Czechoslovakians Listening to Radio

In the late 1960’s Czechoslovakia was still part of the Eastern Bloc—essentially a satellite of the Soviet Union—but was beginning to show a certain degree of independence. At the Thirteenth Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1966 a radical new economic policy was introduced. Steps were taken that could lead to the separation of the Communist Party from the State government. Writers and intellectuals were demanding an end to censorship and more freedom to travel abroad.

The reformers gained ground, and in early 1968 Ludvik Svoboda was installed as President and Alexander Dubcek made head of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. Press censorship and travel restrictions were abolished. Plans were made for open elections, free trade, and economic reforms. Czechoslovakia became the most liberal Communist state in the world. Czechoslovakians reveled in their newfound freedom. The resulting euphoria and blooming of creativity was known as the “Prague Spring.”

This train of events deeply disturbed the Soviets and the other Warsaw Pact countries. After some tense negotiations a compromise was worked out. Reforms could continue, but at a slower pace. Everyone in Czechoslovakia breathed a little easier.

However, the Soviets were still not satisfied. Late at night on August 20, 1968, they initiated a massive invasion of their wayward ally. By the morning of the 21st Czechoslovakia was inundated with tanks and troops from East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the U.S.S.R. Within a week there were over a half million Warsaw Pact troops in the country. In Prague alone 500 tanks controlled strategic locations.

The Soviets had planned to crush any military resistance, install a puppet government, and begin withdrawing within four days. The invading troops were well prepared to counter any resistance the small Czechoslovakian army might offer. But the Czechoslovakian army was surprised and completely unprepared for an invasion by allies, and was ordered by the Czech government not to fight. This was an unfortunate turn of events for the invaders, because they were completely unprepared for the kind of resistance they were to encounter.

The troops had been told they would be welcomed with open arms by the Czechoslovakian workers. Instead, they were booed, taunted, spit at, and jeered. Initially there was some violence, as angry kids set tanks on fire and threw paving stones and Molotov cocktails at the troops. But radio and TV stations denounced the violence and called for “passive” resistance instead. Over the next couple of weeks these clandestine broadcasters coordinated the civilian resistance that prevented the Soviets from taking control of the country. Here are some of the inspiring, clever and some simply laugh out loud funny stories of civilian resistance:

NOISE – At 9:00 am on August 26, people all over Czechoslovakia rang church bells, blew horns and sounded sirens to protest the invasion. The din frightened some of the nervous occupation troops, who shot a woman in Klarov and roughed up an engineer in Prague who was sounding his train whistle. Sirens and horns also announced the beginning of one-hour general strikes in Prague. Soviet tank crews watched helplessly as motorists blew their horns and all traffic stopped.

HUMAN BLOCKADE – Citizens in a small village in Eastern Bohemia formed a human chain across a bridge and blockaded a Russian convoy of tanks and other vehicles. After eight and a half hours the Russians turned back.

THE LOST TRAIN – The Czechoslovakians discovered that a Russian freight train was transporting equipment to jam pirate radio broadcasts. A radio station put out an appeal for rail workers to stop the train. It never made it to Prague. First the train was delayed when the electricity failed, then it ended up on a side track stuck between two other immobilized locomotives. The Soviets eventually had to transport the gear by helicopter.

NUDE PICTURES – In Bratislava a group of young people gathered up boxes of “girlie” magazines that had recently become available from the West. They went to a park and handed them out to the lonely Soviet tank crews that were keeping watch over the area. After a while the commander realized what was happening and ordered his men back into their tanks. The kids joked that the soldiers, who had been abused by the local Slovaks for the last few days, were now abusing themselves. With the soldiers sealed inside their tanks, the kids then stuck paper over their periscopes, making it impossible for the Soviets to continue their surveillance.

THE CASTLE AT BRATISLAVA – Some Russian troops took up residence in an old castle in Bratislava. The castle housed a museum. The museum curator asked the Russian colonel if he could check the exhibits to make sure they were unharmed. The colonel readily granted him permission for an inspection. When the curator was left alone he sneaked down into the basement and turned off the main water valve. When the soldiers found they had no water, they had to look for it elsewhere. But mysteriously, much of the water in the rest of Bratislava had somehow been cut off as well. Finding potable water became a serious problem for the troops, and for several days it had to be brought in from Hungary by helicopter.

NO WATER – The Soviet tank crews had brought powdered rations that needed to be mixed with water. In Bratislava, when they tried to fill their canteens with public tap water, the Slovaks gathered around and warned them that “counter-revolutionaries” had poisoned the water supplies. Some soldiers resorted to scooping up water from puddles, or getting it from the heavily polluted Danube River.

The troops were expecting a warm reception from the Slovaks and brought few supplies and facilities with them. The lack of food, sleep and proper sanitation took its toll. Drinking polluted water added to their distress and many soldiers became ill.

ROZNAVA – The people who lived in Roznava, a small town in eastern Slovakia, were mostly of Hungarian decent. Hence the Soviets decided to send in Hungarian troops, confident that they would receive a warm welcome. Instead, the soldiers were spit at and booed. The citizens of Roznava refused to provide the troops with food, water, supplies or lodging.

Desperate, the Hungarian colonel had a meeting with the mayor. They finally came to an agreement. The troops would receive the supplies they needed and could stay at a temporarily unoccupied school. However, they would be forced to obey the town’s curfew. So each day at nightfall the Hungarian occupiers returned to the school so the mayor could lock them inside. Then at dawn the mayor would come back to let them out again.

CLANDESTINE BROADCASTING (The image shows Czechoslovacians listening to news of the uprising) – The electronic media—radio and television—played a key role in the resistance. It was able to create a sense of solidarity and hope by keeping citizens informed about what was happening in other parts of the country. This underground news media broadcast Czech government appeals and made suggestions on how to resist the invaders, while urging people to remain nonviolent. The amazing thing is that none of this was planned beforehand. All broadcasting arrangements were continually improvised and varied to prevent detection.

The Russians had a hard time closing down all the television stations because broadcasting facilities were dispersed throughout Prague. Clandestine TV broadcasts were also done from factories and other buildings using mobile and remote transmitters. For instance, on the day of the invasion television workers escaped with a remote broadcast truck. They then set up a studio in an empty apartment building in the Prague suburbs. From there broadcasts were beamed all over the country using microwave links. The on-air personalities—well-known newscasters, athletes, intellectuals and other Czech celebrities—all urged nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

Clandestine radio stations were even more important than television because there were more of them and they were easier to hide. Mobile transmitters, supplied by the Czech army, were moved every few hours to avoid detection by Soviet tracking equipment. The army also helped transport audiotapes, which were recorded in secret locations, to the radio transmitters.

GRAFFITI – The Czechs made good use of graffiti to make the invaders feel unwelcome. They hung posters and used chalk or paint to apply anti-Soviet slogans to the walls of buildings. A common activity was to climb on a tank while it was stopped at a traffic light and paint a swastika on it.

Some slogans seen in Prague:

“Why bother to occupy our State Bank? You know there is nothing in it.”

“United States in Vietnam, Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia.”

“Leonid, send 10 more tanks—20 more counter-revolutionaries arrived here today.”

“An elephant can not swallow a hedgehog.”

THE UNDERGROUND PRESS – The Czechoslovakians, using printing presses and mimeograph machines (photocopiers were unheard of in 1968), published leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers right under the noses of the occupiers. Soviet troops shot some kids who were distributing clandestine newspapers. Hundreds of people attended their funerals.

LOST IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA – Traveling in Czechoslovakia was a nightmare for the Warsaw Pact troops. The Czechs had removed street signs and painted over building address numbers. Many small villages renamed themselves “Dubcek” or “Svoboda.” In rural areas it was not uncommon to see a troop convoy stalled at a crossroad, the commander scratching his head over an open map.