Getting Along in Czechoslovakia

In December 1977 and January 1978, Frantisek Pitor and Alena Klímová were on trial in Pilsen for tape-recording the text of Charter 1977 from a foreign broadcast and then making and distributing copies of it. The judge explained to the accused that under present conditions in Czechoslovakia, no person has cause for fear. The accused were obviously somewhat dense people, unable to grasp simple points, and to ensure that this idea penetrated their consciousness, and to give them time to meditate about it, the judge awarded Pitor a sentence of three years and his young female assistant one.

These are after all mild sentences: time passes quickly, and Pitor had already been given ten years under the pre-1968 regime (a. sentence terminated by an amnesty), so that he is used to it, as you might say, and three years will seem as nothing; he will also be able to reflect on how this much milder sentence indicates a softening and liberalization.

After all, as a recidivist Pitor might have expected something worse. That he used an army copying machine to disseminate an “anti-state incitement” suggested a bland Schweik-like impertinence; he was asking for it. The report of the case does not even suggest that two further assistants, who handled the machine, were ever prosecuted.

Before we laugh at the judge, we should note that what he said to the accused has an element of truth. Contemporary Czechoslovakia is not a country of fear and trembling. In the 1950s, the following joke circulated: in what way does the Czechoslovak republic resemble a Prague tram? Answer: some sit (sedí, which means both “sitting” and “being in jail”), while others stand and tremble. In the 1950s, Prague trams had not changed since pre-Munich days. They were rickety and it was indeed impossible to stand in them when they were in motion without shaking all over. This is no longer true. The rolling stock of the Prague tram lines has been renewed and it is now perfectly possible to stand in them and shake only occasionally. As for those who are ready to sit, for political reasons, critics of the regime point to the 1,000 names signed to Charter 77 but not to many more.

If one separates liberal from authoritarian societies by whether social order is maintained by the threat of force or by more subtle and devious means with force remaining discreetly in the background and emerging only as an occasional last resort, then contemporary Czechoslovakia is a liberal society, and Pitor’s judge, was right. (I know that one can think of more stringent or more refined criteria.) Conformity with the present social order is, at most times and for most citizens, ensured by subtler and more devious means.

There is perhaps a small minority who wholeheartedly believe in the present system (though it is difficult to find them), and there is another minority, perhaps smaller, which is wholeheartedly committed to defying and denouncing it. But neither represents the normal human…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.