Stars as Red as the Morning Sky: The Cold War in Czechoslovakia

In this programme, the last in the current series looking at Czech history through the archives, we get a flavour of the Cold War. The archives throw up some curious stories: a man in love with a drill, a Czechoslovak cosmonaut celebrated in song, a campaign against noisy rockers with long hair, and some Cold War dramas – tales of defectors and spies. And we end with the strange, sad story of the Red Elvis. But first to the glowing dawn of the new regime in 1948.

Joseph Stalinn and Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Television

One of the first changes at Radio Prague after the communists came to power was that the station’s familiar call sign from Dvořák’s New World Symphony was replaced by a stirring socialist anthem.

The words are simple: “Left foot forwards, left foot forwards, and never a backwards step!”

Promoting the revolution became central to Radio Prague’s message, sometimes in bizarre ways. Here is a factory worker, talking about his first love.

“I wasn’t yet fifteen when she was brought to the factory and I first caught sight of her. It was love at first sight. I know that many of the others were envious, because we became inseparable friends. For that whole year we remained faithful; we had some wonderful times together. She was always the same, because no-one else knew how to talk to her as I did.

“I knew that one day we would have to part, but I stayed faithful to the end. I was just thinking about this when the foreman came round and shook me out of my daydream with the words, ‘So, we’re taking you away from that drill.’ Yes, my first and greatest love was a drill.”

An anonymous Czech worker, talking in the early 1950s. For the new atheist regime, Christmas posed something of a problem, as the politicians didn’t want to be seen just to be spoiling the fun. In 1952 the Prime Minister, later to become President, Antonín Zápotocký, offered a rather unusual Christmas greeting to radio listeners, capturing perfectly the spirit of the time.

First he tells listeners that the Infant Jesus – who in Czech tradition brings the Christmas presents - has now grown up into his Russian, secular equivalent, “Grandfather Frost.” In poetic terms he then goes on to describe how Grandfather Frost’s path is lit “not just by one star, as in Bethlehem, but by a whole plethora of red stars shining above our mines, steelworks, factories and building sites.”

When Josef Stalin died on 5 March 1953, it was as if time had stopped. In Czechoslovakia his personality cult had been almost as overwhelming as in the Soviet Union itself. At the time of his death work was already well under way in Prague to build the biggest statue of the Soviet dictator in the world, unveiled two years later in Letná Park. Stalin had a close ally and kindred spirit in the Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald, and Gottwald ignored warnings from his doctors to attend his friend and protector’s funeral. Before leading the Czechoslovak delegation to Moscow, he had a few words for his country’s citizens:

“I believe that when we stand in front of Lenin’s mausoleum – now Lenin and Stalin’s mausoleum – in Moscow, we shall be able to make a confident promise to these two greatest geniuses of humanity, in the name of all the people of Czechoslovakia, that we shall follow to the end, the path which they have shown us, and under the banner of Stalin and Lenin, we shall strive onwards towards the goal of socialism.”

President Gottwald himself was to survive the man to whom he owed his career by just nine days, dying of a burst artery on 14 March 1953. This had probably been brought on by the stress of the trip to Moscow. Once again it was a time of pomp and ceremony, with Czechoslovak Radio’s Antonín Zíb providing a commentary on the huge state funeral in grandiose style.

Klement Gottwald in glass coffin,  photo: Czech Television

“The coffin, with the body of Klement Gottwald, is being carried past the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, shrouded in the black of mourning. The party says farewell to its dearest comrade. It was Klement Gottwald, who built and consolidated a party of a new, Leninist-Stalinist type… Klement Gottwald has not died, because the party lives on. The great, fraternal Soviet Union is with us, our powerful shield and support.”

In the first years after Gottwald’s death there was little improvement in Czechoslovakia’s icy relations with the West. There was a steady flow of people fleeing westwards across the Iron Curtain, but every now and then the flight would be in the other direction, and someone from the West would seek asylum in the communist bloc. This was a propaganda opportunity not to be missed.

One such occasion was in November 1954, when the Czechoslovak News Agency called a somewhat unusual press conference in Prague. Awaiting journalists were introduced to an American couple, Herbert and Jacqueline Ward, described as artists who had sought – and been granted – asylum in Czechoslovakia. Then Herbert Ward himself spoke.

“We are the Americans…. I’m Herbert Ward, bass violinist, and my wife Jacqueline, who is a dancer. Until 1950 we have lived mainly in New York, then we moved to Denmark and for the last two years we lived in Vienna. Our purpose in coming to Europe was to complete our education in all fields of music and dance…”

At this point on the recording, Herbert Ward’s voice fades and is voiced over in Czech, as he continues his story. He claims that he and his wife had become suspicious to the US authorities after taking part in a music festival in East Berlin. Then, he says, the FBI began to bully them, trying to force them back to the United States, and confiscating their passports. This was the time of the McCarthyite witch-hunts and, although his faith in communist Czechoslovakia may be naïve, Herbert Ward’s story is not necessarily an exaggeration. At the end of his speech on the recording preserved in the radio archives, his voice again emerges in English:

“… We feel sure that this press conference will help us not only to make matters clear in our case, but to call attention to the activities of those who restrict the rights of their fellow-citizens and are making dangerous provocations that might lead to a new war.”

Jacqueline Ward also answered questions from journalists, painting a rosy picture of her prospects in her new socialist home.

“Instead of having to look for jobs, the jobs are so plentiful and there are so many opportunities, that we can freely choose the best way in which we want to develop and in which we want to present our own work. For us that is very important – that there is so much culture here.”

The couple was based in Prague’s Hotel Krivaň, where not long afterwards they had a visit from the jazz writer Lubomír Dorůžka and his friend and fellow jazz lover, the novelist Josef Škvorecký. This led to a jazz revue called “Really the Blues” featuring Herbert and Jacqueline with the Czech band “Pražský dixieland”. The couple stayed for several years and became familiar figures on the Prague classical and jazz music scene. The rock musician, František Ringo Čech, remembers being “discovered” as a 15-year-old by Herbert Ward, and he recalls that in the early 60s Jacqueline achieved celebrity status performing Native American dance to Czech audiences. According to Lubomír Dorůžka the American couple eventually made their way back to America - spending their last years in Hawaii. It is said that one jazz musician there still plays on a Czechoslovak double bass, left to him by Herbert Ward.

Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin,  photo: Public Domain

On 12 April 1961, the 27-year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and Czechoslovak Radio reported on the moment:

“For the first time, a man is speaking from the heavens, Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin….”

Gagarin’s voice may have been all but incomprehensible, but history had been made, and the Soviets had won a major battle in the space race. Following his historic flight, Gagarin embarked on a world tour and the very first city he visited, just two weeks after his return to the earth’s atmosphere, was Prague. Czechoslovak Radio asked him if he had a message for listeners:

“Greetings to all the working people of Czechoslovakia. I wish you the best for the coming summer: in your work, in your private life and in building socialism and peace in the whole world.”

Two children, Saša Málková and Pavel Šolc, both members of the Czechoslovak Radio children’s ensemble, were given the special honour of presenting Comrade Gagarin with a recording of songs composed by Czechoslovak composers in honour of his flight. They had even prepared a few words in Russian.

Gagarin replied by thanking the children

“I wish your choir much success. I hope that you will become truly great artists, and I wish happiness to all children in the Czechoslovak Republic.”

With the space race came the arms race, and the socialist bloc portrayed itself as the peacemaker, laying all blame at the feet of the United States. Radio Prague played its part in this propaganda battle, including some special programmes in English, aimed at winning over people in the west who were afraid not only of nuclear weapons, but also of the impact of weapons testing. This is how one such programme starts:

“Fourteen years ago today at 9 am, Japanese standard time, an age came to an end [bomb sound effect]…. On this anniversary, Radio Prague presents you a special feature, Future Imperative.”

The feature is a rather quirky drama-documentary from 1959, focusing on the most recent US nuclear weapons tests:

“[Violin music] For half a dollar I’ll tell your fortune, pretty lady. Come on, give me your hand. Your lifeline is long…. and crooked!”

The programme combines emotional dramatized scenes with quotes from scientists:

“[Geiger counter sound effect] Doctor Linus Pauling, American Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry foretells your future: Nuclear tests thus far in the world will kill fifty thousand people in the United States alone… In the next thirty years, as a result of nuclear testing, one hundred thousand people will die of leukaemia.”

And the programme ends with a dramatic warning.

“[With stirring music in the background] And so Radio Prague, together with most of mankind, is observing today, Thursday August 6, as marking the year fourteen AH – After Hiroshima. Today, right now, it still isn’t too late to stop nuclear tests, but tomorrow…?”

Radio Free Europe studio in Munich,  photo: YouTube

By the mid-1960s, there were plenty of signs of a thaw in the Cold War and of reforms within Czechoslovakia itself. The process accelerated with the Prague Spring of 1968.

There is so much material in the Czech Radio archives from the time of the Prague Spring and the Soviet-led invasion that brought the reforms to an abrupt end, that I shall be devoting a whole programme to them, but for now we’ll jump forward to the 1970s, to the grey years following the invasion that came to be known euphemistically as “normalisation”.

If there was one sound guaranteed to infuriate Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders during the 1970s and 80s, it was the call sign of Radio Free Europe, broadcasting from Munich to the countries of the Eastern Bloc. After the invasion of 1968, many Czech and Slovak émigrés of a wide variety of political hues ended up working for the station’s Czechoslovak Section. Back home they found a receptive audience and Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders became little short of obsessed with discrediting Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts. Here is a short extract from a Czechoslovak Radio programme from 1976, which opened by playing that despised call-sign:

“This is the signature of an illegal radio station, which is a tool of the subversive and espionage activity of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of North America [sic], infamously known by the abbreviation CIA.”

The report then turned its venom on dissidents within Czechoslovakia:

“The word dissident is of Latin original. It means turncoat or separatist. But for Radio Free Europe it has a different meaning: it means ally!”

Czechoslovakia’s campaign against the station reached its peak in 1976, with an event that is pure Cold War. On January 29 the Czechoslovak Union of Journalists in Prague hosted a high-profile press conference, attended by no less than 137 journalists from 16 different countries. The man introduced as the hero of the day was the Czechoslovak counter-intelligence agent, Captain Pavel Minařík. He had been working for several years as a Radio Free Europe announcer in Munich, but had secretly been sending regular reports back to Prague. Now he was back home, and for nearly two hours he drew a picture of Radio Free Europe as hotbed of American espionage:

“The CIA, through its agents and camouflaged behind a different façade, has absolute control over Radio Free Europe and determines all programming, in Munich and in its branches in Paris, Rome, London, Vienna and Brussels.”

He went on to name numerous former colleagues as CIA agents, although in the great majority of cases the evidence he offered was extremely thin. But some damage was done in the very fact that a Czechoslovak agent had managed to remain undetected for so long within the station.

Captain Minařík became a hero of the regime, and one normalization pop star, Josef Laufer, even wrote a song in his honour:

Pavel Minařík,  photo: Czech Television

“Thank you! Thank you! Brave lad, for your courage, wisdom and strength! You are our captain – they are superfluous. You have added azure to the wings of peace.”

After the fall of communism in 1989, Pavel Minařík did not last long at Czechoslovakia’s Interior Ministry. Like many former agents, he began a second career as a businessman, and in 2009 a court in Brno found him guilty of an insurance scam worth several million Czech crowns.

Songs like the one about Minařík typified the taste of the regime, but beneath this there was a much more interesting musical culture, rejecting and parodying the insipid kitsch of the official musical scene. Best known among these underground bands were the Plastic People of the Universe. Their music was inspired by Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, their lyrics anarchic, their behaviour unconventional and their hair long. In 1976 four members of the band were sentenced to prison terms for what was described as “organised disturbance of the peace”, and in December of the same year Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a documentary that painted the band in the darkest possible colours and included extracts from their music, recorded secretly at their concerts.

“That’s what true art, as interpreted by the Plastic People, sounds like – noise, offensive language and pornography. They are nothing but common-or-garden hooligans and swindlers, abusing the popularity of rock music among young people.”

And the programme went on to quote from one of their songs – quite absurdly taking the anarchic lyrics by the poet Egon Bondy completely at face value.

“Smash the pictures, burn the books, drive bulldozers through the theatres, nothing of value should remain! Eliminate culture!”

What clearer proof did they need of the band’s degeneracy and subversive intentions?!

The regime’s treatment of the Plastic People was ridiculously unimaginative and heavy-handed. In many ways it was also counter-productive: the policy of locking people up for no greater crime than playing loud music caused widespread outrage and acted as a catalyst for the human rights manifesto Charter 77. Forced onto the defensive, the authorities responded with their own “anti-Charter” in defence of the political and cultural status quo, which they bullied artists and musicians into signing. Czechoslovak Radio broadcast the launch of the anti-Charter live from Prague’s National Theatre on 28 January1977. The event included an infamous speech by the communist actress Jiřina Švorcová:

“True art, true culture, should help individual countries and humanity to move forwards, it should help to build understanding between peoples in the spirit of peace and humanism. That is why we hold in contempt all those – and even in our country a little group of such recreants and traitors has emerged – who with insatiable pride, vain arrogance, selfishness or for love of money try to cut people off from their lives and with inevitable logic become a tool of the anti-humanist forces of imperialism.”

Meanwhile, interesting things were going on in the heavens. On 2 March 1978 – for the first time – a person was launched into space who was neither a Soviet nor an American citizen. His name was Vladimír Remek, and he came from Czechoslovakia. Millions of Czechs and Slovaks had the chance to follow the event live both on radio and television, and it was even celebrated with a song, in much the same style as in the ditty about Pavel Minařík:

“He embarked on the journey of our dreams beyond the ends of the world in a ship with a star as red as the morning sky.”

Vladimír Remek | Photo: ČT24

The ship with the red star was Soyuz 28, the third mission to dock with the Soviet space station Salyut 6. The flight marked the beginning of the Intercosmos programme, which aimed to give the Soviet Union’s Eastern Bloc allies access to space.

The launch took place at 15.28 UTC from a site in Kazakhstan and Czechoslovak Radio’s Ilja Jenča described the scene, as the sky lit up and the rocket rose into the heavens. As the faces of the two cosmonauts on board, Vladimír Remek and his Russian commander Alexei Gubarev, appeared on the monitor in front of him, he waxed lyrical:

“They look like two brothers - or even twins - in their spacesuits and helmets, representing two brother socialist countries - cosmic brothers - the symbolism mingles with reality.”

Soyuz 28 linked up successfully with the Salyut 6 space station, and Remek and Gubarev remained in orbit for nearly eight days, joining the two cosmonauts already at the station. Remek addressed the people of Czechoslovakia in Czech.

He began by thanking the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party, the politburo and Comrade Brezhnev, and then went on to talk of the symbolism in the fact that the flight coincided with the 30th anniversary of the communist take-over in Czechoslovakia:

“It was back then, in those victorious days of February 1948, that our flight into the cosmos really began, and now here I am in space with my friends.”

And Remek ended by greeting his compatriots back in Czechoslovakia, with the final words:

“See you back on Earth.”

Vladimír Remek has retained his close relationship with Russia to this day and has never left behind the political views of his youth, serving for several years as a Communist Member of the European Parliament. Between 2014 and 2018 – forty years after his historic trip into the morning sky – he served as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Russia.

To end the programme, we stay in the year 1978, but this time heading west for Cuba, with an American rocker who became a household name in the Eastern Bloc. He was called Dean Reed.

After a couple of minor hits at home at the end of the ‘50s, the Denver-born singer spent many years in Latin America. There he embraced the revolutionary left and became hugely popular. In 1973 he moved to the German Democratic Republic. Thoroughly approved of by the communist regimes of the time, he enjoyed a big following in Czechoslovakia.

In 1978 Reed was one of the stars at the World Youth Festival in Havana, which was attended by some 16 thousand left-wing students from around the world, including a large contingent from Czechoslovakia. In an interview for Czechoslovak Radio, Reed poured praise on his Cuban hosts.

Dean Reed: “The Cuban people are a special people, as I think you’ll have noticed. They are so open, so loving, so giving, and I think that for every delegate who is here the first moment is shock. Every child, every old person, waves and screams and wants autographs. Not only is the sun warm here, the people are warm and loving, and I think that is one of the greatest differences. There’s such a feeling of openness here.”

Interviewer: “You are very popular with young people in Czechoslovakia and you have been several times to our country. What would you like to tell young Czechoslovakian people from Havana?”

Dean Reed,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-T1119-0006 / Mittelstädt,  Rainer / CC-BY-SA 3.0 de

Dean Reed: “I send you a little bit of sun, and of course I send you all of my friendship. I don’t believe so much in official speeches. I’m not a diplomat. I have other feelings. I think maybe the greatest worth of this kind of festival sometimes is the direct contact of the Czechoslovak youth, when they come and meet a Cuban and they come and meet somebody from Angola and they come and meet a Vietnamese. I think it’s very, very important the continued work against imperialism and for peace.

“Last night I gave a concert in a theatre. Fidel Castro and Raul Castro came, and the people stood and applauded my songs, also when I came onto the stage. And that is also something I shall never forget, the love that the Cuban people last night when I sang gave to me.”

Interviewer: “What do you think about the fact that you are in a socialist country which is not far at all from the United States?”

Dean Reed: “It reminds me of my obligation as an American to fight harder than ever, so that not only Cuba is free, but that the other countries in Latin America shall also be able some day to have a World Youth Festival. My country is only 90 miles from here and they have tried to blockade this people, to stop progress. But they were not able to stop progress. You know, I’m very, very happy to be able to give my regards and my love to the Czechoslovak people and I hope to see you all in Prague again very soon. Ahoj!”

That was the “Red Elvis”, Dean Reed, in 1978. Eight years later, at the age of just 47, he drowned in a lake near East Berlin. Officially it was an accident, but after the fall of communism, a suicide note was found in the Stasi secret police files. To this day Dean Reed’s extraordinary life and unexplained death continue to arouse speculation and controversy.