These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

The end of the line

By James Thomson

    The station at Čierna nad Tisou.
 The station at Čierna nad Tisou.
 Photos by James Thomson

Slovakia is sufficiently mountainous and, in general, sparsely populated to have plenty of distant valleys and forgotten corners. But if any place in this diverse country has most claim to be 'the end of the line' it is Čierna nad Tisou.

Not that it is inaccessible. Several trains a day leave from Bratislava for this outpost in the far south-east, though it will take you the best part of the day or (night) to reach here. It's not much quicker by road, though if you take to the Hungarian highways - which is what locals heading west by car typically do - it's a more straightforward drive than using Slovakia's still-intermittent highway network.

If you're not a local, reasons to make the journey are not immediately apparent since this is decidedly not a tourist destination. The countryside here is flat, part of the flood plain of the nearby Tisa River (one of the Danube's main tributaries), which briefly forms the border with Hungary. But beneath its sleepiness, the area has an interesting place in Slovakia's recent history.

Čierna nad Tisou exists mainly to serve the Slovak railway network, on which it is the last stop. Strictly speaking, it is not the end of the line: the rails (but not the road) continue east into Ukraine, where the wider gauge makes for a long pause as the wheels of carriages and wagons heading into the former Soviet Union have to be changed.

The previously insignificant settlement developed rapidly after the Soviet annexation of eastern Czechoslovakia during World War II suddenly made it a border town. From almost nothing in 1945, several thousand people were living and working here by the late 1960s. But Čierna nad Tisou won its city status only after playing a small but significant role in the events of 1968.

The liberalising efforts of communist Czechoslovakia's leader, Alexander Dubček, to develop 'socialism with a human face' in early 1968 quickly unnerved the Soviet Union's leaders. As the 'Prague Spring' gathered pace in Czechoslovakia, with young people taking an active interest in politics for the first time in a generation and newspapers starting to openly talk about the possibility of pluralism, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called a meeting of the region's communist party leaders in Moscow in May 1968. Perhaps suspecting that they were unlikely to receive a pat on the back, the Czechoslovak leadership stayed away.

Brezhnev had correctly recognised the dangers - at least to him and other communist leaders - of liberalisation. Almost twenty years later, efforts to do the same in the USSR by one of Brezhnev's successors, Mikhail Gorbachev, helped trigger the end of both communism in Europe and the Soviet Union. Rather than trying to lure the Czechoslovak communists to Moscow, in July 1968 the Soviets came west: to Čierna nad Tisou.

And to drive home the seriousness of the situation, this was to be not merely a leaders' summit, but a meeting of the entire politburos (communist party ruling committees) of both countries. In the end, it went on, face to face, for an extraordinary five days.

Čierna nad Tisou appears to have been chosen because of its proximity to the border. Local residents who remember the summit say that the Soviet delegation arrived on pullman carriages which returned to Ukraine every night.

Not that it was all buttoned down on Czechoslovak soil. Jánoš Bogoly, then a 17-year-old student in the town, says he caught a glimpse of Brezhnev emerging from a train waving to locals and wearing a tracksuit (an outfit which, curiously, remains common attire on Russian trains, perhaps suggesting that efforts to create 'homo sovieticus' were not entirely fruitless).

But security measures were anything but light-hearted. Čierna nad Tisou's present-day mayor, Tibor Dulík, says every piece of furniture for the summit, which was held in a large hall opposite the railway station entrance, was brought over the border by the Soviet delegation. They took it with them when they left.

There were few troops in Čierna nad Tisou for the conference (they were to arrive a few weeks later, to secure the railway, as part of the Warsaw Pact invasion force which crushed the Prague Spring). But there were a large number of security officers, keeping an eye on proceedings.

Ján Torjai, at the time a 26-year-old railway worker in the town, says that the Czechoslovak participants in the conference tried to maintain a confident air, and present it as a meeting of friends. Contemporary film footage shows Dubček and other leaders walking around the town and talking to locals. But Torjai says it soon became clear that the summit was a very tense encounter.

    It’s a while since the politburo stayed here.
 It’s a while since the politburo stayed here.
 Photos by James Thomson

The Soviet aim was fairly clearly to browbeat the local communist party into clamping down on the recently freed-up media, plugging leaks in the Iron Curtain, and generally returning to the Soviet-dictated status quo ante. The methods used were not particularly sophisticated. Reports of yelling and shouting by Brezhnev and Mikhail Suslov (a Stalin-era hardliner and Soviet ideologue) later emerged, probably via the catering staff sequestered from a local restaurant and overseen by Soviet officers for the duration of the meeting.

Brezhnev's tactics are revealed in a remarkable transcript of a telephone conversation between him and Dubček shortly after the Čierna nad Tisou conference (and a subsequent meeting in Bratislava) which emerged from the Kremlin archives during a brief period of openness in the 1990s. An hour-long combination of whining and bullying by Brezhnev in which he repeatedly tries (and fails) to get Dubček to agree to purge liberal-minded officials, it provides a fascinating glimpse of the mechanics of diplomacy behind the Iron Curtain.

Dubček's refusal to bow to Soviet demands was popular (the returning members of the politburo were feted by crowds in Prague), but ultimately futile. On the night of August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact armoured forces massed on the borders of Czechoslovakia, and within a few days the whole country was under Soviet control.

The hall in Čierna nad Tisou where the meeting took place subsequently served as a cinema, and has no sign to mark its small place in history: local historians are pushing for a plaque of some kind.

In an even more sorry state is the large Hotel Úsvit, where the Czechoslovak leadership stayed: it now has shrubbery growing from its roof.

If one does not count the railway station bar, the town has few facilities to attract tourists, and the local police's propensity to ticket any stationary vehicle (including your correspondent's, parked outside the mayor's office in an otherwise deserted street for 30 minutes on a Saturday afternoon; the mayor was kind enough to waive the fee) is unlikely to encourage the few who do make it this far to stay for long.

But for a taste of modern European history, and the peculiar satisfaction of knowing that you have reached the end of the line, Čierna nad Tisou does exercise a curious appeal, certainly more substantial than those weirdly popular destinations claiming to have the 'longest place name' or be the 'geographic centre of Europe'.

As an added bonus, in the nearby town of Kráľovský Chlmec, whose general appearance is only slightly less down-at-heel than its neighbour, there is an improbably good café-restaurant, the Privat, serving tasty food and excellent coffee, with a terrace offering views of the plain south towards Pribeník and Hungary, where you can contemplate how much has (and has not) changed in the last 40-odd years.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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