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Vendulka Kubálková: A Cold War Exile in Lancaster

Jude Rowley | Lancaster University

In September 1969, an agent of the Czechoslovak StB codenamed ‘Bystrá’ arrived in Lancaster tasked with spying on the Head of Lancaster University’s Russian and Soviet Studies Department, Sir Cecil Parrott. Parrott was not the typical academic, and Vendulka Kubálková was not the typical spy. She had moved to Lancaster as a twenty-four-year-old PhD student, accepting the StB assignment as a condition of being allowed to leave Czechoslovakia to study International Relations (IR) abroad. In the process, like thousands of Czechoslovak citizens in the 1960s, she reluctantly found herself entangled in webs of Cold War espionage. However, unlike Parrott, who could comfortably brush off the accusations of intelligence activity made against him in Rudé právo, Kubálková would face serious consequences as a result. Exiled from her homeland, pursued to Lancashire by the StB, and interrogated by the Home Office and MI5, few students in the University’s early years faced circumstances as dramatic as those that brought Kubálková to Lancaster. They were a symptom of the tensions that swept Europe throughout the height of the Cold War but also serve as a pertinent historical reminder of Lancaster’s local ties to a distinctly global context. Now a leading IR scholar and a Professor at the University of Miami, Vendulka Kubálková remains not only a prominent Lancaster University alumna from the institution’s early years but a direct link to Lancaster’s long-overlooked Cold War history.

A map of Lancaster in Russian
A site of intrigue?: A Cold War era Soviet military map of Lancaster showing the University campus (lower centre). Produced in 1983, based on intelligence gathered by the Soviet Military Topographic Directorate. Reproduced with permission from

The networks of interactions that shaped this history spanned the globe. Weeks before Kubálková left for Lancaster, she had been introduced to Parrott in Prague by Antonín Šnejdárek. Šnejdárek was an academic and a pioneer of IR in Eastern Europe but was no stranger to Cold War diplomatic intrigue himself: months earlier, he had met with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger at the White House in May 1969 and would flee Czechoslovakia for Parisian exile shortly after Kubálková left for Lancaster. Like many exiled Czech academics in the period, Šnejdárek would later travel to Lancaster as a visiting lecturer. Before leaving Prague, he helped Kubálková secure scholarship funding of £400 per academic year from Soroptimist International to support her studies in Lancaster. This made it possible for her to enroll in an International Relations PhD under the supervision of Professor Philip Reynolds. Alongside her studies, and as a quid pro quo for his assistance, Parrott also announced his intention to enlist Kubálková’s help to organise the vast collection of Czech books he had acquired. This would become the well-respected library collection of the Comenius Centre, a research institute established by Parrott to specialise in Central and South-East European Studies following his post-Prague Spring attempt to distance himself from the field of Soviet Studies.


Professor Kubálková suspects that it was this contact with Šnejdárek and Parrott in Prague that first brought her to the attention of the StB, and she was soon approached and pressed into collaboration. In typically clandestine Cold War style, the approach was made on the steps of the Café Slavia in the centre of Prague by an agent who introduced himself only as ‘Comrade Novotny’. Her assigned mission of gathering information on Parrott to be reported back to the StB was not an offer but rather a condition of being allowed to leave Czechoslovakia. As such, she had no option but to accept. The target was not unusual, given that the Czechoslovak security services had long taken an interest in the former Ambassador. By 1973, their counter-intelligence file on him ran to 318 pages. He was frequently targeted by suspected agents of the StB, who often occupied positions in close professional proximity to him, such as his driver in Prague. Thus, Kubálková’s access to Parrott might have provided the perfect cover for a would-be spy.


The interest of the StB in Parrott was connected to suspicions that he was involved in coordinating anti-communist intelligence activity, as discussed in EPOCH 15. His cultivation of a network of exiles and dissidents, many based in Lancaster, contributed heavily to these suspicions, and both the StB and the Soviet KGB took an interest in the activities of the Ambassador-turned-academic. Though the Head of Russian and Soviet Studies at the time, Parrott’s attention would soon shift to his newly established Comenius Centre, set up in 1968 after a somewhat challenging public fundraising campaign fronted by Parrott and Charles Carter. Though Parrott made the Comenius Centre the main focus of his work, the extent of its activities remains difficult to determine. It was admitted from the outset that it would largely be staffed by postgraduate students. However, it did award a research fellowship for a study on the origins of the Prague Spring to Vladimir Kusin, an exiled scholar who would later be accused of having KGB connections of his own. With the possible exception of lectures delivered by Danuše Kňourková, Professor Kubálková can recall little teaching taking place under the Centre’s auspices, fuelling suspicions that it may have been a front for Parrott’s more covert activities.


Kubálková herself had little to do with the Comenius Centre beyond serving as its informal librarian. Instead, she carried out her own work on Marxism-Leninism and IR theory in the Department of Politics and IR under the strict but effective supervision of the Department Head, Philip Reynolds. Reynolds was a leading IR scholar, having succeeded E.H. Carr as the fifth Wilson Chair at Aberystwyth in 1950 before moving to the new University of Lancaster in 1964. He would go on to become the University’s second Vice-Chancellor, in which capacity he presided over the controversial closure of the Department of Russian and Soviet Studies in the early 1980s, as explored in EPOCH 14. Kubálková’s ‘other’ work in Lancaster, the StB assignment she had reluctantly accepted in Prague, lasted only a matter of days. Refusing to collaborate with the StB on moral grounds, she soon confessed her mission directly to Parrott, who duly informed the authorities. Consequently, Kubálková not only had to undergo repeated interrogations from the Home Office in London but also had to launch a legal battle to defend against their attempts to deport her. The financial and administrative assistance arranged by the University Secretary, A. Stephen Jeffreys, to help with this was some of the only support offered to Kubálková at Lancaster throughout the entire ordeal.


Expectedly, it was not only the British authorities who took notice of Kubálková’s abscondment from the StB. In due course, it would also see her put on trial in absentia and exiled from her homeland. Archives of the Czechoslovak security services, declassified and published after the division of the former socialist republic in the 1990s, not only confirm her recruitment by the Fifteenth Department of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Interior but reveal that two months after arriving in Lancaster, Kubálková was named a ‘person of interest’ by the StB on 28th November 1969. As a result, she would become a target of the very activities she had been sent to the UK to carry out. Now a named target and an exile from her homeland, she was pursued by Czechoslovak operatives to the doors of Leighton Hall in Carnforth. Though best known as the ancestral seat of the Gillow family, once prominent Lancaster furniture makers and slave traders, this stately home served as Kubálková’s unlikely student lodgings after its owners discovered her background as a trained concert pianist and invited her to stay as a musician in residence. Leighton Hall became the site of a doorstep confrontation when men were sent from the Czechoslovak Embassy in London to pursue Kubálková.

The persons of interest database, listing Kubálková
Above: Vendulka Kubálková listed in the archived register of StB ‘persons of interest’. Below: Kubálková name listed in the registry of ‘Operative Files’, kept by the State Security Archive.

Throughout this, Parrott offered little direct support to Kubálková, but it is indicative of the political and diplomatic climate that he publicly drew attention to the circumstances facing Czechoslovak academics at the time. A week after Kubálková had been named as a person of interest by the StB, he told the Guardian that five lecturers and postgraduate researchers at Lancaster had been ordered by the Czechoslovak government to leave the UK by the end of December 1969 or face losing their citizenship. Though unnamed at the time, among them was Vendulka Kubálková, now wanted by the authorities and facing certain arrest in the event of her return to Prague. Missing her scheduled return trip back at the end of her first term in Lancaster, Kubálková was stripped of her Czech citizenship and was unable to return to her home country until the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War. As a result, in late 1969, she became one of several Czechoslovak scholars in exile at Lancaster University, though not as a political dissident like Jaroslav Krejčí. The namesake son of the Nazi collaborator who had led the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during the wartime occupation, the younger Krejčí was a social democrat who had been imprisoned in 1954 for six years for his opposition to the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. Having fled his homeland after the Prague Spring, he made a name for himself as a prominent historical sociologist, joining the ranks of a number of Czechoslovak exiles working at the University from the late 1960s onwards. Many of these were part of the networks cultivated by Parrott, which continued to draw the attention and condemnation of both the Czechoslovak and Soviet administrations in this period.

Along with the external pressures brought by this surrounding intrigue, the environment at Lancaster was not always open or comfortable for those working within it. Colleagues of Parrott recounted that the aloof former diplomat could be a particularly difficult man to work with, including Gregory Walker, Lancaster's Slavonic Studies Librarian between 1968 and 1971. Kubálková would be on the receiving end of this when her contact with Parrott was cut off abruptly through a note from him ordering her to return all the keys she held. Perhaps the recipient of intelligence from a ‘contact’ concerning the frequent attempts of the StB to reestablish contact with the now exiled PhD student after a number of meetings were initiated by the Czechoslovak side, Parrott swiftly made his mistrust clear, and Kubálková never saw him again.

A stairwell in Lancaster University.
The approximate location of Cecil Parrott’s office at Lancaster University. Almost all traces of its former function have been removed by more recent renovations, leaving it unassuming and easy to overlook. It perhaps makes an appropriate metaphor for Lancaster’s all but forgotten story of Cold War intrigue. (Jude Rowley)

Though her part in the unlikely encounter between Lancaster University and a murky world of espionage and conspiracy thus came to an end, Kubálková would live with the consequences for decades. After completing her PhD in 1974 while still unable to return to Czechoslovakia, she would go on to a successful academic career working at universities in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. She has written a forthcoming book exploring the role her wider experiences continue to play in shaping her work, which her eventful tenure as a Lancaster University student continues to influence. Despite the challenges her direct encounters with the clash between East and West posed, she would go on to become a leading IR scholar, associated particularly with ‘global IR’ and constructivist approaches to the discipline. Constructivism is a catch-all term that refers to a range of theoretical approaches to IR that are broadly united by a central assumption that the world is created by the way we represent it. In different terms, scholars are not external observers of the world they describe but instead, shape it through the way they describe it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kubálková considers her preference for a distinctly global constructivism as one shaped in part by her personal experiences as an exiled scholar during the Cold War, beginning with her move to Lancaster University in 1969.

For historians seeking to recover institutional and disciplinary histories, she remains a direct link to the University’s all-but-forgotten Cold War past. It is easy to imagine this past as a distant story, played out miles away behind the Iron Curtain, but for all its global implications and interconnectivity, the local aspect should not be overlooked. Encounters and interactions between an oft-discussed global context and an under-explored local one make this story unique to Lancaster. Such connections bridged the streets of Prague in times of tumultuous global tension with Lancaster University’s newly built Bailrigg campus. At the centre of these were not only grandiose political and diplomatic actors like the controversial Cecil Parrott but scholars and individuals like the then twenty-four-year-old Vendulka Kubálková, who were far more direct victims of the circumstances the context presented and whose stories are as worthy, if not more so, of committing to history.


With grateful thanks to Professor Vendulka Kubálková, whose recollections this article draws heavily on and whose generous willingness to discuss the history it explores has proved invaluable in producing it. All errors and omissions remain the responsibility of the author.


Further Reading:

  • Vendulka Kubálková, My Path to Global International Relations: An Autobiographical Textbook (Forthcoming).

  • Vendulka Kubálková and A.A. Cruickshank, Marxism-Leninism and Theory of International Relations (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. (Kubálková’s doctoral dissertation from Lancaster University, published as a monograph in 1980 and again in 2017).

  • Vendulka Kubálková, Nicholas Onuf, and Paul Kowert (eds.), International Relations in a Constructed World (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998).

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

  • Philip Alan Reynolds, An Introduction to International Relations (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1971).

  • Vladimir V. Kusin, The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: The Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia 1956-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).


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


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