“How will you mark the anniversary?” I asked Václav Havel earlier this year. No need to say which anniversary.
“We shall hold a symposium,” he said. It would discuss the significance, not just of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, but of all those “years of eight” which have been turning points for Czechoslovakia and the whole of Europe in the twentieth century: 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968. Interested Western scholars, intellectuals, and writers would be cordially invited. Perhaps I would be kind enough to prepare a paper? They would try to hold the meeting quite openly. They would inform the authorities.
In early November, a few days before the date of the planned meeting, Havel himself went to the prime minister’s office, and explained the project to an official deputed to receive him. This man said neither yes nor no. But actions speak louder than words. On November 10, as we, the Western guests, began to assemble in Prague, virtually all our Czechoslovak hosts—scholars and members of the country’s main independent groups—were locked up or placed under house arrest. Havel was in hiding.
A lady with a red flower would meet us at breakfast, we were told. She would lead us to the meeting place. So there we sat, on Friday, November 11, in the faded Jugendstil splendor of the Hotel Paríz, a score of academics, writers, human rights activists, and parliamentarians from Western Europe and the United States, waiting for the lady. Several prominent Western guests, including Marion Gräfin Dönhoff of Die Zeit and the eminent dean of Copenhagen University, Ove Nathan, had been refused visas on the grounds that the gathering was “illegal”—although by what law the Czechoslovak representatives could not say. Our hosts were in prison. Plainclothes police swarmed around the hotel. I anticipated arrest, expulsion.
Then in through the glass doors came not a lady with a red flower, nor yet a policeman with handcuffs, but…Václav Havel. He walked quickly to our table, sat down, and formally declared the meeting open. Within seconds, three plainclothes men were behind him. “Well, in this moment I am arrested,” said Havel. But before they hurried him away he managed to repeat, with quiet emphasis, that he had declared the symposium open.
Sally Laird of Index on Censorship photographed the scene. More secret police moved in to confiscate her film. As we argued with them we noticed a large, muscular woman in a tight-fitting leather jacket sitting in the foyer, with not just one flower but a whole bouquet. She moved toward us and theatrically distributed unmarked envelopes. Inside, we found the most extraordinary poison-pen letter it has ever been my privilege to receive. Typed and photocopied, with the text in English, German, French, and Italian, it read as follows:
I am warning you that the action called symposium CZECHOSLOVAKIA 88 is illegal and its performance would be contrary to the interests of Czechoslovak working people and consequently illegal. In this connection your efforts to take part in this action would be considered as a manifestation of hostility to Czechoslovakia and in virtue of this we should have to draw relevant consequences against your person.
“I am warning you…” but the document was unsigned. Kafka! thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Someone asked the lady with the bouquet to identify herself. She said she ensured order in the hotel. In subsequent conversation we tentatively identified her as a secret police officer who had watched over the Havel family, presenting herself as “Lieutenant Novotna,” which is to say something like “Lieutenant Smith.” Briefly detained in a police car the next day, three of us were again handed a crumpled copy of this fantastical “Advertisement” (the German text, incidentally, was headed “Achtung“) by another plain-clothes man. We asked him whence it came. From the City Council of Prague, he said. But, we insisted, who is this mysterious “I”? He pointed to himself, adding helpfully, “police!”, as if, sitting in a police car, we might not have realized.
By this time we were visiting such few of the Czech and Slovak symposium participants as were still at home—usually under house arrest—and the families of those in prison. Earlier we had attempted to reconvene the meeting in a private flat, as had been done successfully in the case of the independent cultural symposium in Budapest in 1985.* But here, police in front of the door had simply prevented any Czechs from getting in.
We had drafted a strong statement of protest against this “blatant violation of the Helsinki Final Act,” a statement sent directly to all the delegations at the Vienna Helsinki review conference, but which also came back within hours to most of Czechoslovakia, via the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America. We had briefed our ambassadors. We had laid flowers on the grave of the philosopher and founding father of Charter 77, Jan Patocka. Among our group was Max van der Stoel, who, as Dutch foreign minister in 1977, had been the first visiting Western politician to meet with Patocka in his capacity as leader of the human rights movement. Following that meeting, Patocka had been hauled in for eleven hours of interrogation, at the end of which he collapsed and died. Now, on his first visit to Prague since that time, van der Stoel spoke movingly at Patocka’s grave. Patocka is dead, he said, but we all know that his spirit, and the spirit of freedom, live on in Czechoslovakia. The ceremony was filmed by an independent video team.
Then we had marched up to the headquarters of the Central Committee and delivered a letter of protest addressed to the Party leader Milos Jakes. A clever-looking official at the door assured us—in fluent Russian—that he would pass the letter on to “Comrade Jakes,” but regretted that there was no one to receive us on a Saturday. And who was he? What was his name and position? “I just work here,” he replied, glasnost glinting from his glasses. Two photographers took pictures of us from across the parking lot. Then we marched down to the main secret police office in the Old Town, demanding to know why and where our hosts were imprisoned. Once again, the officer at the door explained that no one was working on the weekend—at which point a man in plainclothes pushed through our group to enter the building, somewhat undermining the general contention.
Now, as we paid our individual visits, I was interested to observe the surveillance techniques of the police. Perhaps naively, I had not realized before how they use nicely dressed young couples, boy and girl walking arm in arm. And then I was glad to note that they, at least, have no shortage of hard currency. Three of us alone, myself and the Parisian scholars Pierre Hassner and Aleksander Smolar, were honored with the attentions of at least two foreign cars, a blue Ford Sierra and a red Fiat Uno. Spying the latter after one of our calls, and feeling tired and hungry, we thought to ask our narks for a lift home (“home” in this case being, aptly enough, the Hotel Jalta). As we walked toward the car, the driver started the engine and pulled slowly away. We pursued them down the road.
Amusing for us—but no joke for our Czech friends sitting in prison. In theory, the Czechoslovak authorities’ handling of this “action” was relatively sophisticated. Earlier this year they received harsh criticism in the Western press, and a drubbing at the Vienna review conference, for breaking up an East–West peace seminar, and expelling all the foreign participants. Now they would allow the foreigners to stay, but lock up all the Czechs—initially for forty-eight hours and then, in some cases, immediately again for part of another forty-eight-hour period (thus abandoning all but the barest shreds of legality). We, mean-while, would be allowed to go where we please. We would have what the Germans call Narrenfreiheit, jester’s freedom. All doors would be opened to us, and the police would politely usher us into empty rooms. Better still, we would bring suffering to the innocent. For if we were foolish enough to visit anyone not already well known to the police, those people would surely feel the “consequences” with which we were merely threatened.
In practice, this exercise in damage limitation did not go quite as planned: because of Havel’s coup de théâtre; because of the black comedy of “Lieutenant Novotna”; because we made our own protest dramatically, urbi et orbi; and because West German television managed to film Havel’s arrest through the window of the restaurant, and to get the film out. It was shown on the television news in several Western countries. People in Slovakia saw it on Austrian television. At the Vienna review conference, Western ambassadors lined up to deplore the Czechoslovak authorities’ action.
It was, indeed, a prime-time “advertisement” for the present regime in Prague.
On Monday, November 14, the following commentary, signed “Václav Dolezal,” appeared on page 2 of Rudé Právo, the central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist party:
Attempt at Provocation
Fourteen days after the provocative demonstration of anti-socialist forces [see below, i.e. the unofficial Independence Day demonstrations on October 28] the same group of people attempted another form of provocation. It took advantage of cooperation with organizations for psychological warfare of the North Atlantic Pact. Western broadcasting stations took an active part too. What was up?
In the past weekend days, the so-called Charter 77 wanted to organize a “symposium” called Czechoslovakia 88 in Prague. According to the foreign press, some twenty persons representing various official and unofficial Western structures, many of which take extreme anti-Czechoslovak positions, were to come to participate in the action, under the cloak of tourism.
The interest of these “also-tourists” was not devoted to inspecting the cultural glories of our capital, but rather to encouraging the so-called dissidents to develop even more anti-socialist activity. They failed to achieve this goal. They wanted to use materials prepared beforehand to discredit our social system and to blacken our homeland in the countries of our neighbors. According to the foreign press, these materials, often glorifying the pre-1938 political structures, describe our previous political positions from subjectivist positions and sometimes antagonistically. A series of organizers of this provocation have been detained.
A similar action with the same political intentions was organized by émigré and other centers in Vienna on Sunday. The intention behind both the mentioned actions was a single aim: to defame the efforts of our Party and society for reconstruction, but also to complicate the Vienna meeting [i.e., of the CSCE] and, at variance with the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to interfere in the internal affairs of the CSSR and to infringe Czechoslovak sovereignty.
See my "The Hungarian Lesson," The New York Review (December 5, 1985).↩
See my “The Hungarian Lesson,” The New York Review (December 5, 1985).↩