Czechoslovakia under the Communists was a sad place. Oppression seemed to be in the air; there was no escaping it. One of the most brutal Party bosses was Vasil Bilak. His moment came in 1968. The Party leader then was Alexander Dubcek, whose proposals for reform were well-meant, though he lacked the psychological resources to carry them through. Even so, Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo panicked, and had Dubcek flown to the Kremlin. To make their point, Dubcek was kept in chains during the flight. Bilak went too, and he signed the plea to the Soviet leadership to invade Czechoslovakia. Sure enough, the tanks rolled in. Dubcek was allowed to survive as a forester.
The reward for Bilak was promotion to be the ideological secretary of the Czech Communist Party. In that position he did what he could to turn the clock back, becoming known as “more Stalinist than Stalin.” Gorbachev was his nemesis. I always believed that the day would come when Gorbachev would do what every previous General Secretary of the Soviet Party would have done, and give the order to shoot as many demonstrators as he had to in order to maintain control. When this did not happen, I set about searching for an explanation, and my book The Strange Death of the Soviet Union duly emerged. The ideological secretaries in the Soviet bloc were key figures. Bilak was eager to open fire and put an end to an experiment he couldn’t understand. He put his downfall with wit that nobody had ever associated with him. Picture yourself as the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo in the middle of the Inquisition, he said, and suddenly a message arrives from the pope to say, Hold your horses; don’t light the bonfires — I have converted to Judaism. He was never put on trial or obliged to be a forester, but just died aged 96. R.I.P.