Cloak-and-dagger stuff from the 1980s

Part 1: My Czech Friend "Arno"

A photo of Vienna's Donaukanal from the 1980s, near where I lived and reported on Eastern Europe for five years from 1986 to 1991. It's still etched in black and white in my memory. The city was a backward, quiet, and sinister place, but I loved its somberness and strangeness. Photo by Mark Baker.
Another shot of 1980s' Vienna, this one from 1988. Not the bright, shiny, prosperous city it is today. We at Business International referred to the city as "Next Stop Bratislava" among ourselves. Photo by Mark Baker.

The first Czech I ever met turned out to be a spy. And he probably thought I was one too. (He was also the first, and only, Czech I ever met to be named “Arnold").

Arnold played an important role in my early travels to then-Czechoslovakia, and he's likely to come up in future stories on my blog. It’s time to introduce him here.

To set the stage, I need to go back to Vienna in the mid-1980s, when I was a newly minted, wannabe journalist fresh out of graduate school. My first real job in journalism was as a reporter for a small research and publishing outfit called "Business International." I started out at the company’s headquarters in New York, but was quickly transferred to their Austrian office, which was responsible for covering stories coming out of Central & Eastern Europe.

I was thrilled at the opportunity to move to Vienna and cover the then-Eastern bloc. In school, I had specialized in Eastern European area studies, and back in the 1980s chances to work in the region were few and far between. I felt like I was living a dream.

I’ll write more in the future about how odd the Vienna bureau of Business International seemed when I first arrived in the summer of 1986. It was a 10-man editorial office, led by an ex-Vietnam War veteran who dabbled in writing spy thrillers. I didn't realize it at the time, but our office was viewed with a high degree of suspicion by the region’s then-Communist regimes, including the hard-line Czechoslovak government in power in Prague.

That suspicion was perhaps not so misplaced. Vienna in the 1980s was not the bright, prosperous, playful city it is today, so popular with tourists and compilers of all those "World's Best Places to Live" lists. It was a relatively grim place, situated just 30 minutes' drive west of Bratislava and wedged firmly -- geographically, politically, culturally, and psychologically -- between East and West.

It was also a hotbed of espionage. In the mid-1950s, Austria had declared itself "permanently neutral" as part of a deal to convince the Soviet Union to withdraw an occupying force it had stationed in the country since the end of WWII. In order to stay in Moscow's good graces, the Austrian authorities routinely turned a blind eye to all the spy-vs-spy shenanigans that still went on three decades later. Business International's Vienna office (marked on the map, below) was located just south of the city's Ringstrasse, between the city's 3rd and 4th districts, in what was once the Soviet occupation zone.

It's no surprise, then, that they were all convinced we were spies.

The author, eating an ice cream in 1980s Vienna, probably sometime in 1987, sitting at the city's central Schwedenplatz. Photo by Delia Meth-Cohn.
Raising a glass with a couple of my Business International colleagues in the late 1980s. Photo by unknown.
One of my main jobs in Vienna was working for Business International's flagship newsletter, "Business Eastern Europe." I started out as a reporter for the publication and in 1990 became the managing editor.
Just about everyone at Business International at the time started out by writing the weekly column "What's New in Your Industry" for the newsletter "Business Eastern Europe." It was the most popular part of the newsletter.

It sounds glamorous in retrospect, but my day-to-day job at Business International was fairly mundane stuff. I mostly scanned through the newspapers to report on recent deals that multinational companies like Gillette, Nokia, or Wrigley had made that week in the Eastern bloc. The list was printed on the back page of our company’s flagship weekly newsletter, titled appropriately “Business Eastern Europe." Our subscribers were mostly large corporations that paid big sums of money for information like this, though we cribbed much of our intelligence from public news sources like “Handelsblatt” and the “Financial Times.”

The real perk of the job was travel. Each of us was assigned a particular Eastern bloc country as our area of expertise, and at least two or three times a year, we were sent in-country to report on developments and meet with local officials in the trade and economic spheres. It’s no exaggeration to say that we lived for these trips.

For no obvious reason, I was assigned Czechoslovakia as my country. Though I didn’t speak Czech or Slovak, I knew enough of the language to thumb my way through the country’s statistical yearbook or the dusty pages of the hard-line, Communist-party newspaper “Rudé právo.” I didn’t mind the choice of country, though. I loved going to Prague.

In the 1980s, of course, traveling to Eastern Europe involved more than simply hopping a train or plane. The first step was to try to get an entry visa from the country’s embassy in Vienna. The Czechoslovak embassy, at the time, was (and still is) located in a distant suburb and only open on certain days of the week, and on those days only until noon. The line for getting a visa was long, and when the doors of the embassy slammed shut for the day, there was no choice but to come back and try another time.

Back at the office, to prepare for the trip, the secretaries were working the telex machines (this was still a couple years before emails and faxes), to arrange transportation and, crucially, a week of lodging at one of the handful of hotels in Prague where visiting journalists were permitted to stay. All of the hotels were overpriced and stuffed with bugging equipment and counterespionage agents whose job it was to watch over guests from the West. During my time at the company, I became very familiar with the (surprisingly shabby) halls of the Intercontinental, Ambassador, and Esplanade hotels in Prague, all of which are still going strong today. (You can read about my experiences at the Intercontinental here.)

In the 1980s, I used to love to travel to Prague. In my mind, the Old Town Square remains much as it is pictured here: empty, slightly forgotten, and beautiful. Photo by Per Ryolf.
An early shot of Prague's metro from sometime in the 1980s. After Vienna's small, cramped system, Prague's metro seemed big, important, and impersonal. Photo by Alan Denney.
Prague Castle as seen from Charles Bridge, pictured here in the 1980s. I've always loved this photo because it captures so well the mysterious mood of the city. Photo by Per Ryolf.
A beautiful photo of Prague's Old Town in the 1980s. Photo by Alan Denney.

So who is Arnold, you might be asking, and where does he fit into all of this?

Arnold lived in Prague at the time and worked as one of Business International’s in-country stringers. He was one of a half-dozen local individuals retained by the company in capitals like Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, and Belgrade. Their jobs were mainly to suggest story ideas and help us to arrange in-country interviews on our trips. They also provided logistical support on the ground, helping out with things like lodging and transport and finding a decent pub for a few after-work beers. Since I didn’t speak Czech, Arnold was also my translator. (Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of Arnold to post here. It seemed taboo at the time to take his photo, and I've been told by researchers in Prague that all of his official photos have been stripped out of the files at the Czech Interior Ministry.)

All of these stringers who were working for Business International at the time had similar official “origin” stories. They all presented themselves as former communists who had somehow fallen afoul of the regime, but who were nevertheless permitted to work part-time for Western publications like ours. They all seemed to be hard-bitten guys in their fifties or sixties (or looked it) and were all surprisingly well-connected. We speculated among ourselves whether they might be spies, but no one seemed to know for sure. It was an uncomfortable subject for us to bring up with management. I am pretty sure our company would never have knowingly hired an active intelligence agent from the other side.

I was painfully naïve at the time, but even then I didn’t totally buy the “disgraced communist” story 100 percent – at least not in Arnold’s case. On a couple of occasions, in 1987 and 1988, Arnold had invited me over to his villa for dinner in the northern Prague suburb of Kobylisy. The graceful size of Arnold’s place, the quality of the furnishings, and the pretty views from his back terrace out over Prague’s Old Town in the distance didn’t totally jibe with the official backstory of a disgraced man on the outs.

When I think back on those visits, a minor but telling detail comes to mind. I once brought a bag of coffee beans with me from Vienna as a small, dinner-party gift (the beans were of much higher quality than could be purchased in Prague back then). I recall that Arnold’s wife, Jitka, was not very impressed. Apparently, they preferred a different brand.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here; I’m only pointing out that even then I had my doubts about Arnold. I had no idea, though, who he would really turn out to be.

(Continued in Part 2)

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker