top of page

Agent Parrott: Was a Lancaster Professor a Cold War Spy?

Jude Rowley | Lancaster University

Those who have read ‘The Rise and Fall of Soviet Studies at Lancaster’ in Issue 14 of EPOCH will recall that Cecil Parrott was by no means a ‘typical’ academic, even by the standards of the 1960s. When he resigned as British Ambassador to Prague in 1966 to take up a post in the Department of Russian and Soviet Studies at the recently founded Lancaster University, he was a career diplomat with no experience of university teaching. Considered aloof by his colleagues, frequently absent from the Department he led, and seemingly disinterested in many aspects of academic administration, Parrott was not a natural fit for the role of Head of Department. He tasked his Deputy, Isabel de Madariaga, with designing the Department’s courses and made no secret of his disdain for administrative work. For someone who agonised about whether he would be remembered as ‘a man of action or a back-room boy’, an academic post at a new provincial university was a peculiar choice. Perhaps Parrott sought a quieter life after six years abroad in a senior diplomatic post, but he was often absent from Lancaster altogether. The memoirs of his post-war life make only two mentions of events concerning Lancaster and are divided into three sections: Czechoslovakia (1945-48), Russia (1954-57) and ‘Czechoslovakia again’ (1960-75). Though Parrott spent most of this latter period as a Professor at Lancaster, it is clear both that his focus remained rooted firmly eastward and that Parrott was by no means seeking the homely serenity of retirement from the Foreign Office.

As this implies, while formally based at Lancaster, Parrott seemingly found it difficult to stay away from Czechoslovakia and Prague in particular. He made frequent visits to the city long after resigning as the British Ambassador there in 1966 and would remain in close contact with a wide network of Czechoslovak exiles throughout the late 1960s. His most notable, and controversial, visit to Prague in this period came in July 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring. Parrott’s timing could scarcely have been better. He arrived four days before de-escalation talks began between Soviet and Czechoslovak leaders at Čierna nad Tisou and would be perfectly placed to witness the subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Parrott witnessed this invasion, including the famous scenes of Soviet tanks rolling through the city, but offered little detail of his experiences in his memoirs. As one reviewer noted, in contrast to his descriptions of earlier events in his diplomatic career, Parrott’s account of his time in Prague in the middle of the 1968 invasion appears uncharacteristically ‘cursory and flat’. Much remains unanswered about Parrott’s presence in Prague at this time, both in terms of accounts of his experiences and the reasons for his being in the city in the first place. The question of why Cecil Parrott found himself in Prague in August 1968, given that by this time, he was a Lancaster University Professor and lived in an old vicarage in Abbystead, is thus a contested one.

A black and white photo of a tank on fire, with two men waving a Czechoslovakian flag
The Streets of Prague during the Warsaw Pact invasion (CIA, Wikimedia Commons).

The reasons Parrott gave for his presence in Prague varied. In the Guardian, he made the noble claim that he travelled out because he ‘wanted to be with the Czech people if anything untoward happened to them’. In his memoirs, he offered attendance at the World Congress of Slavists as his reason for being in Prague, while he also later suggested that he travelled to Czechoslovakia to acquire stock for Lancaster University Library. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Czechoslovak security services remained unconvinced and saw Parrott’s presence in Prague as a pretext for intelligence activities. Specifically, Parrott was accused of playing a leading role in a combined Western intelligence operation intended to undermine socialism in Czechoslovakia, foment popular revolt against the communist government, and drive a wedge between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation ‘Lyautey’. These allegations were made most prominently by Jan Pelnář, the Czechoslovak Interior Minister, in an address to the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in late May 1969. He was drawing on a report prepared the previous month by the Czechoslovak intelligence services, alleging that the British Embassy in Prague had been central to the coordination of Western anti-communist intelligence activities. Parrott was named as a leading figure in Operation Lyautey, directly complicit in alleged attempts to sow the seeds of the Prague Spring through the cultivation of political dissidents.

The wordmark of Rudé právo, with Soviet badges above
Rudé právo, the Czechoslovak newspaper that accused Parrott of playing a role in Operation Lyautey (Respublika Narodnaya, Wikimedia Commons).

Accusations against Parrott would be made public in Pravda in the Soviet Union but also in Rudé právo, an organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The same publication had accused Parrott of political ‘interference’ as early as 1946 and, in June 1969, published a four-part exposé detailing Parrott’s apparent involvement in anti-communist subterfuge. It discussed the supposed tactics of Operation Lyautey, which involved targeting cultural and political figures with small-scale, friendly personal interactions to extract information, before drip-feeding this information back to the population as weaponised propaganda. The analogy of the ‘drop by drop’ approach to intelligence and propaganda makes accusations of espionage especially difficult to counter as it removes the need to uncover major incriminating evidence and instead makes it enough to refer to the cumulative impact of widespread covert activities. On this note, the documents used to substantiate the allegations offer little directly incriminating evidence against either Parrott or Operation Lyautey. They largely cover general patterns in Cold War British intelligence, and it must be noted that even the code-name Lyautey may previously have been used as a catch-all term for earlier Western anti-communist intelligence efforts in the Eastern Bloc, such as against East Germany in the 1950s. The British documents detailing the alleged plot were provided from Moscow by the KGB, and it is not out of the question that they could have been forgeries. Nonetheless, these allegations had followed Parrott for several years and were not a direct reaction to his presence in Prague in summer 1968. The KGB, for instance, had first notified its Czechoslovak counterpart of the would-be intelligence operation in October 1966, just as Parrott was taking up his professorship at Lancaster, and it was alleged that the plan for Lyautey had first been drawn up in 1953. Supposedly incriminating photographs of Parrott would be exhibited at the Lenin Museum in Prague in the mid-1970s, but beyond shadowy figures of men and suitcases, it is difficult to discern what these photographs really depict.

One of the allegedly incriminating photographs presented as evidence of Parrott’s involvement in covert activity, as exhibited in Prague and reproduced in the 1977 documentary ‘Vysoká hra’.  Česká televise iVysílání/Jude Rowley
One of the allegedly incriminating photographs presented as evidence of Parrott’s involvement in covert activity, as exhibited in Prague and reproduced in the 1977 documentary ‘Vysoká hra’. (Česká televise iVysílání/Jude Rowley).

To understand why such allegations continuously circled Parrott, it is important to contextualise his professional background. He had been a key intelligence operative for the British long before his diplomatic career took him to Prague. During the Second World War, as head of the Stockholm Press Reading Bureau, he had overseen a vast open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering operation and fulfilled a role similar to the one that he would later be accused of playing in Czechoslovakia. Parrott championed the development of a culture-centred propaganda operation drawing on open-source information like press reports, which he would later expand further as the most senior figure in the intelligence section of the covert Information Research Department. After the war, he alternated between diplomatic posts in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union and a role as the Director of the Foreign Office Research Department, the wing of the Foreign Office tasked with gathering intelligence from abroad.

Part of the difficulty in addressing allegations of espionage in the case of Parrott arises from the fact that lines between diplomat and intelligence operative were somewhat blurred in this period. It was official Foreign Office policy at the time to task British diplomats in Prague and across Eastern Europe with compiling material that could be used to ‘expose, damage, and help defeat the Communists’ and ‘encourage anti-communists’. In this sense, Parrott was involved in the kind of activity the Soviet and Czechoslovak authorities accused him of, especially as the fervent anti-communist that he was. Thus, when a 1977 Czechoslovak television documentary centred on Parrott’s complicity in Operation Lyautey alleged that ‘specially trained intelligence officers’ were appointed to diplomatic roles, it was not entirely wide of the mark. What is particularly key, however, is that this aspect of the work did not cease when Parrott left the Foreign Office to move to Lancaster. He continued to gather information on life in Czechoslovakia and promoted a distinct form of Czechoslovak nationalism rooted in ‘traditional’ culture, to counter the Communists, who he dismissed as not really Czech at all.

He also devoted much of his professional energy to building his own network of Czechoslovak exiles and political dissidents, as alleged by the intelligence services, and undoubtedly used Lancaster as a hub for this. Under Parrott’s leadership of the Department of Russian and Soviet Studies, a number of key Czechoslovak figures were either invited to visit Lancaster or employed directly by the University. Ota Šik, Dubček’s deputy and the architect of the economic revisionism associated with the Prague Spring, was invited to collect an honorary degree from the University in 1968, arousing the suspicion of the Soviet authorities. Around the same time, Jaroslav Krejčí, a social democrat previously imprisoned for his opposition to the Czechoslovak government, joined Parrott as a Professor at Lancaster. Other Czechoslovak dissidents and exiles who similarly joined Lancaster University included Zbyněk Zeman and Igor Hájek, the latter funded by the CIA-connected Ford Foundation.

A black and white photograph of a man with thick rimmed glasses
Ota Šik: a key figure in Czechoslovak economic reforms and the Prague Spring who visited Lancaster. University to collect an honorary doctorate in July 1968 and fled Czechoslovakia weeks later in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion. (Universitätsarchiv St.Gallen (HSG), Wikimedia Commons)

Parrott consciously cultivated this network, and Vendulka Kubálková recalls being introduced to him in Prague in 1969 as someone able to help exiled scholars. The Czech StB had observed this meeting and unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Kubalovka to spy on Parrott. Such contact with foreign intelligence operatives was something of an occupational hazard for senior British diplomats in Cold War Eastern Europe and was not out of the ordinary for the ex-Ambassador. Before arriving at Lancaster University, Parrott had been caught in networks of espionage. As the Minister in Moscow, for example, he had played a key role in the Vassall Affair, which had seen British naval attaché John Vassall exposed as a Soviet spy, having been blackmailed by a KGB agent named Mikhailski. Parrott had been targeted by both men at the centre of this. Mikhailski had ‘sought to ingratiate himself with Parrott’, while Vassall had pursued Parrott’s connections to help secure a new job. Similarly, while Ambassador in Prague, Parrott believed the StB attempted to recruit one of his staff every six months, including his chauffeur, an StB agent who defected to West Germany. Parrott would also find himself inadvertently involved in the Stonehouse Affair. He hosted Labour MP John Stonehouse in Prague and sang the praises of Stonehouse to the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. This came before allegations surfaced that Stonehouse was an agent of the Czechoslovak StB at this time and before Stonehouse faked his own death to flee the country. Regardless of his own involvement, it was inevitable that Parrott would find himself drawn into networks of Cold War intelligence to some extent.

The key element is that these endured beyond his tenure at the Foreign Office. This raises the question of whether this was a deliberate intelligence effort or simply an exaggeration of the actions of a former agent and diplomat who felt a personal prerogative to engage in matters concerning Czechoslovakia. The reality likely lies somewhere between the two. Parrott’s activities were useful to the British intelligence agencies and undoubtedly played a role in undermining the Czechoslovak communist government. They were also in keeping with official British intelligence policy and methods at the time. However, it is likely that Parrott’s role was significantly inflated by the Czechoslovak StB, and there is little available evidence to suggest that Operation Lyautey was conducted along the lines and scale alleged by the Czechoslovak authorities. It is tempting to imagine Parrott as the Bond-esque hero, darting around the streets of Prague and thwarting perfidious communists at every turn. To an extent, this was an image cultivated both by the Czechoslovak intelligence services and Parrott himself. Though he insisted he would make an ‘utterly hopeless’ spy, he was prone to romanticising his connections with Prague and of exaggerating his own involvement in battling Czechoslovak communism.

However, it must be emphasised that in the context of the Cold War, academia, diplomacy, and espionage were far more closely connected in the 1960s than might be imagined today. Parrott’s interactions with the murky world of espionage are not necessarily evidence that he was an active agent himself. It is likely that Parrott was involved in intelligence activities to some degree, but either in an indirect capacity or along informal lines. For instance, Parrott’s efforts to distribute Western cultural products in Czechoslovakia, going as far as smuggling Beatles records into the country, carry echoes of a formal CIA operation to distribute Western literature in Czechoslovakia at the same time, but that is not to say that he was acting under orders. This overlapped heavily with his commitment to the development of cultural propaganda to promote a distinct sense of ‘traditional’ Czech identity, versus its contemporary Czechoslovak counterpart. Taken with his direct role in the cultivation of exile networks, not least those centred around Lancaster University; such activity perhaps makes it little surprise that accusations of covert activity followed Parrott long after he left the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, without conclusive evidence to suggest that Parrott was ever given orders by British intelligence services after taking up his post in Lancaster, it is difficult to determine whether his actions were the result of a joint-Western intelligence operation to destroy communism in Czechoslovakia or simply those of a former diplomat who in a typically conceited English upper-class fashion, imagined himself as a central figure in determining the destiny of Czechoslovakia. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the overlap between them suggests nonetheless that Cecil Parrott, as a Lancaster University Professor, was less of an enigmatic danger to Czechoslovak communism than the authorities might have feared.


Further reading:

  • Cecil Parrott, The Serpent and the Nightingale (London: Faber and Faber, 1977).

  • James A. Oliver and Paul Lashmar, Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, 1948-1977 (Stroud: Sutton, 1998).

  • Zbyněk Zeman, Prague Spring: A Report on Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

  • Ladislav Bittman, The Deception Game: Czechoslovak Intelligence in Soviet Political Warfare (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Research Corporation, 1972).

Jude Rowley is a PhD candidate in International Relations (IR) based in the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion at Lancaster University and is also a member of the Centre for War and Diplomacy. His research focuses primarily on the history of IR, especially its disciplinary historical sociology, with a view to addressing some of the historical silences that continue to shape the discipline.

LinkedIn: Jude Rowley


bottom of page