When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in the night from August 20-21 1968, the Czechoslovak Radio building was one of the first places that they tried to bring under control. In the process the building was damaged, several people were killed and dozens injured. Broadcasts went on in secret for several days, keeping the world informed of what was really happening, initially from within the building itself, and then from other locations in the city, using mobile studios and transmitters.
The story of how radio staff defied the invaders is well known, but what we hear far less often is what happened at the radio in the weeks and months that followed. The answer may come as a surprise. Almost within days, things went back to normal. Once the Soviets had bullied the Czechoslovak leadership into accepting the invasion, their next step was to create the illusion that nothing very drastic had happened. At the radio this meant that initially no-one was sacked or purged and people just went back to their jobs. And it was just at this time, literally days after the invasion, that a 24-year-old Englishwoman started working here at Radio Prague. Her name was Liz Skelton, and a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to record an interview with her as she revisited the building where she had worked 40 years before. She began by telling me how she came to be in Prague at such an extraordinary moment.
“Well, it was a little impulsive. I had a friend in England who was half Czech and half English, and when the Russians invaded in August of 1968, he had to make a significant decision, which was whether to come back to live in Czechoslovakia, with the risk that he couldn’t leave again, or stay in England. He decided to come back and I decided to come with him, not knowing how long I would end up staying. I thought I might be here for a few weeks. It was impulsive, but it turned out to be a very interesting time. I ended up staying for nearly two years.”
And this was in fact just after the Soviet invasion, so it was a time of great uncertainty and concern here in Czechoslovakia. Nobody had the faintest idea what was going to happen…
“No, they didn’t at all and nor did I, obviously, and I was very politically naïve. I was 24 years old in 1968 and really had very little knowledge of what could happen walking into a communist country at the time. We drove here and crossed the border about five days after the invasion, and there were tanks quite visible. We arrived in the dead of night and I wondered what on earth I had come to. It was very dark and bleak, and actually in the first couple of nights you could hear tankfire or gunfire, there were still some skirmishes going on until things settled down a bit.
“In the following months there were a lot of demonstrations, there were some very interesting pictures that I actually smuggled out of the country for a fellow called Josef Koudelka, who is very famous now, I gather. He took photos of the crowds climbing up on tanks and, I guess, yelling at these young Soviet soldiers, who were rather offended, because they thought they had come in to save everybody and in fact they had got a very, very unfriendly reception.”
And how about the radio? You started working at Radio Prague. How did that come about? It was a time when the Soviets wanted to clamp down on Radio Prague and there had even been fighting outside this building.
“That’s true. Let me tell you first how I came to work here. Pavel, who was my boyfriend at the time, had worked in the English section of Radio Prague before he had gone to England for six months, so when he came back, he wanted to continue to work part time at the radio. He was actually studying, doing a degree at Charles University, but as a part time employee he had worked at the radio. When we came up to see his former colleagues, I was asked if I had ever had any broadcasting experience, because they needed another voice in the English section. I said I certainly hadn’t had any broadcasting experience, but they said, ‘Let’s do a mic test.’ So they put me in front of a microphone. At the time I had a much more British accent than I now have, as I’ve lived in North America for a long time. They said, ‘That’s fine. We’ll give you a job.’
“So I started to work here part time. I read the news, I had a weekly programme with a lovely fellow called Franta Fröhlich, where we just chatted about local happenings and I introduced a few concerts. But interestingly Dubček was still in power at the time and there was still virtually no censorship for quite a long time. The news broadcasts were, as far as I remember, very truthful, there was no propaganda. I think there was still a lot of optimism, despite the fact that the Soviets had rolled in the tanks. I think people were still very rebellious and not accepting at all the idea of going back to the old regime. So for a long time broadcasting was absolutely unfettered.”
I believe it was really in the spring of 1969 that the screw began to tighten and many people were sacked. Do you remember that time as well?
“I do. It became rather grim and got to a point where people started to mistrust each other a bit. You weren’t quite sure who you could confide in…”
“I was, and I have to admit I had to stop doing that. I had to start refusing to read some of the news items. My parents were back in England and somewhat masochistically listening to me every night….”
They must have been a little worried….
“They were very worried. My mother in particular was worried that I was going to be spirited away by the Russians and never seen again, which was probably a possibility, but at my age and naïve as I was, it didn’t really cross my mind that that could happen. But it did get to a point where I really couldn’t work here any more. Eventually in fact I was summoned by the police to have what you could describe as an interrogation – although it was not really. They didn’t threaten me with anything, but they actually said I shouldn’t have been working at the radio all that time because I came in on a student visa and I wasn’t technically allowed to work. So they basically said that I couldn’t work at the radio any more. In a way I was relieved that I couldn’t because it was getting to a point where I couldn’t broadcast much of what was put in front of me.”
We are now sitting in a studio in the new radio building, which is just behind the old building where you were working. This is all very hi-tech and modern. It must have been quite different in the late ‘60s.
“Obviously everything was much less hi-tech and we had those old tape recorders – reels and reels of tape, which occasionally went wrong, the tape broke and it all ended up on the floor. The editing was literally cutting and pasting. Everything was done more slowly. There were no computers and I don’t think there were many copies kept of recordings: in fact it would be lovely to find a recording from back then.”
Unfortunately we haven’t found any recordings of you from that time, which is a great shame…
“It was fun. It was a bit nerve-wracking for me having never done anything like that before. Probably, if I were to listen to a recording from back then I would be terribly embarrassed, because I think my voice was very flat, I had no acting experience. Someone once told me that I sounded rather like the Queen, which I don’t consider a great compliment as she has rather a monotonous voice.”
You certainly don’t sound like the Queen now!
“I think my accent has been corrupted a little.”
At the time the English section was much bigger than it is now. Today there are eight people in the section, plus freelancers. It was a much bigger operation then.
“Yes, it was a fairly major operation.”
It was at the height of the Cold War, but from what you’re saying the atmosphere seems to have been very relaxed.
“It was for about a year. I think that was totally a reflection of the Prague Spring, when people were so excited all of a sudden to have a taste of the Western way of life. It wasn’t at all what I imagined living in a communist country would be, but then I came at the best possible time. But by the time I left in early 1970 people were getting rather reticent to confide in others, the political conversations were fewer and farther between. It was a much less open society generally.”
You managed to stay on at Radio Prague until the end of 1969, but you didn’t go back home immediately.
“No, I didn’t leave Czechoslovakia until probably the spring of 1970. I taught English to a group of people who I think were then in what was called the Ministry of Industry, and I don’t remember how I got that job, but I did teach English. A couple of times I flew across the country to Slovakia and taught a group of businessmen English, which yet again was something which I had no experience in. So my whole time in Czechoslovakia was doing things that I had no training in at all!”
Eventually you decided to leave.
“I did. I don’t think anybody really kicked me out of the country, but it came to a point where I almost felt guilty being here with the friends that I had, who were Czech and simply didn’t have the freedoms that I had to walk in and out. I knew that I could always leave when I wanted to, because I had a British passport. It was becoming a bit depressing to be in this environment.”
At that time were you still with your Czech-English boyfriend?
“Actually we had gone our separate ways as a couple, but we were still friends, and when I left he was still here. But he did actually want to leave. He had a British and a Czechoslovak passport, but as long as he was in Czechoslovakia he was considered to be Czech. He wanted to get out and go to England. I was able to arrange that for him, once I was back in England, by putting together a bunch of documents, most of which I forged – with a lot of fancy-looking sealing wax and stamps on them and flourishing signatures, the essence of which was that we were going to get married in England. That was one of the only reasons which would justify an exit visa from Czechoslovakia at the time. So I sent all these things to Pavel, and he was actually able to get out of the country on the pretext that he was going to be marrying me in England. He later got a job at the BBC and – from what you tell me – he worked there until quite recently.”
And you didn’t stay in England…
“No. About six months later I actually went to Canada and ended up staying in Canada for ten years and then went off to New York for ten years and ended up staying in North America.”
And you didn’t follow a career in broadcasting. You studied law.
“Yes, I gave up broadcasting. I don’t think it was really a career that was meant for me in the first place. I don’t think it was really my forte!”
How does it feel to be coming back, to be seeing these places that you haunted forty years ago?
“It’s wonderful actually. I think it’s thrilling to see what’s happened to Prague. Prague was really a beautiful but bleak city under communism, and it is just gorgeous now. The buildings have been restored, the economy is booming and it’s really a delightful place to be. I would love to come back and spend quite a few weeks here. I’m wandering around looking at places I used to hang out in, and it’s amazing how everything has developed. It was always a beautiful city, but it had never been allowed to flourish.”
So, Liz Skelton, thank you very much indeed for coming back into the studio after all these years. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.
“Thank you for having me here, and thank you for helping me try to find a recording. Maybe we’ll come up with something eventually. It’s lovely to be here.”
And if any of our listeners happen to have recordings of our broadcasts from late 1968 or 1969 at home, do have a listen, and if you do come across Liz Skelton’s voice, we’d be delighted if you could send us a copy.