The loss of ‘Respekt’

Hunting with the wolf-pack of a newly-freed press in Havel’s post-revolutionary Czechoslovakia was not always pretty, but it was beautiful

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Respectful readers: Czechs enjoying newly-free media in Wenceslas Square, Prague 1990 (© Chris Niedenthal/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Cigarette smoke lingers over the dirt-trodden lino, and between the walls of the peeling offices on Prague’s Bolzánová Street. “I hope it’s clear that you’re the only professional among us,” Jáchym Topol grimaces amiably over the kettle. I look doubtful and the editor explains how, quite understandably, there isn’t a single experienced journalist working for Respekt, only now in 1990 making its transition from samizdat to a “respectable”, legal publication. As if to illustrate his point a cardboard box with two eyeholes, thrust over a lanky frame, passes by the kitchen. I ask under my breath whether the man underneath it is unhinged, but Topol shakes his head. Jan Macháček, a stoker under Communism, is in fact a journalistic genius, he says.

When I announced my resignation from the former Communist mass-readership publication Mladý svět (Youth World) for a position as a reporter at Respekt, my boss looked horrified. “Respekt?! You must be mad. They’re a pack of wolves.” I wouldn’t last longer than a fortnight, he said, and I soon remembered his words. Walking towards Bolzanová Street a couple of weeks later, every step required a huge effort. If the wolves had eaten me alive, at least I would have had some peace from my editor-tormentors.

Journalism under Communist rule was an exercise in ingenuity. Truth could be implied, but not stated. The best used artful omission and juxtaposition to smuggle meaning to the population, but—as the head of censorship in the Soviet Union later told me—many Czech journalists displayed such self-censorship that even the Russians felt they were going too far. My job at Mladý svět had been fine, mainly because I was too naïve to grasp the risks I was taking, and because my supportive editor-in-chief shared a marital bed with the Communist chief media overseer.

Refreshingly, the new Czechoslovakia wanted its truth served hot. But any connection with the old establishment carried a moral taint—even though those wielding the paint-brushes had in many cases themselves been past pillars of the Communist establishment before falling from grace into the dissident netherworld. With effort and luck I had established myself in the old world. Now I was trying to join the new one.

Respekt was already the most admired journal of post-revolutionary Prague in 1990. It sold out on the day of publication, its scoops were regularly followed by foreign correspondents, and its shabbily dressed staffers, in their black dissident chic, had privileged access to Václav Havel’s castle and to the new government. If anything indicated the vibrancy of the new democracy, it was this fearless, feisty, smoky—if malodorous—publication which explained to Czechs the truths of the new country, and the old.

For once-shackled journalists like me, the prize was priceless. Respekt provided freedom to write our articles, to create something good enough for historians to take notice. I repeatedly returned to the phone to chase up information so that no sentence remained vague. The editor Tomás Pěkný’s sense for the Czech language would have sent the gods of Bohemian linguistics into ecstasies, though the effect of his fastidiousness on our hard-pressed copy-editors and correctors was more sulphurous.

My, how things have changed. On a recent visit to Respekt’s polished modern-day (smoke-free) offices, I became aware of a group huddled around a screen, assessing the latest cover. I went a little closer to make sure they were all actually in agreement. The scene took my breath away. Yes, they were unanimous, a sunny sky of smiling harmony. No trace here of the old Respekt of Bolzánka Street. Arguments, dissent, outbursts of anger, sometimes even tears of rage, yes. But universal agreement? Out of the question.

All journalists believe their publication goes to hell the moment they leave. But the decline of Respekt—in circulation, influence and staff numbers—and of just about every other Czech publication must surely have some link to the loss of that piratical atmosphere. Nearly all the difficult-to-manage individuals prepared to pick a (verbal) fight with anyone, editor or not, have gone. Today a grouping of such diverse characters is harder to imagine, in any part of the world.

When Topol addressed me so affably, I was grateful. The other editors had already made it clear to me that they despised me, a stará struktura, or old structure, from a Communist publication. It didn’t last long: perhaps because the structure in question was in her early 20s, had long hair, long legs and a permanent (nervous) smile from ear to ear. Perhaps also because I was not altogether incompetent.

Not all taboos disappeared with the end of Communist censorship. I wrote about the depressing and everyday sexual assaults in Czechoslovak society; about the dentist who drilled with one hand and molested me with the other while his nurse giggled and said: “Our doctor’s being naughty again!” My colleagues heard me out attentively and ran the piece, which lifted a veil for Czech women and generated an extraordinary response. (But once was enough. Attempts at a follow-up were rebuffed.)

The flipside was that being a young woman in the early 1990s had undeniable advantages. The poet Josef Brodsky promised me 20 minutes; in the end we talked for hours. That was not because he could divine my intellect or because he admired my unknown Czech magazine. Likewise with Roman Polanski. When I secured an exclusive interview with him, I was shown to a table at a pub in Wenceslas Square where the diminutive film director sat with three other journalists. I was furious, and made a scene. Instead of complaining Polanski smiled at me indulgently: “Shouldn’t I be the one to complain that there are three journalists intruding on our tête-à-tête?”

But the greatest advantage of all was to feed among a happy, scrappy wolf-pack. When my old school friends asked at a reunion why I had stopped writing, I boasted that in fact I now worked for Respekt. At Mladý svět I sometimes had a million readers; now there were far fewer. But for the first time in my life, I knew that Havel was one of them.