Monday, December 14, 2009

Archives's Exhibit Exposes Espionage

Original European Union Poster For: Prague Through The Lens Of the Secret Police.

Imagine that every move in your ordinary, everyday life, was secretly photographed. Your seemingly innocuous activities, strolling through a park, munching on an apple, waiting for the subway, were considered so dangerous they were captured forever by the secret police. Sounds far fetched, doesn't it? But a traveling exhibit from the newly created Security Services Archive in the Czech Republic capital of Prague reveals that from 1968 to 1989 this was exactly what citizens in that city endured.

The exhibit, Prague Through The Lens Of The Secret Police, is on view at the Harvard University Center for Government and International Studies through December 21, 2009. It consists mainly of banner sized enlargements of the black and white photos snapped for over twenty years by citizen spies employed by the Cold War communist government.

The methods employed to obtain the photographs might seem almost comic if they weren't so oppressive. According to an article in The Harvard Gazette, the homegrown spies who worked as secret police agents concealed their cameras in "tobacco pouches, purses, briefcases, transistor radios, lighters, and on engine blocks (for mobile surveillance)." Film, and later, video cameras were hidden in parked cars, and even in baby carriages pushed by spies posing as proud parents.

A Series Of Surveillance Photos.
(The officers’ most commonly used exposure time was 1/125 of a second and often even 1/60 of a second.)

The resulting photos document a drab, gray, depressing Prague devoid of the most basic freedoms. A city strangled by a totalitarian regime, under which citizens were denied the freedom to think, speak, read, or assemble freely. Contrasting these photos with the city's now vibrant cultural and artistic scene, leads to the conclusion that the spies inadvertently documented the soul-crushing effect of their employer's tyranny.

The exhibit marks a new era in studies of the Cold War. Virtually all former Eastern Bloc countries are in the process of organizing and digitizing what were once highly classified documents hidden in secret, secure government files. The Prague Institute For The Study Of Totalitarian Regimes, which administers the Security Services Archive, is, by government mandate, free and open to all scholars, researchers, and curious citizens.

One attendee at the opening of the exhibit at Harvard knew first hand of the of all-seeing eye, and all-hearing ear, of the Czech Cold War government. Haviland Smith, the United States CIA station chief in Prague in 1958, recalled that when he and his wife were alone, settling into a Prague hotel room, Mrs. Smith complained to her husband that there was only one towel in the bathroom. "Within two minutes," said Smith, "there was a knock at the door, and a maid stood there with an armful of towels." Smith called such relentless, ubiquitous surveillance “an expression of the regime’s desire to stay in power -- nothing more, nothing less.”

Author Milan Kundera (right) Was One Surveillance Target.

At the opening reception for the exhibit, Jiri Ellinger, first secretary and head of the political section at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, D.C., spoke to a crowd of about 150. He remarked that those documented in the photos were considered enemies of the state for a variety of reasons. One subject of surveillance, code named "Doctor A", was actually Zdenek Pinc, a professor of ancient philosophy at Prague's Charles University. "He was dangerous to the regime because he wanted to study and think freely." To a government bent on controlling the minds and souls of its citizens, even study of ideas expressed for thousands of years can seem perversely revolutionary.

Even Nuns Were Viewed As Dangerous By The Czech Secret Police.

The photographs in the exhibit have been collected in a 2009 coffee table book published by The Prague Institute For The Study Of Totalitarian Regimes. For information on obtaining the book, Prague Through The Lens Of The Secret Police, in English, send an inquiry to the archive at:

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