russian editorial staff in this period had been selected by Kuusinen and Andropov.  For example, Gorbachev’s close aide, Georgy Shakhnazarov (1924-2001), had twice worked for this journal in Prague, in between stints at the International Department of the Central Committee of the CPSU, working indirectly for Andropov, via Fedor Burlatsky (1927-2014).


Charles H. Fairbanks [2008]: “The nature of the beast”.  Chapter 6, pages 61-75, of Gvosdev [2008].

Nikolas K. Gvosdev (Editor) [2008]:  The Strange Death of Soviet Communism:  A Postscript. New Brunswick, NJ, USA:  Transaction Publishers.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mlynar [2002]:  Conversations with Gorbachev on Perestroika, The Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism.  New York, USA:  Columbia University Press.  Translated by George Shriver, with a Foreword by Archie Brown.

Zdenek Mlynar [1980]:  Night Frost in Prague:  The End of Humane Socialism.  London, UK:  C. Hurst and Co.