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Twenty Five Ago in Prague

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the August, 1993 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.

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With the fall of Communism in Europe seveal years behind us, it's hard to remember what Cold War tensions were like. Yet, twenty- five years ago this month, the Cold War became extremely cold when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. As so often in modern warfare, radio was there to play an important role.

Events preceding the invasion began on January 5, 1968. With the economy in bad shape, there was unrest among both the Czechoslovak people and the ruling Communist Party. First Secretary Antonin Novotny and his hardline compatriots responded with the usual suppression, but the rest of the party elite revolted, voting him out of office and replacing him with Alexander Dubcek. Gradually Novotny and his allies were pushed out of most important party and governmental posts.

Dubeck and his faction launched a reform campaign unheard of in the Soviet block. Under the slogan "socialism with a human face", they ended press censorship, freed political prisoners, allowed free travel abroad, began decentralization of the economy, and totally turned the old Stalinist system on its head. Others dubbed the awakening the "Prague Spring." Yet, Dubcek's government continued to insist that it supported Communism and planned to remain allied to the USSR, especially in foreign policy matters.

Nevertheless, Moscow saw Dubcek's movement as a threat to its dominance in Eastern Europe. Tensions between the Soviet and Czech governments rose as the Soviets denounced the reforms and worked behind the scenes with Dubcek's opponents. But, Dubcek remained solidly in control. At the end of July, Dubcek and Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev and their advisors met for several days, and produced an agreement called the Bratislava Declaration, which seemed to guarantee Czechoslovakia's freedom to follow it's own path.

THE INVASION

In reality, everything was far from rosy. Secretly, the Soviet government had been preparing an invasion of Czechoslovkia under the guise of the Warsaw Pact. At 2200 UTC on August 20, at least 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops - mostly Soviets, but also East Germans, Poles, Bulgarians, and Hungarians - crossed into Czechoslovakia. News of the invasion traveled slowly to the capital, and not until 0100 did Czechoslovak Radio broadcast the first news of it to a startled world. A nearby Associated Press office monitored the broadcast and relayed the news to the world. It reached American TV audiences at 0125 (9:25 p.m. EDT), about the same time the Soviet ambassador visited the White House to inform President Johnson. Shortwave listeners, however, reported that Radio Prague's external services carried on with their normal prerecorded broadcast, without any mention of the invasion.

As the invaders moved into key towns and eventually Prague itself, they took over government buildings, intersections, and other strategic points. Reformist leaders, including Dubcek, were captured and arrested. Everything started out very smoothly, just as expected. But, the Soviets had no idea of what really awaited them.

BATTLE FOR RADIO PRAGUE

The Soviets knew that controlling the flow of information would be key to the success of their invasion. But, the Czechoslovaks knew that also. The Prague Radio Building on Vinohrodska Street, just behind the National Museum in the Central City, would be the center of resistance. Within minutes of the radio's invasion announcement, Czechoslovak youths began gathering on Vinohrodska Street. Using wood, stones, buses and trolley cars, they began constructing massive barricades across the street.

At 8:00 a.m. Soviet troops surrounded the station building. A woman announcer reported this to the listeners, noting that, "They are going to silence our voices, but they cannot silence our hearts." The microphone was passed from hand to hand as the announcers asked the audience to remain calm and have courage. One man held the microphone to the window so the listeners could hear machine gun fire outside. As her companions sobbed in the background, the first woman announcer came back on and reported, "They have entered the building, but we are still here and will be with you as long as we can hold out ... we are behind Dubcek and we will never give up, NEVER." Then the national anthem was played.

In fact, the troops hadn't entered the building yet. As they moved onto Vinohradska Street they were met by thousands of people waving Czechoslovak flags and screaming, "Russians, go home!" When the tanks moved towards the barricades, students ran out on the street with Molotov cocktails and flaming rags and newspapers to set the tanks on fire. Old mattresses, garbage, and wooden crates were added to the fires. The invaders were shocked by the strong resistance. They retreated, leaving one tank and two munitions trucks in flames in front of the barricades. Radio Prague would remain on the air a little longer. But, the Soviets regrouped and a few hours later launched another attack, this time smashing through the barricades. Just before 11:00 a.m., troops stormed into the radio building, the last place in Prague to fall. The station went off at 11:00 a.m.

Surprisingly, only 7 Czechoslovaks were killed in the two battles for the radio station, out of a total of 23 killed in Prague and other cities. Later in the afternoon, thousands of citizens carrying a blood splattered flag made a funeral procession along Vinohradska Street in honor of the fallen in the battle for Radio Prague.

RADIO LEADS THE RESISTANCE

Contrary to their earlier declarations, the staff did not wait around for the Soviets to storm into the studio. A few people, including Director Karel Hrabal, stayed at the microphone until they were arrested. But most of the technicians, announcers, and reporters slipped away into the crowds once it was apparent the building would fall. They were not deserting their cause in its hour of need. They had plans for another fight that the Soviets hadn't counted on.

Within half an hour of Radio Prague's fall, a clandestine anti- Soviet broadcaster came on the air in Prague. Gradually others were added elsewhere in the city, and in cities such as Brno, Pilsen, and Ceske Budejovice. Around the country, local radio staffs left their studios and took to the airwaves from secret locations.

At first, the clandestines provided news and moral support for the resistance. As they became more organized, the stations actually began to orchestrate the resistance. Then, as the resistance centered on the clandestine network, the stations became a sort of quasi-government for a nation without a real one. Their slogan was "Jsme s v mi; bud'te s n mi!", or "We are with you; be with us!" Although the underground stations denounced the Soviet invasion, they always stressed their loyalty to the Socialist system as represented by Dubcek and his "Prague Spring". Rather than being anti-Communist, they supported a liberal form of Communism. And they always pointed out that they were "free, legitimate" radio stations of the Czechoslovak people.

Surprisingly, in concentrating on closing down official Czechoslovak radio studios, the Soviets didn't bother to occupy several key medium and long wave transmitter sites. Radio technicians then set up make-shift studios and connected them to the usual high-powered transmitters on their normal frequencies! This not only made it easy for local listeners, it allowed BBC monitors at Caversham Park to record almost all of the key output of the clandestine broadcasts during the first few days of the invasion. Soon, however, the Soviets wised up and occupied the transmitter sites, too.

By this time, the free radios had set up a number of a hodgepodge of true clandestine transmitters. Some came from the Czechoslovak army and others from factories, especially the Tesla Electronics Equipment plant. In other cases amateur transmitters were pressed into service. Still others were put together at the moment with whatever parts were at hand. As one staffer with the clandestine network said, "We always swore about our obsolete equipment, which was always breaking down, but it made our technicians into masters of improvisation, and that is what they are now". Equipment was limited, however. For example, often listeners were asked to record the broadcasts for future generations, as the stations lacked the equipment to do so.

The stations worked together, and soon a true clandestine network came together. Up to nineteen stations took turns broadcasting for fifteen minutes at a time on the same frequency. Each station had local and national news, plus coded messages for members of the resistance. Numbered codes signaled the end of a transmission so the next station in the link could come on. At first the breaks between stations were choppy with as much as five minutes of dead air. Later the engineers became so proficient that the switches were often not even noticable. During their time off the air, some stations moved their transmitter to a new site before their next turn, as a further guard against discovery.

The network operated 24 hours a day, giving the announcers and technicians little chance for sleep. Listeners provided food and other supplies. In some cases stations made live broadcasts from streets or parks; watchful citizens warned them if the Soviets were coming near. Most programming was news about the invasion and resistance against it, but this was no propaganda operation. The broadcasts were always objective, telling good and bad. Sometimes it was difficult to get accurate information, but when information turned out to be incorrect, it was always corrected on the air as soon as possible. Everyone at the stations knew that the truth was important to their people. The quiet, calm, unemotional reading of news and announcements on the free radio stations became the symbol of the resistance. Still, with highly critical events, women announcers were used because it was believed their voices would create a more emotional reaction in the audience. Only a few breaks were taken for music, and those were to allow the announcers time to compose upcoming news and announcements.

Most of the broadcasts were on medium wave, but several, including Radio Bratislava, used shortwave. Frequencies included 233, 428,and 492 meters on medium wave and 1103 meters on longwave. In Prague, the international service's normal 7345 and 11990 kHz outlets was taken over by Radio Free Prague with lower-powered clandestine equipment. Both frequencies were logged in North America. The invasion gave DXers some unwanted signals to tune in as well; the Soviets began jamming the VOA and BBC for the first time since 1961.

While Czech and Slovak were the primary languages used, clandestine broadcasts were also aimed at the invading troops and listeners abroad. Other languages used at different times included Russian, Polish, Ruthenian, Hungarian, Romany, German, French, and English. When appeals in Russian for the soldiers to go home were broadcast, listeners took their transistor radios out into the streets and held them up so that the soldiers could hear.

The clandestine operators didn't limit themselves to radio, either. They put on at least four underground TV stations also. The broadcasts were highly professional, and in addition to news carried a lot of comedy programs making fun of the invasion. Humourous Russian lessons were especially popular, as was a satirical tour for visitors of the sites of occupied Prague.

Ironically, the Soviets were indirectly responsible for the clandestine network. Years before they had suggested that Czechslovak radio make plans for clandestine operations in case of a Western invasion. Soviet generals in 1968 probably wished that the Czechoslovaks hadn't been so compliant on this one instruction!

PASSIVE RESISTANCE

The stations reported fighting against the invasion in many cities with many dead and wounded. A few broadcasts even ended with the sounds of Russian troops storming in, firing machine guns. Yet, this was not the way Dubcek or his supporters wanted it. The Free Radio stations always urged passive resistance; no one wanted another 1956 Hungary, when hundreds were killed fighting Soviet troops. On August 22 at noon, 20,000 people demonstrated in central Prague's Wenceslas Square as part of an hour-long general strike across the country. As cars and buses stopped in the streets, everything was paralyzed, even the invaders' military traffic. But, when an evening demonstration was planned and the Soviets threatened to impose martial law, the free radio network urged the demonstration be canceled, and no one showed up. Young people stood on nearby streets and directed passers-by to take other routes so the square would remain empty.

Instead of confrontation, listeners were told how to resist without getting shot. School children, who learned Russian in school, were told to pretend they didn't understand the language if questioned by soldiers. When KGB agents were identified, the license numbers of their cars were given to the stations for broadcast. Listeners then painted the numbers everywhere. It may not have stopped the KGB, but it certainly made them spend a lot of time changing cars!

One of the easiest and most effective way to resist the invaders was to confuse them. The Soviets and their allies did not know their way around Czechoslovakia and its cities and towns. House numbers were taken down and street and highway signs were switched around. In some towns, all the street signs were renamed Dubcek Street. When the resistance learned of additional Polish troops coming in along a certain route, listeners were told to change the road signs. The column followed the signs and about the time they expected to be arriving in Prague, they found they found they had taken a circuitous route back to the Polish border!

The free radios also urged compassion. Most of the invading soldiers were naive 18 year old Russians. Listeners were told to treat them kindly, as the soldiers were not responsible for their actions and often didn't even know where they were. Some units had been told they were invading Germany and others that they were putting down a rebellion in the Soviet Ukraine. The stations also discouraged listeners against taking action against Czechoslovaks who were collaborating with the invaders. Not only was this against the spirit of passive resistance, in many cases the evidence against supposed traitors was little more than gossip. In one instance, a man spying for the resistance by collaborating with the Soviets was beaten up by other members of the resistance.

THE SOVIETS STRIKE BACK

Although the Czechoslovak clandestine broadcasts caught the Soviets by surprise, the Soviets had their own clandestine stations, too. Just a few hours after the invasion began, Radio Vltava came on 210 meters, claiming to be a Czechoslovak station and justifiying the invasion as the will of the Czechoslovak people. The broadcasts, however, were in Russian-accented Czech and broken Slovak. The free radios announced Radio Vltava's frequency to their listeners and invited them to listen to it for amusement. Radio Vltava was actually located in East Germany, and eventually its frequency was taken over by Radio Berlin International. Later at least three other Soviet-operated clandestine stations broadcast briefly to Czechoslovakia. One, Vysilac Zare (Dawn Transmitter), pretended to be pro-Dubcek, but careful monitoring proved it to be a subtle attempt at spreading disinformation among the underground.

Of course as soon as the Soviets realized the scope of the free radio network, they set out to close it down. However, the use of multiple and ever-changing frequencies and locations made triangulation to find the stations difficult if not impossible. Furthermore, the Soviets had been so confident of an easy invasion that they hadn't even brought along the equipment to do it, and it took several days to get it shipped in. Meanwhile, the Soviets frequently drove right by clandestine studios without even knowing it. Gradually, frustrated officers began ordering their troops to confiscate transistor radios out of people's hands in the street.

When the Soviets tried to bring jamming equipment from Poland to Prague, the resistance found out and Czech engineers refused to run the trains bringing the equipment in from the border. When compliant engineers were found, someone cut the electric line powering the train, delaying it still more.

Finally, the invaders located a list of government-registered hams and the troops systematically began shutting them down one by one. Indeed, quite a few had been using their equipment to relay the clandestine broadcasts. Direction-finding equipment and police state tactics helped them shut down more stations. Others stations realized the fight was over and shut down on their own. By Wednesday, August 28, most clandestines were off the air. One of the last messages was "People, from now on you will have to think about what you read and hear. You have always been good at reading between the lines. Now our writers will have to practice the art of writing the truth by concealing some of it ..." On Thursday, August 29, the last free radio station, on 950 kHz at a location near the Austrian border, closed down. The radio battle for Czechoslovakia was over.

EPILOGUE

In the end, the Czechoslovak clandestine radio network only delayed the eventual Soviet takeover. But, it did show how easily radio can be used to bring together a vast passive resistance movement, and that people dedicated to a cause can make a differance. The Soviets may not have been defeated on the streets, but they were clearly routed on the airwaves.

Thanks to the passive resistance sponsored by the clandestines, the political battle for Czechoslovakia cooled down. The Soviets were not interested in the political embarassment of a long difficult occupation, and Dubcek and his government supporters realized that they could never defeat the USSR. The two sides reached a compromise in favor of "normalization." The Soviet troops withdrew from government buildings, including radio and TV facilities, to camps outside the cities. Dubcek's government was returned to power, intact. Theoretically, life continued for Czechoslovaks with the freedoms of before the invasion, but it was difficult to take advantage of them with the invaders watching nearby.

This stalemate continued until March, 1969 when a Czechoslovak ice hockey victory over the Soviet team at an international match produced a wave of anti-Soviet protests and vandalism across Czechoslovkia. This caused Moscow to send a high level delegation to Prague. Either Dubcek and his most important advisors would resign, or there would be another intervention. There was no question that with the current tensions the new invasion would be far bloodier than than the first. Dubeck and his allies resigned and Gustav Husak, a close Soviet ally, took over. Husak set about systematically to dismantle the "Prague Spring" and return Czechoslovakia to a hardline Communist rule that would last until once again the people of Czechoslovakia took to the streets, in December, 1989, to overthrow Communism for good.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jensen, Don. "Crisis In Czechoslovakia." FRENDX, October, 1968. p.12-16.

Soley, Lawrence C., and John S. Nichols. Clandestine Radio Broadcasting. New York: Praeger. 1987.

The New York Times; August 21 - September 1, 1968.

Wechsberg, Joseph. The Voices. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1969.

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This article is copyright 1993 by Don Moore.
It may not be printed in any publication without written permission.

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