There is something beautiful about Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
Less a square than an expansive boulevard, Wenceslas Square is the city’s main drag. Unlike Prague’s Old Town — the city’s well-preserved and heavily toured medieval core — Wenceslas Square’s beauty isn’t readily apparent. It’s mostly undistinguished architecturally. It’s lined with a motley assortment of cheesy restaurants, strip clubs, and fast food establishments. On busy Saturday nights, it’s infested by feral British stag parties that roam from bar to bar.
The square’s beauty is rather a degree removed — in the context of changes that history brought only recently to this place and its people.
Before Wenceslas Square was what it is today, it was a national gathering point for upheaval against repression, a Cold War icon. In 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled on Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, Czechs showed up by the hundreds of thousands to protest. One of them was Jan Pallach, a 21-year old student who stoically burned himself to death right beneath the equestrian statue of the square’s namesake, King Wenceslas.
Pallach and the rest of the protesters did little to deter the Soviets in 1968. But when communism finally began to crumble twenty-one years later, crowds once again took to the square to usher it out. The triumphant moment came when Vaclav Havel, the disheveled intellectual and unlikely revolutionary, appeared on a balcony overlooking the square along with Alexander Dubček, the leader of the Prague Spring, to declare that the Communists would really have to leave this time. The old regime’s denouement in Wenceslas Square, along with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, helped lead to the eventual dismantling of the USSR itself.
That heroic history is still accessible in the square today, but just barely. To be apprised of it, you have to talk to older people — the ones who remember walking around a city that stayed dark at night for lack of electricity, and who know what it was like to step into grocery stores that had only potatoes for sale.
Such conditions are unthinkable in Prague today. What’s much more visible is how far along Prague has moved since those days of repression and heady revolution. A memorial to Pallach at the spot where he set himself aflame is now surrounded by a Vodafone shop, a KFC, a McDonald’s, and a Starbucks. Wenceslas Square, along with the city it belongs to, has slipped eagerly and blissfully past its past.
I came to Prague in September to work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an organization that — not unjustly — likes to believe it had something to do with the change. RFE is a wildly multilingual media organization funded by American taxpayer dollars. It was founded at the start of the Cold War to provide news broadcasts to the Communist states of Eastern Europe. Its sister organization, Radio Liberty (with which it later merged), was established to do the same for the Soviet Union. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages, doing roughly the same thing it always has under its motto, “Free Media in Unfree Societies.” The geography has changed somewhat—now RFE serves the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—but the essence of the mission has not.
Unsurprisingly, as a US government-funded venture, RFE has usually been dismissed by the governments of the nations to which it broadcasts as a purveyor of propaganda; it is occasionally described as such by commentators in the West.
RFE began as a quirky, off-book project of the CIA’s, envisioned by America’s founding generation of Cold Warriors — George Kennan, Allen Dulles, and others — as a productive outlet for politically minded exiles from the Eastern Bloc. The exiles would get radio studios and the opportunity to speak out against their home nations’ Communist rulers. Washington would fund and oversee the radio through a nominally independent Committee for a Free Europe. The committee’s board was comprised of the aforementioned Washington planners, and it solicited voluntary private donations (“Truth Dollars”) from the American people, even as it drew the bulk of its revenues secretly from the CIA.
For the first 20 years of its existence, RFE shamelessly obfuscated its relationship with the US government, and this cut two ways. Of course it was dishonest, and when the CIA connection was publicly acknowledged in 1971, it very nearly sank RFE; Congress decided then to keep it going by funding it directly and openly with taxpayer money.
But the apparent detachment from the US government, at least at the beginning, also helped to give RFE the room it needed to present itself as a news organization run by and for the foreign publics it served. And that image actually wasn’t dishonest: in practice, then and now, the individual language services at RFE operated as separate fiefdoms, very much guided by the internal dynamic of the exiles who made most editorial decisions.
This characteristic was critical to RFE’s relationship with its most loyal listeners, who emphatically saw the station as a domestic radio-in-exile, rather than a creature of the United States. Research among RFE listeners during the Cold War showed consistently that the station’s audience thought of the Radio first and foremost as a Polish or Hungarian or Bulgarian institution rather than an American one; this was the main way RFE differentiated itself from other foreign broadcasters—most importantly, the BBC and the Voice of America, which were seen to come from British and American points of view, respectively. RFE’s insistence on a local perspective, which it maintains steadfastly today, remains one of the Radio’s chief charms and strengths.
To further distance RFE from being marked as an American operation, and to put the company closer to its audiences, the station’s headquarters were moved to Munich quickly after broadcasting began. RFE’s patrons set the journalists up in considerable style, with expansive offices placed on the edge of Munich’s Englischer Garden, where RFE stayed until invited to move to Prague by Havel, now president of the land in which he had once been a prisoner, in 1995.
It is worth mentioning — not least because Havel, certainly one of the greatest political and literary figures of the twentieth century, has just passed away — that the man was a true believer in Radio Free Europe. Like countless other dissidents locked within the information blackout imposed on the Eastern Bloc, Havel took refuge on the islands of rational discourse provided over the airwaves by RFE and other international broadcasters.
When he was in a position to do so as president of the new Czech Republic, the artist-statesman returned the favor with a characteristically poetic gesture. He had his government lease the old Communist parliament building—a black Brutalist monstrosity on the periphery of Wenceslas Square—to RFE for use as its headquarters at the token rate of one Czech korun per year.
Havel was just one of many Eastern European leaders to feel that kind of affection for RFE. Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader whose Solidarity movement was decisive in bringing down the Polish Communist Party, was once asked what RFE’s Polish Service meant to him and to other Polish activists. “Would there be an Earth without the Sun?” Walesa asked rhetorically.
RFE’s unique ability to keep up the spirits of dissidents — to let them know that there was a world beyond the walls that was rooting them on — was noted and admired by leaders of all stripes after the Cold War’s end permitted them to talk freely about its influence.
In a 1998 speech, Romania’s then-president, Emil Constantinescu, said, “Radio Free Europe has been a lot more important than the armies and the most sophisticated missiles. The ‘missiles’ that destroyed Communism were launched from Radio Free Europe, and this was Washington’s most important investment during the Cold War. I don’t know whether the Americans themselves realize this now, seven years after the fall of Communism, but we understand it perfectly well.”
In his autobiography, Markus Wolf, East Germany’s longtime chief of foreign intelligence, put it almost identically: “Of all the various means used to influence people against the East during the Cold War, I would count Radio Free Europe as the most effective.”
The matter of RFE’s association with the CIA during the first two decades of its existence continues to hamper its reputation as a serious journalistic enterprise. (Unfairly, too, since during the Cold War the BBC also cooperated widely with Britain’s Foreign Office and intelligence services, and plenty—if not the bulk—of other quality news broadcasters around the world are state-funded.)
But that stigma totally misses the point, which is that RFE worked brilliantly. It wasn’t impartial, but it was unquestionably on the right side of history. And it did, in fact, produce real local-language journalism when that vital resource was in awfully short supply for millions of Eastern European and Soviet citizens.
It’s tempting to believe that RFE, by way of its association with the CIA, had its scripts handed to it by spooks. But the accounts of people who worked there in the days of its covert funding uniformly tell the different story of an institution where American managers actually had very little control over what the local language editors put on the air. Editorial second-guessing by executives was rare and ineffectual.
My own observations of RFE have suggested that this tradition is still very much intact. Coordination among the services—much less editorial dictation from Americans, who in RFE’s day-to-day existence are very much secondary players—is ramshackle and often impossible. RFE is and always has been a crazy patchwork of loosely affiliated media outlets with a rough commitment to liberal values, not a unified propaganda machine.
The continued existence of RFE is usually a surprise to those old enough to remember the USSR, the Berlin Wall and duck-and-cover drills. “That’s still around? Isn’t Europe free already?” True enough.
But the world still has plenty of places that aren’t, or that have only the most tenuous grasp on freedom. For these corners of the globe — from Armenia to Kosovo to Chechnya to Iran to Pakistan — the lonely fight to preserve rational discussion against the totalizing impulse of ideology goes on.
Last week a researcher from Human Rights Watch, Steve Swerdlow, came by RFE to discuss a new report on torture in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan — or, as Herman Cain has colorfully dubbed it recently, “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan” — is a human rights abuser par excellence whose most notorious accomplishment in the realm of the grotesque was to boil alive at least one political prisoner a few years ago.
The Human Rights Watch report was of some interest, since Swerdlow is the only foreign human rights activist in years to have been allowed to do field research inside the country. He spoke movingly about his interviews with torture victims and their families, lawyers, and local human rights workers — a small class of courageous souls willing to undergo an almost endless cycle of arrests and interrogations.
The Uzbek regime is more or less as bad as they come. Outside of perhaps North Korea, Burma, and Turkmenistan, you would be hard-pressed to find a more loathsome system of state repression.
The problem for RFE — and the Uzbeks — is that precious few people in the West really care one way or another about human rights in Uzbekistan. In a conversation with Swerdlow after his presentation at RFE, I mentioned how hard it must be for Human Rights Watch to grain traction with American audiences about the situation there. Swerdlow nodded his head. “My own dad doesn’t care too much about Uzbekistan,” he said.
The problem is simple. During the Cold War, America’s antagonism with the USSR and its allies meant that America’s concern for human rights in the Soviet sphere (if not always its concern for human rights in its own sphere) fitted neatly with US strategic priorities. It also gave elite and ordinary Americans a reason to learn about the Communists’ many human rights abuses.
Since that time, the picture has become awfully muddied. Uzbekistan is a fantastic example: sure, they torture people with boiling water, but they’re also the only ones other than the Pakistanis with a heavy-rail line into Afghanistan. And as America’s relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated over the past year, President Obama has spent more and more time cozying up to the Uzbek government. The strategic politics of supply routes trump the politics of liberty.
For an organization like RFE, it’s a reminder that, outside the bubbled confines of North America, Europe, and East Asia, the most important achievements of the Cold War remain unrealized. Freedom might be on the march, but with none of the same urgency that it once had in the West.
In the halls of RFE hangs a wonderful photo that illustrates the institution’s purpose and accomplishment. It’s from Wenceslas Square, 1968. In the foreground, a Soviet tank is stalled in the midst of thousands of Czech protesters. Fresh-faced adolescent Russian troops sit atop the tank, visibly bewildered by the pride and defiance of the occupied Praguers. In the lower left-hand corner, a man holds a shortwave radio up to his ear. Prominent in the photo’s background is the rising steel frame of the new Communist parliament building, still under construction — the same building RFE would come to inhabit with Havel’s help when the Russians finally left.
Havel’s recent passing marks the looming end of an important era for the Czechs and for Europe. It’s a sign of just how close we are to a time when no one on the continent will be left to talk directly about the dark way of life that preceded democracy and free enterprise, and the material and moral abundance that those intellectual technologies have brought. Victory carries with it a process of forgetting, a gradual loss of sensation. The avant-garde beauty of Wenceslas Square — and the same will happen one day to Tahrir Square and Tiananmen Square, too — is already fading away slowly, replaced by the sleepy satisfaction of Fukuyama’s End of History. “The tragedy of modern man isn’t that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life,” Havel wrote, “but that it bothers him less and less.”