In 1990, members of the CPSU’s Central Committee found themselves in a touchy situation. With the communist regime no longer in power in Czechoslovakia, that country’s Office of the Attorney General asked the Soviet Union leadership to hand over a specific document that, it was felt, could finger the individuals responsible for the 1968 invasion of Warsaw Pact forces, leading to nearly 800 individuals (according to official numbers) being killed or injured.
The request placed the Soviets in a tight spot: do they hand over the document, which had already been acknowledged as bona fide, and see former allies brought to trial? Do they deny the existence of the document, and wait for the condemnation and further requests, turning the inquiry into a Katyn-like situation?
In a Top Secret 11 May 1990 memo from the Central Committee to Soviet President Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze and Aleksandr Yavkovlev spell out the best political and diplomatic approach. A translation of the memo, which has since been declassified, is offered below.
Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CENTRAL COMMITTEE
To Comrades Gorbachev, Ryzhkov, Kryuchkov, Medvedev, Shevardnadze, Yakovlev, Lukyanov, and Falin.
Excerpt from proceedings No. 187 of the session of the Politburo of the TsK KPSS dated 11 May 1990
On our reaction to requests from Czechoslovakian authorities for documents pertaining to 1968.
1. Come to an agreement on the considerations laid out in the excerpt of Comrades E. A. Shevardnadze and A. N. Yakovlev, dated 4 May 1990 (attached).
2. The USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to make the Czechoslovakians aware of our position in regard to the requests for documents pertaining to 1968, and announce the same at a briefing for Soviet and foreign journalists.
SECRETARY OF THE TsK
To paragraph 24 of proceedings No. 187
On our reaction to requests from Czechoslovakian authorities for documents pertaining to 1968
On 6 April 1990, the ChSFR [Czech and Slovak Federative Republic] Attorney General launched a criminal inquiry “against individuals culpable in the intervention of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968.” At the same time, he officially called upon the Attorney General of the USSR, asking that office to relinquish the original of the letter from a group of Czechoslovakian figures to the TsK KPSS, which the Czechoslovakians believe served as the basis for the intervention of the allied troops. Similar communications had theretofore arrived from the Chairman of the Federal Assembly of the ChSFR, A. Dubček and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, J. Dienstbier.
By all appearances, the letter is the centerpiece of the investigation. The procurement of this letter would allow Czechoslovakian authorities to not only identify a group of individuals that could be prosecuted, but also back up their allegations with evidence.
The Czechoslovakians are making no secret of their intention to exercise pressure on the USSR in order to obtain the document. In short order, the request will be repeated through the Federal Government of the ChSFR. Clearly, this effort by the Czechoslovakian authorities to use us in order to settle old scores with the KPCh [Czechoslovakian Communist Party] is meant to strike a blow against the Communists on the eve of the election.
Obviously, it will be unacceptable for us, from both a political and moral point of view, to take part in legal proceedings against the former leaders of the KPCh.
Meanwhile, it is understood that limiting our position to a denial of the existence of this document in the Soviet archives would be wrong. In light of the facts laid out in the memoirs of J. Kádár and V. Bil’ak, as well as the point that the TASS announcement from 21 August 1968 has a direct reference to “the appeal of party and state leaders of the ChSSR,” such an assertion will breed distrust and will not put a stop to new requests for us, creating a “Katyn” situation.
We should stress that the decision on the intervention of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 was made not based on this or that appeal from individuals, if indeed such appeals took place, but instead was dictated by the distorted understanding of the Soviet leadership at the time, as well as other socialist states, of the essence of socialism and the standing of mutual relationships between the allied nations. Strong condemnation by the Soviet Union regarding the acts of 1968, and the agreements made to withdraw Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, in our opinion, translates into this question being closed on the political plane.
The task now, as we understand it, consists of overcoming the negative aftermath of the events of 1968, and clearing away the historical rubble on the basis of mutual understanding, forbearance, and social harmony. We feel that a judicial proceeding into affairs on which history has already pronounced its verdict does nothing to facilitate a resolution to the problem, and actually unwittingly dredges up a shadow over yesterday’s political processes that greatly damaged the development of many countries.
Of course, it’s Czechoslovakia’s business as to whether or not the investigation is to be conducted. However, based on the observations noted above, we cannot participate in it, neither directly nor indirectly.
At the same time, we confirm our readiness to create the conditions for the constructive cooperation of scholars from both countries in the objective study of the subject of 1968.
It is advisable to deliver this position to Czechoslovakia’s political leadership. The USSR prosecutor’s office will respond to the ChSFR Attorney General’s appeal through its own channels.
E. Shevardnadze A. Yakovlev
4 May 1990 No. 398/OS