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History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

So I went to Cerný and laid the cards out on the table. I told him Patocka didn’t want to take the job without his blessing, because he thought that Cerný was in line ahead of him, but that it was essential to get Patocka for the position precisely because his political profile was not as sharply defined as Cerný’s and therefore he could function more easily as a binding agent, whereas Cerný, who was prickly and outspoken, might well have created a lot of resistance from the outset, and there was no way of guessing how it would affect the work of the Charter. Cerný accepted this at once, and I think his acceptance was sincere, without a trace of bitterness. I went back to Patocka and told him about my conversation with Cerný, and he was visibly relieved, as though a great weight had fallen from him. So the final hurdle had been overcome: Patocka became a spokesman and plunged into the work, literally sacrificing his life to it. (He died on March 13, 1977, after a prolonged interrogation.) I don’t know what the Charter would have become had Patocka not illuminated its beginnings with the clarity of his great personality.

But back to those preparatory meetings. We agreed that the signatures would be gathered slowly, over Christmas, during the normal friendly visits and encounters that take place at that time, so that we wouldn’t attract unwanted attention too soon. We named about ten “gatherers,” and we roughly outlined for them the circles in which they were to gather signatures. I looked after the technical side of things; I took the text around to the gatherers along with instructions on how it should be signed. I also collected signatures, mainly among my friends, most of whom were writers. We’d already agreed on the day—it was between Christmas and New Year’s—and the hour when all the signatures were to be brought to my place and arranged in an alphabetical list, and everything was to be got ready to be sent to the Federal Assembly and published. Meanwhile, enough copies of the initial declaration were typed out so that one could be sent to each of the signatories. Everything was supposed to be ready for January 1, 1977, but it was not to be announced until a week later, to allow time to prepare the appropriate publicity, which for various reasons had to be synchronized with the moment when the declaration was to be handed over to the officials.

The day the signatures were to be delivered to my place, I was rather nervous. There were indications that the police already knew something (and it would have been surprising if they hadn’t), and I was afraid they would break into my place just when everything had been assembled, and we would lose all our signatures. I got even more nervous because, although the meeting was still supposed to be at four o’clock, it was almost five and there was still no sign of Zdenek Mlynár, who was bringing in signatures gathered in ex-Communist circles. It turned out there had been a simple misunderstanding about the time, and he eventually arrived, with more than a hundred signatures, which took my breath away. The final tally for the first round was 243 signatures. The police did not show up, we got all the business out of the way, and then a small circle of us drank a toast with champagne.

In that dead period between the completion of our business and the actual explosion, there was one more big meeting at my place, attended by about twenty-five people. We discussed how the Charter would carry on its work and what should be done in what situation and so on. We knew that such a large meeting would probably be impossible to arrange later. Almost everyone was there. It was the first time, for instance, that I had seen Jaroslav Sabata16 since his recent return from prison. I was asked to run the meeting, and I felt rather strange, giving the floor to former university professors, ministers, and Communist party secretaries. But it didn’t seem strange to anyone else, which is an indication of how strong, even at the beginning, was the feeling of equality within the Charter.

Perhaps I should say something more about plurality within the Charter. It was not easy for everyone—many had to suppress or overcome their ancient inner aversions—but everyone was able to do it, because we all felt that it was in a common cause, and because something had taken shape here that was historically quite new: the embryo of a genuine social tolerance (and not simply an agreement among some to exclude others, as was the case with the National Front government after the Second World War), a phenomenon which—no matter how the Charter turned out—would be impossible to wipe out of the national memory.

It would remain in that memory as a challenge that, at any time and in any new situation, could be responded to and drawn on. It was not easy for many non-Communists to make that step, but for many Communists it was difficult in the extreme. It was a stepping out toward life, toward a genuine state of thinking about common matters, a transcendence of their own shadows, and the cost of doing so was saying goodbye forever to the principle of the “leading role of the Party.” Not many former Communists actually stood by that slogan anymore, but some of them still carried it in their blood or in their subconscious. It was to the great credit of Zdenek Mlynár that, with great political subtlety, he recognized the urgency of taking this step, and then used the weight of his authority to persuade those around him to take it.

At this point there are around twelve hundred signatures; I don’t know the exact figure, and for various reasons it’s pretty difficult to determine. At the beginning there really were about twenty or thirty people who signed the Charter but didn’t want their signatures published, at least not right away. We respected this, but later, when the police got their hands on the unpublished signatures as well (they even handed some over for the propaganda writers to use—for example, the signature of Dr. Prokop Drtina17 , we stopped doing it. Not because it would have been impossible to keep such signatures a secret in future, but because unpublished signatures don’t make much sense. If someone sides with the Charter within himself, but for some reason can’t sign it publicly, he has dozens of better ways to show this than signing a piece of paper which is then hidden away. So there is no second, underground, super-Charter. Perhaps I should also mention that we tried to dissuade some of our friends from signing the Charter, precisely because their work was so important and so much in the spirit of Charter 77 already that it wasn’t worth endangering that work with a signature. This was the case, for example with Vlaista Trešnák and Jaroslav Hutka, both of whom later signed the Charter anyway.18

What happened after the publication of the initial declaration of the Charter is generally well known and well described, and the history of the Charter, its development, and its social significance have already been written about by historians. I’d rather ask you, therefore, about your first arrest and the period before your third arrest, which is really the beginning of your years in prison.

After the Charter was published and the propaganda campaign against it had started (the state thus effectively gave enormous publicity to the Charter in its very early days), I went through the wildest weeks of my life. At the time, Olga and I were living in Dejvice, a part of Prague which is on the way to Ruzyne Prison, and our flat began to look suspiciously the way the New York Stock Exchange must have looked during the crash of 1929, or some center of revolution. There were interrogations [of the Charter, sponsors, including Havel] that went on all day long in Ruzyne, but initially everyone was released for the night, and we’d all gather spontaneously at our place to compare notes, draft various texts, meet with foreign correspondents, and make telephone calls to the rest of the world. So ten hours and sometimes longer of being bombarded with questions by investigators were followed by this hectic activity, which wouldn’t let up until late at night. Our neighbors were bravely tolerant of all this but, though I had no concrete reason for thinking so, I felt in my bones that the only way this could end for me personally was prison.

My anticipation grew stronger from day to day, until finally it became a fervent wish that it actually happen, to end the unnerving uncertainty. On January 14, late in the evening, after my “normal” interrogation had finished, I was taken into a large room in Ruzyne, where various majors and colonels came in and threatened me with all kinds of terrible things. They claimed they knew enough about me to get me at least ten years in prison, that “the fun was over,” and that the working class was boiling with hatred toward me. Some time toward morning they shoved me in a cell. Later, when I was released, I wrote a report about a hundred pages long on the first days of the Charter, my arrest, and my subsequent imprisonment. I hid it somewhere, and to this day I have no idea where it is. Perhaps I’ll find it some day.

It’s pretty obvious, I think, what the main reason for my arrest at that time was: I was the youngest of the spokesmen, I was the only one who had a car, and, quite justifiably, they thought I was the main motive force behind all the activity, and the main organizer. Patocka and Hájek were treated as having a more symbolic significance; they were undoubtedly more restrained and mild than I was. The authorities obviously hoped that with my arrest the Charter would be crippled.

It was a terrible miscalculation. The Charter may never have functioned better than during my imprisonment! I know, from what people have told me, that Patocka and Hájek put all their strength and all their time into it, and that they personally acted as couriers and organizers. When urged by many friends to parcel out at least part of his agenda to others, Patocka apparently replied, “I’m a spokesman and I can still walk.”

To give substance to the official position that the Charter would be dealt with “politically” and not by locking people up, the authorities had to formally justify my arrest with something that had nothing to do with the Charter. That’s why I was tacked on to the case of “Ornest and Co.,” which involved giving texts that had originated inside the country to the émigré magazine Svedectví in Paris. But 90 percent of the questions during the interrogations had to do with the Charter. Moreover, the security officers hoped that by linking my case with that of Ornest they would have material support for the official thesis that the Charter was inspired and directed from abroad. They longed to be able to show that the introductory declaration had been published outside because of my secret connections, via Ornest, with Pavel Tigrid.19 Of course they didn’t manage to prove that—nor could they, because the whole thing was organized in an utterly different way, and far more simply.

  1. 16

    A one-time Party functionary who became a Charter 77 spokesman.

  2. 17

    Minister of Justice until 1948, Drtina was later imprisoned. He died in 1980.

  3. 18

    Trešnák and Hutka are underground singers who went into exile in 1978.

  4. 19

    A journalist who was associated with Radio Free Europe, and the publisher of the émigré magazine Svedectvi.

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