Tales of getting by during the Cold War

During one of our recent salons at the coffee shop at the College of William and Mary’s bookstore, the subject of Cold War memories came up.

Participants in the discussion, former State Department and CIA officials, were familiar with events that fueled the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. One was the Tito-Stalin split.

The conflict between the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia, Tito, and Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, resulted in the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform, the organization dominated by the Kremlin.

The Soviets accused Yugoslavia of disloyalty to the USSR; Yugoslavia and the West saw events as a refusal to submit to Stalin’s will and become a Soviet satellite state. Early in the conflict, the power struggle that took place was fought in secrecy. Only high-ranking Communist officials in the Soviet-bloc were aware of it.

At the height of the Cold War, I was a Prague-based foreign correspondent for the official Hungarian News Agency, MTI. My office was at the Hungarian Embassy where I routinely had access to communications between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Budapest and the Embassy in Prague.

One of the anomalies of a Communist-ruled police state was the tolerance to let foreign correspondents from the West and Eastern Europe mingle socially. It created the illusion of press freedom.

I often had lunch or dinner with correspondents from the New York Times, the Times of London and others. The one to whom I was the closest was the Prague-based correspondent of the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, the German-language Swiss daily, one of Europe’s most prestigious newspapers.

During a lunch conversation, I mentioned I had read a confidential report on the Tito-Stalin split that was sent to the Hungarian Embassy. My table companion’s eyes lit up and he asked if I could get a hold of the report. I hesitated, then agreed to “borrow” a copy.

Two days later, the Neue Zurich Zeitung had a front-page story about the Tito-Stalin split, with all the details of the instructions given by Moscow to the leadership in the satellite countries on how to handle the situation. The report made headlines around the world.

Another Cold War memory I shared at the salon concerned throwing a monkey wrench into the Communist regime’s economic machinery.

To camouflage and hide inflation that could reach up to 200 percent yearly and the dislocations of the socialist economy, the countries behind the Iron Curtain periodically exchanged their currency. For example, in Czechoslovakia 100 old Koruna were exchanged for one new Koruna. The prices of everything were readjusted, but most people’s savings were wiped out in the process.

Preparations for such an exchange were done by the Communist government in great secrecy to avoid a run on merchandise in the state-owned stores. But pillow talk between the Minister of Health and his young mistress interfered.

Because of the severe post-war housing shortage in Prague, my close friend and his wife shared their apartment with a very beautiful country-girl, who happened to be the secretary to and mistress of the Minister of Health. She was lonely in Prague, and my friends became her confidantes.

On the eve of one of the currency exchanges, during a pillow talk with his mistress, the Minister of Health revealed the date of the currency exchange. She shared the news with my friends.

It didn’t take me long to share the news about the impending exchange with a contact at Radio Free Europe, headquartered in Munich, West Germany. It was immediately broadcast on the Czech language program. There was a run on stores to buy up all kinds of merchandise before the exchange took place.

To the embarrassment of the government, the currency exchange had to be canceled. It took place, but at a much later date.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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