A window in Klimentska Street

Klimentska Street

Prague is a city where history stares at you at every turn. As I sit at the desk typing in my friend's apartment where I'm staying until I find a place of my own, my gaze out the window meets a 1930s block of flats in Klimentska Street. There is nothing outwardly special about the building—in fact, it looks rather shabby these days. If I look directly across the street, my eyes meet a second-floor apartment where the facade is peeling around the windows and the curtains are usually drawn. Sometimes the lights are on. I'm curious about who lives there, not because I'm a nosey neighbor, but because in the 1980s this very apartment was used by Czechoslovakia's secret police, the StB, to spy on my friend.

There are many pages of dutiful reports by the StB officers who spied on my friend since 1971. First they assigned her the code-name Luna, later it was Filosofka. But in the reports they always refer to her as "the object," or just 'O' for short. Many years later, the StB's general description still fits: "160cm tall and thin, small frame, short hair. Wears pants more often than skirts, always carries a purse over her shoulder. Behaves normally. The pace of her walk is rather quick." At least they got something right. If you study the StB reports, it's clear they had real problems keeping up with her fast pace—quite often there are large time-gaps in the StB diaries. For example, they lose her at 3pm in the center of Prague and helpless, the StB goons return to Klimentska Street waiting for their 'object' to return home so they can at least file the end of that day's report. In fact, there are entire days when they failed to track her down. Quite often their reports make mention of how she "left the apartment at 7:25am with a purse and a nylon bag containing a package, size A4, 15mm thick," or some variation thereof. Often the StB retrieved parcels and letters she mailed, but even then they never figured out the extent of what was happening under their noses.

But let me return to the apartment across the street. Here's a word-for-word translation of what the StB report says they saw on October 16th, 1987:

"At 17:45 the lights came on in the object's apartment. The object was spotted crossing the room in her bathrobe. At 18:36 the lights went out. Then the lights were switched on and off in the apartment several more times. At 20:55 the lights came on again and the object is seen in the apartment with a man. They sat at the table, and the man wrote something in a notebook. The lights went out after about 2 minutes. At 21:00 the object returned to the room and did something at the table (it appeared she was counting money). After about 3 minutes she turned out the lights and left the room. Observation ended at 23:00 and the man had not yet left the apartment house of the object."

In and of itself, reading these reports now is rather funny. Typically, the StB shift ended at 21:00, but on this night they worked overtime from the apartment across the street. Still, they never figured out that Charter 77's unofficial bank was housed in the apartment they were watching. Nor did they uncover that the endless letters being mailed were part of a larger underground conspiracy, and that Jirina Siklova was the key figure in arranging the transfer of forbidden texts in and out of Czechoslovakia. When the StB spotted her carrying various shopping bags, these were usually filled with texts written by dissidents on their way to the West via a secret route, so long as they were not intercepted.

As I sit and write about these events now, I wonder what happened to the StB agents who sat across the street 20 years ago. It is part of the past, yet in these little ways I'm reminded that history remains more alive here than in other places I've lived.