Memories of the old Communist Czechoslovakia by Paul Flint

Things are improving, at least in Britain, with encouraging statistics showing vaccinations against Covid-19 exceeding thirty million, there are daily reductions in hospitalisations and down to double digit deaths although these are a tragedy for the families involved. The road map out of the restrictions suffered for over a year now indicate we shall shortly enjoy freedom of movement. Foreign travel is eagerly awaited by many and weekends away to European cities will become an attraction.

Cities like Prague, capital of what is today known as the Czech Republic, have become tourist destinations. And no wonder, as the city did not suffer damage in WW2 and has many historical features to be enjoyed by today’s tourists. The Castle overlooks the Vltava river with its eighteen bridges including the famous Charles bridge with its complement of statues.  One of the benefits from the Soviet occupation was the construction of a metro system making it easy to travel around the city. When I was there it was pristinely clean and a credit to its design.

There are many orthodox churches with glorious interiors making fascinating viewing and, of course, there is Wenceslas Square which, in reality, is a large rectangle with traffic on both sides. It gently rises, where at the top, is the statue of this saint, recalled in the Christmas carol, with a steady supply of foreigners taking photographs.

Statue of King Wenceslas at the top of the famous square

But it was not like this forty years ago when I became a regular visitor over the following twelve years. Very few western tourists were seen, as at that time Czechoslovakia was part of the Eastern Bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. The move to reduce the influence of Moscow had been started in 1968 and known as the Prague Spring, it was led by Alexander Dubcek, and had attempted some reforms.  Following his friendly discussions in Moscow the country was quickly overrun by invading Russian troops with a token presence of contingents from other Soviet controlled countries, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, under the banner of the Warsaw Pact. The spurious reason given was to provide a bulwark for Czechoslovakia against an imaginary invasion of the Sudetenland by West German and NATO troops. This was history repeating itself as similarly false reasons had been behind the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.

The Russian military presence was everywhere as they held the country under its yoke with armed soldiers on the streets and driving around menacingly in their Moscovic and Lada cars.  Life was confusing for the small number of westerners that found it difficult to distinguish the local police from the Russian soldiers. The police also wore khaki uniforms and carried automatic weapons but drove Skoda Estelles

Czech Police Skoda Estelle

At that time, on entry to the country, passports had to record how much Sterling had to be changed into Czech Crowns. There were, confusingly, four levels of exchange rates; the official rate, a lower commercial rate, an even lower tourist rate and the black-market seeking western hard currencies of Deutschmarks, US Dollars and from any Brits, Pounds Sterling. The black-market rate was around four times better than the tourist rate which tempted low-cost purchases. I, and any travelling companions, walking around the city in the evenings would be approached in the street and even if we were not talking to give away that we were English would be asked covertly if we would like to “change money.” I guess it must be the way we were dressed that easily identified us as carriers of hard currency.

With citizens not normally allowed to leave the country, except to Bulgaria or Romania, black market exchanges was a way of obtaining hard currency needed for overseas purchases by the government and those commercial enterprises allowed to trade internationally. The government had a way of mopping up black-market exchanges with special shops having tempting western goods that could only be bought with hard currency – with no questions asked.

It was necessary to carry your passport constantly. Hotels required that you to hand over your passport every night as the police came during the early hours to check them and the identity cards of their citizens staying there. When visiting business premises of any sort, passports had to be left with the reception.

On leaving the country, Prague airport had four departure security checks that had to be negotiated before gaining access to airside. Receipts were checked to ensure that the total spent did not exceed the money noted in the passport. If greater it proved that money had been exchanged on the black-market and goods were seized. Czech currency could not be exported, so any remaining Crowns were confiscated. The relief, before take-off, sitting in the British Airways plane, was palpable.

Usually, I stayed in a hotel near the top of Wenceslas Square which although not new had a reasonably designed restaurant with comfortable upholstered armchairs. In those days, the menu offerings consisted of several pork alternatives and there was always the possibility that the head waiter would place another diner at my table if there was a spare seat. The bar was well patronised by local ladies freelancing in the evenings looking for hard currency payments for services about to be rendered.

My meetings in Prague were with a trading house, whose role was to find export partners for Czechoslovak products and to import goods needed by their economy. My company was their UK venture partner for selling and servicing Czechoslovak made printing presses. Their people were well educated, urbane, multi-lingual and some were well travelled. The trading house placed personnel in the commercial sections of their embassies around the world so that they could interact with local partners.

Our Milton Keynes Showroom showing a range of Czech made presses

I suppose, like many such placements, the security services of democratic host countries kept an eye on these communist visitors. This was the case in London. A small brown envelope was received in the post at my home from the Ministry of Defence which invited me for discussions to take place with a choice of being at my home, office in Brentford or MI5 headquarters.  I chose to have such a discussion at my office. The female security officer wanted to know about my dealings in Czechoslovakia and about the London based representative of the trading house. They knew he had been to Scotland on holiday with his wife and two children and that he had visited the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Only earlier this year has a Sunday newspaper revealed that around this time the Labour MP for Coventry East, and ex managing director of Jaguar cars, Geoffery Robinson, was under investigation for his links to communist connections in Czechoslovakia.

Not long after this interview I noticed that every time I picked up my phone at home that there was a click. I was convinced my phone was tapped. An upcoming general election saw the sitting Conservative MP knock on my door canvassing support. I told him about my experience with the security service and the fear I had about my phone being tapped. Within a week the clicking ceased, never to return.

Many visits were made to the factory near to Brno, in the south of the country which provided the opportunity of seeing much agricultural activity. Most of the land was a high plateau with many vineyards and small motorway service centres having shops selling Bohemian crystal ware. There were reminders of the Soviet occupation with army tanks set on plinths and in villages, with no street lighting, there were masts equipped with loudspeakers. European dealer conferences were held there most years and to entertain their guests, visits were made to glass engravers and vineyards that produced some excellent wines and champagne style products.

On one occasion three of us were picked up from Prague airport and were squashed on the back seat of a Skoda Estelle for the three hours to get to the factory. The next time, and determined not to repeat this scenario, instead we flew into Vienna and collected a rental car and drove to Brno. One day driving around the city we were stopped by a Russian soldier standing in the middle of the road pointing a machine gun. Fortunately, in our car we had with us a lady from the trading house who spoke Russian, but I wondered what might have happened to us if we had been on our own.

The factory personnel were not supposed to fraternise with westerners but, surprisingly, one invited several to his home that was very enlightening. Houses were mainly single storey with window coverings of heavily designed lace curtains. Everyone kept a pig in their back garden which they would butcher for pork and to make sausages. Smoking was commonplace and locally produced slivovic was readily to hand.

Factory representatives and managers from the trading house visited the UK annually. They were not allowed to bring their wives and were debriefed by Czech security agents on their return home about the meetings including any agreements made. Despite them being forbidden to be entertained, and because some were not fluent in the English language, over the years we took them to all the West End musicals. I am not sure what they thought about the production of Cats and I wondered what they thought about the roller-skating Russian train in Starlight Express. We always dined well after each show.

Front Cover of a Printing Trade Journal 12 June 1985. Me with Printing Press Chief Designer

The real move towards democracy started in late 1989 with the Velvet Revolution, led by playwright Vaclav Havel. 73,000 guest Russian troops had to return home.

With the gradual democratisation, following this mainly weapon free revolution, there was the ability to purchase higher quality components which made the products of domestic production more reliable, which in turn made them more acceptable to western markets. Substantial investment was made by western companies in Czechoslovak businesses with possibly the most well-known being the takeover of Skoda by Volkswagen. The old joke about how to double the value of a Skoda was to fill it with petrol no longer applies as the present Skoda range performs very well in our marketplace. Being the owner of two Skoda cars over the last six years I can certify their performance, reliability and quality.

The Velvet Revolution worked.