Plus a direct appeal to 'INA'

‘Čas proměn’ Two Years On

The cover of my surveillance file with the Czechoslovak secret police from the late-1980s. The code name the StB gave me, 'INTER,' is written across the top. The file is clearly labeled 'TOP SECRET.' Source: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)
Chills went down my spine the moment I first saw this image from my file, one of a series of StB surveillance photos dated June 29, 1989. It shows me (right) with my BI translator, Arnold, while walking to a meeting in the Prague neighborhood of Žižkov. Photo credit: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)

The biggest piece of news to emerge from publishing my book has been to discover the existence of a long-hidden surveillance file that the Czechoslovak secret police (the StB) collected on me in the 1980s. As I was writing the book in 2020 and early-2021, I had no idea I’d been so closely monitored on my reporting trips to Czechoslovakia. I certainly had no suspicions whatsoever I had been the target of a covert StB operation, “Operation INTER,” to recruit me as a Czechoslovak agent to spy on American interests in Vienna.

I only found out about all of this after the book was published. An astute reader, Dr Prokop Tomek at the Prague Institute of Military History, took the liberty of going through the StB archives on my behalf. He later told me he had searched the archives because he couldn’t believe a journalist with my experiences at the time wouldn’t have had an extensive surveillance file. It turned out he was right. (In my own defense, I had always suspected the StB monitored me back then, but each time I inquired about my file at the archives, they told me I didn’t have one).

Dr Tomek located my file at the end of 2021, and it took me a year to translate and read the pages and put together a coherent narrative of why I think the StB was so fixated on me and what they wanted “INTER,” my StB codename and Cold War alter-ego, to do. Earlier this year, I published the entire mystifying story in five parts. Find Part 1 here -- at the end of each part, there’s a link to jump to the next one in consecutive order. (In a few weeks, I will publish the same five parts in Czech).

One of the first interviews after I published the INTER stories was with Ian Willoughby at Prague Radio International. Photo: Ian Willoughby
The magazine Transitions Online featured the INTER story in their April 18, 2023, edition. Photo credit: Transitions Online
The cover of my interview with Ian Sanders of the Cold War Conversations podcast. Photo credit: Cold War Conversations
One of my favorite interviews was with journalist Paula Schleice and her Ohio Mysteries podcast. Photo credit: Ohio Mysteries

The story of Operation INTER has garnered a lot of media attention the past few months. Shortly after I published the first part of the INTER saga, Radio Prague reporter Ian Willoughby invited me to the radio’s studios for an interview on what it felt like to discover the StB had tried to recruit me. Here’s a link to listen to that interview: “It was a total shock.”

Around the same time, I recorded a long interview with Ian Sanders for his excellent podcast, Cold War Conversations. It was during this discussion – while relating to him the part of my file where the StB hoped to plant a sleeper agent as my wife in Vienna – that I first felt the emotional impact of the whole thing. You can hear it clearly in my voice toward the end of our talk. They were cynical, clueless bastards.

Several U.S.-based podcasts soon picked up the story. Paula Schleis, the host of the always-entertaining Ohio Mysteries podcast, has a passionate interest in espionage that I hadn’t known about before. She interviewed me from the perspective of a Youngstown kid who inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a Cold War thriller.

The popular “Trues Spies” espionage podcast took the INTER story up a notch from there. There’s something about moderator Sophia Di Martino’s breathless storytelling that gave me goosebumps as I listened to her of narration of my story. The text for that episode was written by Prague-based freelance writer, Morgan Childs.

A couple of weeks ago I was thrilled to be featured on Mike Pesca’s current affairs podcast, The Gist. I’d always been a big fan of the show and I knew from listening over the years that he would be interested in a story from the fall of communism in Europe in the late 1980s.

A few other media outlets are now working on their own versions of the INTER story. These include Prague-based Expats.cz and one of the leading Czech political and current-affairs magazines, Respekt. I will update this post with links once they publish.

The cover of the True Spies podcast episode on Operation INTER. With their focus on Cold War spy stories, this was right up their alley. Photo credit: True Spies
It was a treat to meet and talk with The Gist podcast host, Mike Pesca. I've been a fan for several years. Photo credit: The Gist
Over the years, Bratislava’s Hotel Devín had welcomed the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Karel Gott, the Dalai Lama and even ‘Slash’ from the rock group Guns N’ Roses (in 1995). I stayed there myself on the night of November 9-10, 1989, as a guest of the Czechoslovak StB, who were planning to give me a night I’d never forget. Photo credit: www.hoteldevin.sk
The lobby bar of Bratislava's Hotel Devin in July 2023, when Nat Geo photographer Susan Seubert and I stopped in for a photo shoot. The space was little changed from when Arnold and I had ducked in here for a beer on our arrival to the hotel on November 9, 1989. Photo: Susan Seubert

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to return to Bratislava’s Hotel Devin for the first time since publishing my book and learning of the existence of my file. Readers of the INTER stories will recall this was the hotel where the honey-pot trap with a female Slovak informant named “INA” was set to go down on the night of November 9, 1989. To give the story even more of a Hollywood twist, the StB conveniently chose the night the Berlin Wall fell to put their scheme into action.

In early July this year, while working on a National Geographic European river cruise, I realized that our boat docking in Bratislava was just a hundred meters or so from where the Devin stood. During a down moment on the cruise, Nat Geo photographer Susan Seubert and I hustled over to the hotel for a drink and impromptu trip down memory lane. Susan took a lot of funny photos as I tried to recall staying there in November 1989 and all of things that might have been.

I was happy to discover that very little about the hotel had changed over the past thirty years. Indeed, you could hardly find a better place to set an StB sting operation or a Cold War thriller (TV or movie). I sincerely hope Netflix is listening. We could make beautiful music together.

One of the highlights of the past year was a talk on the book and Operation INTER I gave at Prague's Globe Bookstore and Cafe in October 2022. Photo courtesy of The Globe.
I am happy to report that I can still find my book fairly regularly on at bookstores across Prague. I love to see where the clerks have chosen to shelve it. Usually under 'History'. Photo: Mark Baker

All this brings me to future plans. With the five-part INTER story on my blog, I now have the basic blocks of text to integrate into a long-planned English version of “Čas proměn.” The book will have to be recast to take in what I’ve learned since it was published, but the new twists only make it better and more interesting. It’s hard to find time during the busy summer travel season to work on the book, but I hope to make more headway later this year. If all goes according to plan, I should have something out in English in 2024.

For the revised version of my book (and to satisfy my own curiosity about what happened in November 1989 in Bratislava), I had hoped somehow to make contact with INA and include some of her own memories. Surely, I thought, she could shed light on why the operation was apparently called off at the last minute. At the very least, she could share her perspectives on the plan or the idea of coming to live in Vienna as my wife.

Alas, that probably won’t happen. Here are some behind-the-scenes details that I’ve never publicly disclosed before:

When I originally read through my file, I immediately noticed that someone at the archive at some point (it’s not clear who or when) had scribbled in ink across one of the documents what appears to be INA’s real name (most identities are hidden behind opaque code names). In other words, I think I know who she really was (and still is). In order to shield INA’s identity, I purposely omitted this detail on my blog and in the podcast and media interviews.

For several months, I wrestled with the idea of contacting her directly. After all, I figured she might feel some shame or regret for her role and find any message from me – no matter how well-intentioned -- wholly unwelcome. Curiosity got the better of me in January this year, though, when I sent her a short message via Facebook messenger. In the text (written in my tortured Slovak), I wrote that I had once worked as an American journalist in the 1980s and that we might have met sometime in 1989. I naturally omitted any salacious details about secret police files or covert operations.

I then waited for a reply or sign she’d seen the message (Facebook is odd in that when you send a message to someone not on your friend list, the text goes to a spam-type inbox). For a couple of months, there was no sign of any activity at all, and then one day, I went to look at her FB profile and noticed I could no longer see it. She blocked me.

I can understand and respect her reaction, but I’d like to make one last direct appeal here:

INA, if you know of this blog’s existence and are following the story, I sincerely invite you to contact me. I assure you I will handle any contact responsibly, and your input would help me immensely to fill in details that still elude me.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three 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.

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

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker