“Prague was exciting, it was beautiful, it was Havel”: Mark Baker on a time of transformation

Crowds line up outside The Globe at the bookstore’s opening party in July 1993

Early 1990s Prague, when everything seemed possible, has attained almost mythical status. Travel writer and journalist Mark Baker had been regularly visiting Czechoslovakia even prior to the fall of communism – and delivers illuminating reflections on those exciting, turbulent times in the new Czech-language book Čas proměn. We discussed that “time of change” just ahead of its publication.

You experienced something that most of us Westerners who are long-time residents of Prague never did, and that was seeing this place before 1989. Could you tell us about your initial experiences here in Prague?

“The first time I was ever in Prague was as a student in 1984.

“I was a student at Columbia University’s Eastern European Institute in New York City.

“In the summer of 1984 I was right in the middle of my graduate programme and my roommate at the time, and best friend at the time, was studying Polish in Krakow, at Jagiellonian [University].

“What was a kind of a surprise was the fact that atmosphere in these hotels was incredibly decadent.”

“So I made some crazy plan to try to meet him and then both of us came down to Prague in 1984.”

How was it?

“I was struck by, basically, how quiet it was, how empty the streets seemed to me at the time.

“Also, and I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, how it seemed to lack a kind of urban soul, a kind of urban energy.

“I really couldn’t pick up on any vibe.

“So my impression of Prague was of a very beautiful city that was somehow lacking in some kind of quality – life quality or something.”

Prague’s Charles Bridge in early November 1989,  a couple weeks before the start of the Velvet Revolution | Photo: Mark Baker

Obviously we’re talking about the late Cold War era, when you yourself were living in Vienna and covering Czechoslovakia and also visiting the country sometimes. You write in the book about a fixer or assistant of yours called Arnold, who later turned out to be a spy. But how did you come to be connected with this man in the first place?

“My first job after Columbia was a small publishing outfit in Vienna, called Business International.

“That’s how I ended up being connected to Arnold.

“When I arrived there Arnold was working for that company as a local stringer, here in Prague.”

How did you even discover that he had been a spy? Or are you even sure that he was spying on you specifically?

Mark Baker,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“When I got the job in Vienna, they very quickly made me the head of their Czechoslovakia desk.

“I was writing about Czechoslovakia, which was unfortunately a country that I was not that well prepared to cover – I didn’t have any language skills in Czech or Slovak, or anything like that.

“So I really relied on Arnold at the time, and I had no reason not to trust him.

“He was retained my company and his job was to help me arrange my meetings, to interpret for me, to translate things, to help me understand the situation as it was changing – political and economic things.

“So at the time – in 1986, 1987, 1988, and even up to 1989 – I was really relying on this individual to help me understand the situation.

“And he did help me and, as I said, I had no reason not to trust him, although we all didn’t know very much about the background of our stringers.

“The change was happening right in front of everyone’s eyes and yet still no-one believed it, or no-one wanted to believe it yet.”

“We were always told by our management in Vienna that these were former Communists who had run afoul of the system, who were no longer working for the system, but they still had contacts and insights that we could use, and they could help us.

“So anyway, I didn’t see Arnold too much in the 1990s when I moved to Prague.

“Then when I came back to Prague to live here permanently, sometime around 2012 or 2013 I was sitting in my kitchen and I was thinking, Jeez, I wonder what happened to Arnold?

“So I googled his name and very little came back, almost nothing. On the first page nothing, on the second page nothing.

“Then on the third Google search page I found a report that was written by the Institute of Military History here in Prague – and there was a 20-page PDF report on my stringer.

“And the headline of that article was his name and something like, Collaborator with the StB [secret police].

Mostecká,  near Prague’s Charles Bridge,  as it looked in August 1984 | Photo: Mark Baker

“Then I got to read so much about Arnold’s background, about Arnold’s motivations, about Arnold’s history.

“And it helped me to fill in the blanks, a lot.”

I know you take quite a lot of interest in the hotels of that era. I presume all the Westerners were kind of funneled into a small number of hotels, into the same places? What were they typically like?

“That was one of the funnest chapters for me to write, and I really focused on the Intercontinental Hotel.

“Back in the 1980s Arnold was always booking me into the Intercontinental Hotel, for some reason.

“But all of the hotels shared certain similarities.

“Ours was one of the very first guidebooks in English to be written in a generation – and there was no set path.”

“We were all relatively well aware of the fact that our activities were being monitored in some way: whether our phone calls were being listened to, whether our rooms were being bugged or whether there were people in the lobby or in the hotel security staff that were keeping a special eye on us.

“So that wasn’t that much of a surprise.

“But what was a kind of a surprise was the fact that atmosphere in these hotels was incredibly decadent.

“They had Tuzex shops where you could buy the Western perfumes and Johnnie Walker.

“One of the things that I write about that kind of amused me and puzzled me in retrospect was that in the Intercontinental Hotel if you walked off to the left of the lobby you would see a little snack bar with stools.

“And back in the day those stools were invariably occupied by young attractive single women.

Brno’s Leninova  (today: Kounicova),  looking toward the summer-school dormitory,  in 1988 | Photo: Katrin Bock

“Of course you would wonder if they were prostitutes, or just single women hanging around, and if they were prostitutes, were they working for the regime? Or were they working on their own? Or were they working for the local mafia? Or for the Party?

“So I’d go over, sit down, strike up a conversation: What do you do? What are you doing here, blah blah blah?

“And they would invariably tell me that they were law students – at the law school across the street.”

In the late 1980s you came from Vienna to do some reporting on the situation in Czechoslovakia. You wrote a piece with a headline that went something like “Change not likely in Czechoslovakia” and that came out on 13 November 1989. How do you look back on that headline today?

“Let’s go back to early November 1989: There’s nothing going on in Prague – it’s kind of dead.

“But if you look over the border to East Germany you see growing numbers of protests, you see a protest at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin that had nearly a million people on the streets.

“What the Globe was offering in terms of those espresso shots and things like that was unique in all of Central and Eastern Europe.”

“So my editors in Vienna wanted me to go to Prague to ask regular Czechs on the street – in light of the protests going on across the border in East Germany – what do you think this will mean for your country, Czechoslovakia?

“And I don’t know if people were reluctant to share their true hopes with an American journalist… or I think Czechs are in a certain sense famously stoic, or even a little negative – not wanting to be too overly optimistic.

“So, to the last man and the last woman that I talked to, people dismissed the protests across the border and said, Probably nothing is going to happen here.

“And that’s the kind of story I took back with me to Vienna.

“So the change was happening right in front of everyone’s eyes and yet still no-one believed it, or no-one wanted to believe it yet.

“That was the amazing thing of that moment.”

You and your then girlfriend wrote a guidebook to Czechoslovakia in the very early 1990s which was evidently one of the first ones produced for a very long time. Today if somebody writes a guidebook there’s so much information that they already have at hand to act as a kind of hand rail to help them through the process. You didn’t have that. How was it producing a guidebook almost blind, in a sense?

Czechoslovak Finance Minister Václav Klaus addresses a business conference at Prague’s Palace of Culture in February 1990 | Photo: Mark Baker

“You’re right. I write guidebooks for a living, for several publishers including Lonely Planet, and when we write a guidebook we write from an existing guidebook.

“So we can go back to places that we’ve written about before, or competing guidebooks have written about before, and we go back and it’s pretty much a set path.

“But when we wrote this book in 1991 this was one of the very first guidebooks in English to be written in a generation – and there was no set path.

“In that chapter where I write about this I try to capture some of the wonder – a lot of wonder mixed in with… I don’t know if you want to call it disappointment, or the reality or something like that.

“Because if you go back to 1991 the country was in pretty bad shape physically.

“A lot of those tourist sites had been badly neglected by the previous regime for years.

“So the castles were stately but in terrible disrepair, etcetera.”

You later worked for a year as the business editor of the Prague Post, which had newly been established at that time. I guess that was also kind of pioneering, in a way? It was all new and there were these young American journalists trying to bring some kinds of international standards to journalism here.

“Yes, exactly.

“The Prague Post started in October of 1991.

“I arrived in Prague [to live] in the summer of 1991 and quickly met some of the people who would go on to start the paper and was offered a job as the paper’s very first business editor.

“And that’s what I did at the Prague Post.

Mark Baker  (right),  with friends as they walk through a nearly deserted citadel in Sighișoara,  Romania,  in April 1982 | Photo: Doug Conaway

“But I came into that job thinking that it was going to be relaxing, that we were going to be covering basically a feel-good story: A newly emerging country, democracy, and all the steps that they would take economically and politically for the country to establish itself as a successful democracy.

“I wasn’t expecting any of the hiccups that we encountered along the way.

“But if you think about the time period that I worked at the Prague Post, from October ’91 through September ’92 – which includes the historic vote in June of ’92 that basically paved the way for the breakup of the country by installing Václav Klaus and Vladmír Mečiar in power in the two respective republics – it turned out to be one of the most turbulent 12-month periods in the history of the country.

“It was crazy. A rollercoaster from start to finish.”

In mid-1993 you and some friends set up the famous Globe coffeehouse and bookstore in Prague. I had no idea before I read your book that this model, of a coffeehouse and bookstore together, wasn’t at all common in this part of the world.

“No, there was nothing like that at all.

“I think that’s one of the things that made the Globe sort of special in people’s minds – not just the foreigners who were living here, but also Czechs and local people from other countries.

“Because in the States Barnes & Noble and some other large chains were experimenting with the model of attaching a coffeehouse to a bookstore – and of course that model had existed in cities like San Francisco and Seattle – but that concept hadn’t yet come to Europe.

“In fact the concept of espresso-based coffee drinks hadn’t actually come to Prague by 1993.

“People were still drinking Turek – that was still the drink of choice – and it was difficult to find a suitable espresso machine in Prague.

“The Italian coffee makers like Segafredo and that were just coming to the Czech Republic and trying to introduce consumers to their type of espresso-based coffee drinks.

“But really what the Globe was offering in terms of those espresso shots and things like that was unique in the Czech Republic and in all of Central and Eastern Europe.

“And yes, attaching a coffeehouse to a bookstore was something that was unheard of: bookstores did one thing, cafés and restaurants did another thing.

“When we tried to license our business with the district authorities etcetera they were completely floored: What kind of business is this, actually? Are you a restaurant or are you a bookstore?

“It was… interesting [laughs].”

As an early Western settler in Prague, how did you view the influx of thousands of young people from the States, the UK and elsewhere when all the hype began around the so-called New Left Bank?

“Yes, the Left Bank of the ‘90s.

“I was a little bit older than most of the new arrivals.

“I’d already been in Central Europe since the 1980s – you know, Prague wasn’t something new.

“It didn’t even feel like some kind of adventurous place by that point – it just felt like a relatively normal place.

“So I have to confess that my first view of all the arriving foreigners was a little bit of skepticism – somehow I adopted maybe the attitude of some local people in a sense, like, What’s going on?

“It took me a little while to warm up to it and then once I did warm up to it then I completely embraced it.

“Because I saw how young local Czechs were embracing it. They were very excited by it – these younger foreigners who were coming to Prague.

“Because it was a guarantor that these changes were going to last. That people cared outside of this country. That people were interested in the country.

“And if you realise, and this is something that I realised as I was writing the book, that the expat wave really started only after all of the difficulties of the ’91–’92 period – including the split of the country…

“The country itself was undergoing some difficult times, some uncertain times.

“Also voucher privatisation was happening then, there were still fear that inflation would happen and there was still fear of large-scale unemployment.

“But the new arrivals didn’t care about any of this stuff.

“For them Prague was exciting, it was beautiful, it was Havel, it was a chance to set up a business relatively cheaply – and they didn’t care about any of those difficulties that the country was going through.

“And in a sense they helped the country recover from this difficult period.

“That may sound controversial to some of your listeners, but I really think that that was helpful, in that sense.”