Ladislav Hornan: Locked up on spying charges in 1980s Prague as a UK citizen

Ladislav Hornan, photo: Ian Willoughby

Ladislav Hornan, who is chairman of the British Czech and Slovak Association, has enjoyed a very successful career and led one of the UK’s top accountancy firms for many years. He came from a relatively privileged background in Prague, where his mother Magdalena Horňanová was a music professor and writer. Unusually, Mr. Hornan returned regularly to Czechoslovakia after emigrating in 1968. Until, that is, he spent almost a month in a Prague jail on spying charges in the mid-1980s. In a meeting room at his company’s City of London building he shared that remarkable story. But first we discussed August 1968 when, as an 18-year-old, he was in England on a summer study stay.

Ladislav Hornan; behind him is an original artwork by Banksy,  hanging in a common area at his firm,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“About four days before I was due to leave, to go back by train to Prague, I saw the tanks in front of our apartment building on Jindřišská.

“And subsequently my parents told me not to come back. You can imagine that was a fairly big sacrifice for my parents.

“I have two sisters. They were still in Prague in those days. And my parents actually sent them out as well [one settled in the UK, the other in Canada].”

You were 18 in 1968. That is incredibly young to make such a life decision.

“I think when you are 18 you don’t see things as life decisions.

“But it made a lot of sense. I was always interested in the political scene, though not actually in practicing politics.

“So I think I understood what was going on.

“If you read by mother’s autobiographies, you would understand that she and my father went through all the changes from WWI to communism, etc. We understood that as well.

“And I never had any difficulties in the UK.”

How long was it before the UK began feeling like home to you?

“At one level, it was very quick. I’m one of those people, I enjoy what I do, I enjoy my life. I never had any struggle – always worked, always studied.

“On the other hand, it was a little bit lonely, so I married very young.

“At work level, in those days things were a little different. There was less tolerance for foreigners.

“But I knew how to deal with it. And I knew how to make sure that it didn’t stop my progress.”

Did you know a lot of other young Czechoslovaks at that time here in London?

Russian invasion in August 1968,  Prague,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“I knew a lot. 1968 was in itself a very interesting time. Because many young people like me made a decision – and maybe a little bit older than me, or most of them were a little bit older than me – and they very quickly went to universities, established themselves.

“Basically the UK supported them to settle in the UK.

“But there were some people, including a very dear friend of mine from Prague, that decided to go back.

“So there were those people as well that couldn’t handle the change.”

There was a previous generation of émigrés who came here 20 years earlier, roughly. Did you have much contact with them in your early days in the UK?

“OK, there was maybe a group in the late 1940s, but there was also a group in the late 1930s.

“Yes, I would meet some of them in the Czech club, one of the places where we would visit to meet people and have drinks.

“You would see especially the old pilots in those days, sitting there and enjoying their drink. And it was great to be able to talk to them.”

When did you first return to Prague after that period?

“I actually returned fairly early on. Because I was a very enthusiastic skier, you could say I was an expert skier, and I missed it.

“Because I married early, I organised – or my mother did – an immigrant passport, so I was able to go back to Prague the first time in, I think, 1969.

“That was itself a very interesting time, because I was there on Wenceslas Square after the Russia-Czechoslovakia [ice hockey] world championships second match.

“The Czechs won and it was quite interesting to be with the masses of people on Wenceslas Square.”

Were you constantly coming and going? This seems quite unusual to me.

“Before I was due to leave I saw the tanks in front of our apartment building on Jindřišská. My parents told me not to come back. You can imagine that was a fairly big sacrifice for them.”

“I can’t say constantly, but I did like my skiing and it was a lot cheaper for me to go skiing in Czechoslovakia, although there were terrible queues, so I gave that up later.

“But I was going there quite regularly. Until 1985. In 1985 there was a big event and I couldn’t go any more.”

What big event, do you mind me asking?

“I was put in jail.”

Tell us more.

“[Laughs] This has never been aired in public, although many of friends know.

“My father was not well in 1985. He had a cancer operation, so I went to see him.

“And on my way back to London, on Revoluční, catching the CSA bus, I was arrested.

“I was taken to Ruzyně [prison]…”

On what grounds?

“The grounds were espionage. But I must say immediately that when everything was reinvestigated back in the 1990s it’s documented that it was a total fabrication.

“But for some reason I must have been quite interesting to the Czechoslovak authorities.”

Did they tell you in concrete terms what kind of spying they suspected you of?

“Yes, they did. It was a really surreal situation. Because it had to do with one of their officials.

“And I went through the legal process without really any representation or access to my people in Ruzyně prison. I stayed there for about three and a half weeks.”

How did you eventually get out?

“I was released on April 6, 1985. And on April 9, the UK foreign secretary, it was Lord [Geoffrey] Howe at that time, was making the first such visit to Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany in 20 years.

Ruzyně prison,  photo: Miloš Turek
“So the way I understand it, they came to an agreement that I would be released before he actually finished his trip.”

Was it a kind of international cause that you were locked up?

“No, no, no. It was not an international cause.

“As I say, I had not done anything whatsoever against the Czechoslovak state, never would, never had to.

“By that time I was very successful and it’s quite possible they were very interested in me because my partner in this firm where we are sitting [major City of London accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young], the senior partner at the time, was the chairman of the BBC, Stuart Young.

“And his brother, Lord [David] Young, was in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.

“So I suspect they couldn’t understand how a Czech could get so successful to be a partner in a City accountancy firm, with those kinds of connections.

“But until now I don’t really know what motivated them.”

Tell us about your weeks in Ruzyně, how it went, what they did to you.

“At this moment, I’m very reluctant, OK?

“Let’s start here. I was interrogated every day, morning and afternoon.

“There was a man in my cell who clearly was a criminal, so it wasn’t terribly pleasant, but later I learned things about why he was there, etcetera…”

Was he a kind of spy on you?

“Yes. I don’t know why they would think this, because it was all fabricated, but they thought I would admit something, or somehow capitulate or start talking about things that I couldn’t talk about because I didn’t know anything.

“The way the interrogations were conducted was very interesting. Of course I was very disturbed, if you wish, and worried.

“I was worried about my family. I had two young children, a wife.

“It all looked incredibly serious and it didn’t matter whether I was guilty or not guilty, the prognosis of what would happen to me was real and very serious.

“There were a number of incidents. The way that the interrogation was conducted with note-taking and discussion with the interrogator… or the interviewer I will call him – nobody kind of forced me to say things.

“My father had a cancer operation, so I went to see him. On my way back to London I was arrested.”

“But at the beginning it was like chats and he would dictate the answers to a secretary.

“I could see that he was putting a slant on what I was telling him, and when I tried to correct him he would him he would say, Mr. Hornan changed his mind and now he says this…

“So I said from there on, Fine, now you ask me questions and I dictate; I’m well capable of that, I’m a trained professional.

“And I think that those people who were responsible for this thought that I was a very highly trained man.

“So that was a kind of a compliment, but a horrible place to pay me a compliment like that.

“And there were other incidents, but I would rather not talk about it.”

That’s such an amazing story that it almost feels strange to go back a little bit, but I would like to ask you, wasn’t it weird to be returning as a visitor to your home country [then under normalisation] for a period of let’s say 15 years? Wasn’t it a strange feeling, just to be visiting?

“It was a strange feeling from the point of view that I wanted to see my friends, but I knew I had to be very cautious regarding how I talked to them.

“Not because I was afraid of them or what I would tell them that was wrong. But because I was living in such an incredibly different world.”

Were your parents able to visit you here?

“Yes, they could visit whenever they wanted. Even to the extent that after the 1985 incident they were permitted to come here, I think in the hope that they wouldn’t return.

Ladislav Hornan,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“But my parents didn’t want to be a burden on their children, so they did return.”

Tell us about the career you have enjoyed here in the UK.

“It’s fairly simple. I qualified as a chartered accountant in 1978, whilst I was in this firm.

“I became a partner in this firm two years later, which in itself [he was in his early 30s] was fairly unusual.

“Twenty-two years ago I became the most senior partner, the managing partner, and I managed the firm for 21 years.

“But my specialisation, my profession, was corporate turnaround and insolvency work.

“Basically like a company doctor, looking after companies in financial difficulties, or helping banks to sort out issues with companies like that.”

Maybe it’s a kind of ridiculous question, but given how successful you’ve been in London, do you ever think about what kind of life you would have had in Prague?

“I don’t want to offend anybody. Back in the 1990s I saw many people going back to the then Czechoslovakia.

“I was already a senior partner here and I never had any desire to do that. My family was here, my roots were here.

“To uproot myself or even my family just didn’t make sense. And frankly it didn’t make any sense financially.”

But did you ever think what level you could have risen to if you had stayed in communist Czechoslovakia?

“[Laughs] Communist Czechoslovakia? Probably not. I think that would have been quite difficult to achieve because of my awareness.

“I had two young children, a wife. It didn’t matter whether I was guilty or not guilty, the prognosis of what would happen to me was real and very serious.”

“But, you know, my mother was in the Communist Party, in a pragmatic manner, but that’s a long story. Read her autobiography.

“So I think that I would have just finished my economics school for foreign trade and I would probably have gone into one of the zahraniční obchod [foreign trade] companies to serve there, or the diplomatic service, something like that.

“I’m sure that I would have led a pretty comfortable life. But that’s not what I wanted.”