Mikhail Gorbachev in Prague. It was a spicy event, but it was a disappointment for people

Conflicting feelings

Each group asked this question with slightly different feelings. Foreign journalists are interested in his attitude to the international situation and to the Czechoslovak opposition, represented in particular by Charter 77 – and conversely to the approach of the Chartists.

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“The visit of the Tsar-reformer to the province, which is governed by the intervention of his anti-reform predecessors, was probably such a spicy event – at least in terms of expectations – that a truly unprecedented number of journalists met in Prague. They met in time, but the one who delayed his arrival was the tsar-reformer. And so journalists spent time waiting in various ways, including visiting dissidents,” said declared Václav Havel, then unofficial leader of the Czechoslovak opposition, in his essay “Meeting with Gorbachev”. Autumn Revolution 1989, editor’s note).

Representatives of the ruling power looked at Gorbachev with some apprehension: if they spoke verbally about the policy of economic reconstruction and greater openness in the communication of information that the new Soviet leader had introduced in February 1986 (Russian was defined by the words that they were trying to oppose both practices because this policy threatened their position of power.

For the same reason, the public in Czechoslovakia felt sympathy for the Soviet leader, which also encouraged his appearance: Gorbachev, 50, acting immediately, with lively eyes and a direct gaze, represented a pleasant change from to the previous, corpse trio in search of his retired predecessors Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko Yuri Andropov, who sometimes seemed to have no idea where they were (and died in quick succession).

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“He was relatively short and stocky, such a cute ball (he may have seemed so close to his massive guards), he looked a little shy and helpless, he smiled – I thought – honestly, he is conspiratorially mocked at almost everyone and everyone personally,” Havel aptly described the new Soviet leader.

The question, however, was whether Gorbachev’s likeable appearance didn’t lie; in this context, the Czechoslovak people were mostly waiting to see if they would comment on the issue of Soviet troops on Czechoslovak territory.

Hope and disillusion

The future Czechoslovakian president met the Soviet leader while he was walking with his dog and Gorbachev had just left the National Theater, where he saw the performance, in front of a crowd of people.

They followed his journey to Prague with real interest and even with a certain warmth, to which Gorbachev’s capacity for action immediately contributed. When Havel saw 150,000 people in the streets of Prague, whom Gorbachev and his wife Raisa spontaneously welcomed – with a clear hope of liberation in Czechoslovakia, which he himself perceived as totally unfounded – he expressed some disillusion in his test.

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“These people salute the person they think brought them freedom,” Havel said, continuing, “I was sad and thought this nation was unteachable: so many times it had pinned all its hopes on some outside force , since he had promised to solve his problems for him, so many times he was bitterly disappointed and was forced to admit that no one would help him unless he helped himself first – and again the same mistake! Again the illusion! Do they really think Gorbachev came here to free them from Husak!,” Havel wrote.

In his essay, he was quick to point out that Gorbachev delivered no original speeches in Prague, brought no vision of hope and instead praised one of the worst governments in Czechoslovakia in its modern history. (led by the aforementioned Gustav Husak, then president, who was the most prominent representative of the so-called normalization after 1968, ruthlessly ending all reforms and depriving thousands of people of their existence).

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On the other hand, Havel noticed that when Gorbachev approached him directly as he walked through the crowd, he smiled friendly and waved at him, which Havel returned slightly to his own astonishment.

“The crowd disperses. ‘I go home with the dog and I think of myself. And here’s the final surprise: I don’t blame my shy gesture at all. After all, I really have no reason not to respond to the enlightened Tsar’s salute! It’s another thing to respond to his salute, and it’s another thing to absolve myself of my responsibility by transferring it to him,” Havel concluded in his essay.

Gorbachev disappointed the Czechoslovakian public at the time: although at the time, according to historian Michal Macháček, there was already an internal Soviet proposal to withdraw part of the troops from Czechoslovakia, the Politburo did not not accepted and Gorbachev adhered to the original party lines in Prague.

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However, fundamental social changes throughout the Eastern European communist bloc were already approaching. Gorbachev can be credited with not having initiated them, but when they arrived he no longer defended them with armed force.

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