I’ve had a couple of non-tourist encounters with Czechs from the Communist era. One I recall well from seven years ago; the other more spectacular encounter was 50 years ago and I have no memory of it whatsoever. Still, it’s detailed in print in The West Australian of June 14, 1969, so it must have happened.[i]
In late 2010, my wife and I were on a slow train from Munich to Prague and got talking to an elderly Czech lady, who gave us her potted life story. She told it all as though it was nothing exceptional. Her husband was arrested in the Communist era for saying something uncomplimentary about the regime and was sentenced to two years hard labor digging out underground coal from seams little more than half a metre thick. On release he couldn’t get a normal job anywhere and in desperation he took work in a uranium mine. After a while the uranium dust gave him cancer and he died, she said. Their five children also couldn’t get higher educations or jobs because they were tainted by their father’s prison record. Four got out to West Germany and settled there. She’d just been visiting them.
She was talking about the time before the “Prague Spring” of liberalization that began in early 1968 and ended abruptly in late August when the Soviets and their Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian allies invaded with 200,000 troops and 2000 tanks. There was only minor resistance but 70 Czechs were killed and about 250 wounded. Passive resistance continued well into 1969. This is the background to my other Czech encounter.
To suppress any vestige of free speech, the Soviets’ first target was the Czech TV, radio and press. Editors were forced to agree to a new ‘temporary’ censorship regime where the media’s prime role was to support the new hard-line Communist leaders. Any dissent led to closure of the media outlet or worse. By April 1969 censorship became total and continued until the ‘Velvet Revolution’ twenty years later, which brought democracy to the republic.
Forty years before our chat with the lady on the train, I had spent an afternoon interviewing a young Czech journalist stuck in Perth a few days on his way back to Prague. At that point the last liberties in the Czech republic were being snuffed out by the pro-Soviet regime.
I was 28, he was 25, and being in the same profession, we had a lot in common. But he was braver than me by an incalculable amount. He talked with total frankness about the Soviet suppression of the Czech people, and was keen that I should publish what he said. He didn’t care one jot about consequences. I just moved on to writing my next article, about teachers’ union pay claims. But he would have landed in Prague and faced punishment in terms of career, and maybe liberty, for telling truths to the bourgeois press. Here’s what I wrote: .
“Publish all of it!” – Czech journalist
Ales Benda is a 25-year-old Czech journalist with an athlete’s build, bushy sideboards and a quizzical expression. He is assistant foreign editor of a Prague newspaper Mlada Fronta – at least he thinks he is.
Mr Benda’s English is a pleasant drawl, with ‘plarz’ for ‘plus’ and ‘moof-mends’ for ‘movements’. With his blue pullover and grey slacks, he looks quite Australian except that his lips are red and he wears socks with sandals. He would often frown, screw up his nose and laugh at the same time – an attitude savoring of ‘what the hell’.
To questions about the past and the present he replies volubly: asked about the future he changes the subject.
He has been held up several days in Perth sorting out a visa hitch, and we talked for a few hours on a back lawn in the weekend. After, I asked, “Is it all right if I publish some of this?”
“Publish all of it,” he said. He gave his amiable chuckle. A contact had already remarked, “Oh boy, when you get back you will get into big trouble.”
This is what he told me. His paper swung from conservative to way-out crusading liberalism a few years ago, to the annoyance of the Russians and others.
A few days after the Russians arrived in August 1968, his editor Mr Jelinek got a phone call. “It’s General So-and-So here, we’d like you to come to Soviet headquarters for some discussions.”
“No thanks,” replied the editor. “Our paper is not your paper. Don’t give me orders.” He had been christened “The Trojan Horse” by Moscow newspapers and had nothing to gain from “discussions”.
The same morning an armored car roared into the car park but Mr Jelinek hid successfully in the attic. Three searches later the Russians got tired of hunting Trojan horses.
However, Mr Benda concluded, he had read during his month in Australia that the editor had been sacked, and if that was true his own days as assistant foreign editor were numbered.
On the fatal night in August, he was telephoned at 3.30am about the Russians. He wanted to rush to the paper but was shaking too much to do up his buttons and tie his shoelaces and took half an hour to get dressed.. When he arrived the power had been cut off and they couldn’t use the presses. They had to wait in the dark, with the sound of gunfire coming nearer and nearer.
“At 5.30am there came a little Mongolian with an automatic rifle. “What do you want here?” a bloke asked him. He just pointed his rifle. More Russians herded about 60 newspaper people into one room. The Russians were only kids, conscripts, and they were worn out from three days on the road. Whenever they began to sleep we would wake them up and say: ‘Hey, you are supposed to be guarding us.’ Finally a colonel came down and kicked us out.
“They shut down our paper for three weeks but they didn’t know about our provincial presses and we put out underground papers there.
“I sneaked between the tanks and got to our printing presses at Brno and was editor there for a few days – though we didn’t even have telephones. The Russians caught up with us, and our main paper was still closed, so I thought it was a good time to take my annual holiday, and went to London. I kept ringing day after day to see if the paper was going again. On this Australian trip my boss has told me he will dock every reverse charge from my pay.”
By now the occupation was largely symbolic and the threat was from Czech officials – either collaborators or those under Russian political pressure.
Inflation was rife. Russian troops would go through the shops spending their accumulated pay, and a soldier might buy ten pairs of shoes in one hit. Czechs, seeing trouble everywhere, were drawing their money out of the bank and buying a washing machine or fridge that would keep its value. There was quite a bit of black marketeering between troops and Czechs who were not loathe to run their cars on petrol from Russian armored cars.
His most affecting experience was attending the funeral of a 16 year old lad shot off his motorcycle by Russian guards; the most surprising experience was watching the arguments between Czechs and bewildered young Russians in tanks. Within a week the army had replaced the youngsters with occupation troops from East Germany and other tough professionals. No-one argued any more.
“The funniest thing about the business was the invitation we never gave to the Russians to invade us. They’d lined up two blokes to invite them, our minister for communications and someone from the official Czech newsagency. But when they arrived at Radio Prague the technicians refused to broadcast the message and the Russians had to come uninvited.
“The Russians set up a pro-Soviet TV station in the grounds of their embassy, But the two announcers were hopeless – one was a Prague official who was always sozzled, and one was a lady from the Central Committee who had never been before a TV camera in her life, and we split our sides every time she tried to perform. Then the Russians tried to set up a Czech radio in East Germany, but all the Czechs had ferocious German accents…”
Mr Benda is a graduate in economics, and I got a lecture on the needs of the Czech economy.
First, the Stalinist stress on heavy industry and steel production had harmed the country’s chance in international trade. To make steel, Czechoslovakia imported iron ore thousands of miles from Russia. This made it expensive and it had to be exported at subsidized prices.
Workers had been given a social status with coal miners and foundry workers on top, then factory workers, and people in consumer industries came last. The factories got a stranglehold on the government and decisions were all in their favor.
Things like housing were in a dreadful state – you waited ten years in Prague for a flat, and meanwhile had to live under a bridge, or with your parents, who were probably living with their parents, in a little flat. The overcrowding was even sending the divorce rate up. But construction work was almost all for the confounded factories – each one was a little empire in itself. The only solution would be to freeze investment in industry altogether till consumer shortages were overcome.
Heavy industry was not much use to Czechoslovakia in any case. It should be building up the plastics and chemicals industries and using its concentrated manpower on craft-work like glassware, and labor-intensive production like watch-making.
An unpleasant by-product of heavy industry was war equipment. South American juntas were lording it with Czech hardware; both sides used it in Biafra and both sides used it in Egypt.
“Everywhere in the world you can find a Czech machine-gun,” he lamented. “Business is business, I suppose.”
The country was united against the Russians. But there were violent argument between Czechs about what resistance should be made; whether one should leave the country or not; what constituted collaboration; and whether the government should be influenced from within or opposed.
“Generally it would be good for you to write this,” he said, “to show that Communists as a whole are not monsters, that they are not worse or better than other people – that they are just people.”
What happened to Ales Benda in Prague? Is he alive or dead? I have no idea.
UPDATE: Do read the comments, where Tony Thomas’ question about Mr Benda’s fate is laid bare — that and the insidious nature of communism. Far from being a disciple of Liberty, he was actually a regime informer. Now readon ….
Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here
[i] There is no electronic search possible of The West Australian for the 1960s, owing to some unresolved copyright hassle. It can only be searched via microfiche, which is near-impossibly laborious unless you have a good idea of the date involved. I found the above article only when, for other reasons, I was leafing through my musty scrapbooks which have followed me around for 60 years.