Lubomir Strougal, who spent over 18 years as prime minister during the so-called normalisation era of communist Czechoslovakia, died this week aged 98. Despite being seen as a reform-oriented communist late in his career, Strougal also personified the stiff reactionary regime that replaced the "socialism with a human face" of the Prague Spring following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
Strougal managed to hold on to high-ranking positions in most of the different eras of communist rule in Czechoslovakia and was often described as a pragmatic technocrat of power.
After Czechoslovak Stalinism in the late 40s and early 50s, in spring 1968, the Communist party led by Alexandr Dubcek liberalised Czechoslovakia to the point that Moscow invaded the country and installed a loyalist regime. Under a process of so-called "normalisation", this hardline regime held on to its hawkish positions even during the reform period of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, before it was eventually brought down by the Velvet Revolution in November 1989.
As prime minister from 1970, Strougal took a pragmatic approach to the all-encompassing reality of Czechoslovak society subjugated on all levels of public life to Russian orders. “Small allied countries are just another form of Russian gubernia [provincial unit],“ Strougal wrote in his memoirs.
“What did people want? Simply put, they wanted [to choose from] an offer they knew from the ordinary catalogues in the West,” Strougal summed up the then state of society.
Strougal’s dry assessment serves well to depict the hollowness of normalisation-era politics. Voting was mandatory, but the presence of Soviet troops and loyalist elites dependent on Moscow for their careers rendered meaningful changes unrealistic. Just a couple of years after the political fervour of 1968, Czechoslovakia turned into the most conservative of the Central European communist regimes.
The then-dissident Michael Zantovsky recalled that when Strougal’s daughter Eva married journalist Jiri Janousek in 1977, guests were given fresh copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses while these were banned in ordinary book stores.
“I don’t know of a better example of intellectual cynicism and party elitism. That was Lubomir Strougal,” Zantovsky, currently a Director of the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague, posted on his Facebook profile shortly after news of Strougal’s death went public.
In the late 1980’s after Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union signalled the authorised loosening of norms in the eastern block, Strougal was viewed as a pro-reform voice, earning him the nickname “Prague Gorbachev,” but he lost an internal party struggle against hardliners led by Milos Jakes and Vasil Bilak, and stepped down in 1988.
A South Bohemian native, Strougal entered national politics in 1961 when he was appointed minister of interior, a powerful position that centralised control over the police, border guard units, censorship, and the feared secret police, the StB.
After the 1989 fall of communism, Strougal stood trial for sabotaging the punishment of StB members who were accused of murdering regime opponents in the late 1940s, but was acquitted in 2002.
More recently, Strougal faced investigations over his responsibility for those killed and injured while trying to cross the heavily guarded western and southern borders. These proceedings were terminated because of Strougal’s inability to comprehend the process fully.