Marsha Kocabova: post-Communist Czechoslovakia was like the Wild Wild West

Marsha Kocabova

Marsha Kocabova is a former modern ballet dancer from North Carolina who almost overnight ended up at the side of a prominent dissident in communist Czechoslovakia. Her husband Michael Kocab was the frontman of the popular 1980s underground rock group Prazsky Vyber, which was banned by the Communists; her daughter Natalie is now one of the country's most successful young up-and-coming writers and singers.

Marsha Kocabova started off by describing how she met her husband. Their paths met in Germany, where she was working as a dancer in a theatre and Michael Kocab came to hold a concert:

"It's a funny story. An Austrian director wanted to make a theatre around a circus. So he chose some actors, clowns, and dancers and formed this surrealistic theatre on top of a regular circus. Michael's band and we, the artists who were hired, knew each other - it was small. So, I just got to know him. This was in 1982 and we were both really naïve and idealistic and we said: 'well, we'll just live half a year in Prague and half a year in the United States'. It was really, really stupid. So, I went to Prague, went into shock and then went back to the United States to decide what to do because it was just overwhelming."

How much did you know about Czechoslovakia at the time?

"I knew that they made matches and that they raced in ice-skating [laughs] - that was it. Very, very little!"

So, what exactly was the shock that you encountered?

"Oh my gosh, it was so much that I'm writing a book about it now that will come out in the spring. I heard that there were three Americans here at the time but I knew one, who came to be my best friend here. The experiences were so bizarre and also being around a rock band and my father was a Charter 77 [anti-Communist human rights declaration] signer and a preacher who was, of course, banned - all of these things added up to a totally crazy life."

After you overcame the shock and decided to move here, what was it actually like being the wife of a dissident?

"The problem was that I didn't speak Czech and he didn't speak English very well. So, we spoke in broken German. He also hid a lot of things from me because he didn't want me to get too terrified and leave. I first learned a lot when I had my first child Natalie and went to the park and became friends with the other mothers. I called it the 'university of the park' because there I learned the ins and outs of how the Communists worked, how the secret police worked, their pressures on people and that was the first time that I sat down on a bench and when the lady beside me learned that I was American she got up and left and screamed at me that I was a spy. All these kind of things started happening with other people. He [her husband] kind of kept me sheltered.

"The revolution was very difficult. We had constant threats that were against Michael a lot. I couldn't ever go to sleep until I could hear his car come in the night. He was never home but just to make sure that he was in one piece when he came home. He was threatened so much and then, of course, they threatened the children and all of us with horrible threats. The Red Army called, anonymous letters, people would come to our door every three days and say: 'I have a friend, who has a friend and he heard this'. It was very nerve wracking."

Then the revolution came, the Communist regime fell and after the revolution, your life changed completely...

"Well, it wasn't overnight. Michael was in Parliament until June 1991. Then we were threatened because he went to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and at both times we had either a policeman or a bodyguard at our doorstep because the families of those who went were threatened - not by the secret police but by terrorists. During all his time in Parliament, it was very explosive and eruptive because there were so many problems, so many rough edges to settle. To change a system like that is not an overnight thing. And then Czechoslovakia split up and every restitution of people having problems getting their property back, people having problems with former Communists stealing their jobs. There were so many problems...just taking the lid off the pot...

"At the same time, in the middle of all this, to all of a sudden see people reacting and talking openly on the streetcar or in the metro or to have people say that they didn't like a politician...that was great because nobody could say that before. It was like the Wild Wild West. It was the beginning of so many businesses and exciting things. It was up-and-down all the time."

Now you're writing most of the text for your daughter's work. What inspires you?

"Just life, just what I see from looking around. We know a lot of people and a lot of circumstances and the life was very rich here event though it was very nerve wracking and trying. We lived in the centre of Prague and it was like a bus station all the time, people were just in and out all the time. There were no coffee places that you could go to and talk openly. Everything was behind shut doors so people were coming and going all the time at our house."

I'm wondering whether it now feels like there is nothing to fight for anymore...

"My husband has said that about writing texts for rock music, that rock music is always rebelling against something and he said: 'what are we gonna write about now when the Communists are gone?' But I think that there is plenty to find to write about. There are plenty of problems left [laughs]."

Tell us a little more about your book that you're working on now?

"I'm writing it from 1982 until 1991 when the Russian Army left. There were so many myths about America that I came upon. And then, of course, when you're living with a rock star the people that surround you are just totally loony and then that whole crowd of dissidents surrounding my father-in-law was really interesting. And also, just being an American and coming into a family that was just totally Czech and didn't know much about Americans. The conflicts of just everyday life were straining. It took his grandmother about six months to forgive me for not being able to darn socks [laughs]. This type of thing. There were newspapers in the bathroom and I didn't know what they were for at first but it was toilet paper [laughing]. Things like that were just so funny that people said I just have to write this. So, finally, when my son is in school and my grandson is now in kindergarten I said I've just got to sit down and write this - for my mother, if nothing else, because she had begged me to do this for so long."

Will it be in English and Czech?

"Yes, it will be printed here in English and Czech and I hope, because I wrote it with Americans in mind with a sort of higher purpose of opening up the eyes of Americans who have never lived in another country. I want to say to them: 'look how your perspective changes and how it is when people think I'm rich here and I go to America and I'm poor'. This whole perspective that I got about freedom and everything, I want to say it to Americans. So, I'm hoping to somehow get it distributed there. I haven't started working on that yet because I need to finish it first. But it will come out here in the Spring."