PRAGUE – The Iron Curtain was more than just a figure of speech: Communist regimes set up thousands of miles of heavily-guarded, electrified barbed wire fencing to completely isolate Eastern Europe from the West.
That still didn’t stop many from desperately attempting to flee the totalitarian East. Some succeeded but many lost their lives.
Among the latter, in what was then Czechoslovakia, was a priest in the brutally-persecuted Catholic Church named Josef Skop. Hoping to reach East Germany, before the Berlin Wall sealed off its connection with the West, he decided to cross the River Elbe undetected by walking underwater in a home-made diving suit complete with rubber boots.
Not being an expert, he used a rubber garden hose as a breathing tube — a fatal mistake as it proved too long and too narrow to ensure a sufficient air supply.
Nearly 300 people are known to have died, many killed by border guards with orders to shoot on sight, while attempting to escape from Czechoslovakia to the West.
Skop’s diving suit is on display in “Technology in Dictatorships,” a new exhibition at the National Technical Museum in Prague, now capital of the Czech Republic, one of the two countries into which Czechoslovakia split after communism. The display marks the 30th anniversary of the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution by looking back at the surreal repression the nation underwent and at how it resisted.
It focuses on the technology used by the totalitarian regime to control its citizens — and the innovative means they used to undermine the omnipresent control.
There are typical James Bond-style spy gadgets, such as a microphone concealed in a watch or tiny cameras. But the most commonly-used surveillance equipment was much bulkier and had to be hidden in suitcases, pieces of luggage or even baby carriages.