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.”

Conversely, Hejdanek, and others as well, relies on nonpolitical notions of right and wrong, and lays aside as a separate and future question (if and when it arises) whether the freedoms demanded are compatible with a Marxist state. Hejdanek read Marx for the first time only three years before he left the university in 1952, and he knew at once that he was not a Marxist. In the heady days of 1968 he was invited to join the Institute of Philosophy as the only visible non-Marxist philosopher around. For the previous twelve years his routine had been to rise at 3 AM to write philosophical works, then go to his job as a clerk, return home to spend an hour with his children, and then go to bed, to rise again at three. His reward, the invitation to the Institute, lasted a few months, and in the eight years since then he has managed to publish two articles.

Other Chartists are interested in Euro-communism, or in pluralism between competing Czech communist parties, or even in pluralist democracy where communism has to take its chances with the rest. Yet others are making a stand for their religion and have no political interests. In short, the inquiring visitor very quickly learns about the differences within the Charter movement, differences which are only fitfully apparent in Western reporting, if at all. From the feedback of Voice of America and the BBC, the Chartists have learned in their turn that they are understood almost entirely by what unites them. Not a few resent the reflected sense of superiority in which bourgeois capitalism is basking.

Yet very much more does unite them than divides them. “Family quarrel,” said Bartosek cheerfully after one of those impassioned arguments. What was it that brought Marxists and non-Marxists, Catholics and Trotskyists, professors and factory workers together under one manifesto? It was not simply their victimization. Nor was it Law No. 120, whose history meant little to most people. For a significant part of the answer we have to turn to a phenomenon known as the Plastic People of the Universe.

In the spring and early summer of 1968, the apogee of Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face,” there were literally hundreds of rock groups in Prague alone, and all over the country there were many more musicians playing in every style from avant garde to country-and-western.* When Dubcek fell in April 1969, the Husak regime undertook the vast process of “normalization,” whereby some 400,000 people were expelled from the Party, thrown out of their jobs, their children removed from secondary schools and universities, and so on. Along with all this, from 1971, there was a “normalization” of the musicians as well: no more long hair, no more lyrics sung in English, no more Western decadence, no high decibels, no pessimism, no funk; just good, clean, middle-of-the-road music.

The choice seemed clear. The groups had to compromise or pack up. But there was a third option, and the Plastic People of the Universe were the only group to see it. They went “underground.” Denied the license to play either as professionals or as “official” amateurs, they fell back on making music only for themselves and their friends. It was spare-time music played at birthday parties and private gatherings. It meant having regular jobs, using makeshift equipment, and rehearsing in primitive conditions. Worst of all, it meant constant harassment by the authorities.

The Plastic People started in 1967 as a neighborhood teenage band from Brevnov, a fading residential quarter of Prague. They were in love with the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Fugs. They got their musical education from listening to records and imitating them. They had also seen pictures of their idols in concert, and they imitated the visual image, too: robes, strobes, Bengal lights, heavy make-up, and a highly theatrical presentation.

But slowly they found their own identity. By 1972 they had all but stopped doing American numbers and were setting to music poems by Egon Bondy, an underground poet. Their fans multiplied and began to follow them around. Other bands began to form, following the Plastic People’s example. The interest of the police grew proportionately. At free concerts, where word of mouth alone would bring hundreds of fans, the identity cards of everyone present were checked and recorded, and in March 1974 there was a particularly brutal intervention with a hundred fans arrested and finger-printed; many of them were thrown out of school without being allowed to sit for their final exams. Several of them were tried and jailed for terms of three to fourteen months.

In February last year, Ivan Jirous, an art critic and artistic director of the Plastic People, got married in a small village near Prague. The occasion was the high point of home-grown rock in Czechoslovakia. Some 400 guests came to the wedding, and because the place had to be kept secret to prevent the entertainment from being banned in advance, most of the fans traveled in arranged parties led by one person in the know. Over a dozen groups performed for twelve hours, and the full extent and strength of the underground scene was apparent for the first time. None of the villagers complained, and no police showed up. But a month later the arrests began.

More than one hundred musicians and fans were interrogated; their homes were raided. At least twenty-seven musicians from five groups were arrested. A mountain of papers, tapes, films, and photographs was confiscated. Musical instruments and electronic equipment were seized. And then began a propaganda campaign to discredit those imprisoned, describing them as drug addicts, vandals, alcoholics, madmen, and perverts. In July the first three were jailed for up to thirty months, and in September four more people were sent to prison, including Jirous, who got eighteen months.

Vaclav Havel attended the trial. He and his fellow playwright Pavel Kohout, and Vaculík, together with a few others, denounced the sentences as an unlawful revenge on nonconformist art. “The Plastic People were unknown, at the bottom of society,” Havel told me. “The government thought they could hurt them without anyone caring. But to their surprise, the worst thing happened—the fate of the musicians made a unity among different kinds of people. It was at this time, October to December, that the first 240 names were signed to Charter 77.”

Havel himself went to see Professor Jan Patocka, the most respected living Czechoslovak philosopher and perhaps, with John Comenius (1592-1670) and Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937), one of the three philosophers of real stature whom the country has produced. Patocka was sixty-nine years old. He didn’t know much about the Plastic People and he didn’t much like what he heard of their music, but, Havel says, when the situation was explained to him he acknowledged at once that freedom was indivisible, and during the next six months “he found his way to the young people, and they found their way to him.”

Patocka’s freedom to teach philosophy precisely parallels Czechoslovakia’s own freedom. As one of the youngest and brightest students of Edmund Husserl (who died in 1938), Patocka began teaching at Charles University in Prague in 1936, ceased when the Nazis closed the university, started again in 1945, was suspended when the communists took over in 1948, returned to Charles University during the Prague Spring, and was finally dismissed after the Soviet invasion. One of his pupils was Ladislav Hejdanek, who told me,

In retirement Patocka continued to work with small groups of students, perhaps five. He realized that in a way this was more important than his own work. The Party plan—there are plans for every side of life—had so lowered the standard in schools that intellectual life was in danger of being destroyed. When normalization began, fifty out of seventy philosophers in the Philosophical Institute were thrown out. [Hejdanek was one of them.] Today there are only about 200 philosophy students at the University. The authorities are afraid of allowing real philosophical studies. It is always dangerous for such regimes.

When Charter 77 came to the surface in January, Patocka was designated as one of its three “spokesmen,” along with Havel and Jiri Hajek, a former minister from the Dubcek government. He made his philosophical position explicit in an article he wrote the following month:

Without a moral basis, without a conviction which does not stem from opportunity, circumstances or expected advantages, no society can function, regardless of how advanced it is technically…. [But] it is not man who defines a moral order according to arbitrary needs, wishes, tendencies and desires. On the contrary, it is morality which defines the man…. The notion of an international pact regarding human rights means only this: societies place themselves under the sovereignty of a moral belief…. It is to this conviction that Charter 77 is responding.

Weakened by frequent and lengthy police interrogations, compounded by influenza, Patocka suffered a heart attack on March 4. On March 8, in a hospital, he wrote, “What is needed is for people to behave at all times with dignity, not to allow themselves to be frightened and intimidated. What is needed is to speak the truth. It is possible that repression may be intensified in individual cases. People are once more aware that there are things worth suffering for.” On March 13 he died.

There were a thousand mourners at the funeral. About twenty people were detained to prevent them from being there. A police helicopter and revving motorcycles effectively drowned the voice of the officiating priest.

Later a crown of thorns appeared on Patocka’s grave. Havel says, “It was placed there by two of the underground, followers of the Plastic People of the Universe.”

During this time, Havel was in Ruzyne prison, not knowing, as he says, whether Charter 77 was alive or dead. After January 6 he had to report for interrogation every day for a week, along with about ten others including Patocka, Hajek, Vaculík, and Kohout. On January 14 he left home as a “witness” and ended the day as a prisoner. He remained in Ruzyne for four months and is now under indictment.

Havel told me, “I was chosen as a warning to others. But of course they wanted to make a fog between the Charter and criminal charges so that it would not look as if there was a connection.”

To this end, four men were charged: Havel; Frantisek Pavlicek, a theater director; Jiri Lederer, a journalist; and Ota Ornest, the director of the City Theater. For some weeks after these arrests were made known it was not at all clear what the plot would be. Later in January Czech TV showed a scrap of secret film in which Ornest was alleged to be handing some sort of package to a Canadian diplomat, and there were heavy hints of espionage. The truth turns out to be more mundane.

Ornest is an elderly man in poor health. When the STB picked him up they intimidated his wife into keeping silent. She phoned the theater and merely reported that he was ill. Cut off from moral and practical support, Ornest broke down quickly and admitted that he had been passing manuscripts to the West.

One of these was the memoirs of Dr. Prokop Drtina, who had been minister of justice when Eduard Benes’s democratic regime gave way to the communists in 1948. The prosecution intends to show that the memoirs passed from Havel to Lederer to Ornest. Another manuscript involved is a play written by the fourth man, Pavlicek, who is also the subject of one of a series of interviews made by Lederer into a book which constitutes a third manuscript in the case.

Lederer has previously been in prison (for a critical article about Poland). He and Ornest are charged with subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years. Havel and Pavlicek, both released pending the trial, are also included in the same blanket charge but expect to be tried only on a lesser charge of damaging the name of the state abroad (maximum three years). This trial will probably begin in September.

Meanwhile in northern Bohemia, two other men, Vladimir Lastuvka and Ales Machacek, were arrested, separately, for disseminating Charter 77 and their trial is expected shortly.

But these are only the most visible forms of persecution. The country is full of people who can testify to the multiplicity and pettiness of the revenge for Charter 77: driving licenses withdrawn, telephones cut off, typewriters confiscated, and, most of all, livelihoods taken away. Jan Vladislav, a respected poet and translator whose version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets made him famous twenty-five years ago, today “publishes” his poems, and his friends’ books, by gluing together typewritten pages. During one of his luckier periods he published, through the state, some children’s stories in English, and these can still be found in London, New York, Toronto, and Sydney—with his name removed from the title page.

Daniela Chichova is of a younger generation, aged about thirty. For four years she had worked in a state publishing house. She signed Charter 77, and on June 8 she was summoned to the police station. Her boss was also called in, and right then and there in the interrogator’s office he sacked her. Was he embarrassed? “Yes, he was, but he still did it.” Another girl in the same publishing office was fired simply for attending Patocka’s funeral.

Karol Sidon, who is thirty-six, is considered by those around him to be the best young writer in the country. “Until 1969 I lived a normal life,” he says. He worked on the magazine Literary Papers, and wrote radio plays. Two screenplays he wrote won prizes later on at festivals in Pilsen and Sorrento. When Husak started cleaning out the stables, Sidon was one of hundreds of journalists dismissed. He did some free-lance work for television, then ran a tobacco kiosk; two years of manual labor followed, during which he wrote a novel. When Charter 77 appeared, with his name attached, he was once more “a tobacconist.” Arrested and detained for four days, he was released but deemed unfit to run a state kiosk. Now when he is asked what he does he replies truthfully, “I’m a beggar.”

In factories, offices, and schools people have been asked to sign a condemnation of a document which they are not allowed to see. Often the anti-Charter signature sheets are thoughtfully presented as the wages are being given out. One woman, Zina Kocova, who had signed the Charter, was carted off to the VD department of a Prague hospital and although she pointed out that she did not have VD, nor had she ever had it, nor had she done anything which suggested that she might possibly have it, she was kept there against her will for thirteen days.

A document sent to UNESCO by a Czechoslovak educational expert estimates that between 1970 and 1976 about a quarter of a million young people were denied university places because of their parents’ nonconformism. The system is described in fascinating detail. Each year toward the end of April, the lists of potential students are annotated by regional Party committees. Those names marked with an “A” are to be accepted unconditionally, being the children of loyal functionaries. Those marked with an “N” cannot be accepted under any circumstances—“even if at the entrance examinations they performed like young Einsteins.”

“If it wasn’t for fear of spoiling their children’s education,” Pavel Kohout says, “far more people would sign the Charter. So they conform, and they tell their children not to take any notice of certain things their teachers are forced to tell them. So the children are taught that lying is an ethic—say one thing at home, another at school. Of course it’s understandable, but it is also our tragedy. ‘I did it for the children’ is the Czech problem.”

On his bookshelves his own intellectual history is revealed, left to right. His early books of poems were classic Stalinist stuff. He was seventeen when the war ended. His father, who worked with great risk in the communist underground against the Nazis, taught him to welcome the “Eastern orientation” at a time when it seemed that Czechoslovakia had to make a choice between the West, which had failed it in 1938, and Russia, with which there was no history of conflict. Until the early Fifties, Kohout’s ideas came straight from the Kremlin. “People ask me now, how could I write that stuff?” he says. “I tell them, it was easy—I believed it.” After Stalin’s death, and more so after 1956, he wrote more critically, but he was still a communist right up to 1968 when he and Havel, now one of his closest friends, used to meet as chairmen, respectively, of the Party group and the non-Party group of the Writers’ Union.

The events of 1977 are in direct line with a process which since 1968/1969 has turned Czechoslovakia into a weird, upside-down country where you can find boilers stoked by economists, streets swept by men reading Henry James in English; where filing clerks rise early to write articles for learned journals abroad, and third-rate time-servers are chauffeured around in black, bulbous, chrome-trimmed Tatra 603s straight out of a Fifties’ spy film; where millions of crowns per month are spent on maintaining little cordons of policemen and vehicles to disarm a handful of dangerous men whose only weapon is free conversation. Corruption is everywhere and bribes are part of the common currency. You bribe the butcher for meat, the mechanic for a spare part. In the upper reaches of this corruption—say, to get a better flat—you bribe the bureaucrat to tell you whom to bribe. To keep this ramshackle, profoundly flawed edifice upright requires one apparatchik for every twenty Czechoslovaks.

It is because the regime has so little real support that it dare not take the risk of liberalizing the country. But at the same time, the pressure from below is building up. One of the most thoughtful Chartists told me:

A few years ago when we made a protest, people were against us because they thought we would only make things worse for everybody. Now I’ve found that no one thinks this way any more. I know of one factory where the workers were asked to condemn Charter 77, and the result was that they realized that a protest was actually a possibility in this country. So they made their own protest against certain work conditions, and they won. This change happened between January and June, and I think it is historically significant.

Nobody I talked to believes that the situation, either for the government or for the disaffected, can be contained indefinitely. The question is whether the edifice will fall down before it blows up.

This Issue

August 4, 1977