By Jan Surotchak
At a time when the establishment is under fire around the world, it’s worth reflecting on a moment when the intellectual elite actually drove democratic change from underground.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the Charter 77 Declaration, the foundational document for pro-democracy dissidents in Communist Czechoslovakia. On January 6, 1977, 242 leading writers, artists, musicians, poets, workers, and politicians published what was then a revolutionary demand: for their government to live up to the human rights commitments in the country’s own 1960 constitution, the 1975 Helsinki Final Accords and the various United Nations covenants on political, civic, economic and cultural rights signed by the communist government.
To an American audience, much of the Charter reads like the Declaration of Independence. Just as the Founders enumerated a litany of “repeated injuries and usurpations” by the British Crown to add evidential weight to their cause, Charter 77 cites specific provisions of Czechoslovak law openly defied by the authorities, namely: the right to free speech and expression, “freedom from fear,” the right to education and the right to religious freedom.On their way to present the Charter 77 Declaration to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly and the media, Vaclav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and Pavel Landovský were stopped by the state security forces. Along with other signatories, they were detained and interrogated, and their houses were searched on the same day, with all printed materials confiscated.
What prompted Havel to risk everything and articulate the principles of Czechoslovakia’s democratic opposition? Almost fantastically, it was the arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, a “non-conformist” rock band rounded up in 1976.Havel believed the arrest of the Plastic People had ushered in a qualitatively different era in the state’s political persecutions. From the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and through the early 1970s, the regime had cracked down on opposition forces. The Plastic People were not politically active, yet had criminal charges brought against them. As Havel explained, “They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked…and to express themselves in a truthful way…these arrests were genuinely alarming: they were an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality.”
Opposition to the arrest of the Plastic People brought many of the Charter 77 organizers into common cause, gathering an intellectual and artistic elite that helped to ultimately free Czechoslovakia.
Sadly, Europe today again needs its elites to stand against regimes that criminalize free thought and free expression and flagrantly disregard international commitments that have helped keep the continent (mostly) at peace since 1945. With Moscow back in the business of punishing dissent at home and spreading false narratives abroad, we’d do well to remember the lessons of January 1977.