Born in 1941 in Pelhrimov, Czechoslovakia, Olga Kopecka was an avid listener of Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a child. Deprived of a university education under communism because of her family’s political beliefs, RFE broadcasters were her teachers, she says. She emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1963, and two years later began working for RFE as a broadcaster with the Czechoslovak Service at its Munich headquarters, translating international news reports and producing programs for young people behind the Iron Curtain.
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, RFE/RL Pressroom spoke with Ms. Kopecka about the role of RFE broadcasting during that turbulent time.
RFE/RL Pressroom: Do you remember what drew you to RFE as a young girl?
Olga Kopecka: I started listening when I was ten years old. That was around the time of the first RFE broadcasts to Czechoslovakia. I listened to programs for young people, and I especially liked “Radio University.” I wasn’t allowed to go to university under communism because members of my family were known democrats in our small town. They never went to the communist parades with the flags and they refused to participate in all that shouting and chanting. So we suffered the consequences. Plus, my mother wanted to marry a Dutch man, and marrying a Western foreigner was treated almost as a crime then. My mother and brother and I emigrated in 1963 and moved to the Netherlands. I studied Slavic languages at university there. It was thanks to RFE that I was prepared for university studies even though I hadn’t been allowed to attend university in Czechoslovakia.
RFE/RL Pressroom: As an RFE broadcaster you chose the pseudonym “Valeska,” your grandmother’s surname, in order to conceal your identity and protect your family…
Kopecka: Yes, if anyone found out who I was, my family still in Czechoslovakia would have been persecuted. There was so much harassment, it was unbelievable.
RFE/RL Pressroom: What was the mood like in RFE’s Czechoslovak Service when the Prague Spring reforms and the easing of censorship began 1968? What did you expect and how did it influence your broadcasts?
Kopecka: We were glad but we were worried. There were signs that not everything was as rosy as it seemed. There were Warsaw Pact military exercises staged around Czechoslovakia that summer, but they “forgot” to withdraw their armies completely when the exercises finished. The end of censorship wasn’t all it seemed either. At the height of the Prague Spring we had a visit in Munich from a group of journalists from Czechoslovakia from a magazine called Student. They wanted to write a series of articles about RFE based on their conversations with us, but they were only allowed to publish the first parts of the series.
RFE/RL Pressroom: It must have been a very emotional time for Czechs and Slovaks. You woke up on the morning of August 21 and your country had been invaded. How did you feel?
Kopecka: I was absolutely furious but not very surprised. Something like that was to be expected. We were afraid Moscow would not allow the total parting of communist countries. We saw their reaction to the Hungarian uprising in 1956, which was put down by force, so we weren’t so surprised.
RFE/RL Pressroom: RFE wanted to prevent additional violence, so the Czechoslovak Service adopted a very strict editorial policy during the invasion. How did that affect your reporting?
Kopecka: It was a wise policy. Some people were really angry and we couldn’t publish what they wrote. But we also had to be especially careful for years after the invasion for other reasons. We began receiving phone calls from Soviet agents and state security from other communist countries pretending to be dissidents. They would feed us fake news in the hopes we would report it and lose credibility. We had a strict system of vetting these phone calls and verifying the information. We even had a reporter who was a recent exile who knew all of the prominent dissidents and could recognize their voices.
RFE/RL Pressroom: During the so-called ‘normalization’ period that followed, when all of the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring were scrapped, how did you and your colleagues at RFE keep hope alive for people back home?
Kopecka: We reported as much as possible about what was going on in the West, and steps Western governments were taking to try to force communist governments to honor the promises they made regarding human rights, specifically the Helsinki promises. We reported about the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the rise of religion. Knowing about these events and efforts gave people hope. It let them know they had not been abandoned.