by Peter Bridges
After five good years in our Rome embassy, my family and I were transferred in late 1971 to the American embassy in Prague. This was three years after the Soviet army had crushed Alexander Dubček’s “socialism with a human face.” It had not crushed the Czechs and Slovaks. We made a number of friends; we had never known a people with such a liking for Americans; but the StB, the Státní bezpečnost or state security police, were an oppressive presence. People understandably had their heads under their wings. It was only later, in 1976, that future President Václav Havel and others organized the Charter 77 dissident movement.
Several years ago I got a copy of the now declassified file that the StB kept on me in what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Whether it is complete I’ll never know, but it is around a hundred pages long, and lists my many contacts and actvities in Prague as well as the several StB officers who were on my case. I headed the embassy’s political/economic section, which comprised four officers. There was relatively little to report on the Czechoslovak political scene and the centralized economy was stagnant and inefficient, but we were also responsible for trade promotion—and there was interest in both Washington and Prague in increasing bilateral trade. We began, too, to work on an agreement that would compensate us for American properties seized by the Communist regime, and return to the Czechs the State Bank’s gold that the Nazis had seized in 1939 and the Western Allies had seized from the Nazis. We stayed busy.
In March 1973, after I had been in the country over a year, the StB did a summary of what they thought they knew about me. The Soviet “friends,” the KGB, had told the Czechs I was a CIA officer (which I was not). The StB opined that I might even be the rezident, the chief, of the NATO spies in Czechoslovakia. When I read that, years later, I laughed; it was in a sense a tribute to my hard work. But if I had known their judgment at the time, I would have been a little worried that they might pull some nasty trick on me. Fortunately they never did.
The StB however trailed me both on foot and in cars, sometimes quite visibly. I called often on Czechoslovak ministries and foreign-trade organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the huge baroque Czernin Palace, was within walking distance from our embassy in Malá Strana, but most others were located across the River Vltava in the main part of town. I would make two or three morning appointments and get an embassy driver to take me into town to the first, telling him I would walk to the others and then back to the embassy.
It would be noon by the time I finished my appointments. I spent lunchtime walking home, stopping on my way at two or three antikvariáty, second-hand bookstores, that had interesting old volumes at low prices, not only in Czech and German but in English.
This interested the StB. No doubt they thought I was leaving secret messages for my informers in a volume of Shakespeare or Walter Scott, or picking up messages left for me in designated books.
Our CIA station chief had told me that for training purposes the StB often had its junior officers trail foreign diplomats. One day, in each of three successive bookstores I noticed an attractive young woman with auburn hair browsing near me. I might not have noticed her save for her hair. I thought for a minute of telling her that she would be even prettier if she sometimes used a blonde wig. But it was better not to anger the StB, lest they turn to nasty tactics.
One day the embassy received a letter from the “Anti-Fascist Fighters’ League” in Polomka, a village in Slovakia, inviting us to attend the dedication of a monument on the site where, the letter said, a British and American mission had stayed in 1944, after the Wehrmacht put down the Slovak uprising against the puppet regime that Hitler had installed in Slovakia.
We knew nothing about any such US-UK mission. We sent a telegram to the State Department asking if Washington had any information. Several weeks later we received in the diplomatic pouch forty or fifty pages of Top Secret memos that had lately been declassified. The memos confirmed that there had been such a mission, composed of eight OSS men. When the Slovaks rose up against the Nazis in 1944, the OSS team and a lot of weapons and ammunition had been flown into Slovakia to help the uprising. The Germans diverted two divisions from the Russian front to Slovakia and put down the uprising. The Slovak fighters and the OSS team took to the mountains. One of the OSS men was a Slovak American born in the village of Polomka. The team went there, and the villagers took them up to a mountain hut where they stayed safe when the Germans occupied the valleys below. The Americans found that a British team from the equivalent of the OSS, the SOE, was staying at a hostel nearby that was closed to clients for the winter.
Eventually somebody in Polomka squealed. At dawn on Christmas Day a Wehrmacht platoon surrounded the hut and took six of the eight Americans prisoner. The other two Americans had spent the night at the hostel with the SOE team, and when they heard shooting they hid in the woods—and lived to tell the story. The six captive Americans were taken to the concentration camp at Mauthausen in Austria, where they were tortured and then executed.
Stephen Barrett, the number-two in the British embassy (who was to return to Prague as ambassador years later), and I decided to drive out to the dedication in one of our embassy’s Fords. Our son David, fifteen, came along as our photographer. We were followed by the StB, but no matter; we hiked happily up the heavily forested mountainside and along a long grassy ridge, led by the local head of the Slovak State Forests. The weather was good, and all around us were the five-thousand-foot green ridges of the Malá Fatra range.
Just below our ridge the Slovaks had lately rebuilt the OSS hut–the Wehrmacht had burned it down in 1944—and put a bronze commemorative plaque on the wall. A number of village women had come up earlier, and set out lunch for us all. Afterward we hiked back down to Polomka and had a festive meal at the local inn. We departed for Prague late in the afternoon full of food and, after many toasts, drink.
The Slovak fuzz, which was said to be more vigilant than the Czech fuzz, had followed us to Polomka, and followed us now westward in two Škodas. With a little slivovica in me, I decided to see if Škodas were as fast as Fords. I drove 65 or 70 miles an hour—the Slovak StB report says I reached 130 km/h, or 80 mph—along the twisting mountain roads. I could see the Škodas hanging on with difficulty. A mile before the sign marking the Czech border, one of the Škodas passed us; I thought the driver had a smirk on his face. Both of their cars turned around at the border. There were no vehicles waiting for us on the Czech side. We had brought camping gear, and a few miles beyond the border we turned onto some small road and spent the night in a meadow in a quiet forest, with no one else around. We drove back to Prague the next day after an interesting expedition.
Curiously, my StB file says nothing, except for the Slovak report on our Polomka trip, about my many hikes and runs in Czechoslovakia. In Prague I got up most mornings at six, which for much of the year is long before dawn, and ran out the front gate of the grand old Schönborn Palace, that then housed both embassy offices and staff apartments. There was a police booth in the little square opposite our entrance. Sometimes I got a drowsy salute from the man on duty; some other times I thought he might be asleep. Once or twice I was tempted to wake him and say “Be vigilant!” But I never did.
I ran leftward up the cobbles of our steep street, and leftward into the forested Petrin Park, the Petřínské sady, where in the course of a mile I seldom encountered anyone. But sometimes, too, I would skip lunch and go running at mid-day with my embassy comrade Bill Farrand, often in a forest park, and we never saw anyone on our tracks then, either. No doubt most StB agents smoked and few were runners. But were they not concerned that Farrand and I might be meeting fellow spies in the forest? Who knows?
I had been running ever since I got out of the U.S. Army in poor shape, in 1957, after a year’s desk duty as a clerk in Verdun. It was the Cold War and the Soviet army faced us in force, just four hundred miles to the east; yet our battalion was given no physical training and we went just once a year on a short training bivouac in the countryside.
After I joined the State Department I knew I had to get in shape. I began running early on weekday mornings, just a half-mile. I lengthened my runs a little as we went successively to the embassies in Panama, Moscow, and Rome. My colleague Yale Richmond has written that I was the first jogger in Moscow (and he the second). Perhaps I was, but by the time we went to Prague I was still not doing much more than a mile a day.
One of our Prague embassy drivers was a gentlemanly Czech named Jiří Frýd. We assumed that all our Czech employees had to report on us to the StB; we knew that several were professional StB officers. No matter; such was life in the police state; but pan Frýd I found friendly and helpful. Years later, after the Velvet Revolution, he regained ownership of his family’s large apartment building by the Vltava that the Communists had confiiscated. By then, though, he was near his end.
I asked him one day whether he could possibly find out whether there was a running club at that venerable institution, Charles University, and if so, whether they would be willing to have me join.
After a week or so Frýd reported to me that there was a club but they could not risk associating with an American diplomat…but there was a professor of physical education at the university, Emil Dostál, who before the Soviet invasion had visited track teams on American campuses and who would be willing to run with me.
Several afternoons later I called on the professor at his apartment and he took me on a run, a longer one than I was used to, along the trails in the nearby Kunratice forest park. He gave me a copy of his new book, Běh pro zdravi (“Run for Health”), the first Czech book on jogging. And he urged me to take part in the annual race along the Kunratice trails that was coming up soon.
The race was, and is, called the Velká kunratická, the Great Kunratice. It has been run since 1934 in the old park at Kunratice, on the edge of Prague, where King Vaclav IV built a country castle in 1412. The race was an offshoot of the Sokol, the great Czech athletic and patriotic organization that both the Nazi and Communist regimes closed down, but it has been run every year without interruption for over eight decades.
It was early on the chill morning of November 11, 1972 that I first ran in the Velká kunratická, together with fifteen hundred other runners, all Czechs but for me and, I learned later, two Swiss men. I had run the route once, slowly, with Dostál, so I knew what was coming. Almost all the route was a narrow forest path, with just a few stretches of dirt road, so the runners set off in pairs. It was not a long route, just 3.6 kilometers, about two and a quarter miles; but there were four hills to climb and three streams to jump or ford. Dostál placed himself toward the first to take off. I looked at all the trim younger runners and took a place far back.
My fellow runner, in his forties lke me, and I shook hands and we started off. In a minute or two he was far ahead. The first hill was not bad but the second hill was steep and slippery, covered with loose shale that in turn was covered with fallen leaves. Most of us ascended it on all fours; I see in a YouTube video of the 2016 race that that’s still the mode. I managed to jump across two of the streams, splashed through the icy water of the third, and finished!
Some days later Emil Dostál gave me a copy of the booklet with the race results. I had finished 89th out of 118 runners in the 40-to-50 age group. Not too bad, maybe, for my first race. Perhaps next year I could do better—and I did, running together with Bill Farrand; but I no longer have a copy of those results. The 1972 booklet listed the runners by name and organization. I was amused to see that my name was given as Scott, which is my middle name, and my organization as Bridges. Did that confuse the cops? I doubt it, but there is nothing about the Velká kunratická in my StB file.
My wife and children and I also did a lot of weekend hikes in, to use Smetana’s title, Bohemia’s woods and fields. We soon decided that the Czech system of trails must be the best in Europe. They were, and are today, well marked and maintained by volunteers from the Czech Hiking Club or KČT. The KČT was founded long ago, in 1888, by a businessman named Vojta Náprstek who came back to Prague from years in Milwaukee, determined to make Czechs as good walkers as he had found our Midwesterners to be. Today, I think, the Czechs by and large are better hikers than Americans.
One weekend Mary Jane and I reached the summit of Sněžka, the highest mountain in the Czech lands, just a mile above sea level but a climb of 2,800 vertical feet. The summit, above tree line, is on the border with Poland. When we reached the top on a summer Sunday there were dozens of hikers on either side of the border who wanted to fraternize but were being kept apart, rudely, by policemen armed with rifles. So much for what Moscow described as the “fraternal socialist camp.” It was an unpleasant scene.
We soon turned down the trail that followed a grassy ridge west for six miles to the old resort town of Špindlerův Mlýn. Here at the Hotel Savoy, in 1922, an ailing Franz Kafka had stayed for several months writing The Castle. When we reached the town I admit I did not think of Kafka, but of finding, as we soon did, a little inn that sold liters of draft Pilsener.
My longest hike was through the Mácha country. That is the poet Karel Hynek Mácha, whom the Czechs with good reason compare to Byron, Keats and Shelley, and who died of pneumonia in 1836 at the age of 25. HIs greatest poem, “May,” is set at Bezděz, a thirteenth-century castle above a lake in northern Bohemia. Mácha was a strong hiker and loved the region, which is often called after him the Máchův kraj. There was, I learned, a 30-kilometer trail that retraced a walking route he had taken. In the late summer of 1973, when I had come back from a vacation in Italy but my family was still there for a couple of weeks more, I decided to walk Mácha’s path.
Fortunately for hikers, Communist Czechoslovakia still maintained, ignoring economics, the dense network of both large and small railroad lines, all with passenger trains, that the Czechs had built in the 1800s when they were the industrial heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I found I could take a succession of small trains north from Prague to reach the town of Doksy, where I would begin my long walk. It would end at the town of Mšeno. From Mšeno it would take me two trains and and two more hours to get back to Prague. Slow, but on a summer Sunday I would have no need to hurry.
I did not want the StB to think I was undertaking a secret mission. I asked a Czech employee of the embassy’s admin section who we knew was an StB staffer to buy me train tickets for the next Sunday. At dawn on Sunday I started off.
It was a glorious day. At Doksy I easily found the trail that led southeast to the lake and Bezděz. The castle was set majestically atop a hill and was mainly a ruin. I walked through the roofless old Gothic halls—and, turning a corner, I came face to face with a small squad of Soviet soldiers. After the 1968 invasion Moscow had, we knew, left two divisions in Czechoslovakia, and these boys must have belonged to one of them.
We greeted each other briefly—presumably they thought I was Czech—and I left them to enjoy their sightseeing. What did they know of the Western world but that it was full of Russophobe imperialists? And yet for all I knew one of those drab soldiers might be a student of medieval history, bent on telling his comrades about old Czech kings.
I walked down to the lakeshore, found a big linden tree, and sat down to read my English translation of “May.” Here by the lake Jarmila the maiden had sat, while above in the castle her love, Vilem the king of brigands, awaited execution. Very Byronic. Very sad and beautiful.
After a dozen miles or more my trail crossed a field of rye a third of a mile across. On the far side was a big oak tree. It was a hot day in Bohemia and I sat down in the shade of the oak to eat my sandwich. If I was being followed I would see my follower before he saw me, when he started across the field. But there was no one. StB must be taking Sunday off.
It was a good Sunday, and not just because no one was tailing me. I walked through a leafy hamlet with old half-timbered houses and after a couple of more miles in the woods I came on an Indian encampment: three teepees inhabited by a group of Czechs in their late twenties.
“Good day,” I said to them. “Admirers of Karl May, I suppose?”
“Yes, of course,” one said.
Karl May was a German writer of the 19th century whose best-selling novels portrayed an American West he had never seen. Few Americans know of him or his main protagonists, Winnetou the Apache chief and Old Shatterhand the trapper, but May is still widely read in Germany—and in the Czech Republic. In the 1970s, one could erect a teepee in the Czech woods for a weekend, play at being Blackfoot or Crow, and almost forget the cruel state.
It was late evening when I got back to my embassy, tired but satisfied with my day in Mácha’s footsteps. This was a good country. Someday Moscow’s hold on it would be gone; but who could say when? Not for fifteen more long years, it turned out. But the Czechs kept on running and hiking, more interested in Karel Mácha and Karl May than in Karl Marx.
Ambassador Bridges, a U. S. Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1986, received assignments abroad at Panama, Moscow, Prague, and Rome, in addition to a posting as US envoy to Somalia. He is the author of Safirka: An American Envoy, a memoir of his service in Somalia, and Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel, the first biography of an American diplomat who became the most influential Confederate editor, both published by Kent State University Press. In 2012 Kent State published his Donn Piatt: Gadfly in the Gilded Age, the biography of an American diplomat who became famous as a Washington editor in the 1870s. The book has been selected for inclusion in the ADST-DACOR series on Diplomats and Diplomacy.