Newspaper article International New York Times

Vasil Bilak, 96, Senior Communist Leader in Czechoslovakia

Newspaper article International New York Times

Vasil Bilak, 96, Senior Communist Leader in Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt

As a chief ideologist of the Communist Party, Mr. Bilak opposed a short-lived period of artistic freedom in the late 1960s known as the Prague Spring. He died on Thursday in Bratislava, Slovakia's capital.

Vasil Bilak, who as a Communist leader in Czechoslovakia in 1968 encouraged the Soviet Union to invade his country to halt efforts for change that he saw as a threat to socialism, died on Thursday in Bratislava, Slovakia's capital. He was 96.

Slovakia's Communist Party announced the death, the Czech News Agency said.

As a chief ideologist of the Communist Party, Mr. Bilak, a former tailor, opposed a short-lived period of artistic freedom in the late 1960s known as the Prague Spring, which flourished under the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek.

Mr. Dubcek promoted what he called "socialism with a human face," relaxing obstacles to personal and press freedoms. But the period abruptly ended on Aug. 21, 1968, with the invasion of roughly 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops. In protest several months later, Jan Palach, a philosophy student, set himself on fire in Prague in Wenceslas Square.

Mr. Bilak was among a handful of unbending Communists who opposed the government's changes. He was one of five Communist Party officials who, earlier that year, wrote a letter to the Soviet leader Leonid M. Brezhnev, tacitly encouraging Soviet forces to invade Czechoslovakia to crush the "counterrevolution."

The letter said that "the very existence of socialism in our country is jeopardized." Without specifically calling for an invasion, it asked Mr. Brezhnev to use "all the means at your disposal" to counter the threat.

Later, Mr. Bilak, the last surviving author of the letter, would try to distance himself from it, telling the Czechoslovak news agency in 1992 that the letter could have been a "possible forgery."

Vaclav Havel, who led the Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communism in 1989, was given a copy of the letter in 1992 by the president of Russia, Boris N. …

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