On Monday, the Archive Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge made available to the public for the very first time the results of one of the biggest intelligence leaks in history. The documents, collected by Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB defector, were handed over to the UK authorities in 1992 and include details on the Soviet agency’s infiltration efforts regarding the 1968 Czechoslovak Prague Spring. In total, 19 boxes of Mitrokhin’s notes will be made available, and could help Czech historians shed more light on a painful chapter in the country’s history. I spoke with Vilém Prečan of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre, and asked him for his take on the significance of this trove of information:
“Firstly, I would say that this is big news. If I could, I would travel tomorrow to Cambridge. Perhaps we will end up knowing more details about the KGB network in Czechoslovakia in 1968; about the agents and how deep their network was in Czech and Slovak societies.”
What new information can we learn? What do we know and what don’t we know right now with regards to the KGB infiltration of the Prague Spring?
“We can learn what connections they had and what their intentions were. Until now, we have known the details as presented via communist party records. This was thanks to a major project initiated by Professor Stefan Karner from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Graz, Austria. This was in 2008 and was a joint project between Russian and Czech institutions and historians. But we had nothing about the KGB.”
So even during the Boris Yeltsin era - where there was a release of KGB-related information, before the doors were again shut during the Putin era - nothing came out?
“You see, we simply did not have enough dollars to buy these records. There were some historians out there, or maybe the CIA, that were rich enough to buy up everything. Because during that time, even the most secret records were available for hard currency.”
How big are the gaps in the history of the Prague Spring? It’s been studied now for almost fifty years. What do we still not know?
“I think that the international context has been studied and researched only with regards to Moscow. But not the Western context. I think that we still need to learn about the expectations and estimations in London, in France, in Bonn and in the United States. It seems like Czech historiography stopped researching this particular great theme in our contemporary history.”
Why did it stop?
“Maybe there aren’t enough means and enough historians. Maybe now the interest is more geared towards the democratic revolutions and the democratic transitions of the 1990s as opposed to the events of 1968.”