Life in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s
25. 10. 2021 / Jan Čulík
How I was admitted to university study, even though I wasn't even in the Socialist Union of Youth
Probably it all depended terribly much on the circumstances and also whether the person lived in Prague or outside Prague. I got into the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague in 1972, at a time of raging post-invasion clampdown and the restoration of neo-Stalinism, I was not even a member of the SSM, the Socialist Union of Youth.
Have I ever explained to you how this happened? Our professor of English, a well-known translator, Dr. Jarmila Emmerová, a close friend of writer Josef Škvorecký (one of the "Irena" characters, who appear in his fiction), later told me that she had noticed that I had passed the university entrance exam for English very well, but there was a problem - I was not a member of the SSM.
So she wrote in my application in big red letters HE IS A MEMBER OF SVAZARM.
And how did I become a member of Svazarm? (the Union for Cooperation with the Army). At the time, I was an enthusiastic listener to the American station Radio Free Europe on shortwave. And there was a lot of Morse code on those short waves then. I wanted to understand these dispatches, so I signed up for a Morse code course. And it was only available in Svazarm. By enrolling in a Morse code course, I automatically became a member of Svazarm.
So, in 1972, my enthusiastic listening to Radio Free Europe's anticommunist broadcasts, indirectly got me to be accepted for study at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University.
By the way, there was not a single communist in our study group, on the contrary, they were all anti-communists, and we met regularly in the so-called "sewing circle" of Mrs. Emmerová, where we spoke quite openly. And a lot of people in this study circle were not from Prague.
Personal ties helped immensely in that regime. According to the motto "We have to help each other".
Yeah, and we went to the US Embassy to see movies. At university we had a Fulbright lecturer, a professor from the USA, who taught us American literature. A student who was the chairman of the SSM faculty organization also went to the films at the American embassy with us.
At that time, I walked around Prague with a Soviet-made transistor radio, and when, for example, I was waiting at the bus stop near the faculty, my radio set blared out BBC World Service broadcasts in English all along the street in communist Czechoslovakia.
I was, generally, really brazen in those days.
During the holidays in my third year of study (1975), I worked as a student guide for British and American Czech students at the Summer School of Slavonic Studies, which was run by my Faculty. Sometimes there were trips or sightseeing tours around Prague. I sat in front of the coach and used the coach microphone to tell the Anglo-American students on the coach what we were passing. In English, that is,
And once we drove along Na Poříčí Street in Prague and I said to those present on the coach: "Look to the right here, this is where the Communists have the editorial office of that daily newspaper of theirs, Rudé právo."
One of my Czech student colleagues looked at me quite strangely, but nothing happened.
Writer Josef Škvorecký, Jarmila Emmerová, Vladimír Elznic and communist posters
Vladimír Elznic, who did not even have a doctorate, was the head of the newly merged Department of German and English (the Communists somehow hoped that the German language and culture from the Socialist GDR would somehow neutralize the accursed English language and culture, for which no "socialist camp country" yet existed).
However, Prague is small and my parents testified that during the Second World War in occupied Czechoslovakia, Vladimír Elznic taught them German in high school and always greeted them with a Nazi salute, he raised his the right hand, when he came to the classroom at the beginning of his classes.
"Do you know, comrade, that you have a terribly bourgeois face?" said Vladimír Elznic once to dr. Emmerová.
The students knew these things about him.
My great-uncle, a Catholic priest and secretary of the Prague Archbishop Beran, was imprisoned in Mírov prison for 10 years. Neither my parents, nor any of my relatives, were ever in the Communist Party.
Father, non-communist, translator and organist
My father, PhDr Jan Čulík, studied Latin, philosophy and English at the Faculty of Arts in Prague in the late 1940s and in the early 1950s. He wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic of Paradox in modern English literature. When he presented it to the faculty sometime in 1952, it was rejected on the grounds that he had no quotations from Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin in it. (Which reminds me that in the 1970s I was persuaded by my professor at the Arts Faculty, Dr. Alena Skaličková, an expert in English phonetics, to do a doctoral thesis in phonetics, because, as she said, "fortunately the classics of Marxism-Leninism Lenin and Stalin never wrote anything about phonetics [Unfortunately, they did write about linguistics.] This is yet more evidence about how openly we spoke to our professors at the faculty in the 1970s. I spoke openly about emigration with the American Professor Begnal. He assured me that if I came to the United States, he would help me there find a job.)
My father therefore put his thesis on the Paradox in modern English literature in a drawer and did not submit it until almost twenty years later, during the Prague Spring of 1968, when he finally received his doctorate.
Because my father spoke languages, German and English, he was able to get a job the foreign trade company Strojexport and later Technoexport. In the 1960s, he travelled the world, negotiating many international contracts. He led the negotiations, but the problem was that he was always accompanied by an illiterate Communist Party official, who interrupted the negotiations with regular demands: “What is he SAYING? What IS he SAYING? ”
As a result of his travels abroad, my father had many contacts and many friends abroad. One of them was a German, I guess from Munich or Frankfurt, Mr. Hochhaus. After the invasion in 1968, he offered my father a quality job and a good existence if we wanted to emigrate. The family was seriously considering emigration, but the hysterical teenager Jan Čulík Jr., who was then sixteen at the time, prevented this. He said: "I will not go anywhere. Let the Russian occupying forces leave." The family heard it, acknowledged it, and went nowhere. The paradox is that ten years later, it was this then teenager who moved out of Czechoslovakia, while the family remained. But they didn't want to go and they couldn't leave. They were too culturally tied to the Czech environment. Regardless of the fact that they were anti-communists and it was a communist dictatorship. Exactly as Muriel Blaive explains.
As a non communist party member, my father was discriminated in the foreign trade company for many years, although at the beginning of "normalization" (i.e. purges) after the Soviet invasion in August 1968, in the early 1970s, he testified to an interesting thing. At that time, screenings began, examining how the employees had behaved during 1968, and requiring everyone to besmirch themselves and describe the invasion as fraternal assistance. My father testified that during this period, it was (reformist) communists who were the target of oppression, and for about a year, non-communists were far better off than communists, because during the purges of the reformist communists, no one paid much attention to non-communists.
But at the beginning of the post-invasion clampdown, my father had had enough and left the foreign trade company. He accepted my aunt's offer to transfer as a translator-expert to the State Research Institute for Machine Building in Prague-Běchovice, at the outskirts. And as an employee of this company, he spent the following twenty years there. It was an extended holiday!
My father was employed there full time to be simply on hand in case a scientist needed to translate a technical research article into English, which happened only once in a blue moon.
He did not spend any time at all in Běchovice, with one exception: Because he was stingy for money, he did not want to pay in the Old Town in Prague, where we lived, for lunches in restaurants, so at noon he always paid a crown (approximately 5 pence) to take a bus to Běchovice to the Institute's canteen for lunch and then he returned home immediately.
And how did my father spend those twenty years during the post-invasion era of neo-Stalinist communism? He worked as a professional translator of English and American prose, which was published mainly in the Catholic publishing house Vyšehrad, where his sister, Marie Voříšková, the wife of the Catholic intellectual Rudolf Voříšek, who was killed by the Communists, now worked as an editor. As aunt Marie Voříšková once said: "Yes, it is nepotism, but if you were not an excellent translator, we would not be able to use you." My father translated into Czech and published more than forty titles, including works by Graham Greene, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and William Golding. He corresponded with Greene from time to time, mainly asking him about the various details he needed to shed light on the translations, and in 1969 he accompanied him during Greene's visit to Prague.
In the 1980s, I negotiated for my father to translate the gigantic work of the right-wing journalist-historian Paul Johnson, A History of the Modern World, for Alexander Tomsky's emigré publishing house, his London-based Rozmluvy, Conversations. My father worked on this extensive translation in communist Prague in the late 1980s. How did he send us the translation to Britain? Easily: he copied it to onto a floppy disk, put it in an ordinary envelope and sent it by mail. It always arrived. At that time, the Czechoslovak secret police probably had no idea that a disk measuring about 6x6 centimeters could hold five hundred pages of text. Then suddenly communism fell and the translation of Johnson's work was published in Prague instead.
In the early 1990s, my father published an original work, his monograph Graham Greene: The Poet of Embarrassment.
Jan Čulík senior at work on translations in Prague
So what did he do besides translating at home in the Old Town during those twenty years?
Although a Catholic, he befriended the Protestant clergyman Renato Schiller, they often had a heated discussion in our apartment. Renáto Schiller worked in the Protestant Church of Salvator (not St. Salvator, Protestants have no saints) at Pařížská Street in Prague's Old Town, i.e. a five-minute walk from our apartment there. Renáto Schiller gave my father the keys to the church, and my father spent up to eight hours playing the organ there every day during those twenty years. He rehearsed and taped the entire organ work of Johann Sebastian Bach. He also occasionally held public organ concerts. So this was his contribution to socialist construction during those twenty years of Neo-Stalinism.
Jan Čulík junior and the scary high school
I would like to return to my student years at Charles University. Although I was previously lucky enough to study at the high school in Prague 7 Nad štolou, which was considered prestigious (when I started studying there in September 1968 in the first grade, Alexander Dubček's son was also starting there in a parallel class), the four-year study at this grammar school was utterly traumatizing terror. The teaching consisted of us sitting in classrooms, many hundreds of years after the invention of printing, and like medieval monks who copied books in monasteries before the invention of printing, we were forced to copy down "lectures" dictated to us by our teachers. They then demanded that we memorized them by the next day. Learning by heart for the next day several pages of text for each subject was utter terror. Particularly traumatic were the geography lessons, in which we had to list the industries that existed in different cities of the world, or natural history, where we had a table of about fifty different stones and we had to know about five characteristics of each of them. We were a first, experimental four-year class at this originally three-year grammar school, so when we were nineteen, in the last year of this high school, we revolted and demanded that teachers stop using this medieval way of teaching and start teaching us properly. I was at the forefront of this rebellion. The teachers accepted our criticism and started teaching us properly, introduced projects, and started discussing learning topics with us in class. The problem was, as we later learned, that after we had graduated, they returned to the old system, the bastards.
So "studying" in high school was crazy and extremely traumatizing. Of course, all that swotting up only activated short-term memory, so, as we told our high school teachers in that student rebellion, the students did not remember anything about anything for any length of time. I remember one classmate, lawyer Radovan Hrstka after graduation, one day ironically telling me: I have to hurry home. I have to learn by heart what Grandma was like in Božena Němcová's classic work.
Yes, gentle reader, our teacher of Czech literature dictated ten sentences to us in class about what Božena Němcová's Grandmother was like and we had to learn it by heart and repeat it the following morning.
Excellent study at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University
On the other hand, studying at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in 1972-1977 was absolutely excellent, especially in English, which, because the teaching was mostly in English, was not at all affected by socialism. To some extent even Czech studies were OK. Although most of the best professors had been fired by our time, Jaroslava Janáčková, an excellent expert in nineteenth-century Czech literature, still remained there. I must admit that her lectures in the first year were like a revelation to us. But in the first classes, we didn't understand her at all.
As I mentioned above, a Fulbright professor from the USA taught us American literature in English. I experienced Professor Begnal, the next year, I went to classes taught by Professor Held. Yes, it was only in the higher grades, but I did not respect any hierarchy of student grades and from the very beginning of my studies I simply attended those lectures in English in various grades that interested me, regardless of the grade I was in. So I experienced two Fulbright teachers, I attended lectures one of them prematurely, and the others when I reached the grade when I was supposed to attend them. English literature was taught there by the Australian Ian Milner, in English we were trained by native English assistants sent by the British Council. Not far from the Faculty of Arts, on today's Mariánské náměstí, when you enter the passage way into the National Library in the Klementinum, in that passage on the right, on the second floor, there was the British Council public library, where there was free access to Anglo-Saxon literature without any domestic communist censorship.
Being a guide at the Summer School changed Jan Čulík's life
As I mentioned above, in 1975 I was a student guide at the Summer School of Slavonic Studies of the Prague Faculty of Arts for Anglo-Saxon students of Czech, and this work radically affected my whole life. The Anglo-Saxon participants of this summer school became my longtime friends. One of them was Mark Copplestone, an English boy from northern England and a student of Czech studies with the emigrant Igor Hájek, a friend and collaborator of Josef Škvorecký, who at the time taught Czech studies at the University of Lancaster. During my study of English at the Arts Faculty in Prague, I visited Britain three times, and during one such visit to Britain, Copplestone and I hitchhiked all over Britain in fourteen days, from south to north, going along the east coast, back west.
And how on earth did I actually get to Britain during this neo-Stalinist period, when basically no one was allowed to travel to the West and I wasn't even in the Socialist Union of Youth?
Although my experience of studying at that high school in Prague 7 Nad štolou was appalling, there was one good exception. A very friendly professor of art education at that school, Fortýn, and his wife took those students who were interested on hiking tours to the mountains in Slovakia. The social tendency in the post-invasion neo-Stalinist period was to form closed conspiracy groups of friends, and in addition to Professor Emmerová's "sewing circle," a group of people who regularly travelled to the Slovak mountains with Mr and Mrs Fortýn was another such conspiracy circle.
On my first trip to Britain, I went there by train and boat: by train from Prague via Berlin to Hamburg, where I visited Uwe Ladwig, the husband of my aunt in České Budějovice. From Prague to East Berlin we took a normal socialist train, in East Berlin I had to cross the Berlin Wall and walk to a heavily guarded platform, from where trains ran to the West. That was a remarkable experience.
After a short break with Uwe Ladwig in Hamburg, a beautiful city full of trees in the streets, I boarded a ship that sailed overnight from Hamburg to the English port city of Harwich.
I sat on that ship at night in the bar over a beer and spoke there - in English - with some other passengers. I loudly criticised communism. (I guess the passengers must have been quite bored by this.)
There was a unit of British soldiers from NATO on the ship. As I loudly complained about communism in Czechoslovakia, a British soldier came up to me and said, "Look, sir, as you can see, we are moving an entire British military unit here on this ship. When such movements take place, we are often watched by Eastern European spies. I don't think it's reasonable for you to criticize communism here so loudly, because a spy can hear you, and you may have problems when you return to Czechoslovakia."
Military pilot Bill Hall and religious activist Joe Třetina
But back to that Summer School of Slavonic Studies.
Remarkably, one of its participants was the mathematician and pilot of the US Air Force Bill Hall, who fought in Vietnam and bombed the communist Viet Cong there. He was a very typical American soldier, incredibly matter-of-fact. Bill Hall not only attended the Czech language Summer School, but also remained on an internship in Czechoslovakia for the next few months. After the Summer School, he was accommodated in a student Hall of Residence for foreigners at Kajetánka in Prague's Břevnov, where he introduced me to my future wife, Lesley Keen, who came to Prague from Britain in September 1975 for an exchange of at least one year of study from the British Council. British students mostly did nothing in Prague, only drank in pubs. (Perhaps the most notable of these was the alcoholic John Chibnall, who did not beat about the bush when dealing with the communist authorities. Once he was asking the immigration police to extend his stay and they were reluctant to do so. He told them: I'm not leaving until you extend my stay, and if you don't give me the extension right away, I'll piss here in this room in the corner. And he started unbuttoning his fly. The officials were horrified and gave him the extension to get rid of him. I think that British students in communist Czechoslovakia were quite privileged. I think the regime was afraid of negative publicity. In a way, I experienced the same when I started dating my future British wife. I felt that the regime was a little afraid of that. See below.)
Unlike the British alcoholics sitting in pubs in Prague, my wife came to the Barrandov Film Studios and was allowed to make her own animated film Ondra and the Snow Dragon, which went into normal film distribution in Czech cinemas. Barrandov also sent the film to international festivals, and the film received an award somewhere.
Another very good and long-term friend was Joe Třetina of Czech origin, a Canadian participant in the Summer School, an enthusiastic member of the Baha'i sect, who, he admitted, came to communist Czechoslovakia to found a secret Baha'i cell there. My friends and I helped him - Joe Třetina needed propaganda material for his missionary work, and in the National Library he found a publication in Czech, published sometime in the 1930s, which explained the principles of the Baha'i faith.
In that year, 1975, photocopiers were not available, so we photographed the whole book of Mr. Třetina's with a camera and then for many hours in his apartment somewhere on the outskirts of Prague we made photographic prints from negatives. At one point, we had a bathtub full of hundreds of these prints of the pages of this book, rinsing them in the water to remove the fixer. If the secret police had surprised us, we thought, it wouldn't have been very pleasant.
Another participant in the Summer School in 1975 was a young American political scientist, John Kunstadter. He came to the Summer School in Prague straight from Munich from Radio Free Europe, where he did research in the local research department. Then I met him in London, and we walked through the huge London Foyle's bookshop.
About those participants of the Summer School, Bill Hall, Joe Třetina and John Kunstadter. The Czechoslovak secret police StB has always been considered omniscient and omnipotent. From the above examples, you can see that in the mid-1970s, the StB had no control over who came to Prague to the Czech language Summer Schools. How could they not know that Kunstadter came straight from Radio Free Europe when he told Čulík about this at about their second meeting? I have a feeling that the secret police did not really understand the outside world at all, so it was not even able to properly screen political scientists from the West who wanted to improve their Czech at the Summer School in Prague. Of course, people in the West studying the Czech language and the Czechoslovak conditions were not communists.
It is little known that under Communism, the emigré Jan Kavan sometimes traveled to Prague brazenly from London. Kavan ran his own Palach Press press office in London and disseminated information about the dissident group Charter 77 and their documents in English. The fact that people sometimes saw him in Prague led to the misconception that Kavan must have been a secret police agent. How did he do it?
It's quite simple. In Britain, every citizen has the right to officially change their name by means of a "deed poll". So Jan Kavan officially had his name changed to, I think, the name "John Edwards" and then had the British authorities issue him a passport in that name. And at the communist Czechoslovak embassy in London, he applied for a tourist visa. Among the hundreds of tourist visa applications the name John Edwards did not ring any bells...
The Baha'i prophet Joe Třetina got Jan Čulík into the English newsroom of the Prague Communist Radio
Jan Čulík's tram pass from 1977
Another paradox. One day Joe Třetina tells me, Look, Honza, I talked to people who work in the English section of Prague Radio and they have almost no people there. Would you like to go there to work?
So this was my only collaboration with the communist regime. It was caused by a religious fanatic from Canada, Joe Třetina, who came to Czechoslovakia to subvert the regime by spreading Baha'iism.
I was enthusiastically received by the English section of Radio Prague. I started doing shifts there for the newsroom. The shift was from 4pm until about midnight, and the radio paid a lot of money for it, which suited a student. Three hundred crowns per shift, at a time when a good monthly salary in Czechoslovakia was two thousand crowns. So when you worked at the radio for a week, you earned more than a good monthly salary was then.
The most important specialist of the English language section of Czechoslovak Radio was Mr. Milouš Suchý, an older gentleman. He had a terrifying accent in English and did not do any broadcasting himself. However, he could write English perfectly, as a native speaker.
The English-language section complained to the communist radio management that the domestic news available to the newsroom was completely stupid and that as such it could not compete on the international market in English under any circumstances.
The problem was that only news from the Czech News Agency was available - but in 1975 the Czech News Agency only slavishly copied the output of the Soviet Moscow-based TASS news agency. It was so slavish that ČTK ended its operation at 11 p.m. Why? Because the Moscow-based TASS ended its operation at 1 am - and the time difference between Moscow and Prague is two hours.
So another paradox: About fourteen days after coming to the English newsroom, we were given a tape recorder and permission to record the news bulletins from the BBC World Service - we then stole the news from the BBC and put it in a slightly reformulated form into our news.
The task of the shift in the English newsroom was to write and update a news bulletin during the evening and then to pre-record it in the studio for various English language programmes of Czechoslovak Radio which were mostly transmitted on shortwave to various parts of the world during the evening. At half past one in the morning, one such session was broadcast on medium wave, so it was also audible in Prague. So after returning home from my shift, I was able to turn on the radio in the kitchen at night and check to see if I read it professionally enough. I still have it recorded somewhere.
I remember it as if it were today: "The time now: midnight thirty. Here is the news ..."
Unprofessionalism: I was already dating my future Scottish wife at the time, and since of course I didn't take the broadcasting seriously, we agreed to put various wordings in the news for her entertainment, as we had agreed in advance, as messages for her. Which is what I did.
In that Prague radio building, however, as I used to do everywhere, in the corridors and studios, I regularly made my anti-communist remarks. A local district communist secretary once took me and Mr. Milouš Suchý to a bar on Vinohradská Street near the radio station, and during that drink he told us things like "So, comrades, how well are you subverting capitalism with your broadcasts?" We looked at him thinking What lunatic is this? Fortunately, this gentleman communist had no idea that we were stealing BBC news and re-broadcasting it to the West.
Interrogations at the secret police
But maybe the powers that be did not really like my outspoken anti-communism. Shortly after I started doing the shifts in the English section of Czechoslovak Radio, the secret police started taking me for interrogations. It started when two secret policemen rang at the door in our apartment in the Old Town, saying that they wanted to take me to the Bartolomějská police station for questioning. When she opened the door, my mother sternly measured them, and said to them, "So, you will have to wait outside, I will first give him his dinner." As they waited outside, my future wife came to the apartment between them. When the secret policemen were driving me to the police headquarters after my dinner, one of them asked me, "Is this that Lesley?" They knew about her. As I said above, I think me having a British partner was a problem for them.
Paranoid experience: One day my future wife and I were crossing Spálená Street near the Máj department store (today it is Tesco) and when we were in the middle of the crossing, a man close to us, about two feet away, pulled out a camera and took a picture of us. I caught him and protested asking him what he was doing. He made excuses (it was winter, cloudy weather) that "the weather is beautiful and so I am just taking pictures for myself in Prague". Sure.
The interrogations continued and were relatively unpleasant, though actually about nothing. My mother, who, although a non-communist, had some contacts as a medical doctor, learned that if I left the radio, the secret police would stop harassing me. So I left the radio. The interrogations stopped.
From the beginning, it was clear that my future wife would simply not want to live in communist Czechoslovakia. She was unable to tolerate the oppression and it was clear that we would have to leave Czechoslovakia after the wedding. All my friends were extremely skeptical. They decided that the regime would not let us go. Do not forget that military service was compulsory in Czechoslovakia at that time and it was expected that a university graduate would join the army after graduation. My friends warned us that as soon as the regime took me into the army, it would start using an excuse that I had been acquainted with classified information during the military service and that I would not be allowed to leave the country for many years.
They were wrong. In 1977, I applied to emigrate, and one day I found in the mailbox an ordinary pre-printed letter from the military administration, not even sent by registered mail! It said that I was exempt from compulsory military service. We were free to leave Czechoslovakia, and it happened in February 1978.
I left Czechoslovakia legally from the point of view of the regime and I was already looking forward to coming back regularly, freely crossing the Iron Curtain, from the West to Prague and back. I returned to Prague once, in 1979.
But the secret police played a trick on me. After my departure to the West, it began to summon my Prague friends for interrogation and told them that "Čulík is a CIA agent". I took this as a signal that I should not go to Prague with only a Czechoslovak passport. I waited for five years until I was entitled to acquire British citizenship, and after obtaining it, I officially got rid of my Czechoslovak citizenship. So I started going to Prague again in the second half of the eighties as a Brit. I regained Czech citizenship only after the fall of communism.
There was completely motionless timelessness in the country at that time - nothing had changed. After a break of several years, people in Prague in the streets asked me where which shop was and where a tram goes - for some mysterious reason, it still happens to me that people in the Czech Republic ask me in the street where what is - and I was able to tell them exactly where to go. Nothing had changed.
But that is another story.