Witch Hunt in Prague

Two and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, throngs of people fill Wenceslas Square day and night, many of them tourists or foreigners who have come to Czechoslovakia to help rebuild the country or just to be where the action is. Much of the city’s center is being “gentrified”; walls glisten with fresh paint. There are still many stores from the Communist era, their signs a study in brown on brown, their names announcing only the products they sell—“Tabák,” “Drogerie”—but they are now interspersed with stylish shops such as “The Country Life,” a health-food store, and one selling American T-shirts that say “Prague: Czech It Out.” Notwithstanding a huge new McDonald’s, it is mainly German investment capital that is making such changes possible.

There seems something naive and innocent in the new atmosphere. Even the prostitutes who now patrol the hotels, as the secret police used to do, look like inexperienced schoolgirls, swinging their clunky handbags as if they were lunchboxes. In my hotel room I found a Bible as well as advertisements for nightclubs and “topless” cabaret shows; and among the many publications sold around town is the English-language Prague Post, which carries a large advertisement for The New York Review of Books, a publication that I used to smuggle into the country.

I visited Prague in March, for the first time in two years. In the old days, such a lapse of time didn’t matter much. I knew what to expect when I went there on a human rights mission for Helsinki Watch. The situation was black and white. On one side were the Communists who, during the twenty-year period known as “normalization” which followed the 1968 Soviet invasion, claimed one fifth of the population as Party members and seemed in almost complete control of every civil institution. Opposing the Communists was a small band of Charter 77 activists, some of them former Communists who had supported the Prague Spring and broke with the Party in 1968. These people were persecuted and ostracized, yet they continued to stand up to the authorities with remarkable stamina and élan. The rest of the population hardly seemed to matter. Derisively referred to by some dissidents as the “gray zone,” they were passive and seemingly apolitical, escaping to their country cottages on weekends and avoiding trouble with the regime.

Among the people I saw first on arriving in Prague this March were Václav Havel, Jirí Dienstbier, Martin Palous, and Petr Uhl, all of whom I had known as dissidents during the more than a dozen years in which Helsinki Watch has been monitoring human rights in Czechoslovakia. They are now, respectively, president, foreign minister, deputy foreign minister, and director general of the Czechoslovak News Agency. We used to meet on street corners, in parks, or in out-of-the-way cafés; this time I met Havel in the gilded rooms of the Hradcany Castle and posed for photographs at the meeting’s end. Yet despite all these miraculous transformations …

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Letters

Witch Hunt in Prague June 11, 1992

Witch Hunt in Prague June 11, 1992

Human Rights in Prague May 28, 1992