“It’s no surprise to me” – says historian on revelation that Oxford academic was Czechoslovak spy

Dr Jirina Stone, a Czech émigré who became an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford was a secret informer for the Czechoslovak communist intelligence service, according to a story recently published in the Daily Mail by its investigations team. It is not the first time that a prominent individual in the West has been hit by such a revelation. According to Dr Jan Koura from the Cold War Research Group at Charles University, who specialises in Czech intelligence activity during the communist era, it is not likely to be the last.

“The Cold War ended 30 years ago, but not all archival materials have yet been released, especially in the former communist states where this declassification of documents started much later than in the West.

“This information about Dr Jirina Stone cooperating with Czechoslovak intelligence does not surprise me, because the Czechoslovak intelligence service had an extensive network of agents and collaborators in dozens of countries around the world. I am convinced that we shall see more of these revelations, because more and more documents in Prague’s Security Services Archive are being declassified.”

In the story, Dr Stone emphatically denied being a spy and said she successfully 'played' the agents by giving them only inconsequential 'flannel' that posed no security risk. What do you think of her defence and what sorts of options did emigres have in these situations?

“I have not seen her file, so it is difficult to say. However, as I said, this type of collaboration was quite common, because Czechoslovak intelligence wanted to recruit Czechoslovak immigrants, politicians, journalists and other types of prominent people in foreign countries. This was done to collect information and influence their political aims in those countries.

Jan Koura | Photo: Charles University

“Dr Stone admitted she met with Czechoslovak StB agents, but it is difficult to say, since I have not seen the file, what sort of information she provided.”

Do we know what sort of pressure the StB would put on such people?

“The StB used all of the methods that they learnt from the KGB, because the StB was built by Soviet advisors after the Communist coup of 1948. For example, Czechoslovak emigres tended to have their families still in Czechoslovakia, so that was very strong leverage.

“In the Third World it was often quite different. Many politicians and prominent people from the Third World collaborated with the StB on a voluntary basis. Some of them were also paid agents or collaborators. In those cases, pressure was not needed, because they really were voluntarily collaborating with Czechoslovak intelligence.”

You are a historian. Your job is to find these sorts of things. But do you have any thoughts on how such revelations should be handled? I know that a there have been discussions about how post-Communist states have handled the fact that there were people who still occupy high positions that worked with the StB. The current Czech prime minister had that past according to some files [found in Slovakia].  30 years since the fall of communism, should we still take these sorts of findings very seriously, or handle them more as curiosities?

“It was not a curiosity. I think it is a part of the history of our country and that of Central Europe. However, we should treat these files with sensitivity, because the intelligence services were pressuring those people and had leverage on them. I can understand that it was not easy for them to refuse to collaborate, if there was any kind of pressure.

“However, this story of Dr Stone’s collaboration can tell us about how strong these sorts of activities of the Czechoslovak communist intelligence service were in foreign countries. They had a really broad network of collaborators.”