Obituary: Zdenek Mlynar

Gabriel Partos
Sunday 20 April 1997 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Nearly 20 years before Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reform the Soviet system, Zdenek Mlynar, one of his friends from his student days in Moscow, had tried to introduce similar policies when he was a member of the Czechoslovak Communist leadership that presided over the Prague Spring of 1968.

Mlynar was a close associate of Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz), whose short-lived experiment to launch "socialism with a human face" was brought to an abrupt end by the Soviet- led military invasion in August 1968. As the top intellectual in the CPCz leadership, Mlynar was in many ways the brains behind the charismatic Dubcek. Their fate - and that of the Prague Spring - was sealed by the fact that the Czechoslovak reforms were being shaped at a time when the Soviet empire was reaching its most expansionist phase; and that the Kremlin's incumbent at the time was not Mikhail Gorbachev but Leonid Brezhnev who had zero tolerance towards more liberal forms of Communism.

Born in Vysoke Myto, in eastern Bohemia, in 1930, Mlynar joined the CPCz at the age of 16 and worked for the party's youth wing after secondary school. Like many other talented and hard-working Communists of his generation, he was sent to the Soviet Union to complete his education. Between 1951 and 1955 he studied at the law faculty of Moscow's Lomonosov University where he and Gorbachev became, in Mlynar's words, "a pair of close friends".

A year after his return to Prague, Mlynar joined the Institute for State and Law of the Academy of Sciences. In the mid-1960s, as the long winter of Communist orthodoxy was beginning to be assailed by the first harbingers of the Prague Spring, Mlynar became a senior official in the CPCz's legal affairs department. The economic downturn in the early 1960s and the failure of Antonin Novotny, the long-standing CPCz leader, to follow the de-Stalinisation programmes of some of his Communist neighbours, had fuelled widespread discontent which, in turn, prompted growing demands for change within and outside the party.

It was in these conditions that in 1967 Mlynar became head of an inter- disciplinary research team whose task was to work on the development of democracy in the Communist system. This provided the theoretical foundations for the Dubcek leadership's famous Action Programme of April 1968, a substantial part of which was written or inspired by Mlynar. Dubcek had become the CPCz's leader in January 1968, and within weeks Czechoslovakia was embarking on a new path which brought the end of censorship, the re- emergence of non-Communist organisations and the promise of far-reaching market-oriented economic reforms. Mlynar was already an influential figure; as the pace of change accelerated, he was promoted in June to become one of the secretaries of the CPCz's Central Committee which, at the age of 38, made him the youngest member of the leadership.

Mlynar, like Dubcek and many other reformers, believed that the Kremlin would allow them to carry on with their reforms as long as they assured the Soviet leadership of their loyalty to Moscow, stayed within the Soviet bloc and prevented the re-establishment of viable non-Communist parties. That turned out to be asomewhat naive assumption - the more so because as Mlynar was to recall in Nightfrost in Prague (1980), his insider's account of the events of 1968, Janos Kadar, the Hungarian leader, had warned Dubcek of the dangers ahead represented by Brezhnev, asking rhetorically whether Dubcek realized who he was dealing with. The Soviet-led invasion on 21 August put an end to the Czechoslovak experiment with humane socialism.

Mlynar was with the rest of the Czechoslovak leadership that was kidnapped by the invaders and whose members were forced to negotiate under duress in Moscow to give their qualified blessing to the Soviet military presence in the country. He was then elected to the CPCz's decision-making Presidium (Politburo) at the party's secret Congress held under the noses of the invading troops in a factory in the Prague suburb of Visocany.

But as the Soviet military presence and the Kremlin's pressure weakened the reformers, Mlynar resigned his posts just three months after the invasion. In 1970 he was expelled from the CPCz and was sacked from his job at the Academy. For the next seven years he worked in the entomology department of the National Museum. This was not the only punishment he suffered; Vladimir, his son, was barred from going to university and worked as a hospital orderly.

Mlynar became one of the first signatories of Charter '77, the dissident human rights movement, when it was established in January 1977. But a few months later Mlynar and his second wife, Irena Dubska, were allowed to leave the country and they settled in Austria. He taught politics at Innsbruck University and became a much-quoted commentator on Soviet-bloc affairs, particularly after Mikhail Gorbachev's accession to power. Following the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, there were rumours that Gorbachev's reform-minded KGB and their Czechoslovak collaborators had plotted to install Mlynar as the leader of a revamped CPCz to prevent the complete collapse of communism. Mlynar always denied these somewhat far-fetched allegations for which no conclusive evidence has ever come to light.

In the 1990s Mlynar divided his time between Austria and Prague where he became active in Czech politics and was elected honorary chairman of the Left Bloc - a small group of reform Communists who occupy the ground between the Communist Party and the Social Democrats. He stood for parliament in last year's elections in which the Left Bloc failed to secure a single seat. As a Communist reformer of the 1968 generation, Mlynar wasintensely critical of the all-out drive towards a largely unregulated market economy that followed the Velvet Revolution.

He stayed loyal to many of the ideals of the Prague Spring - an attitude that was largely out of step with Czech thinking in the1990s.

Gabriel Partos

Zdenek Mlynar, Communist reformer, dissident and political scientist: born Vysoke Myto, Bohemia 22 June 1930; on staff of the Institute for State and Law of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences 1956-70; Secretary of CPCz Central Committee, member of Presidium 1968; married first Rita Budinova (one son), second Irena Dubska; died Vienna 15 April 1997.

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