Prague: The Story of the Chartists

Sometime during the night of January 5 this year a Czechoslovak government agent in Paris reported that Le Monde was running a story about a human rights manifesto to be released in Prague the following day. The State Security police (Statni Bezpecnost, hereafter STB) were caught by surprise, but if they did not know quite what they were looking for, they knew exactly where to look. By early morning the Skodas and Tatras, with three men to a car, were parked near the homes of several Prague citizens.

Pavel Landovsky, an actor and playwright, was one of those so favored. He owns a battered white Saab which he likes to drive fast. He is a heavy, buccaneering figure with a Zapata mustache, and is proud of the fact that in the old days when he was still allowed to work, he destroyed two cars for the film cameras without benefit of stunt-men. On the morning of January 6 he noted the Skoda tailing him, shook it off, and went about his business.

There was, however, at least one car watching each of the houses where his business took him. Inside these houses, including one occupied by the playwright Vaclav Havel, various friends were engaged in getting a large number of letters ready for mailing. Landovsky and Havel went around picking up the letters, and during the morning they also picked up the novelist Ludvík Vaculík, a former (i.e., banned) journalist who lives out in the country. Vaculík had come into town to buy a pair of shoes, but on the way he had meandered about Prague in search of news and gossip; he found himself licking envelopes.

Shortly before noon Landovsky set off for the post office with Havel sitting beside him and Vaculík, who wanted a lift downtown, sharing the back seat with around 240 envelopes. They did not get far. At a junction where four roads meet, eight police cars converged on the Saab, one of them roaring out of the wrong end of a one-way street. “It was just like the movies,” said Landovsky last month when, for the benefit of this correspondent sitting next to him, he retraced the route in his “historical car.” The three men were arrested, and after that it wasn’t like the movies any more.

The STB discovered that all the envelopes contained identical documents. What they read was a soberly phrased statement of some 1,800 words pointing out that Czechs have been deprived of the freedoms and civil rights guaranteed by the Helsinki agreements. Not only, the Charter said, are they denied freedom of speech and worship, and rights to privacy and due process; they and their children are harassed, persecuted, and denied work and education if they try to claim these rights. Only one of these documents was destined to be delivered, and this was one of a few that contained a list of 241 signers, whose names and addresses accounted for the rest of the envelopes …

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