Communism goes out with a bang

Part 5: Date Night in Bratislava

A photo of Prague's Charles Bridge from my reporting trip to the Czech capital in early-November 1989. The mood in the city was odd. Anticommunist demonstrations were rocking East Berlin at the time, but Czechs were convinced their own communist government wouldn't fall anytime soon. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Another photograph of Charles Bridge from my reporting trip to Prague in early-November 1989. The bridge looks quiet here, but there was a lot going on around town. Thousands of East Germans had fled to the city to obtain special visas to start new lives in West Germany. Photo credit: Mark Baker

On the morning of November 9, 1989, my Czech fixer (and paid informant for the StB), Arnold, picked me up in his car at Prague’s Hotel Paříž to make the 300 km (180 mile) drive down to Bratislava. I had just wrapped up the first leg of a two-city reporting trip to Czechoslovakia for Business International. After spending the first four days of the trip (November 5-8) in Prague, I planned to spend the final two days in Slovakia.

I don’t remember much about the drive, but I must have been in a good mood. The trip, so far, had been a success. I reported on big stories, witnessed dramatic moments as thousands of East Germans streamed into Prague, and met interesting people, including an attractive American traveler named Gabrielle. I was also happy to begin the long journey home toward Vienna. Those reporting trips across the Iron Curtain always wore me down. Arnold and I would stay the night at Bratislava’s Hotel Devín. The next day, I would catch a train for the short hop over to Austria.

I can’t recall what our precise agenda was for Bratislava. I imagine that -- as in Prague -- we would meet with officials to gauge the political mood (given the anticommunist demonstrations then underway in East Germany). I can safely say, though, as we motored down Czechoslovakia’s main D1 highway, neither of us had the slightest inkling that the end of the Cold War was just hours away.

The first of four pages announcing the start of Operation INTER, the StB’s clandestine action to recruit me. The document links me to the wider Czechoslovak operation, OHEŇ. It reads: ‘INTER is operationally utilizable towards the subject of OHEŇ in Austrian territory.' In the top right corner, someone has written in faint ink 'nerealizováno,' meaning the operation was never carried out. 'Source: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)
The second page of the four-page dossier on Operation INTER. This page carries the line: ‘During his stays, INTER always showed a great interest in girls whom he did not get many.’ In order to entrap me, the services of a female Slovak informant, ‘TS INA,’ would be retained. Curiously, a line notes that Arnold ('TS ARNOL') does not know about this phase of the operation. Source: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)
The third page of the four-page dossier on Operation INTER contains operation details for how TS INA will make her approach and that my room at the Devín will be equipped with special audio and video equipment. This page includes a curious line that hints at what the StB may have been hoping to accomplish: ‘In the cultivation of INA and INTER’s relationship, there is the possibility of planting INA into the territory (as a wife or a partner of INTER).’ Source: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)
The last page of the dossier on Operation INTER includes financial details, noting that INA would receive 200 Czechoslovak crowns (about $40 at the official exchange rate) for her part and that the cost of lodging two StB agents to run surveillance equipment would amount to 400 crowns (about $80). The operation was signed at the bottom by the deputy chief of the intelligence service's Section 37. Source: Surveillance Directorate of the SNB - Operative Files, arch. no. SL-2520 MV (cover name “Inter”)

Operational Details

I had been in a good mood on the drive down, but looking back, Arnold must have been positively ecstatic – and not because of any jovial conversation or the relaxing ride. I didn’t know it at the time, but while I’d been prepping for my reporting trip, Arnold and the Czechoslovak secret police had been doing some advance work of their own.

According to my file, on November 3, 1989 (two days before my arrival in Prague), the head of the StB’s Section 37 -- identified as “Dr. Karel FALKMAN” -- officially green-lit the start of “Operation INTER.” This was the StB’s clandestine operation to monitor and entrap me (in flagrante delicto) with a female Slovak collaborator in a Bratislava hotel room. Everything had been orchestrated to the last detail – and Arnold had put in some excellent work so far.

Based on a four-page dossier outlining the operation (see photos), Arnold (identified as “TS ARNOL”) had been assigned the task of planning out my trip and arranging our schedule so that I would spend the last two days in Bratislava (without eliciting any suspicion on my part). Curiously, though, Arnold had been intentionally kept in the dark as to why he was bringing me to Bratislava. The file states: “Operative measures and personnel involved are to be kept hidden from TS ARNOL due to secrecy reasons.” Here, the StB was employing an old spy technique known as “blocking” – in other words, hiding details of separate operations from individual agents and collaborators. No matter. The plan said bring me to Bratislava, and that’s exactly what he did.

From the dossier, I learned the odd decision to accommodate me at Prague’s Hotel Paříž hadn’t been Arnold’s idea, but rather the choice of an StB agent identified as “KP BARGER.” There’s no indication in the file as to why BARGER selected this hotel, though most probably he had worked in the past with StB operatives, like “ELZA,” who were employed at the hotel’s reception desk. According to my file, ELZA was the informant who had kept such close watch over me at the hotel and even thoughtfully preserved, for posterity, my note to Gabrielle.

As a short aside, apart from my note, there’s nothing else in my file about Gabrielle, and to this day, I have no idea who or what she really was. I’m reasonably certain she was not a Czechoslovak agent. If she had been, her identity would have been covered over in the files by one of those corny code names (something like “GABI” perhaps?). The question remains open, though, whether she was working for the CIA. It was a rare sight back then to meet American tourists anywhere in the Eastern bloc – and even rarer to find women traveling on their own. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of suspicion with this stuff. Most probably, she was exactly what she told me she was: a woman from Chicago with an interest in Eastern Europe.

Back to the materials on Operation INTER: prior to our arrival in Bratislava, a different StB agent, “DVORNÍK,” had arranged separate accommodation for Arnold and me at the Devín for the night of November 9-10. My own room was to be outfitted with special equipment for audio and video surveillance (courtesy of the Bratislava branch of the StB).

DVORNÍK and another StB agent, “TOUFAR,” had been tasked with securing the services of my Slovak “Mata Hari,” a paid StB informant named “INA.” For lack of a better word, she would serve as the “honey” for this honeypot trap. My file states that DVORNÍK and TOUFAR were to brief INA in advance and then “pump her” (their term) afterward for a full accounting of what happened. According to my file, INA agreed to take part in the operation and planned to approach us at dinner at the Devín restaurant on the evening of November 9. Presumably, she would then let the magic happen from there.

The lobby bar of Bratislava's Hotel Devín as it appeared in 1989. This where I would have relaxed with Arnold on our arrival at the hotel -- and most probably where I stole that retro ashtray. Photo credit: www.hoteldevin.sk
The main restaurant of Bratislava's Hotel Devín, much as it appeared in 1989. This is the room where 'TS INA' was to make her casual approach and spark a liaison that could have lasted a lifetime. Photo credit: www.hoteldevin.sk

'Nerealizováno'

And that’s essentially where this story – and my prospective career as a Czechoslovak agent – comes to an end. Across the top of the first page of the dossier, someone (it’s not clear who) has penned the word “nerealizováno,” which translates as “not realized.” In other words, for whatever reason, the operation was called off or never carried out.

My own recollection of the Bratislava part of the trip is frustratingly fuzzy, and I couldn’t find any specific diary entries to refresh my memory. I do remember clearly checking into the Devín that afternoon and having a beer or coffee with Arnold in the lobby on our arrival. I remember stealing one of the hotel’s funky, ‘50s-style ashtrays (see photo) to bring back with me to Vienna (something I’m not proud of). I even have a vague recollection of dining with Arnold that evening in the hotel restaurant. Whether INA ever approached our table – or perhaps merely batted her eyelashes at us from across the room – I really can’t say.

There are two possible explanations for what happened: either DVORNÍK or TOUFAR called off the operation before it could start (perhaps owing to the historic events then just getting started in Berlin); or INA did her best and the sparks between us just didn’t fly. I wrote previously that I wasn't looking for hook-ups on these reporting trips and I was always careful to avoid ambiguous situations. It’s highly possible, even likely, that while I might have enjoyed the conversation, at some point in the evening, I excused myself and said goodnight.

I do know with 100% certainty, however, that I didn’t bring INA back to my room that night to continue the party. It would have been a very strange (though perhaps strangely memorable) way to celebrate the night that communism collapsed.

The last surviving physical remnant of my stay at the Hotel Devín might be this pilfered ashtray that I took from the lobby bar to bring home with me to Vienna. When I asked my former girlfriend from back then if she still had it lying around, she sent me this photo. Crazy. Photo credit: Delia Meth-Cohn
I believe this is another photo of the cozy-looking lobby bar of Bratislava's Hotel Devín. I'm not sure of the date of this photo, but I don't think the general appearance of the room has changed greatly over the past three decades. Photo credit: www.hoteldevin.sk

Lingering Questions

Over the past several months, as I've paged through my file and tried to make sense of events that happened more than 30 years ago, the question of why Operation INTER was never “realized” is just one of many I still don’t have answers to. Perhaps all those folders and materials that were lost or destroyed over the years might have helped me to fill in the blanks.

Based on what survived, the StB was clearly hoping to use my position in Vienna to help them infiltrate the U.S. Embassy. The embassy had been a long-standing target of their covert “Operation OHEŇ” and they had failed to make headway toward breaching it. Looking back, though, I’m not sure how I could have helped them achieve this objective (even if I had agreed somehow to cooperate). In the 1980s, I knew very few people in U.S. diplomatic circles, and I can’t imagine the State Department would have allowed me to waltz in as I pleased. Forget for a moment the extreme legal risk I would be running with any of this.

One alternative theory here is that, with me at least, the U.S. Embassy hadn't been their only objective. If my employer Business International had been a front for the CIA, as they may have believed, then they could have been counting on me to help them to get inside the company. I couldn't find any documentation to support that theory, but it certainly seems logical.

It’s also not clear how the StB planned to use the damaging material against me if they had succeeded in entrapping me. In a classic honeypot scheme, the compromising material is used as blackmail: “Either you do as we ask or we destroy your life.” The only problem is that I wasn’t married. I had a long-term girlfriend in Vienna with whom I was in the process of reconciling, but we had been separated for nearly a year at that point. The materials would have been humiliating and I would have had a lot of explaining to do (both with her and my colleagues at Business International). It’s not obvious, though, how any evidence of an affair would have been threatening enough to coerce me into working for the other side. “Boy meets girl in a Bratislava hotel” is not exactly national news.

But maybe they had something more-devious, more-insidious up their sleeves. A few lines from the third page of the dossier for Operation INTER indicate that the StB might have been thinking more long-term with me. Reading those words today still gives me chills.

Under point 4 of the “goals” of the operation, the text reads: “In the cultivation of INA and INTER’s relationship, there is the possibility of planting INA into the territory (as the wife or partner of INTER).” Like a bad episode of the TV series “The Americans,” the Czechoslovak secret police may have been trying to plant a sleeper agent as my wife.

Thankfully, while the StB was busy cooking up these schemes, the walls (literally) were crumbling down around them. The Berlin Wall collapsed the very night they hoped to bring me onboard. Within a couple of weeks, revolution fever would grip Czechoslovakia as well and bring that country’s communist regime to an end. Within three months (by February 1990), the StB itself would be disbanded. Arnold would soon be out of a job, and he and the other agents and collaborators named in my file would immediately start scrambling to destroy any incriminating materials.

A couple of parting observations before I bring this sordid tale to a close. The first is simply to note what a colossal, pointless waste of manpower and resources the whole thing amounted to. The StB expended hundreds, more likely thousands, of man-hours in vetting, monitoring and trying to recruit me, and all they got in the end was "nerealizovano." It was insane.

The final irony might just be the strangest. I would never have learned any of this long-hidden history if I hadn’t taken the unusual step of writing and publishing a book on Czechoslovakia and the Eastern bloc. It was my book, “Čas proměn,” after all, that led Dr Tomek to re-examine the archives and eventually locate the documents on me. When I began writing the book, I recognized the risk that uncovering rocks from the past might also expose some worms. I could never have imagined, though, the existence of my alter ego, INTER, and all of the plans that they'd had for him.

(Find links to the previous parts of the story here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

Comments

  1. Check out booking.com for a gallery of how the hotel looks today ? I think they’ve invested a bit into it ?

  2. Great story…is there a way I can buy your book online and have it delivered to Belgium? I’m finding it only delivered in the Czech Republic….

  3. I also found this very enjoyable, Mark. Nicely paced, as if it were fiction.

    I can’t remember how i first found your blog – certainly before these concluding episodes were posted; i expect it was referred to me by our one mutual fb friend. I expect you have read Timothy Garton Ash’s memoir of his own Stasi file, his hazy memory, and his efforts to track down the agents named in it. Given the additional time that has passed, and his slightly more elevated international profile I doubt you would have the same success, even if you were motivated; but I imagine the temptation to do so might be strong. I’m sure the results would be fascinatingly mundane.

    If you care to look me up, I would be delighted to converse more. I would have a lot to learn from you.

    Thanks for publicising this, and congratulations for having the skill to do it so well as you have.

    • Thank you for reading and leaving such a nice comment! I am indeed familiar with Timothy Garton Ash’s book and it was an inspiration to me in reading through my own file. I also appreciated Katherine Verdery’s similar, more academic treatment of the subject. Mark

      • Just realised that a couple of years ago I shared your immensely enjoyable 2018 RFE article on Eastern Bloc hotels. I expect that led me to your blog initially. I will read more regularly.

  4. Great story, Mark. I wonder if Ina will ever come forward – or Gabrielle for that matter. Maybe they are in the old hotel registers?

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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