In the Army

In the Army: Meetings With Remarkable People - Memoirs of Voyen Koreis
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The first day


A couple of weeks later I was on the early morning bus to Prague, which left at an ungodly hour of 4 am. The previous afternoon I had played my last football match for the local club Spartak. We won 2-1, and I scored the winning goal! I was a bit tired, but I thought that I had four hours in front of me in which I could recuperate. If only I could sleep! Thought after thought went through my head, all about what might be awaiting me. I knew that I wasn't half bad as a crooner, but would the Army want anything like that? As far as I knew, the entertainment they usually provided was in the much admired Soviet style, the Cossack dances, propagandist songs, and similar, all such things were usually presented in a rigid style. This left me wondering how I could fit in.

In the pub, while celebrating the match win, my goal, and generally holding a party on the night before my departure, all at once, I was getting some advice from other players, and some older friends, who had all had the experience of having done their army service. This accounted for practically every male present, because to avoid being drafted you had to have a pretty good reason, something that the physically fit football players could hardly conjure up in front of the drafting commission.  So I was learning what the military service would be like ─ and it was hardly anything to look forward to! One of the guys, named Mirek, had only come back from the Army the previous year, and now he’d been describing those horrors that awaited me quite vividly, sending the cold shivers down my spine.

"As soon as you get there, the shouting will begin. And I mean shouting; within half an hour you'll be deaf!"

"The officers will shout at us?"

"Come on! You won't see any officers at all, except maybe a sergeant or two. The corporals, those who have signed up!"

"What do you mean: signed up?"

"They're the special kind, the wily guys who've found out in time that they're useless for any honest work, so they've signed up at the end of their two years, and stayed in the Army. They've just got their stripes, and they have to show the world what sort of brassy fellows they are."

"Is it that bad?"

 "Worse than you could imagine. First of all you'll all have to strip naked."

"Well, we had to do that at the drafting."

"Yeah, but that was only for a while. This time they might leave you like that for hours!"

"Why would they do that?"

"Just to humiliate you, I couldn't see any other reason. Next they're going to shave your heads completely, for the same reason, no doubt. After that they'll be throwing pieces of uniform at you, no matter if it fits or not, you'll have to swap them between yourselves later. But the real hell will come in the morning, when the bell rings!”

Other veterans present got in their bits, and soon they all had been trying to outdo each other with the horror stories that they have lived through while in the Army. I was thus thoroughly prepared for the ordeal that was now awaiting me.  The bus dropped me near the centre of Prague, from where tram number 22 took me to the square named Pohořelec. A large building was looming just opposite the traffic island. It looked like some old military barracks from the 19th century, which it was, as I found out later. The number displayed next to a tall but rather narrow gate agreed with what it said on my draft note. I wondered how they got through the gate, which opened up to a narrow passage through the front part of the building in the previous century, with the carriages pulled by horses. There must have been some good coachmen around, no doubt.

It was Monday the 3rd September 1962, I was in the right place on the correct date, albeit a little early. Slightly puzzling was that date. So far as I knew, the military machine worked rigidly around only two dates, the 1st of August for the aforementioned border units, and 1st of October for the rest. Regardless of which day it fell on, even Sunday. But the date agreed, and the deadline was at noon, and it was still only about 9 o'clock. Surely, I can't be the only draftee on the day! Small wonder that all was quiet, with no one on the horizon, I said to myself. No one would be too keen on entering the gate to Hades before the time is ripe, that's for sure! But where else could I go? The pubs would all be closed; hardly any would open before 10 am. And what would I do there, anyway? Have a beer? I had enough of that the previous night, even now I was slightly worried that it might still be detectable in my breath and could trigger off some of that dreaded shouting! Well, somebody has to be the first. The gate was open and beckoned; I had walked through the narrow passageway. From somewhere in the building I could hear the sound of a trumpet playing the scales, someone was also fiddling on the violin at the other end. A nice idyll. No shouting. No corporals with loud voices. Could it last?

The former
                      barracks where the Ensemble had its base and
                      rehearsal rooms
The building at top, overseeing the Pohořelec Square, is the former barracks, where the Ensemble had its base and rehearsal rooms


The buildings surrounded a courtyard that was about 40 x 25 metres, on all its sides. I idled through it, until I found a door that bore obviously a hastily prepared sign, stating that the recruits should enter here. I did, and found myself in a corridor that had apparently run along the narrower side around the whole building, with many doors leading to individual rooms. Near the door there was a table with an officer of sorts sitting by it, looking comfortable. I was not able yet to read the shoulder boards; if I had I would have known that his rank was that of a captain. I could tell however, that it was a fairly high rank, not that of a sergeant or similar, which was what one would have expected to be receiving new recruits. He acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head, even before I could decide what sort of a greeting I should use. In the end I had mumbled something, but the captain was already asking me for the drafting paper. I gave it to him, he compared it with something he had on the table, and satisfied he asked me to sign some form, which I did. He then pointed to a staircase leading down, into the basement, and told me to go there, where I will find the storeroom. They are going to fit me with the military uniform there. In the storeroom I found two people, one a soldier in uniform, the other an elderly civilian in a beige overcoat, such as worn by store-men.

"Hello," said the soldier with a smile. "I'm Pavel, this is Mr Kopecký. He's in charge."

Mr Kopecký too gave me a smile. The script I had received the previous night was obviously quite inaccurate. No one was shouting. The soldier, apparently old stager, was not showing any grudge towards me, a raw recruit, which was supposed to be the case. As a rule, old hands or the second year soldiers in the army, would make life hell to the fresh recruits. These in turn would pass it on to the next generation. This was something that everyone knew was going on; it was an iron cast law. Yet, this fellow was behaving towards me like I were a normal human being. Was I in the right place? Now he said:

    "You're the first today, but shortly they'll come in draws."

    "How many?"

    "About thirty five. To replace those who have just left. Which instrument are you playing?"

    "I'm not playing any. I'm a singer."

    "A singer? That's what I did."

    "Did you?

    "Yep. Until the shit hit the fan."

    "What happened?"

    "You'll find out soon enough. In any case, I got sent to Benešov."

    "Why to Benešov?"

    Pavel just showed a sour face. The answer came from Mr. Kopecký.

    "That's where the offenders are being sent to. Our main store is there. Someone else has now been sent there, and Pavel will be with me, this year."

Kopecký was the stage master, as I found out later, and normally he would be in charge of three stage hands. Two had gone home though, and another two would replace them today. Pavel was disciplined for some theft, as he was a mere soldier he could not be degraded, but had lost his status as a singer and was shifted to Benešov. That I found out later. Now he was a stage hand, and had another year ahead of looking after the microphones, etc. Better than being with a tank squad, anyway, as he later told me. Kopecký, who was acting as a couturier on the day only, had taken measurements of me, then they both brought me the pieces of uniform and other military paraphernalia. First came the concert uniform. It looked splendid, exactly like the ones the officers had been wearing, except that the shoulder marks were void of any stripes or stars. Before long I was standing there, in a posh uniform, still hardly believing what was happening to me. I couldn't resist asking:

"Is this the Army, or have I gone to a wrong place?"

"It's the Army alright, as you'll find out soon enough. But mainly, you're in the show business. And we are here today to make sure that you'll look at least half decent on the stage."

Kopecký was right. I was in show business, just like that! Even this morning I was going to be a member of the defence forces of our socialistic motherland. That hadn't changed, but I liked the idea of being in show business better. My civilian clothes were packed into a parcel, to be sent to my home address. Other future members of our show business fraternity had now begun to drift in, one by one. The captain in the corridor told me to hang around until there were enough of us to go to our future digs. So we were going to be accommodated elsewhere. In an hour or so there were about ten of us, each hanging on to a box containing other bits and pieces, including things that we would never wear, like foot rags, which however were part of the standard equipment we all had to receive and sign for. We were allowed to wear with the uniform an ordinary civilian pair of low shoes with socks, so long as they were of a brown colour. The white foot rags would not go with them very well, but we were to have them, if only symbolically, and on leaving the Army we would have to return them. From time to time one would run into similar things, usually slightly, in some cases even blatantly, absurd, just to remind us that, after all, we were in the army.

A guy approached us, with one stripe on his shoulders, as I were to find out he was the only one amongst us ─ the conscripts ─ with any rank, albeit the lowest, that of a lance corporal. He looked uneasy. His name was Rudolf Šťastný, and he was just named the ealding, or the commander of us; conscripts. The company, as a rule, had to have someone in charge on the lowest level, and who else should be appointed than the oldest of the conscripts. Poor Rudolf was 29, full ten years older than I. He had studied at the Conservatory, later he entered the University, and had had his compulsory army service postponed about ten times. However, he had not had a chance of avoiding it; something that was unheard of in the times of socialist government in the former Czechoslovakia. For this, one would have to be missing a limb, or have a similar severe disability. In the two years I have been there, I ran into people who were half blind, but the Army still found some work for them to do... Šťastný was a violin player, and in the first year of his military service he was in an accident, when the van that carried a smallish group of musicians had overturned. Rudolf hurt his hand rather badly, fortunately it was the one he held the bow in, not the other one that does the business with the strings. As it was, it took several months of recuperation, but in the end he was able to play again. He was to eventually become the leader of the Moravian Quartet, one of the world's top small ensembles.

                  palác, the seat of the Czecj Foreign Ministry
Černínský palác, the seat of the Czech Forign Ministry

The ealding made us form a double file, quite obviously for the benefit of the captain who was watching us and him in particular, and we poorly marched away. As soon as we got through the passage and out of the captain’s sight, he told us to break the file, so that from there on we moved on like normal human beings. Going down the Pohořelec, we passed the house where my great grandfather the Protector of the Imperial Waterworks used to live, then the Černínský palác and the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs, where only a dozen or so years earlier my father had his base. Opposite is the Loreta church, with its world-famous glockenspiel, and next to it the complex holding the Kajetán Monastery, to which we had taken the side door. It had turned out to be our destination.

The former monastery had several tenants, one of them being lodgings for members of a branch of the infamous Secret Police, a fact that was well known, but not spoken about aloud, only in a whisper. There was a small cloister and ambit attached, perhaps 15 metres square, with our accommodation, consisting of three large rooms together with some corridors leading up to the amenities. There was a common room in the middle, where each of us had his locker; it also had the TV set, some cookers, etc. The other two of the rooms served as the dormitories, one for the first year, the other for second year conscripts. So there was some segregation, after all! As it turned out, the relationship between the two classes of soldiers, which was supposed to be so awkward practically everywhere, was restricted to only a few little things. The second year men for instance did not expect to do the so called "rayons", which meant sweeping the floors, maintaining the showers and toilets, etc. They did that the previous year. Because we were not going to spend much time here, other than the rehearsal time mainly in the beginning, this was not to be anywhere near as significant as it was with the regular army units. Our party had the first pick of thirty or so beds, some single, as well as bunk beds. I had chosen a single one, where I had to place the mattress we had received, and on it the box with the stores, to mark it as having been taken.

Pohořelec, up and down which our daily

Loreta church, with its world-famous glockenspiel on right, entrance to our dormitory was through the arched  gate to the monastery on left.

As soon as we did all this, the word reached us that we were to go back to the barracks. Walking through the Pohořelec arcade, we had met another group going down. The officer at the table was still there ─ we had asked him what to do next. The answer was a surprising one.

"First of all, go to the office over there, they'll give you money. Then you can go to lunch."

"And where do we go for lunch, comrade Captain?" The inquirer obviously could interpret his rank from the arrangement of four golden stars on the officer's shoulders, which was a puzzle to me. I had to find out about this, I had determined.

"That's up to you. Walking down towards the Malostranské square, there are some very nice restaurants, the winery next to Loreta is a particularly good one, with an excellent chef. But perhaps I would recommend you the tavern round the corner towards Břevnov. It's only third class, but the food there is quite good."

As we walked towards the office, I had asked one of my new colleagues, who with his dark rimmed glasses looked like he might be in a know-how, who turned out to be a baritone-saxophone player, if it was true about the restaurant lunch. I wasn't quite sure if the captain did not just make fun of us.

"Of course we go there. Or would you have expected them to be running a mess hall here for the few of us, who'd be on the road most of the time anyway?"

That was the good news, and others were to follow. Judging from what they paid us in the office, I had deduced that I was going to be better off than when I was working as technical controller in the factory making electrical chargers; my last regular job. We had been getting 24 koruny a day as a kind of retainer, which wasn't bad in the times when one could buy a decent meal for about 5 koruny. Add to it the soldier's regular pay of about 120 koruny a month. There was also the so called artistic bonus, of about 300 koruny. Because I was classed as a soloist, I had about an extra 150 koruny. If I were a dancer I would have been paid even more, because dancers are expected to burn more calories. Occasionally there were some TV or radio performances or recordings, where we would be getting half the normal rate, while the other half was swallowed by the military Hydra. In all, I had been getting about 1300 koruny a month, an amount upon which in the early sixties the budget of a small family would have been based. In addition, I did not have to worry about accommodation or clothing and further, transport and many cultural or sporting events would cost only a half! But as so often happens, many of us still didn't manage!

After the lunch costing about 5 koruny, washed down by a pint of beer for 1.40 koruny, all new members of the ensemble had assembled in one of the rehearsal rooms, to listen to the speech by the Chief Commander Lieutenant Colonel František Říčka. The great man had made an appeal to us, saying that we must cherish the trust that the people had put into us by electing us to be the entertainers of the Army units, which protect all of us from the evil forces of NATO. He expressed his conviction that we are going to be up to the task, and that being the true sons of the working class we will not let the people, who have put their trust into us, down. And so on, for about ten minutes. Before he walked away, the Lieutenant Colonel had introduced Captain Váňa, the officer we had already met. He was going to be our immediate superior officer. The motivational speech of this man was rather different:

"Comrades, you are all grown up men, you are experienced, you all are musicians and artists, comrades. This is your expertise, your profession, comrades. This is why you're here, comrades soldiers, you are here to entertain other comrades soldiers. Never forget this, comrades! Of course, you'd be going to various places to perform, that would be your main task, comrades, to perform in front of other comrades soldiers, comrades! With what you will be doing, comrades, playing, singing, dancing, comrades, I will have nothing to do. I'm here, comrades soldiers, to make sure that you, soldiers of the Czechoslovak Peoples' Army are going to conduct yourselves in accordance to that, comrades! That's what I am here for, comrades. I'm a reasonable man, comrades, and I expect that you too have reason in your heads, comrades. Do we understand each other, comrades? I think we do. We are not going to piss on each other’s chests, or are we, comrades?"

The last sentence he repeated a couple of times, in slightly different words, but in similar racy way. I was not quite sure what he meant, and I probably wasn't the only one present. But gradually, over the next few days, I had been getting the meaning of the Captain's speech, particularly when the Cuban Missile Crisis came, which wasn't far away. The Captain was worried that we might abuse the freedom that we would be getting. He was really telling us that he would be willing to close an eye here and there, so long as we do not overdo it so much that it would impact on his position. The poor Captain found himself between two mill stones, really! He was expected to maintain order in his troops, but he wasn't in a position of power, not at all. He was in reality fully dependant on us, and his task was almost impossible. The Army needed entertainers, so the troops could let off the steam, and that morals would be kept up. The Army needed entertainers, comedians, singers, dancers, etc. There aren't all that many around. Certainly, not all the talented people had the luck we were blessed with, of ending up with the company like ours. There definitely was an element of luck present, as I saw it then. Nowadays, I'm not so sure ─ I'm more convinced that we make our own luck. The number of good entertainers for the Army was nevertheless limited. Soon I had discovered that amongst my new colleagues there were some who already had a reputation, some who were getting to be known by general public. Some remarkable people, for certain! On the other hand, there would have been scores of badly educated, half-literate officers, who could do nothing other than wear their uniforms, salute, and stumble through some speeches, but who would immediately jump at the chance of travelling with the Ensemble. It had meant to them getting good money for expenses, a solid accommodation in hotels, and all the perks that our Captain had. This was the position that he wanted to hang onto at all costs. Therefore, he was prepared to make an unholy pact with us, not to piss at each other’s' chests, which meant that we would not go into any great extravagances. The comrade Captain would then be prepared to close an eye, or even both his eyes!   


Life in the Ensemble


About a half of the soldiers came from Prague, and most of them naturally preferred to sleep in their own beds at home, rather than in the crowded dormitory. Typically, they were in their early to mid-twenties, while regular conscripts the Army drafted at nineteen. Most of them had studied at the Conservatory, often followed by the University, called the musical academy, AMU in Prague or JAMU in Brno, and had the date of beginning of their service postponed, often several times. The Conservatory used to take seven years of study, and after the introduction of the University courses it was reduced to five. Minimum requirements for being accepted was the completion of the primary school, at 14, later at 15 years of age. Not many young musicians would get through the entry exams on their first attempt; often they would begin their studies at 16 or 17 years of age, even later. Add five years of study. Add another three to four years at the academy, and you'll truly be in your mid-twenties, at least. Thus nearly all of my new colleagues were several years older than I, who had entered the Army at the regular age of 19. Beside myself, only another singer, who was at the beginning of a stellar career (as we would see), one or two talented amateur musicians, and a couple of technicians, were of the normal conscription age of 19. There was a lot to be learned from much older guys ─ at that age the difference in years was even more pronounced and significant.

It didn't take long to the inhabitants of Prague to resume sleeping at their homes. They simply followed the example of the seasoned second year warriors. The Capitan must have known about it, there was little doubt about that. Any lingering ones were dispelled when our ealding Rudolf went first to the Praguers, then to the rest of us, one by one, with the tip that the Captain was going to pay us an "unexpected" visit first thing in the morning on the following day. The man had "accidentally" let the information slip through in front of him. Technically, we were subjects to the normal military rules, which called for the reveille at 6 am, and lights-out at 10 pm. That, of course, was never adhered to; it sufficed that we were all at the rehearsal room by 9 am, when we went through the military routine of formation and the usual chivvying by the Captain. This time, he would be at the dormitory by 6 am, Rudolf had insisted. And he was right. Only, the Captain was about half an hour late, probably just to make sure that everybody would be in. And everybody was there. A few chicken shits among the Prague residents had even slept in the dormitory, most simply took their tram a couple of hours earlier. Of course, when the Cuban Crisis came about six weeks into our military stint, it was a different story.

Our first and only basic military training took place in the first week and lasted almost exactly 15 hours. A non-commissioned petty officer was invited from a nearby regular army unit, who for three hours between 2 and 5 pm Tuesday to Saturday worked on us in the courtyard, giving us the necessary instructions. He taught us how to make formation, how to march and, most important of all, how to salute anyone ranked higher than us, which meant everybody in a uniform from corporal to general. This, in Prague particularly, was an absolute must. When one walked on any frequented street, one kept meeting officers every few steps. Most did not bother much, and would only acknowledge your salute in a lax way, but there were still many, particularly those recently promoted, who took great pleasure in showing you who is the boss. On top of this, there were the military patrols. They usually consisted of two second year soldiers, one of them often already ranked a lance corporal, accompanied by a lieutenant or similar. It wasn't advisable letting yourself into their hands, which is what an improperly done salute could do for you. In addition, as soon as they realised that they had caught a "musician", as we were all known as, which was deducible from the badges in the form of a lyre THe
                      golden lyre, the symbol of our statuswe had on the lapel of our uniform, they rejoiced. We were known in the military apparatus as the biggest bludgers that had ever walked the surface of the Earth. As far as they were concerned, we never did anything useful; we never discharged any guns, in training or in anger, we didn't do any marching, any shouting, any digging of trenches, simply anything a decent soldier has to do. The golden lyre on the lapel of our uniform was the proof of this, without further discussion. If we didn't properly salute a patrol, we were dead meat!

After this first week we had to wait a few more days, until we were properly sworn in. Up till then, our movements were restricted officially to the general area of Pohořelec, the place of our present confinement. After the swear-in ceremony, we had received two important documents: a Military ID and an Outing Book. The first one simply carried the basic personal details, the other was more important. In a normal Army unit it was a pocket book size, with details and a number of empty pages. It would normally be locked up in the drawer in the office of the Commanding Officer. He would only give it out to the individual soldier in case of his being given permission for absence, usually in order to visit his family. An ordinary soldier couldn't expect to get this for many months during the first year of his service ─ it was meant to be a reward for good work and conduct. Nevertheless, we were in the special category, because we had our outing book with us permanently. This was made necessary by our having to feed ourselves, and our constant moving from one venue to another. Technically, our movements were restricted to the general area the Ensemble was currently in, meaning the same town or place, and also until 10 pm, but even that was not strict, as our performance followed by a drive to our base, wherever it might be on the night, would probably take us beyond such time limit. In short, everything was loose and subject to interpretation, nothing was chiselled out in stone. It was something unlike the Army at all, something an ordinary soldier could not even dream about!

For a visit home, however, a stamp of approval with the Commanding Officer's signature was needed. Apart from the regular holiday of two weeks that every soldier was entitled to, those serving at a normal unit might have been allowed one weekend leave, perhaps twice a year, the first one after at least six months of service. Our Captain was far more generous ─ if you went to ask him for a signature, you invariably got it, so long as your absence didn't interfere with any performing or rehearsing duties. We were privileged, indeed!

After about two weeks everything was running smoothly, and we were in the middle of rehearsing the main programme. That involved all of us, and we were due to go on the road with it early in November. Up until recently, the entertainment for the troops was run strictly along the Soviet lines, with the great shining example being the Alexandrov Ensemble or the Red Army Choir, with its orchestra, dancers in national costumes, the lot. Throughout the 1950s a similar ensemble was in operation based in Prague, and when we came it was still there, though a bit reduced in size. But the wise army men had decided to give it an opposition ─ we were to be it. Cossack dances and Russian dumka-songs were not a great success with the Czechs and Slovaks; that was obvious even to the most ardent followers of the Soviet Army culture. Entertainment was there to prop-up the sagging morals, and however spectacular, the Cossack dances did not do it. The original ensemble remained as a libation to the Gods of Marx-Leninism.

At the time of my arrival, the big choir was gone, and the Ensemble was functioning in the new form for about a year. Initially it would certainly have been considered an experiment, but obviously the all-important nods of approval must have come from the right places, for it to continue along these lines. Thus what would have been unthinkable only a couple of years earlier, was suddenly the reality; we had a Glen Miller-style big band, together with the Mantovani-style string orchestra. Altogether it would have been over fifty musicians on stage, if in the full cast during the gala performances. There were three of us singers, while a group of half a dozen actors provided some comic scenes. Several dancers also belonged to the Ensemble, as did the three stage hands. Two young men who had studied composition and consequently were particularly deft piano players, were used as the corepetitors for coaching us singers, etc. Thus far I have counted the conscripts, all of them either in their first or second year of service. However, there were other people belonging to the Ensemble. Apart from the Big Boss, the Lieutenant Colonel Říčka, there was his female assistant, a youngish redhead petty officer, who was rumoured to be his lover, and who strutted the place in the way that would certainly give substance to such grapevine. A Major, whose name I forgot, looked after the bookings, and was rarely seen as he travelled a lot. Three buses, two of them of an ordinary kind, one we called de-luxe, which carried the non-conscripts, and a large panel van for the props looked after by Mr Kopecky, with all the necessary drivers also on staff. I mustn't forget about the females. They were not numerous, there being only a pair of singers, a couple of actresses and three or four dancers, but they were always very popular with the male audience. One solitary mime, who performed in the clownish style of ever popular Marcel Marceau, also was there, to provide some variety.

 Finally, there was a curious group of six men, who were also civilian employees, who had been a bit of a mystery to the rest of us. They must have belonged to the old style ensemble, because they were quite obviously chorus singers, who as soloists weren't of much use. Their ages also made them stand out, they were much older than we were, one of them, who I was told once was a lawyer of sorts, even being over fifty. General suspicion was that they were as singers practically unemployable when the old system was abandoned, but for some reason they were kept in, perhaps in hope of making them the Czechoslovak Army answer to Mills Brothers, or something similar. Or the Army simply didn't have the guts to give them the sack. Whatever intentions there were with them, it was never going to work.

I sing my song of Havana

With Soviets the Cubans are one

Together they laugh while watching

Kennedy's troops on the run!


With hammer and sickle now forming their sign

Seeing the cosmonauts fly into yonder

The Cubans are saying there's no end to wonder

Over Havana the red star will shine!

Isn't this a beauty? As far as motivational Army culture, this  "chastushka" is of a pretty high level. The melody was rather catchy ─ it was put together by one of the best renegade composers and propagandist text providers the regime had at its disposal. I have only translated the beginning, to give you an idea of what it was like for a young singer to try to make it during the communist regime. It simply couldn't be avoided, and I had to sing this song almost every night for about six months. Of course, it appeared after the famous Cuban Crisis, which kicked in about six weeks after the beginning of my army life. The song came out of the workshop of the two established authors, Jan Fuchs and Vlastimil Pantůček (no relation to Zbyšek Pantůček, of whom I will write later, so far as I could establish). They were indeed a pair of true professionals of the propaganda song, who also coined another classic that we were singing with a small choir:

Cuba si, Yankee no,

ne, lid neprodá svou kůži lacino...

(...people will not give up their hides cheap...)

Usually, such songs had a pleasant or downright catchy melody, and at their cradle often stood names of the top composers or poets. Basically, I was what in the politically correct jargon of the Communists would be called “a reactionary”, a person who was against the regime. Naturally, I had to hide this very carefully, otherwise I would be serving my term with the “blacks”, which were the auxiliary units made of soldiers not to be trusted with any arms, only with picks and shovels. Still, it was a chore having to sing such propaganda songs, which I didn't enjoy. My mother’s education helped me here, also the survivor instinct. I don’t think that I was the only one feeling this way in the company; in fact the majority felt this way, of that I’m quite sure. But they knew that being an open rebel would mean ending up with one of the black units, perhaps with their precious sensitive fingers damaged from working with picks and shovels, and their references forever tarnished. So staying quiet was the preferable option. Fortunately, sometimes I had better pieces to sing, and with the big band behind my back, and that was a real joy! I doubt that today's interpreters of "pop music" do get anything like this ─ they don't know it, because they never had the experience ─ but in my opinion at least, having the natural sound of brass instruments, rather than sound generators that the electric guitars are, simply gives you the goose bumps. It happens even now, I get those goose bumps even when I’m just thinking about it, let alone writing about it!


Ludvík Podéšť


Ludvík Podéšť, composerThe big boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Říčka, called me into his office first thing one morning.

“Koreis, you’re not required for the rehearsals this morning, are you?”

 “I don’t suppose so, comrade Colonel.”

 “I need you to run a little errand. There’s going to be a late addition to the programme, a new song  by Ludvík Podéšť. We can consider ourselves most honoured, having this famous comrade write songs for us, wouldn’t you say?”

 “I most certainly would, comrade Colonel.”

It would have been near impossible not to know of Ludvík Podéšť. He composed some classical music on the side, but what had made him exposed were his politically engaged songs promoting optimistic visions of the Czechoslovak communist regime, used exclusively for propaganda purposes by the State. During the fifties, they were belted by the radio daily, and there was no escaping them. Originally known as "častuška", this form of song was imported from Russia, where it had developed after the communist revolution. Its roots are in the Russian satirical folk poetry. Under the communism, its unifying theme became building of the socialistic paradise, the lyrics were meant to be topical, as suggested by the word itself, which can also loosely be translated from the Russian as song of the time. The haste with which this new song was being brought in suggested to me that it would certainly have something to do with the Cuban crises, which was in full swing. The Colonel continued:

“Comrade Bayerle says that if the song is to be properly rehearsed, he must have it here by this afternoon. By the way, he suggested that you should sing it. If I send you now to the residence of comrade Podéšťs to pick it up, it would serve two purposes. It would get here in time, and you’d also have the chance to look at it while you’re riding on the tram. Here’s the address, do you know how to get there?”

 “I’m not quite sure, comrade Colonel…”

 “The tram number two from here, change to eleven at Klarov, go to the end, but then best ask some locals where to go from there. I’ll come to the rehearsal this afternoon; I want to hear how you going to make with that song. It is most important, especially in these times, and we must make sure that everybody knows which side of the river we’re shooting from!"

The latter sounded almost like a threat, but I knew by now that it was just one of the Colonel’s favourite phrases. During the bumpy ride in the old tram carriage through the streets of Prague, I wondered what the famous composer might be like. I had only personally known one composer of music, a certain Mlejnek, an elderly man with strikingly long grey hair worn in the Paganini style and with aristocratic manners, who owned a cottage near the tower of the ski-jumping hill in my hometown. Sometimes, piano tunes were being heard from within its walls, when the Maestro came from Prague to his summer retreat, presumably to work on some new composition. Judging from the reverence with which the Colonel pronounced the composer’s name, this celebrity would most likely occupy some rumbling villa on the edge of town, where he could live quietly and in a relaxed manner, while engaging himself in the activities of composing music to be enjoyed by the masses of workers working on ensuring the happy tomorrows for our children! To my great disappointment, Podéšť’s residence turned out to be a disappointingly mediocre flat on the fourth floor of a large apartment house, the type of which was surreptitiously known as the “rabbit hutch”, situated in one of the newer suburbs.

            After I walked up the four flights of stairs and rung the bell on the door, a rather homely woman opened the door. A grubby looking small child was hanging onto her skirt, while two more children of pre-school age were peeping through the door at the end of a short corridor. Podéšť’s appearance also fell short of my expectations, though I was never quite sure what a songwriter and a protégé of the communist regime should look like. Perhaps in his early forties, with the greying curly hair and a friendly disposition, he would have fitted perfectly into some office of a government department, rather than behind the keyboard of a piano. At least his study, where he had invited me, looked more like a musician’s room, with sheets of notepaper scattered everywhere, covering the piano, two stools, even the top of the wardrobe. The study was small, like all rooms in the standardised apartment block built entirely with cement panels. If he uses the piano a lot while composing his songs, that would have a potential of driving the neighbours behind these paper-thin walls crazy, I said to myself. Especially if they are also forced to listen to him while humming those propagandist lyrics. But a quick glance around showed me that apart from the propaganda songs, some serious work was also being done here. The titles of books and musical scores suggested this to me.

 “Can’t offer you a place to sit on, sorry about that, but you have to go back anyway, don’t you? Just give me a minute, I’ll make sure that everything’s there.”

So this is what you get for being a brown nose, I thought. A relatively small flat in an apartment building in the outer suburb, a wife with a bundle of kids, maybe a car, but hardly anything much better than the infamous Trabant. That’s not much to show for years of flunkeyism. Is this worth all the troubles? But who knows, maybe this myrmidon of the regime lives a double life, and owns a cute country cottage somewhere by the river Sázava, where he takes his mistresses, entertains his companions, throws up parties that develop into orgies. Over the years I had found out that there were many people who were seduced into believing that communism was the answer to everything that humanity needed. My own uncle, for instance, was one of them. Among the “useful idiots”, as someone had recently called them, were some brains that, in retrospection, one would think should have known better. An example: Milan Kundera, nowadays considered by many to be amongst the greatest novelists of the 20th century. When in his twenties, he was one of the "progressive" poets, and very much in the service of the regime. To read some of his poems from that period one could only do so with a smile on one's face, which would inevitably turn sour. He got over this phase in his artistic development, and in one of his novels he even has a character of young poet, based no doubt much on his younger self, whom he ridicules. To the degree that he makes this character fall to his death while on an erotic trip, balancing on the edge of a building, and in his underwear. Maybe, Podéšť too could have wised up, given the chance. Maybe he did, but it was too late. He died young, aged only 47, a mere six years after I had met him. His death came in 1968, the year the then Czechoslovakia went through a reformation process during the Dubček regime.

On the way back in the half empty tram carriage, I went through the envelope Podéšť gave me, finding amongst the various parts the sheet belonging to the vocalist. A quick glance convinced me that within its genre this was a real gem.