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True Notes: How RFE Was A Platform For Banned Music And Literature In Czechoslovakia

Germany -- Broadcaster Rozina Jadrna prepares a music program. Radio Free Europe’s programming included, and still includes, cultural items not accessible to people in its broadcast region.

The 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia was followed by a crackdown on cultural as well as political freedoms. RFE’s Czechoslovak Service was a platform for the beloved Rozina Jadrna, who, beginning in 1965, played Western hits during her weekend music show that were forbidden by the communist regime, and Karel Kryl, who performed his music and that of other banned Czech and Slovak artists on the air.

For Pavel Teodosije, who was conscripted into military service in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 70s, one silver lining brightening the drudgery of army life was his posting along the country’s western border, where foreign radio wasn’t jammed and soldiers could tune in to Radio Free Europe’s music programs broadcast from its headquarters in Munich.

“On the weekends, all the high-ranking officers left the barracks, and every weekend at exactly 2 p.m. the music from Munich was played,” he said. “We liked to listen to Rozina Jadrna’s music show. And when we met in the corridors, the sly greeting among soldiers was ‘Rozina says hello.’”

Rozina Jadrna’s weekend music show was launched in 1965 and was a favorite among Radio Free Europe (RFE) listeners. She played Western hits that were forbidden by the communist regime, as well as anti-establishment rock and roll from Czechoslovak bands that had been driven underground in their own country.

While providing independent news and information to listeners behind the Iron Curtain was the primary mandate of the U.S.-funded broadcaster, its music and literature programs, especially broadcasts of banned works by blacklisted artists and authors, buoyed the spirit of a people denied not only political, but also cultural freedom. In Czechoslovakia, this was never more the case than after the harshly repressive period of “normalization” that crushed the short-lived Prague Spring.

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The 1968 Soviet-led invasion ended the country’s experiment with reforms, and many artists, intellectuals, authors, and musicians emigrated to the West, including songwriter Karel Kryl, who went to work for RFE in Munich.

Kryl’s songs and those of other musicians critical of the communist regime were forbidden on domestic radio, but Kryl played his music and that of other banned Czech and Slovak artists on RFE. Among his best-known songs is “Close The Gate, Little Brother,” in which his lyrics speak directly to people in Czechoslovakia about his feelings of guilt for leaving his country, fear for its future under Soviet occupation, and hope for better times to come.

CZECH REPUBLIC-- Karel Kryl performing in Prague, 1989.
CZECH REPUBLIC-- Karel Kryl performing in Prague, 1989.

Czech singer Yvonne Prenosilova also fled to Germany after receiving repeated death threats for her public support of the Prague Spring reforms. There she met Kryl, who brought her on at RFE as a music show host.

“I had access to the Billboard Top 40 and Hit Parade, which nobody had in Czechoslovakia, so they had no idea what was going on in the world,” said Prenosilova. “I also played the music of my friends back home who couldn’t perform and couldn’t get played on the radio. People sent us letters requesting music. They also called in, usually from their offices so nobody would know who made the call and they wouldn’t get caught.”

Czechoslovakia--Yvonne Prenosilova performing in Lucerna hall, Prague, 1965.
Czechoslovakia--Yvonne Prenosilova performing in Lucerna hall, Prague, 1965.

One of Prenosilova’s friends back home who had been prohibited from performing was Marta Kubisova. A few days after the 1968 invasion, she recorded a song called “A Prayer For Marta,” which would become an anthem of resistance to occupation.

As punishment for her role in the Prague Spring, Kubisova was defamed in state-run media and falsely accused of posing for pornographic photos. She says it was clear that if she tried to sing in public the attacks would continue. She took a series of menial jobs believing she would never sing for an audience again, but RFE continued to play her songs, and she never disappeared from the memory of her fans, who welcomed her back to the stage in 1989 when the Velvet Revolution toppled the communist regime.

“I lived in the Vysocany region [of Prague] from 1974 to about 1981, where I had my radio in the oven when I wasn’t baking anything,” said Kubisova. “There must have been a signal coming through from the chimney because I could hear RFE very clearly,” she said, referring to the authorities' practice of jamming the radio's broadcasts.

Kubisova continued to be active in dissident circles and signed Charter 77, the manifesto calling on the communist authorities to respect basic human rights and freedom of expression. The Charter itself sprang from a musical impulse, spurred by the 1976 arrest of members of the underground rock band The Plastic People of the Universe.

In addition to playing music that couldn’t be heard on state-run radio, RFE also read out samizdat essays and other works by Charter 77 dissidents that were smuggled out of the country, including those by the future president of independent Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. RFE also reported about the charter, and would announce new signatories and developments related to its members, including arrests.

Recalling how she once warned a prospective employer about her involvement in Charter 77 during the interview to avoid being dismissed later, she said the manager responded, “You think I don’t know that already? I also listen to RFE.”

CZECH REPUBLIC -- Czech singer Marta Kubisova was blacklisted for her support of the Prague Spring and banned from performing in communist Czechoslovakia. RFE played Kubisova's songs, as well as those of other banned and underground musicians.
CZECH REPUBLIC -- Czech singer Marta Kubisova was blacklisted for her support of the Prague Spring and banned from performing in communist Czechoslovakia. RFE played Kubisova's songs, as well as those of other banned and underground musicians.

During the period of “normalization,” it wasn't just dissident texts that were banned. The communist leadership also prohibited an enormous array of literary fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, and religious literature. Underground networks produced hand-typed carbon copies of texts that were distributed clandestinely to eager readers. The networks also extended across the border with Germany, making smuggled materials available to RFE journalists, who read classic works of Czech, Slovak, and foreign literature on air.

In addition to Havel’s writing, better-known samizdat publications included works by Ludvik Vaculik, and Egon Bondy’s dystopian novels and portrayals of the “merry ghetto,” as he described the Czechoslovak underground.

RFE journalist Lida Rakusanova hosted a program called “Literature Without Censorship,” which was devoted to banned literature and was immensely popular with listeners.

“The success of the show was logical. A Neo -Stalinist regime had been installed in Czechoslovakia after 1968 which banned all works which were against the regime,” said Rakusanova. “The proof of just how popular this program was is that in the countryside where there was not a lot of samizdat going on, people recorded the series from the radio, then transcribed the audio to text and circulated it around.”

Such defiance required courage and carried risk. Many of those who were part of the underground, either as writers and musicians or smugglers, spent time in prison and were harassed by the secret police. But there was gain from their hazard too—a sense of connectedness to the outside world and to each other, if only in the form of a sly greeting among soldiers that “Rozina says hello.”

--Emily Thompson