Klimova, Rita (1931–1993)

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Klimova, Rita (1931–1993)

Czech political dissident, and the first post-Communist ambassador of her country to the U.S. (1990–1992), who coined the term "Velvet Revolution" to describe the bloodless collapse of Marxism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Name variations: Rita Budin. Born in Jasi, Rumania, on December 10, 1931; died in Prague on December 30, 1993; daughter of Stanislav Budin (a journalist whose real name was Batya Bat) and Hana Coifman Budin; married Zdenek Mlynar (divorced); married Zdenek Klima, in 1978; children: (first marriage) daughter, Milena (Michaela Barlova); son, Vladimir (Vladya).

Upon arriving in Washington to take up her diplomatic post as Czechoslovakia's first ambassador to the U.S. after the collapse of the Marxist dictatorship in 1989, Rita Klimova spoke idiomatic American English and felt perfectly at home. Seven of her most formative years had been spent in America, a nation which in 1939 provided refuge from Nazism for her family. Rita and her Ukrainian-born parents fled Prague for their lives after Nazi Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March of that year. The risk to them in Prague was so great because they were Jewish, and because her father, a journalist who used the pen name of Stanislav Budin (his real name was Batya Bat), was a Communist and militant anti-fascist. Rita's mother Hana Budin was also a journalist and like her husband had been attracted to Communism by a youthful spirit of idealism during her student years.

The family settled down in Manhattan and Stanislav Budin resumed his journalistic career. Rita attended grade school and then went on to junior high school. Over the next few years, she became fluent in English as well as a willing participant in the process of Americanization. As a student in Manhattan public schools, she pledged allegiance to the flag, listened to Frank Sinatra records, ate hamburgers and hot dogs, and joined the Girl Scouts. An American cousin often took her to see the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall. As she grew into her teens, Rita learned to use lipstick and nail polish by reading Seventeen magazine. Although her parents remained passionately involved in political affairs and followed news of World War II with great interest, Rita was not emotionally touched by the bloodshed in Europe. She reluctantly attended Russian War Relief concerts with her parents but much preferred going to Carnegie Hall to hear the Count Basie band and Billie Holiday .

The defeat of Nazism in Europe in 1945 was a signal for the Budin family to return to Prague. As Communists, Stanislav and Hana Budin were pleased that Czechoslovakia now had a coalition government in which the Communist Party had a leading voice, and they looked forward to the building of Socialism in a nation closely allied to the victorious Soviet Union. Although Rita pleaded with her parents to remain in the United States, in 1946 she accompanied them back to Prague. Because her Czech language skills had seriously deteriorated, she was enrolled at a private English-language Gymnasium where many of the students came from conservative families. In an act that was largely a sign of adolescent rebelliousness, she organized a few other students to form a Communist cell. By 1948, when the Czech Communists seized power in a coup d'état, Rita had joined the Communist Party. She missed the actual bloodless putsch, however, because her class was away on a skiing trip.

During the next few years, she and her parents were devotees of the Czech Communist dictatorship of Klement Gottwald, a slavish Stalinist. As a true believer, Klimova uncritically admired Joseph Stalin, believing the Soviet dictator to be "crucial to everything, and great, of course." After graduating from high school, she went to work for a year as a lathe-turner in a factory making engines for Soviet MiG jet fighter planes, at the same time advancing in the Communist Party by becoming an officer in the party's youth organization.

Even though the spectre of anti-Semitism was raised in the bloody Prague purges of 1952, neither Rita nor her parents lost their faith in the ultimate validity of their Marxist ideals, and the family survived these dark days unscathed. Fortunately for her father, his earlier critical attitudes within the Czech Communist Party had been largely forgotten, and after 1945 he was no longer considered to be a person of influence (he had resigned as editor of the party newspaper Rudé Pravo in 1936 over an ideological dispute, but had never rejoined the party). For these and possibly other reasons, Stanislav Budin was neither arrested nor executed in 1952, as were more than a dozen other Czech Communists of Jewish origins.

Rita enrolled at the Prague School of Economics, where she dutifully earned first a master's degree and then a doctorate with a dissertation on the U.S. economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As a party loyalist (she would admit decades later that throughout the 1950s she had "swallowed the ideology hook, line and sinker"), she then received an academic appointment as an instructor in the history of economic thought at Prague's venerable Charles University. At this time, she married Zdenek Mlynar, an up-and-coming Communist intellectual like herself, who had been Mikhail Gorbachev's roommate while studying at Moscow State University. Soon they had a daughter Milena and a son Vladimir.

For more than a decade, the family enjoyed the perquisites of being members of Communist Czechoslovakia's ruling elite. Klimova ignored or argued away evidence of the system's failings, continuing to believe that Marxism as an ideology and the Soviet model in politics and economics were both "inevitable and correct." The first glimmer of doubt appeared on her intellectual horizon in the early 1960s, when it became clear that the Czechoslovak economy was starting to stagnate, a phenomenon that could not be explained in any Marxist textbook and could only be understood in terms of the ideas she had discovered while reading Western economic and social theorists.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, engineered by the Soviet Union, ended the brief experiment in liberalization known as the "Prague Spring." For Klimova, who had divorced her husband the year before, the 1968 invasion was the "biggest shock" of her life. At first, the so-called process of "normalization" moved slowly and did not affect her, because she had not been a major figure during the brief months of liberalization. Her belief, however, that she was too much the expert in her field of economics to be replaced proved wrong. In 1970, when the Charles University faculty was purged of its less than 100% reliable members, she was expelled from the party and lost her teaching job; in fact, her entire department was dissolved.

She expected to become a cashier in a self-service restaurant—a typical fate for many of Prague's intellectuals. One of her former students, Jiri Dienstbier, the future minister of foreign affairs, lost his job as a radio journalist and had to support himself doing manual labor as a stoker. Rita, however, was somewhat more fortunate and finally found work in the accounting department of Charles University. She supplemented her income by working as a freelance English interpreter at medical conferences. It was her aged father's signing of the Charter 77 petition in 1977 that started the process which made Rita a dissident. Charter 77, with its demand that the Czech government respect fundamental human rights, brought forth repressive measures from the regime.

In 1978, Rita married Zdenek Klima (hence her last name of Klimova). Zdenek was a former diplomat who had been purged from the party, and both he and his new wife soon suffered from harassment and felt the cruelties of a regime out of touch with its own people. Not only was their house searched, but they were required to move into a smaller apartment and take several tests to qualify for new driver's licenses.

By 1980, both of Klimova's parents had died, and her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. Demoralized, she had little interest in politics, and, with increasingly harsh restraints by the regime, the Charter 77 dissident movement had been largely repressed. It was Rita Klimova's teenaged son Vladimir, known to all as Vladya, who got his mother out of the doldrums in the early 1980s. Denied access to higher education because of his parents' politics, he worked as a hospital orderly in the daytime and in the evenings as a driver for counterculture musicians and other dissidents. Through these contacts, Vladya became part of a clandestine courier network that smuggled from West Germany into Czechoslovakia various forbidden manuscripts and books. Often this material was divided up at Klimova's apartment into small packages that were less likely to arouse suspicion by the secret police and informers. Among the many customers who received Vladya's late night deliveries was the dissident playwright Václav Havel.

By the end of the 1980s, Rita Klimova's apartment had become a regular meeting place for the Czech dissident movement. In 1986, she became a member of the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee, reporting human-rights abuses. She also worked closely with an emerging circle of non-Marxist economists, the most important of whom would turn out to be Václav Klaus, who eventually became Czech prime minister after the collapse of Communism. She also emerged as an important contact for foreign journalists and Western human-rights activists when they came to Prague. Klimova and her fellow dissidents wrote numerous articles on social and economic themes for the underground samizdat press. With tongue in cheek, she frequently signed her contributions with the pseudonym "Adam Kovár"—Czech for Adam Smith. At the urging of her former student Jiri Dienstbier, Klimova served occasionally as an interpreter for leading dissident Václav Havel. Although essentially a cautious person—"I was not one for going to prison," she later noted—she rarely said no to a request, and almost inevitably found herself drawn more and more into the dissident apparatus.

In 1989, the facade of Communism crumbled throughout Eastern Europe, but until the final weeks of that year the hard-line Czechoslovak regime tenaciously held onto its power. On November 17, 1989, while the police were bloodily suppressing a huge student demonstration in Prague, Klimova was in a small town in Hungary

negotiating with two Czech exiles to buy a small offset-printing machine for an underground newspaper. Listening to Radio Free Europe, she was aware of the demonstrations taking place in Prague. On her arrival back in Prague on the evening of November 19, she found a message from Václav Havel requesting that she be at his apartment at 9:30 the next morning.

Arriving at Havel's apartment building, she found it strange that no police seemed to be present outside, only a large number of taxis. After climbing five flights of stairs, Klimova was out of breath when she rang the doorbell. Havel's brother pulled her winter coat off and pushed her into the living room, where she was confronted by press photographers and television crews. Blinded by the bright lights, all she could see was Václav Havel signaling her to translate the proceedings into English. Klimova translated Havel's announcement of the formation of Civic Forum, the anti-regime coalition that within a few weeks would bring about the end of the dictatorship. By the time the offset machine from Hungary arrived in Prague, it was no longer needed.

By the last days of December 1989, a bloodless upheaval ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Rita Klimova coined the phrase "Velvet Revolution" to characterize the transformation that she had described so well to the English-speaking world during those dramatic weeks. Havel became the new president, with Jiri Dienstbier chosen as minister of foreign affairs. Klimova, exhausted by several weeks of nonstop work as a translator, looked forward to a relatively low-key job as a member of the staff of Valtr Komarek, an economic forecaster who became a deputy prime minister in the new government. But this was not to be. After she meet with Meda Mladek, a prominent Czechoslovak emigre from Washington, Mladek was so impressed by Klimova's skill at dealing with the public that he urged Dienstbier to name her to the crucially important post of ambassador to the United States. Klimova was delighted by the offer, noting that it took her "30 seconds to accept."

From February 1990 to August 1992, she served as Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States. Shortly after arriving in Washington, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Aggressive medical treatment delayed the ravages of the disease but did not bring about a cure. Despite her illness and lack of previous diplomatic experience, she worked tirelessly at her job, in the words of Václav Havel using "her special combination of charm and intelligence, tact and forthrightness [to] quickly [win] many friends and supporters for Czechoslovakia in the US. By the time she stepped down in August 1992, she had done much to enhance Czechoslovakia's place in the world, and to strengthen its good name." Despite her declining health, Rita Klimova remained active after her retirement as ambassador, lecturing on Czech and Central European affairs at several universities including Manhattan's New School for Social Research. She died in Prague on December 30, 1993.


Adelman, Ken. "End of an Error," in The Washingtonian. Vol. 27, no. 3. December 1991, pp. 47, 50–53.

Havel, Václav. "On Rita Klímová (1931–1993)," in The New York Review of Books. Vol. 41, no. 3. February 3, 1994, p. 6.

Lyons, Richard D. "Rita Klimova, 62, Czech Dissident Who Became Ambassador to U.S.," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1993, p. 1785.

"Rita Klimova: Czechoslovakia's Ambassador to the United States," in Europe: Magazine of the European Community. November 1990, pp. 9–11.

Ungar, Sanford J. "Rita Klimova: Havel's Choice," in The New York Times Biographical Service. April 1990, pp. 313–316.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Klimova, Rita (1931–1993)

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