In Charter 77, Czech Dissidents Charted New Territory

How a group of despondent people pushed back against a repressive regime’s lies — and changed history.


“It’s not as famous as some other anniversaries linked to the fall of communism,” said Zdenek Beranek, the chargé d’affaires at the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Friday. He got emotional describing the signing of Charter 77, a watershed moment for dissent and human rights in the Soviet Bloc. “But I believe this relative oblivion and obscurity is what makes it so significant.”

The story of Charter 77 is the story of people who tried to protest their country’s rulers not because they thought it would change anything, but because they knew it was right thing to do. It’s the story of people who along the way made history, and whose contributions are today both partly forgotten and yet alive and well.

The short version: In 1968, the government of Czechoslovakia flirted with reforms to create “socialism with a human face.” But the Soviet Union came to decide this was too great a threat to the Eastern Bloc. And so, in August 1968, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia marked the end of the socialist reforms and popular enthusiasm of “Prague Spring.” In their place came a sort of resigned cynicism on the part of Czechoslovakia’s citizens: The way things were — with the country under foreign, socialist, rule — was the way things would always be.

Then, at the very beginning of 1977, following the December 1976 arrest of the psychedelic rock band Plastic People of the Universe, 241 individuals signed Charter 77. It was a loose, informal association of 235 Czechs and six Slovaks, artists and writers and intellectuals and friends of discontented friends.

The “Chartists” intended to hold the government accountable not only to its own laws, but also to international agreements to which it was a signatory, including the Helsinki Accords. That document guarantees human rights and freedoms — and their government signed it in 1975.

“We used to live under communism, surrounded by a strictly designed set of alternative facts to support the ideological vision of the government,” Martin Palous, one of the Charter’s original signatories and the former Czech ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, told Foreign Policy. And so he and his fellow Chartists set about trying to “resist falsification” by demanding their basic human rights — including the right to live and speak honestly and with dignity.

It was a watershed moment in human rights and dissidence in Czechoslovakia in particular and the Eastern Bloc more broadly. Newly organized and mobilized, many of the Chartists went on to play starring roles as dissidents in the 1980s and in the 1989 reclamation of Czechoslovak independence. Most notably, playwright and Chartist Vaclav Havel became the first president of independent Czechoslovakia — and then, after navigating that country’s peaceful dissolution, of the Czech Republic.

But the longer version of the story was neither linear nor neat for those actually living it.

“I don’t regret that I decided to participate,” Palous said, but, “it was a big adventure.” Nobody knew how it would turn out, especially because it was made under a repressive regime.

Those who signed the Charter did so at their own personal peril. “When the Charter was first published, there was a massive government campaign against its signatories,” Harvard historian Jonathan Bolton, author of Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism, told FP. However, “eventually the government realized that it would be more effective to isolate the Chartists and subject them to targeted repressions without turning them into a national cause celebre.”

It is difficult today to understand what a departure Charter 77 was from everything around it precisely because the document helped create what came to surround it — a civil society composed not of ideological adherents but of individuals who try to respect human rights. But at the time, the Chartists were charting new territory.

Jakub Janda, deputy director of the Prague-based think tank European Values, told FP that this group wasn’t initially launched as a political group with a comprehensive set of shared beliefs as much as it was “a springboard” to political life, assembled by a group of people who had in common a steadfast belief in human rights.

Charter 77 attracted international attention, and those interested and daring enough to do so could seek out the Chartists themselves. But to be a Chartist was to be repressed in and isolated from one’s own society.

Forty years ago, the Chartists were not celebrated by the majority of their fellow countrymen. Monica Richter’s Czech emigré parents, who were in their twenties when the Charter was signed, have told her the group was all but invisible in state media. “The regime didn’t want to draw attention to an initiative that challenged its legitimacy and could spur protest,” she told FP.

For years, Palous said, the Chartists were left alone with their ideas and their hopes. But “moments in history come when hope plays a role in the practical world.” So it was in the case of Charter 77.

Forty years on, Charter 77 is far from isolated in its country’s collective ideology. “It’s part of Czech history, in a good way,” Janda said. “If there’s a question, ‘Who were the dissidents?’ — the answer you would get in most high schools or textbooks — it would be Charter 77.”

That doesn’t mean that Czech masses are walking around celebrating Charter 77. “I don’t think that the generation born after 1989 is particularly familiar with the content and importance of the Charter 77,” said Johana Sedlackova Vamberska, who lives and works with her husband in Prague. “It has been perceived as some document that belongs to our communist past.”

But it may subtly shape Czechs still today. “I think — or at least hope — that it has left its legacy on Czech society today and our ability to challenge political power that tramples on human rights,” said Jessie Hronesova, a Czech graduate student who lives in the United Kingdom.

It’s also relevant again, in Prague and the wider world. Czech President Milos Zeman is openly pro-Russian and has been accused of being Islamophobic and xenophobic. In Slovakia, the prime minister calls critical journalists dirty prostitutes and rails against Muslims. Neighboring countries have built barriers of barbed wire. Countries further afield are building walls of their own.

“I think it shows,” Janda said, that “a strong international legal document, which now some would say is a waste of paper — it was a strong symbol for these people.” The idea of universal human rights, he stressed, means something very tangible to those who have nothing else.

That, perhaps, is the enduring legacy of Charter 77 and those who wrote it: The ability to make something — whether reclaiming individual dignity, or winning national independence — from nothing.

“Those who drafted, signed, and promoted it did it with no glimpse of hope emerging on the horizon,” Beranek said.

Until they brought it into view themselves.

Photo credit: LUBOMIR KOTEK-JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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