Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.
I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.
The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.
We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.
The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.
One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.
We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.
The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.
But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.
Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.
Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.
On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.