When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, it heralded a revolution in Soviet-American relations. At a series of high-profile summits, beginning in Geneva in 1985, a growing personal trust developed between the Soviet and American leaders. Here is President Reagan – from the Czech Radio archives - in Moscow on June 1 1988:
“The personal relationship between Mr Gorbachev and me, and the various members of our respective delegations, has continued to deepen and improve. But personal relationships and hopes for peace are not by themselves enough… While at every turn I’ve tried to state our overwhelming desire for peace, I have also tried to note the existence of fundamental differences. And that’s why it is a source of great satisfaction that those differences, in part as a result of these meetings, continue to recede.”
While opening up to the West, the Soviet Union was also going through huge internal reforms, the process known as “perestroika”, and there were signs of similar changes in several of its Eastern Bloc allies, most noticeably Poland and Hungary. So when President Gorbachev travelled to Czechoslovakia in April 1987, his visit was followed closely for signs of change.
At a huge meeting in Prague’s Palace of Culture with Communist Party and trade-union activists, the Soviet leader was given a rapturous welcome, with prolonged cheers and applause. In the speech that followed, he was quite open about the less-than-healthy state of the Soviet economy and the urgent need for change.
“Our rockets can locate Halley’s Comet with utmost precision, they can fly to Venus, and yet at the same time we are seriously lagging behind in how we apply science and technology in the national economy, and our consumer goods are of poor quality… Experience tells us that socialism can only develop with criticism and self-criticism. Unfortunately we have not always followed this rule.”
Reform, he said, was essential, but he tactfully added that it was up to Czechoslovakia itself to decided whether or not to follow a similar path.
The Czechoslovak President Gustáv Husák assured Gorbachev that Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party and people were fully behind the Soviet transformation. But the reality was that Czechoslovakia’s political reforms were progressing at a snail’s pace. Just a month before, several well known figures from the Jazz Section of the Union of Musicians had been imprisoned in a trial that was evidently politically motivated, and there was also little sign of economic reform. Talking down a crackly phone line to the Czech section of Voice of America, Václav Havel, at the time the most prominent Czech dissident, was pessimistic about the potential of his country’s leaders to change.
“Our leaders are only in power thanks to the Soviet invasion, put in place by Brezhnev’s people in Moscow… They talk about reforms in Czechoslovakia but in reality they do not want them, because if they really did start to introduce reforms, they would face big problems with their own identity and legitimacy.”
Two years later, in November 1989, history was to prove Havel right. Unlike in Poland and Hungary, there was no gradual transformation, and it took hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Prague to persuade Czechoslovakia’s hard line leadership that times had moved on.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 11, 2009.