Fear and Loathing in Prague
Memories of Smuggling Subversive Literature Behind the Iron Curtain
This is Part 2 of a two part series. Read Part 1.
2 (i)—A meeting in a graveyard; an ideological double-take; a close call with the cops
Even inside the lobby of our Prague hotel it was piercingly cold. I was shivering uncontrollably, perhaps because of the subzero temperatures but also, surely, with anxiety: I was on a dangerous smuggling expedition behind the Iron Curtain with an accomplice whom I now knew to be a reckless idiot. I tried to stem the shaking as I buttoned up my coat and headed out to the street.
Adam and I had been in the Czech capital for two days. Earlier that week we had crossed the Austrian border with packages of banned books and underground newspapers given to us by an organization of émigré dissidents in London. We were now in the midst of distributing these at prearranged rendezvous with activists plotting against the Soviet-backed Husak regime.
Charter 77—the underground movement that, a decade later, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, would help form the government of Czechoslovakia—had been in existence for just two years. Our first assignation had not gone well: Adam, blithely ignoring the careful briefing we had received in London, had misidentified our contacts and attempted to hand the packages we were carrying to a couple of passers-by, who retreated in confusion.
Our next delivery of banned materials was to be made later that evening at the Old Jewish Cemetery, located in the Josefov quarter of the city. First established in the 15th century, the cemetery had been the alleged meeting place of the Elders of Zion in the planning of their apocryphal Protocols.
We entered through the main gates, peering through the gloom to locate the small building with a steeply pitched, red tiled roof where we had been told we would find our contact. Shrouded by a canopy of trees, a profusion of densely packed gravestones tumbled one over another down the hillside. It was difficult to imagine a spookier location and I wondered fleetingly if Jan, our control back in London, had selected it especially, to prepare us for even more fraught encounters we had yet to face.
Adam and I were each carrying a holdall, which I had unloaded from the van in a nearby car park. Curiosity had got the better of me as I hauled the bags from the secret compartment and so, after checking the curtains in the back were fully drawn, I unzipped them to see what was inside. The first was packed with copies of a tiny newspaper, no more than three inches square so that it could be distributed surreptitiously in the palm of a hand. It bore a masthead in miniscule type that identified it as something called “Listy.”
The other bag was full of books. To my surprise, one of the titles was by the controversial German psychologist Hans Eysenck. There had been a scandal when a lecture he was due to deliver at the London School of Economics was disrupted by radical students objecting to his contention that intelligence is genetically and racially determined. The venerable professor had been punched in the face by a young woman, to predictable cries of outrage from the newspapers. I recalled that I’d pretty much approved of the protestors’ action at the time. The irony that I was now assisting in the circulation of ideas behind the Iron Curtain that I’d been happy to see suppressed in the Free World did not escape me. Still, I was here to do a job and so, noting with satisfaction that just beneath the Eysenck was a copy of a book by Isaac Deutscher, whose magnificent three volume biography of Trotsky I had read recently. I quickly zipped the bags back up.
The man we were to meet, wearing a duffel coat and a blue scarf, emerged from the shadows as we approached. This time I was taking no chances and so, grabbing the holdall Adam was carrying, I hurried up to him and exchanged passwords. Without saying anything more he took the bags and, after handing me a large brown envelope, disappeared around the side of the building. I rejoined Adam and we set off along the path out of the cemetery.
As we walked, Adam inquired about the package I’d been given. I told him I had no idea what it was. “Let me see it” he demanded. Reluctantly, I pulled the envelope from under my jacket and handed it to him. He turned it over in his hands, looking for some clue as to what was inside. We were approaching the exit to the street. “Err, I think you should probably put that away now” I urged as we passed through the gate. It was too late.
A police car, which must have parked by the entrance while we were inside, now disgorged two uniformed cops who approached and addressed us in Czech. I spent the next few seconds contemplating an imminent coronary incident. Adam, meanwhile, sprang forward to greet the officers in their own language. Though even I could detect his atrocious accent, it was an impressive performance. It was hard not to admire such boldness — even if, having come to know the man better, I was confident it rested on an idiot’s ignorance of danger. I also noticed that, far from attempting to conceal the envelope I had given him, he was actually waving it around as he talked. He even used it to push back his large ear-flapped hat, which I had now come to identify with the one worn by Elmore Fudd while duck hunting.
The shorter of the two cops, speaking in strained, monosyllabic English, asked to see our passports. I handed mine over, acutely conscious of the trembling in my hand as I did so. After moving to the front of the car to inspect the documents in the glare of the headlights, the officer rejoined us and returned them to each of us individually before wishing us a gruff and heavily-accented “good night.” I was incapable of speech but Adam bade them a cheery farewell, again in Czech. While we waited for their car to disappear I found my voice sufficiently to congratulate him, adding that I was surprised he had made no attempt to hide the package, and that not doing so seemed like a high-risk strategy. Smiling broadly, he brandished the envelope above his head in a victory salute and shouted “The purloined letter! It works every time!”
2 (ii)—A North by Northwest moment; an excruciating border crossing; the return of Comrade Tulayev
We made a couple more deliveries over the next three days but spent most of our time sightseeing around the city. The exquisite beauty of Prague, of its unspoiled medieval center, unfolded magically before us, only enhanced by the absence of advertising billboards and commercial neon.
Shop window displays were charmingly homespun, featuring rows of a single product and signage that might have been created in a high school craft class using paint, cardboard and glue. The cafeterias often featured self-service counters and stand up tables, at which customers would eat without removing their coats, interior heating being supplied only frugally. Streets full of bustle and noise during the day quickly became silent and deserted at nightfall. It seemed that people either went home or retreated into bars and cafeterias that, without prominent signage or open doors, were hard to recognize from the outside.
On the Thursday morning, following Jan’s instructions, we drove 30 miles out of town through flat fields to the north of the city. It took us some time to locate the farm where we were to rendezvous, on a dirt track running alongside a vast cabbage patch. Again there was no-one around and it seemed to me that we were dangerously exposed. As we stood there, chain-smoking nervously beside the van, I was reminded of the scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant, after waiting to meet an unknown enemy in an eerily silent cornfield, is suddenly attacked by a crop-spraying aircraft.
After 20 minutes that stretched endlessly—not least because Adam wondered aloud and incessantly about where our contact was and why he was so late—we heard the distant approach of a car. A man, tall with a grey hooded jacket and wearing glasses, sauntered over. Passwords seemed a bit redundant but we exchanged them in a desultory fashion anyway before handing over the bag, the last one we had left. We received in return another package, this time a padded envelope which felt as though it might contain canisters of film. As we drove away, Adam told me excitedly that he thought the man we had just met was, in fact, Peter Uhl—perhaps, after Vaclav Havel, the most famous dissident in the country. I asked what evidence he had for this. “I’ve seen photographs” he said: “Exactly the same spectacles.”
Our business now completed, we left Prague the following afternoon, again aiming to arrive at the border in early evening, just as the guards were changing shifts. Unfortunately our progress was severely hindered by an accident some miles ahead which, the road having only two lanes, had created a vast tail-back. It became obvious that we would miss the tired guards of the day shift and have to deal with the fresh eyes of their replacements. There was nothing to be done, however, and we crawled forward with a mounting sense of foreboding.
It was snowing heavily when we arrived at the crossing and the reflection of the floodlights in the swirling flurries turned the night air into a kinetic display of dazzling yellow. I was driving this time, with Adam feigning sleep in the back—a performance undermined by his repeatedly sitting up to peer through the curtains and deliver a running commentary on what I could already see for myself.
The scene outside was just as intimidating as it had been on the way in. If anything there seemed to be even more guards on duty. I counted seven standing beside the car in front, two with dogs. I noticed the snow trapped in coils of barbed wire that ran along the top of the high fence surrounding the border post. It looked like a line of jagged silvery writing in some unrecognizable alphabet. A substantial metal barrier, painted red and white, swung upwards to allow the car in front to pass through to Austria and freedom. I inched the van forward. We were next.
A soldier came to the window. “Papers” he said curtly in English. I supposed that he’d identified our nationality from the license plates on the van—which, I recalled fretfully, were false. I handed him our passports. He looked at them, and then held up Adam’s, gesturing quizzically. “He’s in the back,” I indicated with a thumb over my shoulder, “he’s asleep.” Keeping hold of the passports the soldier walked slowly down the side of the van. I could see in the wing mirror that he had been joined by a comrade. They disappeared from sight and, immediately after, I heard banging on the back door and a shout of “Open!” Adam, in full theatrical role, responded with a loud “What’s going on?” I watched in the rear-view mirror as he sat up, stretched his arms and, with a preposterously exaggerated yawn, dismounted from the bed to open the door.
The guards peered inside and ordered Adam to get out. I twisted around in my seat to get a better view. Adam pulled on a sweater and shoes and, grabbing his coat, clambered through the rear door. The soldiers now climbed in and began methodically searching the back. Using torches, they checked the cupboards above the windows, and poked around in our bags, which lay on the bed opposite the one that Adam had just vacated. One of them pulled out the drawers beneath the beds, which we had stuffed with dirty laundry as instructed and behind which were the secret compartments containing the packages we had been given by our contacts. He turned to the other soldier and, with his hands, demonstrated that the drawers did not reach all the way to the sides of the vehicle.
At this point a flush of cold numbness spread upwards from my neck to my face. I felt as though I was about to pass out. I couldn’t bear to look and turned to stare at the snow, a dazzling ochre in the floodlights, swirling across the windscreen.
I now heard a shout from one of the soldiers. He had something in his hands, which he held out towards his fellow guard. A discussion ensued in rapid-fire Czech and I heard Adam say “It’s mine” and then, more emphatically, “It belongs to me!” The soldiers clambered out and closed the door. I watched them in the wing mirror as they escorted Adam to a small guard house and disappeared inside. I was, by now, entirely paralyzed by fear. I tried to calculate the odds of being able to sprint through the barrier in front of me before being scythed down in a hail of automatic fire. They were infinitesimal.
The minutes passed as hours. I kept one eye fixed on the rear-view mirror, waiting for something to happen. In front, the guards at the barrier lit cigarettes and stamped their feet to keep warm. A dog barked plaintively. It sounded like a timber wolf descending through the forests in Nanook of the North. Another car had pulled up behind us, waiting its turn to cross the border: Any retreat was now blocked off. Finally, the door of the guard post opened and Adam, this time with just one soldier, walked briskly through the snow to the van. I saw the soldier give him our passports and heard Adam say something in his heavily-accented Czech. It sounded like a farewell. He opened the door and climbed in.
“What the fuck happened?” I croaked, surprised that I still had a voice.
“They found my book,” Adam said.
“What book?” I asked.
“This one.” He pulled from his anorak pocket a copy of “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” by the Soviet dissident Victor Serge. I had last seen it on the ferry crossing to Belgium on our journey out, and had warned him that having it with us was risky. We had been given clear instructions in London to avoid bringing anything that might identify us as politically engaged.
“Christ” I said, “I thought I told you to get rid of that. Where was it?”
“Under the bed covers. I forgot it was there. I really wanted to finish it, it’s a terrific story. I had to argue with them quite a bit to get it back.”
“Jesus!” I said. “That could have been it for us. Did you see the way they sussed that the drawers in the back don’t extend all the way to the sides of the van?”
“No.” Adam’s eyes widened with surprise under the peak of his ludicrous hat. “I missed that. Maybe finding the book distracted them. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve still got it.”
He chucked the book onto the top of the dashboard and rubbed his hands together to restore some warmth.
“Look” he said, “they’re raising the barrier. Let’s go.”
I needed no encouragement to escape that forsaken spot, slamming into gear and lifting my foot from the brake. The van lurched forward towards the barrier; it was all that separated us from the safety of the West. With a shock, I realized that the heavy steel pole was rising more gradually than I had anticipated. I hit the brakes hard — too hard, sending the van into a skid that ended with a sickening thud as it hit the barrier, halting its ascent. The guards shouted as they ran alongside to find out what had happened.
I turned off the engine and climbed out to inspect the damage. The right headlight had been smashed, and the barrier appeared stuck in a sizeable dent above the wheel arch. With heart-jolting anxiety, I noticed that the top coat of blue paint, recently applied in London, had flaked off in several patches, laying bare the white beneath. Again I looked around to weigh the chances of successfully running for it. Again they appeared negligible.
Two of the guards were now leaning their weight on the barrier, attempting to dislodge it from the van. With a judder and a loud grating noise it came free. The guards signaled me back into the van. As I clambered onto the driver’s seat I could see the barrier had recommenced its ascent into the snow-laden sky. Taking no chances this time, I waited until it was almost perpendicular before restarting the engine. With the guards energetically waving us through, we drove out of Eastern Europe. As we approached the relative informality of the Austrian border Adam put his hand on my arm and squeezed it. “Are you OK?” he asked. The inquiry was characteristically oleaginous. “You seem very tense.”
2 (iii)—Debriefing; a reminder of danger; the irresistible rise of the idiot
We made it back to London without much in the way of incident, though the heater in the van began malfunctioning just as we were leaving Austria, operating only at full blast or not at all. It was too cold to leave it off, or to open the windows whilst it was on. We drove home like Tuaregs battling a relentless Scirocco, our throats rasping. A mottled rash spread at surprising speed across my face.
We parked the van outside Jan’s apartment in Highbury and went in. Without looking inside, Jan took possession of the bag containing the envelopes and packages we’d collected on our trip. He offered us a cup of tea and proceeded to debrief us. He was interested to know, in particular, if we had experienced any “operational” difficulties. Neither of us mentioned the incident with the book on the way out and I largely left Adam to run through the various rendezvous we had made.
Entirely omitting the panoply of near disasters we had encountered, Adam peppered his report with inquiries about the people we had met. Once more, it seemed to me this was designed less to elicit a response and more to show off his familiarity with the pages of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, a newsletter produced by the dissidents in collaboration with the IMG. Could Jan confirm, he wanted to know, that the man we had met in the field outside the city was indeed Petr Uhl? Jan said crisply that he could neither confirm nor deny; he was not party to the specific arrangements made inside the country, beyond what he needed to know to brief us.
A month or so later a brief item in the Guardian caught my eye. Two French citizens had been arrested by Czech authorities in Prague and charged with smuggling material to the opposition. It was believed, the paper reported, that the couple, a man and a woman, were part of an organized network supporting opponents of the Husak regime. The French foreign ministry was calling for their immediate release.
I mentioned this news to Adam when I ran into him at another Red Circle at the General Picton the following week. “I know,” he said, “I asked Jan about it. He wouldn’t say much but I could tell he was pissed off. Apparently they’d been blabbing about their trip to an undercover agent in a bar. Can you believe people could be so stupid?”
I said I could not. I also asked Adam how it was that he had been talking to Jan, with whom I’d had no contact since our debriefing. Adam’s voice took on a conspiratorial tone and his eyes glittered as he leaned in under the billiard lights above the table. “Keep this under your hat,” he said, “but Jan’s asked me if I want to go again, this time with a woman comrade. We’re leaving the week after next. Don’t tell anyone though: It’s top secret.”
♛ THE END
Signatories of Charter 77 went on to play a prominent role in the Velvet Revolution that overthrew authoritarian Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989. One of those who signed the Charter, the playwright Vaclav Havel, became the new Republic’s first President. Jan Kavan [Jan] was the Czech foreign minister from 1998 to 2002. Peter Uhl became head of the Czech press agency ČTK. Plastic People of the Universe featured prominently in Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play Rock’n’ Roll. They gigged at Joe’s Pub in New York City in the summer of 2009.