of Leonid Brezhnev's telephone conversation with Alexander Dubcek
on 13 August 1968 was declassified and released from the Russian
Presidential Archive in April 1994 in connection with an international
conference on the 1968 crisis held in Prague. It is one of nine
documents presented at that time by the head of the Russian Archival
Service, Rudol'f Pikhoya, to Czech President Vaclav Havel.
The transcript of
the 13 August conversation was apparently based on tapes from a
recording system operated by the KGB for top Soviet officials to
enable them to keep track of important telephone calls. The conversation
was transcribed verbatim except for about a half dozen places where
the transcriber briefly summarized comments by Dubcek. These insertions
have been marked by brackets in the text.
It is instructive to compare this
conversation with the briefer and more cordial discussion that Brezhnev
and Dubcek had four days earlier, on 9 August. On the 13th, Brezhnev
was far more aggressive and belligerent, repeatedly accusing Dubcek
deceit" and of "blatantly
sabotaging the agreements reached at Cierna and Bratislava."
Although Brezhnev, as usual, made no direct threats of military
intervention, he offered a number of oblique warnings about "the
emergence of an entirely new situation," which was "forcing
[the Soviet Union] to consider new, independent measures that would
defend both the KSC and the cause of socialism in Czechoslovakia."
Brezhnev had not yet totally given up on Dubcek -- as is evident
from his repeated efforts to spur the KSC First Secretary into action
-- but the Soviet leader's impatient and accusatory tone was a clear
sign, in retrospect, of how little time remained.
Dubcek, for his part, was more defensive
and irritable in this conversation than he had been earlier, but
that was hardly surprising in light of the pressure he was under.
Dubcek had just finished seeing off Ulbricht, whose visit had come
as an unpleasant surprise to the KSC leadership. The phone call
from Brezhnev reinforced Dubcek's sense that, as he put it, he was
constant attack." Although Dubcek initially tried to contain
his irritation, he gradually lost his composure in the face of Brezhnev's
angry reproaches. Midway through the conversation, Dubcek suddenly
announced that he was considering stepping down as KSC First Secretary;
and, with obvious exasperation, he said to Brezhnev that "if
you [on the Soviet Politburo] believe we're deceiving you, you should
take the measures you regard as appropriate. That's your affair."
Brezhnev evidently was surprised by both these statements, as he
urged Dubcek to calm down and said it would be preferable if the
KSC itself adopted measures that would render Soviet action unnecessary.
The flustered tone of Dubcek's remarks is consistent with other
evidence that has recently come to light, which indicates that the
KSC leader by mid-August was beginning to succumb to Moscow's relentless
pressure. If Brezhnev and his colleagues had been willing to hold
off a week or two longer, Dubcek might have adopted at least some
of the steps they had been demanding. Whether that would have been
enough to allay Soviet concerns and forestall an invasion is of
course a different matter. Even if Brezhnev had believed that Dubcek
would be willing to comply with most Soviet demands -- and it is
doubtful that Brezhnev believed anything of the sort after the telephone
conversation on the 13th -- there was a growing consensus in Moscow
that events in Czechoslovakia could not be turned around without
direct Soviet intervention. That consensus was bound to gain even
greater impetus from Dubcek's comments on the phone.
To make matters worse, some of Dubcek's
remarks, especially his insistence that Soviet leaders should "adopt
whatever measures you believe are necessary," may have
been construed by Brezhnev as a tacit green light for military intervention.
Brezhnev warned Dubcek that the Soviet Politburo would "indeed
be adopting the measures we believe are appropriate," and
he noted that "such
measures would be easier for us to adopt if you and your comrades
would more openly say that these are the measures you're expecting
of us." Dubcek's response to this warning -- to wit, that
[in Prague] are able to resolve all these matters on our own, but
if you believe it is necessary for you to adopt certain measures,
then by all means go ahead" -- must have seemed to Brezhnev
like a further hint that Dubcek would acquiesce, if only grudgingly,
in Soviet military action. Clearly, this was not the impression
that Dubcek had wanted to convey, but a miscommunication in such
circumstances would hardly be unusual. Thus, the phone call on the
13th may have ended up worsening the situation not only by reinforcing
Brezhnev's belief that Dubcek would not "fulfill
his obligations" if left to his own devices, but also by
prompting Brezhnev to conclude that Dubcek and perhaps other top
KSC officials had now resigned themselves to the prospect of Soviet
Quite apart from the substance of
what the two leaders discussed, the transcript of the phone conversation
sheds valuable light, albeit indirectly, on the way Soviet decisions
were made between the 7th and 14th of August, in the leadup to the
climactic Politburo meeting. The three top Soviet officials -- Brezhnev,
Podgornyi, and Kosygin -- were all in the Crimea between the 7th
and 14th, and most of the other members of the CPSU Politburo also
were on vacation during that time; yet Brezhnev noted at the start
of the conversation with Dubcek that "the
CPSU CC Politburo" had recently "exchanged views" about the situation in Czechoslovakia
and had "unanimously
concluded" that Dubcek was not living up to his obligations.
Later on in the conversation, Brezhnev informed Dubcek that "the entire Politburo instructed me to speak with you" (emphasis added). It would have been impossible for the "entire
Politburo" to have been meeting or "exchanging views"
at this time, unless some of the members were participating by phone
(either during the session or by being consulted afterwards). What
seems more likely is that a core of senior members of the Politburo
-- Brezhnev, Podgornyi, Kosygin, and perhaps one or two others --
were meeting in the Crimea on behalf of the "entire Politburo."
They undoubtedly received authority to do so at the session of the
full CPSU Politburo on 6 August. Until another session of the Politburo
could be convened in Moscow to reach a final decision about the
invasion (as was done on 15-17 August), the three top leaders would
have been entitled to act temporarily in the name of the "entire
Politburo." Such an arrangement would explain how "the
Politburo" was able to continue issuing instructions between
the 7th and 14th of August (see the Politburo directives in Documents
No. 91, 93, and 95). Brezhnev, Podgornyi, and Kosygin were the ones
transmitting these orders, just as they were the ones responsible
for the phone calls to Dubcek on both the 9th and the 13th.
At the end of the conversation,
Brezhnev and Dubcek explicitly agreed that they would speak again
when the KSC CC Presidium was done with its meeting. It is not clear
whether a follow-up conversation did in fact occur. Janos Kadar's
report of his meeting with Brezhnev, Podgornyi, and Kosygin in Crimea
indicates that Soviet leaders promptly learned what went on at the
KSC Presidium meeting, but it is not clear whether they found this
out from Dubcek or from members of the "healthy
forces." In any event, if a follow-up conversation did
take place, the transcript from it is not yet available.