Charter 77: the most successful social bubble in modern history

Charter 77 just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and today there is much to be learned from this community, whose members were committed to becoming better, more reasonable and courageous people than they would have been under normal circumstances.

40th Anniversary of Charter 77: František Janouch, Pavel Hlaváč, Photo: wikimedia commons/Ben Skála, Benfoto

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I remember that thin piece of paper densely covered with text. But because it contained what I already knew, it did not draw my attention. It arrived to our home in Bratislava just before the end of 1976 (I do not know who brought it), and my father, thinking aloud, fretfully remarked that our Czech friends had left us out. He did not like signing texts he had no part in creating, and he thought this might just be another empty gesture.

It was perhaps the most flawed judgment of his usually clear-sighted mind. The document was called Charter 77, and even 40 years later it can be agreed upon that it constituted the beginning of the Communist regime’s demise.

A Cunning game

Let’s start with a bit of geopolitics. By the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Union understood that it could not defeat the West militarily or ideologically, and found that reaching an agreement on mutual non-aggression was more reasonable. Thus in the summer of 1975, after lengthy negotiations, the USSR signed an agreement with the European states (and the US and Canada) in Helsinki that had three main points. First, it recognized the status quo of a divided Europe, consequently legitimizing the Soviet Union and its rule in Eastern Europe. Second, it created space for economic and security cooperation between the West and East (under the auspices of an organization presently known as OSCE). Finally, it committed all signatory states to the observance of human rights standards.

The USSR really cared about the first two points, the third being only a compulsory concession to the West, and one it did not for a second consider taking seriously.

The Czech dissidents and writers, including Václav Havel, Pavel Kohout a Ludvík Vaculík, were the first Eastern Europeans to understand what it meant for the Communist states to add their signatures to the document, which was published in the Czechoslovak Register of Laws on October 13, 1976 under the name, “International Pact on Civic and Political Rights”. Charter 77, then, was basically an open call to the parliament and government of the time to respect the human rights standards they had publicly and legally committed to.

The Communists – unlike my father – immediately understood the cunning nature of this rule of law “game,” as well as the tremendous risk it posed to for a totalitarian system, which only pretended to respect laws. What followed in Czechoslovakia was a wave of repressions against Charter signatories, and then almost immediately, one of the saddest episodes of normalization – the so-called Anticharter – when thousands of artists publicly denounced the Charter, instead praising the regime.

The fate of the Charter and its signatories – initially numbering 242 at the first wave in January, and eventually reaching almost 2000 – was of key importance for the future. And the the fact the number of Slovak signatures was so low, they could be counted on the fingers of two hands, influenced different development trajectories in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, not only during normalization, but also after 1989.

Thanks to the Charter, a resilient structure of dissent was created in the Czech Republic, a structure that had to imaginatively protect itself against strong regime pressure (for example, the Committee for Defence of those Unfairly Persecuted (VONS) was formed at that time) and learn to cooperate. Using the words of philosopher Jan Patočka, the Charter helped to create a community of people connected by a “shattered solidarity”.

At that time, hundreds of texts documenting the regime’s human rights violations, were created and spread around Czechoslovakia in samizdat, broadcast by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, and published in Western news media. Thanks to the Charter, a human rights agenda became a focal point for the West, and this colored the economic cooperation the Communists cared so much about and had agreed to at Helsinki, with a certain respect. However, the Czechoslovak regime could not resist these conflicting internal and external pressures, and collapsed in November 1989.

And then two important things happened in the Czech Republic: the Charter 77 community provided enough people, who’d passed the moral and intellectual tests, and were ready to assume power, and this subsequently inspired Czechs to support the tradition of regime resistance and to identify themselves with that new power.

In Slovakia this did not happen. The number of Slovaks that first signed the Charter was so meagre, 1 it did not inspire enough cohesive dissent, and then only a few weeks later the regime repressions discouraged even those, who had considered signing.

Perhaps the Slovak history would have unfolded in another way, if the Charter had been signed by my father and more importantly, Alexander Dubček (after all, many reform Communists in the Czech Republic signed). They certainly would have been followed by others. But instead, Dubček remained passive throughout the whole normalization period, never understanding the importance of civic resistance, and my father did not apprehend the document’s historically explosive relevance.

Thus, a community of people with a clear political and civic idea, represented by the Charter in the Czech Republic, was not formed in Slovakia. November 1989, thus, caught the country unprepared for change and no one was there to ease the transition. 2

One could also say that a direct consequence of the Charter not gaining traction in Slovakia, was Vladimír Mečiar’s rise to power. Slovaks then had the chance to relearn the civic resistance lessons they did not pass during normalization, and fortunately, they managed better in 1998.

Family story

The Charter became a moral challenge and impacted  number of fates differently. It was quietly avoided by the vast majority of people, publicly denied in the most humiliating ways by a portion of Slovak artists, and supported with astonishing courage by others, such as  writer Hana Ponická, who resisted regime pressure. Ponická stood up for the persecuted signatories and condemned her colleagues’ cowardly attitudes at the symposium of Slovak writers. She then endured a publication ban and suffered the fate of an outcast.

My family was not spared the dilemma either. When my father witnessed the uproar around the Charter, he was tempted to belatedly sign it, but he got a clear message from the secret police (ŠTB). They told him if he did so, my older brother will be expelled from the engineering faculty, where he had just enrolled as a first-year student. My mother begged my father not to sign, so that at least one of his sons could study.

In the end my father listened to my mother, and even she – although despising politics from the bottom of her soul – did not escape the dilemma. The police gave her a choice: either she would sign a non-public declaration, stating that she did not agree with the Charter (not the Anticharter, so she did not have to directly bow to the regime), or she would be terminated from her position as an English literature lecturer at the university. The paradox in all this was that my mother really didn’t agree with the Charter, simply because she hated political manifestos. My father advised her to do what the ŠTB asked of her, but a mysterious moral imperative swelled in her and she refused. She was immediately fired from the university.

I also did not escape the dilemma, although I didn’t really have anything to lose: I’d been banned from studying from the time I was 14 – long before the Charter appeared. My problem with the document was different though: I did not like its content, its legalistic approach, or the way it spoke to the Communist regime and thus formally legitimized it. I refused to recognize its legitimacy, communicate with it or its ŠTB men. I wanted to share nothing with the regime.

It was because I was a generation younger that the Charter’s authors. I was already born into a system that was totally strange to me; I did not take part in its creation, unlike many former Communists (including my father), and I did not see the difference between the state and the regime, as Dominik Tatarka had done in the First Republic.

Thus, I did not sign the Charter. And this was a mistake.

So much for history. The real question is whether the Charter experience can also be useful to us today. Just a few years ago I would have said “no,” because the arrival of democracy had fulfilled its purpose, and then, quite logically, it ceased to exist. But I see things differently today.

The community of Charter signatories was in fact something that we label today, with ridicule, as a social bubble. It was a world in and of itself, one ruled by strict norms of civic bravery and a deep conviction that the right to express one’s opinion is stronger than the laws and practice of a totalitarian regime. It was a community that insisted on certain ideas of liberal democracy, and the members paid a high price for it – often in the form of incarcerations. It was a social bubble that did not burst because of an inner solidarity, and by its very existence – seemingly nonsensical and fragile – defeated a regime with a huge power apparatus.

It was a social bubble that was aware of its imperfections. Its members were constantly questioning the rightness of their conduct; infinite debates led them to humility, to different opinions, and, in the end, to those who had not found enough courage to enter this bubble. I was always fascinated by the nobleness with which members resolved disputes, and the polite language they used, even in the documents when furiously speaking to the regime.

It is fashionable today to ridicule the social bubble of the “Bratislava” [or Prague, ed. note] café, as supposedly detached from reality, because those inside do not listen to the angry masses. But perhaps its deeper problem lies elsewhere: in a missing inner solidarity, humility and tolerance to the opinions of others. The Charter defeated the regime because its members became a community of people, who were committed to becoming better, more reasonable and courageous people than they would have been under normal circumstances.

Accepting this sort of challenge is also meaningful today.

Slovak version of the article has been published by Dennik N.

Notes:

  1. Only Miro Kusý, Dominik Tatarka, Ján Mlynárik and Vlado Čech; and the latter two lived in the Czech region.
  2. See also debate on role of intellectuals in transition: Martin Šimečka, “Intellectuals did not take the responsibility, So somebody else had to,”V4 Revue, November 23, 2014, http://bit.ly/2koap8g (accessed January 26, 2017); János Széky, “Intellectuals stayed on the scene too long,” V4 Revue, January 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2k7InjQ (accessed January 26, 2017); Marcin Krol, “Unwise Intellectuals, ” V4 Revue, March 31, 2015, http://bit.ly/2jVsfj5 (accessed January 26, 2017).
Martin Milan Šimečka

Martin Milan Šimečka

is an author and journalist, currently editor of Respekt, a Czech political weekly and member of editorial board of Denník N. In 1990 he founded and led an independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum, a Slovak weekly. In 1997 - 2006, he acted as editor-in-chief of SME and in years 2006-2008 he was editor-in-chief of Respekt, from 2009 he changed his positon to editor and contributor.