London Diplomat to Exchange Attach Case for Squeegee ; Forced to Work as a Window Washer Following the 1968 Soviet Occupation, the Czech Ambassador Seeks to Ply His Former Trade at a Capitalist Icon

Article excerpt

Some people might think the post of ambassador to Britain is lofty enough. But Pavel Seifter, who represents the Czech Republic here, is setting his sights higher. Eight hundred feet higher, to be precise.

He caused a flutter among London's diplomatic dinner-party circuit by applying to join the gang of spidermen soaping, rinsing, and polishing the windows of Canary Wharf Tower, a 50-story building in a rebuilt commercial district of London's dockside area.

"I want to test myself. Cleaning these windows will test two things: my sense and feeling of freedom, and my attitude to fear," he says.

It's not a question of making ends meet. The position would be unpaid, more a nostalgic hobby than a second job. As well as being a career diplomat and an academic historian, Dr. Seifter has two decades of experience as a window washer.

Canary Wharf is a legacy of the Thatcher political era and something of a monument to capitalism. But to Seifter, it's a poignant reminder of one man's release from the straitjacket of communism.

In 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into what was then Czechoslovakia, extinguishing a brief flowering of political, press, intellectual, and cultural freedoms that came to be known as "Prague spring."

At the time, Seifter was a lecturer in modern history at Prague University. "I had just started my academic career when the Soviet tanks arrived. And for people who refused to applaud and welcome this invasion it was very difficult," he says.

Like thousands of other dissidents, Seifter lost his academic job and was forced to seek manual work. He eventually became a window washer. To his initial surprise, he found that he liked it. "It was a great feeling. You are somewhere between the earth and the skies, between the earth and heaven. And there is nobody who can tell you what to do or say or think, what is forbidden."

DURING the 20 years he spent cleaning windows, Seifter was among some of the Czech capital's most distinguished company. "Other people working with me included a future foreign minister, defense minister, ambassadors, and a future archbishop. There were poets, literary critics, dramatists, sociologists, historians, philosophers. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.