The Prague Paradox: A Spy Guide to the City's Hidden History

To hear more about life under the State Security service (StB), Listen to True Spies: Operation Inter

Prague, the city of a hundred spires, is perhaps Europe's most picturesque capital. Known for its beautiful Old Town packed with bars, restaurants, and dobrá příroda, the home of novelist Franz Kafka has a lesser-known dark side.

Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939-45. Years later, it was invaded by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops. Up until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the country was brutally oppressed for decades and the State Security service - known as the StB - kept the nation under surveillance and crushed dissent. 

Prague became a city of spies and a key location in the espionage battle between Russia and the West.

St. Nicholas: The belfry was a secret police lookout from the 1950s to the ‘80s


Spires of spies

No site encapsulates Prague's past and present more poetically than St. Nicholas' Church on Malostranské Square. A baroque beauty, it is almost 260 feet high and one of the city’s three churches dedicated to St. Nicholas. It is known for its belfry tower, as high as the church itself. Nowadays, tourists climb its 215 steps for the view of the river, bridge, and the Old Town. 

But during the Cold War, it was a StB observation tower and listening post. Situated near the US, British, and West German embassies, secret police kept watch on the comings and goings of diplomats and citizens while monitoring their radio transmissions. It is said that dissidents used to meet directly under the tower to exchange documents, knowing that the spying eyes in the sky couldn't see directly below. 

The former StB observation post has a bird’s eye view of Prague’s diplomatic quarter

Behind Prague's Velvet Curtain: A City of Spies & Celebrities

BY
James Lumley
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To hear more about life under the State Security service (StB), Listen to True Spies: Operation Inter

Prague, the city of a hundred spires, is perhaps Europe's most picturesque capital. Known for its beautiful Old Town packed with bars, restaurants, and dobrá příroda, the home of novelist Franz Kafka has a lesser-known dark side.

Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939-45. Years later, it was invaded by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops. Up until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the country was brutally oppressed for decades and the State Security service - known as the StB - kept the nation under surveillance and crushed dissent. 

Prague became a city of spies and a key location in the espionage battle between Russia and the West.

St. Nicholas: The belfry was a secret police lookout from the 1950s to the ‘80s


Spires of spies

No site encapsulates Prague's past and present more poetically than St. Nicholas' Church on Malostranské Square. A baroque beauty, it is almost 260 feet high and one of the city’s three churches dedicated to St. Nicholas. It is known for its belfry tower, as high as the church itself. Nowadays, tourists climb its 215 steps for the view of the river, bridge, and the Old Town. 

But during the Cold War, it was a StB observation tower and listening post. Situated near the US, British, and West German embassies, secret police kept watch on the comings and goings of diplomats and citizens while monitoring their radio transmissions. It is said that dissidents used to meet directly under the tower to exchange documents, knowing that the spying eyes in the sky couldn't see directly below. 

The former StB observation post has a bird’s eye view of Prague’s diplomatic quarter

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Cold War tourism

In 2010, the belfry’s observation post was briefly turned into a Cold War tourist attraction, replete with period binoculars and photos of the StB’s targets. The spooks had even rigged up a urinal that flowed directly into the church's gutters. While the belfry can still be climbed, the binoculars and photos are no more than a haunting memory.

The KGB Museum has gadgets that shoot and poison at a distance

Prague has more than its fair share of former communist tourist attractions. The Museum of Communism includes a mockup of an undersupplied communist-era shop, a border post, and police office. 

A more eclectic collection is on show at the (unofficial) KGB Museum, packed full of spy toys including glove guns displayed alongside garrottes and uniforms. One tourist reported having an (empty) machine gun pointed at her while taking the tour. The museum also claims to have the weapon used to murder Leon Trotsky on show, although a private collector in Florida might not agree.

Those interested in bunkers and fall-out shelters (and who isn't?) are spoiled for choice in Prague.

Atom Muzeum stored Soviet missiles

The Prague Communism Tour is a four-floor fallout shelter designed to accommodate 5,000 people behind its 4.4-ton doors, or visitors can head to a crisis fallout shelter hidden under a hotel. Tucked away in a forest, there is also Atom Muzeum, a former Soviet bunker that once stored short-range nuclear missiles.

Spy Movie A-Lister

At ground level, Prague is the architectural equivalent of an A-List movie star. Hundreds of movies have been filmed in the city due to its moody photogenicity. 

Spy movies Mission: Impossible (1996), The Bourne Identity, and Casino Royale all made heavy use of Prague locations. Its otherworldliness also lends itself to fantasy and superhero epics. The Narnia movies and Spider-man franchises both shot in the city. 

The Clementinum library launched Baroque tours in 2023

Prague's architectural heritage

While the city is known for its Baroque architecture it has a few notable Soviet-era exceptions. The Žižkov TV Tower, completed in 1992, is often called the second ugliest building in the world (presumably edged out by the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, dubbed the ‘hotel of doom’). In 2000 a Czech artist adapted the Žižkov Tower by adding 10 black 'baby' sculptures to the facade. 

The tower isn’t the only Soviet-era building still doing the job it was intended to do. In 2021, the Czech authorities expelled more than a hundred diplomats from Prague’s Russian Embassy. Czech security officials said the ‘disproportionately huge’ diplomatic mission had for decades been a base for Russian spying activities in central Europe. Now Russia is said to have just seven diplomats in Prague. 

The Žižkov with black baby accents (left) is second only to the permanently vacant Ryugyong Hotel


A city of spies and intellectuals

The Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two independent countries in 1993) is today known for its academics, writers, artists, and thinkers so it is perhaps no surprise that the city is the home of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The institute studies the history of Czechoslovakia during the WWII Nazi occupation and communist rule from 1948-1989. It works in partnership with the Czech Security Services Archive which is principally a resource for academics but open to citizens who wish to check their secret services files.

It also presents occasional exhibitions. One of them, Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police, toured the US and EU in 2009-10 to acclaim and has since been turned into a book. It is a striking exhibition of covert photographs taken by more than 200 StB spies of Czechoslovakian citizens who were under surveillance. 

'Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police' exhibit

All of the photos were taken in Prague and all were developed from original negatives in black and white. They depict ordinary people being watched by the state in a beautiful city drowning in Soviet drabness. Some of the subjects seemed to know they were being watched. Others appear oblivious. 

The dissidents who exchanged literature under the belfry of St Nicholas' Church might have felt themselves safe from the prying eyes above. But the state was watching, everywhere.

Prague Bridge
To hear more about life under the State Security service (StB), Listen to True Spies: Operation Inter
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