Michael Kocáb

* 1954  

  • “I would like to add that from the very beginning I have followed a line which I considered clear-cut – though I don’t know whether Michal Horáček was of the same opinion. This was the ‘Action Wedge’. During socialism, I often read in Rudé právo or heard elsewhere that ‘a wedge had to be driven somewhere’. The Bolsheviks always wanted to drive wedges between people. So, I had the idea of trying to drive a wedge in between them, for a change. And that if they considered it such a powerful instrument, it may just work on them. And indeed, it did. We drove a wedge between the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the government. Our strategy was never to negotiate with the Central Committee; to effectively ignore it. All of our efforts were directed towards the PM Ladislav Adamec. This way we made them angry because they wanted to be included. So, this was a thing I considered important and for this reason I was really happy that during the first student gathering of 18 November 1989 in Realistické divadlo nobody insisted we should negotiate with Rudolf Hegenbart or Lubomír Štrougal. Suddenly, all the Bolsheviks would’ve been involved and once involved, they could easily gain ground. This way, we directed all of our efforts towards a single person who hadn’t even had support of his own government. The same day, on 20 November 1989, Adamec proposed some of our points – although he wouldn’t admit those were our points – to the government. I think it was about launching the departure of Soviet troops. He failed spectacularly with his own ministers booing him, and so he left that meeting early.”

  • „Václav Havel let me hanging in a very elegant way. I was staring at him: ‘Help me out – I don’t want anything but for you to become president.’ But he gave the impression that he wasn’t interested, or that it was very inconvenient that this should be discussed at his presence. He sat for a while, then left and said: ‘Sort it out yourselves.’ Up until then he just uttered a few words, suggesting a no. So I ended up in a situation where I looked like a naïve guy who wanted Havel for the President but nobody else did, and not even Havel. Though obviously, this was not the real situation. I pushed through an indicative vote. During the first one, out of the thirty or forty people, only five were with me – Alexandr Vondra, Jiří Křižan, Jirka Černý, and maybe also Petr Pithart or Láďa Hanzela. Just a few people, we didn’t get our way. But then I went to Vašek and told him: ‘What have you done to me?’ He replied: ‘Well, excuse me, but I can’t be President, there’s no way. We have Alexandr Dubček here. Nobody would agree. And I stutter.’ It really seemed like a no. Then he added: ‘And Olga wouldn’t let me.’ I said: ‘Well, I doubt that. But if you’d like, I’m happy to discuss it with her.’ He said: ‘Just try it, she will chase you off.’ I went to see Olga and within five minutes we had an agreement. No doubt – she was an intelligent woman who told me: ‘I knew this would happen. I personally would also like Vašek to take it. That would mean that some of the changes were permanent.’ And this is exactly what had happened. In the end, this willfulness turned out alright.”

  • “During one of the following interrogations: ‘Well, Mr. Čok, let’s have it confirmed – how many posters were printed?’ – ‘Seven thousand five hundred twenty-five.!’ – ‘And where?’ – ‘In Dortmund!’ That didn’t match to the policeman’s information. Čok said: ‘Okay, so it was three thousand four hundred fifty-eight…’ In the end, they realized that he was of no use – he knew nothing about it. I told him: ‘Vilém, if they ever forced you to say or write something – like ratting on someone; because they want you to become a rat – think of me and in case you’d have written something already, eat the paper up.’ One day, Čok returned from a questioning and said: ‘So it happened. They forced me and I began writing something but then I realized that this could count as ratting and the interrogator had just left the room. When he returned, he could only see the paper disappearing in my mouth.’ So I think they gave up on Čok. It made no sense. Not even to lock him up; he was just a lunatic. He even looked like one.”

  • “And so we arrived. The Soviets hadn’t been there, yet. According to the journalist Vladislav Kvasnička we found ourselves straight next to a refugee camp which is still in operation there. Bělá pod Bezdězem is known for it and indeed, it is located just next to it. We arrived to the bunker marked by Kvasnička. Our buses had stopped and for some time, we waited for the Soviets. After a while they arrived but without their general Eduard Vorobjov, which was another suspicious moment. They explained to me that since I was so stubborn they had all arrived. But that it was all for nothing because a mere look at the building – a typical military bunker – revealed that there could not be a storage of nuclear weapons inside. The argument was completely messed up. I saw a bunker with steel door big enough for a truck to drive in – how did that signal that it wasn’t what we were looking for? To me, it meant we might have been right on track. ‘I don’t know, whatever…’ The Soviets moved aside, stood there and stared at me. There were plenty of them, maybe twenty or thirty, a weird feeling… Similarly, the Czechoslovak soldiers have also become passively resistant: ‘Well, go in, then.’ I walked towards the door and couldn’t open it. This is a good story – and I call it crystal lie. Something you encounter rarely – a crystal clear lie. Every word their uttered was proving them guilty but still, they insisted: ‘There’s nothing in there.’ The door was locked with a padlock. I told them: ‘There is a padlock here.’ – ‘Well, you see. And how should we open it?’ – ‘Well, easily! Just have a soldier hit it with a hammer.’ – ‘Excuse us, this is not our lock…,’ they began to equivocate. Just a small padlock, really. ‘Now, get some pliers.’ A while later some private ran in, saying: ‘General, I can’t find the pliers.’ – ‘Oh, so, no pliers. Get a hammer then.’ They couldn’t find it either. They had a bus loaded full with military material but couldn’t find anything. So I said this was trouble. ‘Let’s go home, then.’ – ‘No way. We have to open this lock.’ – ‘You would damage the property…’ – ‘Does anyone mind me breaking the padlock? I will get you a new one.’ I went to see the caretaker in the camp nearby, he brought a hammer, hit the lock once and the lock flew off. I keep it fresh in my memory. I opened the door and it was dark inside. They said: ‘See, we told you!’ They were ready to use the darkness as a proof that there was nothing inside. Because it was dark inside! How could anything be hidden in the darkness? ‘Let’s light it up. Do you have your torches, lamps?’ No, they had forgotten all of it in Prague. Suddenly, the whole bus was useless because they didn’t even have lamps and when they did, they lacked batteries. It was a complete comedy. I said I would look for a switch. ‘We don’t recommend you to do that.’ – ‘Why so?’ – ‘Well, nobody knows what is inside. You claim there are some nuclear weapons – what if you got exposed to radiation?’ – ‘So, are they there?’ – ‘No, they’re not! But since you say that…’ So I went inside and reached the light switch just behind the door. Suddenly, the lights went on. It said: storage of nuclear weapons. They kept lying up until the very last moment.”

  • “17 November was just another day – I think it was Friday. We had no idea what would follow. We had a feeling that something might happen but none of us dreamed about this being the crucial day of our modern history and of Czechoslovak history as such. On that day, a Japanese TV crew was scheduled to visit me at home in Karlova street. It is fair to say that already some two or three weeks ahead of this date, Western TV stations began appearing. We were not really used to it though Havel might have been. At once, they wanted to see everything, as if they had some special information. But they hadn’t because they sat with me in an improvised TV studio and recorded. It was for the most part a political interview, though they were a bit interested in music, too. My friendship with Frank Zappa may have played a role – they were asking about him. For the Japanese, Frank Zappa is a big hero, which became apparent after his death when they began collecting all materials about him. We discussed politics and the unsustainability of the system. They asked the obvious questions: ‘Do you think the system will live on? What about the perestroika? What about Poland and the changes occurring there? And so on. I could only improvise; nobody knew anything. I was the most optimistic from our circle of people, and kept repeating that it would fall but I had nothing but a gut feeling, no concrete information. And suddenly, a phone call. Something was happening at Národní třída – trouble, police intervention, a massacre… there were various ways it was called back then. So, we interrupted our filming session. The crew were mistaken to think they’d disappoint me by going to Národní třída as well. They thought I wanted to carry on filming and chattering. That was obviously nonsense. I welcomed that the crew immediately moved to Národní třída. I called Horáček and met him there.”

  • Full recordings
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    Praha, 06.02.2017

    duration: 02:02:48
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 2

    Praha, 20.03.2017

    duration: 02:02:14
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 3

    Praha, 27.03.2017

    duration: 02:06:30
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 4

    Praha, 26.06.2017

    duration: 02:03:37
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
  • 5

    Praha, 18.12.2017

    duration: 02:06:20
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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Havel’s presidency was my making

kocab1989.jpg (historic)
Michael Kocáb
photo: Post Bellum

Michael Kocáb was born on 28 July 1954 in Prague. After graduation from a grammar school in Mladá Boleslav he studied music composition and organ at the Prague Conservatory, finishing in 1979. Ever since 1976 he was a founding member of the music group Pražský výběr which was prohibited from performing in 1982 - 1987. In 1989 he and the composer Michal Horáček founded the Most initative which promoted dialogue between the official and the dissident circles. He was one of the founding members of the Civic Forum. He negotiated the departure of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia, and also the one to suggest that Václav Havel becomes president. From 1989 till 1991 he was a member of the Federal Assembly, resigning after the final departure of the Soviet military. From 1993 till 2003 he was an external advisor to president Václav Havel. In 2003 he renewed his musical activities. In 2006 Pražský výběr started playing again with new band membership. In 2009 he was appointed minister for human rights and minorities but he resigned his post just a year later. In 2017 he was awarded the Order of the White Double Cross, the highest honor to be given to a foreigner by Slovakia.