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The Man Who Said No to the Soviets

On the night of the 20


th
of August 1968, just around midnight, leading members of
Czechoslovakias reformist communist government were arrested in a joint action by the KGB and
the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB. On the morning of the 21
st
, Czechs woke up to find
Wenceslas Square full of Soviet tanks. The Warsaw Pact armies had invaded the country and put an
end to the reformist period now known as the Prague Spring, which sought to bring about
communism with a human face. Five days later, the Soviets had prepared a document known as
the Moscow Protocol, which was to protect socialism in Czechoslovakia. In reality, this was merely
a euphemism used to justify the restoration of Soviet control over the country and put an end to
democratization of the Czechoslovak socialist system. The Moscow Protocol was presented to the 26
members of the Czechoslovak Government. 25 of them signed. Frantiek Kriegel was the only one
who refused to sign. "Send me to Siberia or shoot me dead" was his reply.
Frantiek Kriegel was born in 1908 to a Jewish family in Stanislau, present day Ivano-
Frankivsk. Due to the widespread anti-Semitism in Eastern Ukraine at the time, he decided to move
to Charles University in Prague and pursue his studies of medicine there rather than Lvov. The
optimistic and open-minded atmosphere of newly-born Czechoslovakia pleased the young man who
fit in well with the new society, in spite of his poverty. However, the prosperity and idleness of life in
the First Republic were shaken when the Great Depression hit in 1929. As a consequence, Kriegel
joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which he saw as the only defense against both the
economic injustices of his day and the rise of fascism (and with it, yet again, anti-Semitism). He
became a doctor of medicine in 1934. 2 years later, he signed up as a volunteer for the Republican
Army fighting against the coalition of nationalist and fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish
Civil War. He would not see his adopted homeland again for almost 10 years. After the Republicans
were defeated by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, he fled into France. By this time,
Czechoslovakia had already been occupied by the Nazis, and he could not return there. Instead, he
was sent by the Red Cross to the Far East and cured soldiers in the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Kriegel finally returned home to Prague in late 1945. The restored Republic of Czechoslovakia
saw the dominance of the Communist Party, which won the 1946 general election and controlled
most of the important government ministries. Although he initially became an undersecretary in the
Ministry of Health after the communist takeover of 1948, he soon fell out of favor in the paranoid
atmosphere of early 1950s Stalinist purges. Kriegel was at fault for being a Jew and a Spanish Civil
War veteran both of these groups were frequent targets of Stalinist purges. Nevertheless, Kriegel
was very lucky. While about 250 people were executed, he was merely deposed. He was
rehabilitated in 1957 once the Destalinization started. By 1964, he had returned to politics and
became a Member of the National Assembly. Kriegel soon became very close to the reformist faction
of Alexander Dubek, which fought for power with the conservative neo-Stalinists. He was admitted
in the Central Committee in 1966.
In January of 1968, Dubek became the new Prime Minister and the reformers were now in
charge, bringing in a wave of hope for a more just system both at home and abroad. In April, Kriegel
became the Chairman of the Central Committee of the National Front. On behalf of the Communist
Party, Kriegel took part in negotiations for the formation of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic
Party, as the reformists wanted to reintroduce a multi-party system into the socialist state. He was
very shaken by all the negotiations with the Soviets, and later expressed indignation over the fact
that the destinies of so many nations and of all humanity rest in such primitive hands. The Soviets
were not fond of him either. As a prisoner in Moscow, he was a target of anti-Semitic insults and the
Soviet Government specifically forbade him from taking part in the negotiations in preparation of the
Moscow Protocol. The fact that he was probably the most despised of all Czechoslovak political
figures by the Moscow bureaucrats only makes his act of defiance more courageous. Having been
born in Ivano-Frankivsk, which in 1968 was a part of the USSR, the Soviets wanted to keep him in
his country. On top of all that, being well aware that the leaders of a similar reform movement in
Hungary were executed by the Soviets 12 years before, the bravery of the statement Send me to
Siberia or shoot me dead cannot be overemphasized.
The Soviets, already facing a lot of backlash for their acts in August of 1968, spared Kriegels
life, because the Czechoslovaks saw him as a national hero, but they kept him in complete isolation in
his own country. He was removed from the Central Committee, and in 1969, he was expelled from
the Communist Party. Kriegel was forcefully retired in 1970. Even in his retirement, he was followed
by the secret police. Towards the end of his life, he became one of the first signatories of Charter 77,
the leading document of the Czechoslovak opposition in the 1970s and 1980s. He died in Prague in
1979. Today, the Charter 77 Fund awards the Frantiek Kriegel Award for extraordinary merits in
the struggle for human rights and civil liberties, national independence, sovereignty and democracy.