The Czech Supreme Court cancelled on Wednesday a 37-year-old verdict of a communist court which sent four young writers to jail for defamation of the Soviet Union and public disturbance. The four men, who spent up to a year in prison, got into trouble in the summer of 1973 in a Prague pub – when they sang an old song with slightly innovated lyrics.
A 19th century patriotic song called “On 6th July on the Walls of Strahov” celebrated the readiness of the Sokol sports movement to defend Prague against the invading Prussian army in 1866.
In the summer of 1973, five years after another army occupied the country, four friends met up for beer in U Plavců, a pub in central Prague that is still there today, and sang the tune with one innovation – they took away the letter “p” from Prussians. One of them was Ivan Jirous, who was the manager of the band Plastic People of the Universe at the time. He recalls what happened on that day.
“Among other tunes, we sang the song about Sokol on the walls of Strahov with updated lyrics that said something about driving the Russians to hell where they belong. At the next table, some guy told us we were dirty hippies, and we told him, ‘and you’re a bald Bolshevik.’ But it turned out he was a captain of the secret police, StB.”
The secret police officer had all of them arrested on the spot. Later that year, the four writers – Ivan Jirous, Jaroslav Kořán, Eugen Brikcius and Jiří Daníček – were charged with defamation of the Soviet Union and for public disturbance, and spent between eight months and a year in jail.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court cancelled the verdict arguing the communist judges were influenced by the ruling regime. The court said that the song about Russians was an expression of frustration with the Soviet occupation, rather than defamation of the Russian nation. Another member of the group, Eugen Brikcius, welcomed the verdict.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I think the ruling is self-evident. Even thought it was a joke, what we did back was a public declaration of disapproval with the restriction of freedom, a fundamental human right.”
What began as a joke over beer was a defining moment for the four. Ivan Jirous continued to stand up to the regime and spent another seven and a half years in prison where he wrote one of his most acclaimed books of poetry. Eugen Brikcius, who was jailed for eight months, later left the country and settled in Vienna. Jiří Daníček, who worked as a manual labourer until the fall of communism, later founded a publishing house and is now the head of the Czech Jewish communities’ federation. And Jaroslav Kořán, who translated Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan and other authors into Czech, eventually became Prague’s first post-communist mayor.
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