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Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008
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Alexander Dubcek – President of Czechoslovakia
Alexander Dubcek – President of Czechoslovakia

One review of Alexander Bubcek’s autobigraphy, "Hope Dies Last" started with the comment  that: "Even if he had not been at the center of the drama in 1968, Dubcek's story would be fascinating in itself."

The "drama" of 1968, (with which his name will always be associated, making him a prominent figure in both the history of his native land, and in Twentieth Century world history in general), has been called the "Prague Spring". 
Dubcek had risen to become President of his country and during the early part of 1968, he presided over a number of reforms, which he described as trying to create "socialism with a human face".  Many of the world’s communist governments were anxious about developments in Czechoslovakia and on August 21st 1968, troops of the USSR and their allies in the Warsaw Pact crossed the Czech borders bringing an end to Ducek’s “political experiment”. 
This caught everyone by surprise.  His surprise is reflected in the fact that when he heard the news he is supposed to have asked "How can they do this to me?".  The response on the streets of Czecholslovakia was of shock - and "passive resistance".  The world rallied to condemn the invasion - even Communist Romania, that had stood out and refused to particpate - but the reaction of the world remained verbal ... and the Warsaw Pact troops remained. 
Dubcek and his politburo were arrested and taken to Moscow where they met with Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders.  Although he was later appointed as Ambassador to Turkey, it was a short lived respite - lasting just one year - before he was "exiled" to a lowly official post in the countries forestry service for twenty years.  He re-emerged into public life once more when the "Velvet" revolution resulted in a new reforming administration.   

As the reviewer of Dubcek's autobiography pointed out, however, this was just one episode in an otherwise fascinating and eventful life - and it took place a long way from Kyrgyzstan.  There is, however, a link between those events and the Kyrgyz Republic in that Alexander Dubcek spent many of his formative years in Kyrgyzstan, in Bishkek.   
Dubcek's parents, Stefan and Pavlina, were orignially from Slovakia but met and married each other in the USA.  In Dubcek's words they were: "a pair of Slovak socialist dreamers who happened to have emigrated to Chicago" where Stefan worked as a cabinet maker, and was also active in the labour movement.  When America entered the First World War, Stefan refused to serve in the army and was arrested.  He spent fourteen months in an internment camp in Texas. 
In 1921 they returned to Slovakia in search of work because of the poor prospects and conditions which were prevelat in the US during the Great Depression following the end of the war.  A few months later, on 27th November, Alexander, was born in the town of Uhrovec. 
Stefan became one of the founder members of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, and in the spring of 1925 the family moved to the Soviet Union - in response to the appeal for workers to help build socialism.  Alexander was only three and half years at this time, and his brother, Julius, was only one and a half years older.  The train journey took a month to complete - and must have been a difficult journey for a family with two small children.  Half a week was taken up during the transfer from Polish  to Russian rolling stock at the border.    
What they discovered upon their arrival was hardly encouraging and the reality they were met was far from what had been the picture they had been presented with back home: 

  • The latter stages of the journey had passed through a large area of seemingly endless sand and rocks which they were told was called "Hungry Desert", and some members of the group were beginning to get demoralised.   (Fortunately, as they approached their final destination the scenery changed as rivers, meadows and cottages - signs of human habitation - began to appear.)  Then as they reached their journey's end, snow began to fell - a late April flurry;     
  • And there was still 4km to the town of Pishkek – the modern day capital, Bishkek ;
  • No-one knew they were coming – and nothing was prepared for them;
  • They were short of funds;
  • Although they had been told that Prezhervalsk was as a "climatically healthy region" - what they experienced was malaria, contagion and the death of several of the children.  There was a shortage of water - throughout the city.  There was no doctor available - and
  • they had no-where to live. 

This last point was settled - when they were assigned ten cottages, made from "glina" (clay bricks) in the former miltary camp (for a group which numbered 300) which were in a very dilapidated state.  Conditions for the new arrivals were difficult and they lived together as in a commune.  
It was important to find some way of supporting themselves and the group settled down to work - building workshops and a sawmill.  It wasn't easy because the materials were not readily available and had to be transported great distances.  For the first few months they received no wages.  Later, they received a loan of 20,000 roubles from a bank. 
People ate raw sparrow's eggs.  To find food for their pigs they rummaged about in the local rubbish dumps.
Then, in the next year, fire destroyed most of their workshops. 
According to Dubcek, some of their number decide that "enough was enough" and decided to return home - or to go to somewhere else in Russia.  The Dubcek boys, however, accepted Pishpek as their home and, like most small boys, got into a number of "scrapes"and adventures: riding on a coach drawn by a camel which ran out of control and had to be stopped by a local; Julius almost drowning when he was trying to find out how thick the ice on the lake was.
The family of Alexander Dubček`s future wife arrived in one of the later parties to join the group in the subsequent years.
Pavlina, Dubcek's mother, was elected as leader of the women's committee which was responsible for the children - in all there were almost 140 of them.  A school was started - and originally there were fifty children attending classes.  At the beginning, there were no textbooks, paper or pencils.  Alexander started to attend classes school at the age of eight, in 1929.  Classes were conducted in Slovak and Czech, but later on he was taught in Russian as well.  
In 1932, Interhelpa sent Alexander's father to Moscow for a course and later took advantage of an opportunity to move to Gorky in Russia where he worked in the GAZ automobile factory.  There, he had a possibility to work with American engineers preparing inner parts of bodyworks and filling the panels which were made of wood. In Gorkij the family rented a house in the settlement named Ruttenberg.  His mother did not go to work.
Alexander was very sad, he was only 12 years old and was leaving the only home he could remember.  The boys attended a much better secondary school where discipline was much more strict.  He was a good student.  He went skating, played water polo, hockey, and football.
In 1935, Julius, (Alexander's brother - who was 15 years old at the time), was involved in a street fight with boys from another part of town ... and he hurt one of the others.  It was decided that he and his mother would return to Czechoslovakia whist Alexander and his father remained in Kyrgyzstan.
Alexander was not interested in politics any more than other boys his age.  In his memoires he describes his confusion as having been taught to admire revolutionary heroes – the class were instructed to cut out their photos and blot out their names from school textbooks when they were suddenly declared villains, put on trial, and executed.
In the autumn of 1938, the Supreme Soviet issued a decree that the foreigners living in Russia had to either accept Soviet citizenship or leave the country.  Despite his socialist feelings, Stefan decided to leave the USSR and took with him his 17 year-old son.  He still considered Czechoslovakia as "home" - that he and Alexander were "Slovaks living abroad" ... but the situation was more complicated for Alexander.  Once again he was leaving behind him the country that he knew, that held all his memories - both good and bad, and was venturing out into the unknown.  
Back in Czechoslovakia he became an apprectice in the Skoda factory and in 1939 he joined the Communist Party - which was banned at that time.  Then came the Second World War, and both of the Dubcek brothers were active as communist guerrillas fighting the Nazi occupation.  In the winter of 1944-45 he fought in the Slovak uprising against the Germans, during which he was twice wounded and his brother Julius was killed
After the war Czechoslovakia fell into the Eastern Block - under the sway of the USSR. Alexander worked in a factory and was active as secretary of various local Communist committees. In the early 1950's he was appointed to the central committee of the Slovak Communist Party.  He studied law in Bratislava and later received a doctorate in Political Studies in Moscow.  By 1964 he had risen to the chairmanship of the Slovak Communist Party. 
In 1967 the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Novotny, was dismissed and Dubcek was appointed leader of Czechoslovak Communism early in 1968. 
However, since 1964 he had begun to adopt "unconventional", liberal economic views, (for a high Communist official, that is), in that he saw a substantial role for private enterprises. He also began to openly associate with intellectuals and artists.  He soon authorised lifting controls over the media, trades unions, economic enterprises and the courts. There were many such extensions of liberalisation in politics, the economy, and the arts giving rise to the so-called  "Prague Spring" where civil freedoms seemed to flourish in a state that still officially declared itself to be Communist.  A crisis was developing ... which is where we began his story.

Alexander Dubcek died on November 7, 1992, aged 70 - of injuries received in a car crash.
His time spent in, and affection for, Kyrgyzstan is still remembered and may have contributed to the good relationships that have existed betwen the two republics - especially in the post Soviet era.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #9

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