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Three weeks before the occupation. An interpreter’s memories

As a result of reforms taking place in 1968 Czechoslovakia, the Soviet leadership initiated a special conference to meet with Czechoslovak officials which took place from the end of July until the beginning of August in Čierna nad Tisou, a small remote town on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border (with the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). I participated as an interpreter and share, for the first time in print, my memories of this important time.

On July 28th, 1968, when I was working at the department of international relations of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, I was called and told that we should report to work with a bag packed and enough supplies for a few days. I was not permitted to discuss this with anyone, as it concerned a simultaneous interpretation at an international conference. When we arrived, nothing was explained, except that we would be travelling to Čierna. The participants were brought to the airfield where everything was ready for the government plane to take off. The entire Czechoslovakian delegation flew to the city of Košiše.

September 12, 2021 - Tamara Reiman - History and MemoryIssue 5 2021Magazine

Tamara Reiman was born in 1932 and came from the Soviet / Russian city of Yaroslavl. She worked as an interpreter and was at the decisive meeting in July/August 1968 between the Soviet and the Czechoslovak Politburo leaderships.

For five days a train stood still on the rails, where everyone lived: the members of the Politburo, the service apparatus, experts, advisors, interpreters, and everyone else. Opposite the platform was an unsightly cultural centre building. The conference[1] took place there, in a small hall.

The arrival

Leonid Brezhnev and Ludvík Svoboda (then president of Czechoslovakia – editor’s note) greeted one another with a kiss. The Soviet delegation arrived on July 29th. The conference would not begin for another day and already the atmosphere was tense – although at first glance, nothing had happened, and everything appeared calm. Anxieties rose to a new height on the morning of the next day. Everyone got up early, ate breakfast without paying attention and waited to see what would happen. Time passed slowly, and still the whole Soviet delegation had not arrived. Finally, the train appeared in the distance. Heavily armoured, it approached the platform slowly, and from it the passengers of the Soviet Politburo stepped out, with Brezhnev in the lead. They greeted each other very cautiously. No hugs, no kisses. While Brezhnev and Svoboda kissed, the other Soviet leaders simply shook hands, and that was all. Then Brezhnev and Alexander Dubček went into the car of the Soviet train. Everyone else waited on the platform and talked quietly. The conversation revolved around this and that – largely small talk. The delegations were waiting to see what was to come. About an hour and a half later, Brezhnev came outside with Dubček, and after a few minutes both delegations, some of the experts, and the interpreters entered the room.

The meeting hall was a rather large, uncomfortable, long room with a long table in the middle. Members of the Czechoslovak delegation sat on one side of the table, and the members of the Soviet delegation on the other. There were chairs for the consultants and experts along the walls and two booths for the interpreters on one of the walls. First, Brezhnev gave a long, three-hour presentation. The Soviet delegation, for some reason, only had one interpreter to translate the entire presentation. Towards the end of the presentation, she was half dead from exhaustion, but we were not allowed to take a break, not even for a few minutes – not allowed![2]

Brezhnev spoke in a calm voice, expressionless, without any particular emotion. But what he said was very harsh: that danger from the right was growing in Czechoslovakia; that there were counter-revolutionary organisations such as KAN (the Club of the Active Non-Party) and K231 (Club of political prisoners convicted in the 1950s and 1960s on the basis of Article 231); that the party had a so-called “second centre”; that the Czechoslovak press, radio, and television had turned into a mouthpiece for right-wing forces and had completely slipped out of control of the party, and so on.[3] While Brezhnev was listing all of these allegations, he spoke in an almost fatherly tone, like a teacher to his pupil. The tone of the other Soviet leaders was far rougher and authoritarian.

After Brezhnev, Dubček spoke. He gave a serious, well-reasoned presentation that showed that there was no threat of a counter-revolution in the country. Dubček came to the defence of the media which Brežnev had disparaged so harshly. However, one had the impression that he was talking to a brick wall: the Soviets listened with cool detachment and were not inclined to accept a single argument.

Lack of interest

The Soviets’ lack of interest in listening or understanding – or even negotiating – became more and more evident with each presentation by one of their representatives. Today, I can no longer say who exactly said what, but I can still clearly remember that Alexei Kosygin’s address seemed particularly aggressive (Kosygin was the Soviet prime minister at that time – editor’s note). Literally every sentence he spoke was dripping with sharp malice. He seemed to spew poison and bile with his threats. In response to Dubček’s argument that the new course of the Czechoslovak government enjoyed the support of the entire population of the country and that the party’s central committee had passed resolutions in support of them en masse, Kosygin said, with a malicious grin that I remember very well: “Why do you keep telling us about resolutions?! If the participants call Moscow now, you will receive so many resolutions against the counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia that they will fill this room from the floor to the ceiling!” He absolutely failed to understand that resolutions could be passed on the initiative of ordinary people who are concerned about a matter – that is, without direction from above. And it was also Kosygin who said: “Your border is also our border.” He said this in a way that the western border of Czechoslovakia represented the border of the socialist camp, and that the Soviet Union could take any means necessary to secure it.

As I said, it was clear from the beginning of the conference that the Soviets neither wanted to adjust to the situation nor understand anything. The representatives of the reform wing of the Czechoslovak leadership spoke as if in front of an empty hall, and a malicious grin was the only reaction from the Soviet side of the table. The Soviet leaders reacted only when one of their protégés took to the floor: Vasiľ Biľak, Drahomir Kolder, Emil Rigo, or Oldrich Švestka. The Soviets listened to them with rapt attention. Bil’ak’s speech was accompanied by loud approval, especially when he spoke of anti-Soviet and anti-socialist tendencies that allegedly existed in Czechoslovakia, and when he alleged that the communists were about to be hung from the street lamps. We could not believe our ears: how can you be able to spread outright lies about your own country?! Alexander Schelepin (from the Soviet delegation – editor’s note) was the friendliest in form. Mikhail Suslov was an experienced, caustic Jesuit on ideological issues and demonstrated, in a monotone voice, that revisionism was growing rapidly in Czechoslovakia.

Throughout the conference, the Czechoslovak and Soviet representatives appeared confused. There was no programme, no regulations, and no management of the conference. Brezhnev took on the role as unofficial chairman without taking the initiative of asking anyone. This continued for half a day until Petro Shelest took the floor on July 30th. Shelest’s speech was the coarsest and sharpest of all. He literally foamed at the mouth as he spoke about the counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia. Antisemitic tones were also heard in his speech. Shelest shouted phrases such as “a certain Kriegel, a Jew from Galicia”. And Frantisek Kriegel – the chairman of the National Front of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a participant in the Spanish civil war and the war in China, a clever and excellent person – was sitting across from Shelest; he simply smiled in understanding.

Deviation from the Soviet path

Shelest got to the heart of the matter. It was clearly stated: “You are deviating from the path, we will not tolerate this, and we will bring you back to the right path in our ‘proletarian’ way.” God knows how everything could have turned out, but during the conference, because of Shelest’s speech, there was a break. Shelest spoke particularly scathingly of Dubček, whom he accused of betraying the cause of socialism. Dubček reacted to this, as it seems to me in retrospect, unexpectedly for the Soviet leader, because he reacted like a normal person who had just been grossly and unjustly insulted. He stated that he categorically disagreed with Shelest, that the friendly relations with the Soviet Union were sacred to him, and that it was completely unjustified to accuse him of being anti-Soviet when his family had participated in the socialist construction of the Soviet Union in the 1920s in the Czechoslovak agricultural cooperative “Interhelp” in Kazakhstan.

Dubček’s voice began to tremble, and he did not finish reading his script, but instead got up from his seat and turned to leave the room. One of them – I think it was Josef Smrkovský, the speaker of the Czechoslovak parliament – rushed over and spoke with him. There was confusion in the hall. The Soviet representatives sat there with red faces, although I would not say that they were amazed. In my opinion, they were unable to understand and did not expect a normal, human response from a politician. This went beyond understanding Brezhnev and the others who were with him. Then they began to whisper to each other and one of them, I think Nikolai Podgorny, went to Dubček on the platform.

The conference was interrupted. What would happen next was unclear. The Soviet delegation withdrew to their railcars and one of them came to Dubček that evening. As it turned out, there had been discussions that further work should take place behind closed doors. On the Soviet side, Brezhnev, Kosygin, Podgorny, and Suslov took part in the negotiations, and Dubček, Svoboda, and Smrkovský participated on the Czechoslovak side. The discussions continued during the third day of the conference, on July 31st. They went on without interpreters, without secretaries and without experts. There was only one Soviet interpreter and one stenographer present. Everything that was discussed is unknown. It was certainly discussed that a conference of the leaders of the communist parties of the socialist countries (with the exception of Romania and Yugoslavia) should take place in Bratislava. Obviously censorship was also discussed, as certain steps in this direction were taken on the Czechoslovak side after the Černa conference. When the heavy train transported the Soviet Politburo to safe, native territory for the night (the train with the Soviet delegation drove to Černa in the morning and back in the opposite direction in the evening), the Czechoslovak participants were invited into the saloon car, where a roasted suckling pig was lying in a bowl. A delegation from the Slovak area brought it. I do not know how they managed to get it onto the platform. The platform was literally sealed off from the overgrown land. Not a single journalist, not a single visitor, not a single delegation had been to Černa this whole time. Telephoning was only possible in exceptional cases and upon special permission.

Evening party

Whatever the outcome, the roast pig was on the table, and Prime Minister Oldřich Černík, armed with a knife and fork, began to prepare it, saying that he knew his way around because his father had been a butcher. Still, the mood was anxious, and we did not feel very comfortable. Everyone was there: those who supported Dubček and those who a few weeks later were called “the healthy core” of the communist party. The latter generally did not say much, and we did not talk to them in a demonstrative way. The representatives of this “healthy core” were the first to gradually withdraw, and later, after we invited Dubček to our compartment, we also went to sit and drink vodka.

In the evening Dubček, Černík, and Kriegel came into our small compartment (we slept in a compartment for two people). The seven of us somehow found space on a bench, and the experts crouched on their knees on the wall opposite us, and someone stood at the door. We opened a bottle of vodka and poured it into plastic cups. Everyone talked about typical things. Little by little, concrete questions were posed, but Dubček’s and Černík’s answers were generally optimistic, in the sense that the Czechoslovak side did not give in too much. Fundamental concessions were not made. Kriegel was silent. I thought that the situation was clear to him, but that he preferred to remain silent. Someone later told an anecdote, and Dubček laughed so heartily that everyone began racing to tell other stories just to please him.

The “evening party” was interrupted by the arrival of someone unpleasant who made it clear to Dubček in a rather impolite polite manner that he must report immediately for some meeting. That evening, a similar person came into the car and gathered all the written materials that were there. The written texts of the presentations given by the Soviet participants, for example, were taken away from the interpreters. We had received it so that translations into Czech could be more precise. It happens quite often, with simultaneous interpretation that such a text is presented as working material, and the interpreters usually take notes directly into the text for themselves. In this case, the text of the Kosygin report contained not only working notes, but comments from the interpreter – in this case, it included comments that were by no means flattering of Kosygin. This text was also removed. Bil’ak would later claim, after the Soviet troops marched into Prague, that the anti-Soviet mood in Czechoslovakia had been so strong that even the interpreters who had been present at the conference in Černa made coarse remarks about “leading Soviet comrades”.

The Soviet delegation was due to arrive early the next day, but their train did not appear until two o’clock in the afternoon. The meeting – this time we were there too – was very short. Brezhnev read aloud the draft of a Soviet communication and, without asking if there were any questions (the Czechoslovak delegation also had a draft), he put it to vote. The draft was accepted on the principle of “no one against it – accepted.” Finally, a reception was held in the hall of the culture house, where only trivialities were discussed in a rather stiff atmosphere. Then a photographer came along and a picture was taken in front of the cultural centre which appeared in the press afterwards: a smiling, good-natured Brezhnev with a bouquet of flowers and Dubček next to him. The Czechoslovak leadership then accompanied the Soviet delegation to the wagons of the Soviet train, and they departed. The platform was then opened and the people of Černa poured in en masse. They talked to Dubček, Černík, Smrkovsky, Svoboda, and Kriegel, hugged them and expressed their sympathy and solidarity with them.

Politics behind closed doors

In Černa, I experienced, for the first time, what takes place behind the scenes of high politics. I was not afraid – and many joked that the participants would be sent to Siberia right away. They categorically denied the possibility that “brotherly” tanks could invade. I was unable to believe the reality of this threat. It seemed to me that intervention was impossible, because it had to be clear to everyone that a new socialism was being built in Czechoslovakia, a true socialism which was humane – socialism with a “human face”. How could the Soviet Union, the world’s first socialist state, send tanks against an equally socialist country?

After that, I attended the Conference of the Leaders of the Communist Party of Socialist Countries in Bratislava in August of 1968. There, all the work was done behind closed doors, and the interpreters had only the “honourable duty” of announcing that the session was either opening or closing. One of the Czech experts who attended in Bratislava later wrote that he had the feeling that he was attending his own funeral, which was attended by his closest enemies. There is nothing more to add.

Tamara Reiman was born in 1932 and came from the Soviet / Russian city of Yaroslavl. She worked as an interpreter and was at the decisive meeting in July/August 1968 between the Soviet and the Czechoslovak Politburo leaderships.  

[1] Even if the official title of the meeting was conference, it was more of a summit meeting between the Politburo of the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

[2] With simultaneous interpretations, one generally works for 15-20 minutes without a break.

[3] The name of my husband, Michal Reiman, was also mentioned among the activists of this “second centre.”

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