Alexander Dubcek, the silent symbol of Czechoslovakia’s failed 1968 attempt to alter the hard-line course of Moscow-dictated communism, died Saturday at age 70.
Dubcek, who had been hospitalized since a car accident Sept. 1, died at a Prague, Czechoslovakia, hospital from “failure of vital organs,” the official state news agency CSTK reported.
For 21 years after a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that put down the “Prague Spring,” Dubcek lived in a sort of internal exile that roughly paralleled the fortunes of his compatriots: He was comfortable enough, but voiceless, in a villa outside his native Bratislava.
Now and then, when he attended a concert, his neighbors and admirers would rise to applaud him, an act of civil disobedience on the part of the public showing that his memory--and the memory of 1968--was still alive among Czechoslovaks.
It was still alive in 1989, when throngs gathered in Prague’s Wenceslaus Square, sensing that communism was finally on the run in Eastern Europe. The crowd chanted Dubcek’s name along with that of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who had come to symbolize the new Czechoslovak opposition.
Dubcek was always a believer in the socialist ideal. Born in 1921 in the Slovakian town of Uhrovec, near Topolcany, he grew up in Bratislava, the provincial capital. He joined the Communist Party when he was 18 years old and his country was occupied by Nazi forces. He was wounded twice fighting with Communist partisan units against the Nazis.
After the war he went to Moscow, and he graduated in 1958 from Moscow’s Communist Party Academy, a training ground for up-and-coming apparatchiks from throughout the Soviet Bloc. He returned to Bratislava and rose to become first secretary of the Slovak Communist Party.
But by the late 1960s, the Czechoslovak party was in quiet turmoil, with a younger generation of Communists in revolt against 15 years of Stalinist-style rule under the direction of party leader Antonin Novotny, who made no secret of his contempt for Nikita S. Khrushchev’s attempts to ease the centralization of Communist Party power in the Soviet Union.
The reformers ousted Novotny in January, 1968, and chose Dubcek as their party leader. He was no firebrand reformer but was chosen as a compromise candidate, acceptable to both reformers and hard-liners.
Dubcek’s desire to create “socialism with a human face” and the nation’s desire for change triggered six months of debate and reform in 1968 that came to be known as the “Prague Spring.”
Czechoslovakia’s reformers sought an overhaul of the legal system, civil liberties guarantees and a more responsive system of economic planning. None of the goals, in themselves, espoused an end to the Communist system, but Moscow’s leaders saw that the reformers’ “action program” received wide public support and thus amounted to a clear threat to the Soviet system in neighboring countries.
During the night of Aug. 20-21, five Warsaw Pact armies invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. Security forces arrested Dubcek and other party leaders and flew them to Moscow. Party leaders in Prague refused to recognize the Soviet-imposed government, and after lengthy negotiations Dubcek was allowed to return home, still in his post as first secretary of the party.
He tried to salvage the “action program” of the reformers, but the atmosphere remained tense. A university student burned himself to death on Wenceslaus Square to protest the Soviet invasion, and a hostile crowd vandalized the offices of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. In April, 1969, Dubcek was removed as party leader and given the largely ceremonial post of president of Parliament.
Even that was not to last long. He was fired the following September and removed from the party’s Central Committee. That December he was appointed ambassador to Turkey. Then in June, 1970, he was expelled from the Communist Party and brought home from Turkey. He was ejected from his seat in the Parliament’s House of the People.
Dubcek then moved to Slovakia with his wife, Anna, and was given a menial job as a clerk in a forestry office.
From then until 1987, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Czechoslovakia, Dubcek was kept under close surveillance. He was scarcely mentioned in the Czechoslovak press, except for the occasional historical denunciation of “liberal” trends in the socialist world. Foreign reporters were forbidden to visit him.
After Gorbachev’s rise to power in Moscow, however, the controls on Dubcek were relaxed. In 1988, on a visit to Italy, he indicated that he still held to his belief in the workability of a “reformed” communism, as exemplified by Gorbachev.
“I welcome and support it (the Gorbachev reform effort),” he said. “In this sense I see its deep underlying connection with the questions which arose in our country 20 years ago, naturally modified by concrete conditions of place and time. This is a long time if we consider what of the ‘new course’ could have been implemented during those years, what would have benefited our country, socialism and the entire movement, enriched by fresh experience in the social transformation of society.”
Two decades after his ouster from power, Dubcek--tall and slender with a sharp, hooked nose and a slight stoop--still spoke in the turgid style of Communist officialdom. That observation was not lost on the new dissidents who led the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, who clearly felt that Dubcek, while a hero of the nation’s past, had been leapfrogged by history.
In the aftermath of the “Velvet Revolution,” Dubcek regained his status as an elder statesman, although as free-market reformers became the dominant force in the government, his influence as president of Parliament was clearly minor. Dubcek, however, was undaunted, holding to his cherished socialist ideal, and not without a considerable following. He became the head of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia, an economically troubled region where the socialist goal of guaranteed security is popular.
Powers, now based in London, formerly covered Czechoslovakia as The Times’ Warsaw Bureau chief.