Runs, Hikes, & Cops in Bohemia.

Author:Bridges, Peter
Position:Foreign Service Life - Personal account

January/February 2017

After five good years in our Rome embassy, my family and I were transferred in late 1971 to the American embassy in Prague. This was three years after the Soviet army had crushed Alexander Dubcek's "socialism with a human face." It had not crushed the Czechs and Slovaks. We made a number of friends; we had never known a people with such a liking for Americans; but the StB, the Statnibezpecnost or state security police, were an oppressive presence. People understandably had their heads under their wings. It was only later, in 1976, that future President Vaclav Havel and others organized the Charter 77 dissident movement.

Several years ago I got a copy of the now declassified file that the StB kept on me in what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Whether it is complete I'll never know, but it is around a hundred pages long, and lists my many contacts and actvities in Prague as well as the several StB officers who were on my case. I headed the embassy's political/economic section, which comprised four officers. There was relatively little to report on the Czechoslovak political scene and the centralized economy was stagnant and inefficient, but we were also responsible for trade promotion--and there was interest in both Washington and Prague in increasing bilateral trade. We began, too, to work on an agreement that would compensate us for American properties seized by the Communist regime, and return to the Czechs the State Bank's gold that the Nazis had seized in 1939 and the Western Allies had seized from the Nazis. We stayed busy.

In March 1973, after I had been in the country over a year, the StB did a summary of what they thought they knew about me. The Soviet "friends," the KGB, had told the Czechs I was a CIA officer (which I was not). The StB opined that I might even be the rezident, the chief, of the NATO spies in Czechoslovakia. When I read that, years later, I laughed; it was in a sense a tribute to my hard work. But if I had known their judgment at the time, I would have been a little worried that they might pull some nasty trick on me. Fortunately they never did.

The StB however trailed me both on foot and in cars, sometimes quite visibly. I called often on Czechoslovak ministries and foreign-trade organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the huge baroque Czernin Palace, was within walking distance from our embassy in Mala Strana, but most others were located across the River Vltava in the main part of town. I would make two or three morning appointments and get an embassy driver to take me into town to the first, telling him I would walk to the others and then back to the embassy.

It would be noon by the time I finished my appointments. I spent lunchtime walking home, stopping on my way at two or three antikvariaty, second-hand bookstores, that had interesting old volumes at low prices, not only in Czech and German but in English.

This interested the StB. No doubt they thought I was leaving secret messages for my informers in a volume of Shakespeare or Walter Scott, or picking up messages left for me in designated books.

Our CIA station chief had told me that for training purposes the StB often had its junior officers trail foreign diplomats. One day, in each of three successive bookstores I noticed an attractive young woman with auburn hair browsing near me. I might not have noticed her save for her hair. I thought for a minute of telling her that she would be even prettier if she sometimes used a blonde wig. But it was better not to anger the StB, lest they turn to nasty tactics.

One day the embassy received a letter from the "Anti-Fascist Fighters' League" in Polomka, a village in Slovakia, inviting us to attend the dedication of a monument on the site where, the letter said, a British and American mission had stayed in 1944, after the Wehrmacht put down the Slovak uprising against the puppet regime that Hitler had installed in Slovakia.

We knew nothing about any...

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