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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. Landovsky and Havel had intended to deliver this one by hand to Prague Castle, the seat of government, and the security police completed the job.

Thus it was that Charter 77 reached Dr. Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

A current Prague joke defines a pessimist as “a well-informed optimist,” but even so there is just a chance that the ultimate losers in those events of January 6 will be Husak and those in the Party who are further to his right.

The government was surprised by the number of signatures the Charter had collected, and from the beginning chose to ignore, publicly at least, all but ten or a dozen of them. The idea was to convey an impression of a small group of well-known misfits and complainers—“criminals”—and obscure any impression that a substantial body of ordinary Czechoslovak people had signed. For this reason, the regime likes to throw around the word “dissident”—with its connotations of enemy of the state—and for corresponding reasons the word is avoided by the Chartists, who point out that there is nothing in the document which can be construed as antistate or antisocialist.

In fact—and it is one of the most interesting facts about the Charter—the men and women who have taken their courage in their hands and signed away their prospects of an unmolested life in Czechoslovakia, do not by any means share the same political or social vision. But it suits the government to talk of bourgeois revisionists, and to keep a distinction between them, on the one hand, and contented workers on the other.

Still, the distinction was looking blurred by February 4, when an additional 208 people, including sixty-four “workers,” had signed copies of the Charter, which by this time was circulating widely. By June the total had reached 750. Without question, the government of Dr. Husak had a problem.

If he looks back to find the moment when the problem began to form, Husak would probably settle on October 7, 1968.

On that day, in New York, forty-seven days after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact armies rolled into Prague to save Czechoslovakia from itself, two International Covenants on human rights were signed on behalf of the Czechoslovak Republic. One was on civil and political rights, the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. Between them they affirmed the desirability of a set of freedoms which would satisfy most utopians, and which had almost nothing in common with real life in a one-party state.

As a UN pact, this did not have the force of law in the countries of the signatories, and perhaps the Czechoslovaks signed without misgivings. But it turned out to be the first turn of a wheel which, though very slow, was difficult to stop. In Helsinki in 1975 these two covenants were “confirmed”—and how could Czechoslovakia abstain? In November of that year the Federal Assembly of the CSSR “ratified” the confirmation, and consequently in October 1976 when the texts of the two covenants were incorporated in Law No. 120 in the published Czechoslovak Collection of Laws, the legal position was that as of the previous March it was the right of the citizen and the duty of the state to enjoy and uphold all the provisions which had been spelled out in New York eight years before.

It is anyone’s guess whether the government understood that Law No. 120 was a powder keg. Since all the important rights were already “guaranteed” by the Czechoslovak Constitution of 1960, it is possible that the authorities believed that nothing was being added to the status quo, and that no more notice need be taken of one piece of paper than of another. And, of course, the Constitution contains its own escape clauses which stipulate that due regard must be paid to “the interests of the socialist state and the community of the working people” (Article 34), and that freedom of expression must be “consistent with the interests of the working people” (Article 28).

But to a handful of citizens there was a vital difference between Law No. 120 and all that preceded it. A constitution is a sort of promise made by a country to itself. One body, symbolizing “the people,” makes a promise to those same people. But Law No. 120 was different. It enshrined a promise made by Czechoslovakia to other countries.

The question was, was that promise sincere? Was it meaningful? In the words of Ladislav Hejdanek, a silenced philosopher and one of the earliest signers of the Charter, “We had to find out whether we were supposed to live as liars.” Thus, for Hejdanek, Charter 77 was a sort of experiment, in the sense of a scientific experiment. There were certain discrepancies between Czechoslovak law and Czechoslovak life. The Charter would bring this to the attention of the government. The result would show whether the government consisted of honorable men or not.

I talked to Hejdanek in a cheap “fish grill” just off Wenceslaus Square. At the time, as at other times and other interviews, it seemed important to make the kind of notes that would help me to conjure up vivid impressions of Prague life. (The fish was poor, the advertised desserts nonexistent, the ambiance pleasant, the clientele young, the music Western pop.) But in retrospect my priorities changed, and nothing changed them more than my conversation with Hejdanek, which was related to another conversation which I’d had that morning with Karel Bartosek.

Bartosek is a historian (former, banned, silenced) and a Marxist. Six years of manual labor in the open air have left him looking tough and tanned. A signer of the Charter, he considers himself a good communist persecuted by deviationists. “The Charter is a political opposition,” he said. “It is an illusion to say that it is a legal opposition or a moral opposition.”

With this in mind, I asked Hejdanek whether he thought the government could, even in theory, survive the implementation of Charter 77. He replied that it was not up to the Chartists to decide whether the government was capable or not. “The important thing is to throw light, to find out what sort of society we live in. If the government cannot keep its declarations it must not make them. The Charter is a legalistic action based on morality. It is not a political action for me. It is not even a technically political action structured [i.e., presented] as a nonpolitical action. It is a moral action.”

Bartosek, and he is not alone, is determined that the Charter should be recognized as a blow for the cause of the workers, and he is a little contemptuous of “operetta figures” who (he suspects) place too high a value on artistic and intellectual freedom and too little on economic freedom. “For me it would be difficult to keep going if I thought there was no harmony between politically thinking members of society,” Bartosek told me.

One night when I was meeting a group of young people, Bartosek showed up and after listening to us for a while, he asked, “Is a worker allowed to ask a question here?” He became exercised about the fact that the Western newspapers had plenty of space for the problems of Czechoslovak intellectuals but at the same time had printed nothing, for example, about a recent mining tragedy where a number of workers had been killed because of faulty equipment. This had happened three times in a few months. Most of the people in the room did not know about it, for naturally it had not been reported in Czechoslovak papers either. I ventured that freedom of expression, which might have got the equipment improved after the first tragedy, was still the fundamental problem in such a case. “Even so,” said a young man, earning Bartosek’s vehement agreement, “we would not like it to be thought in the West that Charter 77 consists of proclamations by Vaclav Havel.”

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