It is exactly 40 years since the launch, on 6 January 1977, of the landmark Charter 77 declaration. Calling on Czechoslovakia’s Communist rulers to honour their commitment to human rights under the 1975 Helsinki Accords, it was to become the dissident movement’s most significant protest against the regime.
Between January 1977 and the fall of communism in 1989 – when leading Charter member Václav Havel became president – many hundreds more put their names to the milestone document.
Among the original signatories was Martin Palouš, who has since served as Czech ambassador to the UN and is now an academic based in Florida.
Charter 77 was famously inspired by the imprisonment in 1976 of the underground rock band the Plastic People of the Universe.
But, I asked Martin Palouš, when was the exact moment that somebody in the dissent said, This is what we are going to do – and this is how we are going to do it?
“I think that something was already in the air even before the trial of the Plastic People.
“At that time I was in very intensive communication with the philosopher Jan Patočka. I was a part of the circle of people he was lecturing to.
“You could hear in Jan Patočka’s argumentation even before the trial of the Plastic People of the Universe that he was looking for some sort of inspiration, motivation or opportunity.
“Obviously, we are talking about the second half of the 1970s, when the process of normalisation was, I would say, already completed. It had succeeded. This was reflected on by Havel in his letter to Husák in 1975.
“So I think that something was in the air. But obviously that process catalysed and culminated with the 1977 Charter declaration.”
“Well, I was not part of that, but I know about it. It was happening among people like Václav Havel, Jiří Hájek, Jan Patočka and Jiří Němec.
“I was very much involved and in touch with the Němec family, and they were also a part of those debates.
“I myself was acquainted with the document before Christmas 1976, when I signed it.”
Who then was the author of the main part of the text, would you say?
“Everybody says that it was Pavel Kohout who invented the name.
“I think Jiří Hájek must have written a piece of it. Because you haven’t mentioned a very important motivation, which was the Helsinki process – the fact that the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference was signed in the summer of 1975.
“All of these arguments regarding international law and Czechoslovakia’s obligations under the law were I guess coming from this [Hájek’s] side.
“And then Václav Havel obviously was also a part of the final edition of it.”
People say that the first signatories, those 240 odd people, were a mixed group: Christians, reform Communists side-lined after 1968 and people from the underground. But was there one dominant current of thought among those people?
“Some people like to say today – and it’s absolutely wrong – that Charter 77 was mainly the project of former Communists, those people who were Sixty-Eighters.
“One them was Zdeněk Mlynář. And in one of his memoirs Václav Havel describes how surprised they were that Zdeněk Mlynář was able to collect maybe 100 signatures. Quite a lot.
“I was, I can say it now, in the group of people who were approached by Jiří Němec.
“I think my father [the philosopher Radim Palouš] was approached by Patočka. Others were approached by other people.
“But you are absolutely right – in the end you had an interesting collection of people with different backgrounds, different views, different ages and different experiences. But they were all connected by the idea of Charter 77. “
If we could speak about the actual publication. I believe that the declaration was sent abroad by post and that numerous copies were sent but some were apprehended. Is that true?
“This was the famous operation of 6 January. Obviously the secret police and the state authorities had some information, so they chased the car with Havel, Landovský and Zdeněk Urbánek, who had the documents and the envelopes for the state organs and for the individual Charter 77 signatories.
“And before they were arrested Havel managed to put a bunch of these envelopes into a post box.
“A question put to many signatories – it was investigated very thoroughly – was, How did the Charter 77 text get into the hands of international press?
“But obviously the original addressees were the organs of the Czechoslovak state.”
After the Charter declaration appeared in the international press, how soon was it before the reaction came from the Communist authorities? And what form did it take?
“I remember that maybe one week or 10 days after the publication the famous article Ztroskotanci and samozvanci [Losers and usurpers] came out [in Communist Party daily Rudé Právo]. This was quite an open admission that a text like the Charter had been published.
“Patočka was actually very pleased by this, because they could have decided on a more secret and hidden strategy in response.
“Because obviously the interrogations of the main protagonists, like the three first spokespersons, started immediately after.
“Havel ended up in jail after a couple of days, Jiří Hájek survived and Patočka passed away on 13 March, after all these exhausting police interrogations.
“As for my own experience, it went step by step.
“More and more people were taken by the secret police for interrogations and I don’t know exactly when my turn came, but it was a couple of weeks after ‘D-Day’ of that operation.
“Then obviously further persecution followed. I lost my job, as many other people did.
“The persecution was, I would say, gradual and very well designed to people’s individual needs [laughs].
“But, you know, we had to get used to living in this situation – and the regime was also getting used to living with us.”
I was reading just a few days ago about that time when the interior minister said privately that the Charter declaration had been written “in such a sophisticated manner by the opposition’s best minds that if it was made public the great majority of the Czechoslovak public would not understand where the dangers in it lay.” Did the Communists engage in any sort of arguments with the actual demands of the Charter on adherence to human rights?
“Our general reaction to their questions was to say, I refuse to answer because I could put myself or my relatives in harm’s way and I don’t want to do that.
“Because obviously their questions were raised in connection with possible criminal proceedings.
“So in fact there was no dialogue about human rights, at least not in 1977 or 1978.
“Maybe at the very end of this period, I am talking about 1989, when I think even the agents of the secret police were realising that the times were changing, they sometimes might raise these questions in a different context than the original one.
“But I don’t think that we ever had anything like a dialogue with them.”
After the original publication and as over the years more and more people signed the Charter, how did it develop?
“At the end of the day, the number of the people who decided to sign Charter 77 was less than 2,000.
“The Charter 77 movement was turned into a social phenomenon, although certainly not as massive as, for instance, Solidarnosc in Poland, for sure.
“I would say that signing the Charter 77 document meant something. But what was more important was how various people were ready to behave under the changing circumstances.
“We weren’t an organisation with membership. We were just a very loose platform.
“So the question was, How many people would have been ready to participate in all those activities that were, I would say, initiated or promoted in the context of this platform?”
“This was not written in the original declaration. It evolved in the course of time.
“Obviously, to be responsible for the agenda of Charter 77 was a very big commitment.
“And actually, this was one of the elements of democracy in the Charter, because if this role has been occupied by the same people they would have been turned into some sort of Charter captains or bosses – and all others would be just the membership.
“So the rotation was a very good principle.”
The Chartists did not define themselves as an opposition. Nevertheless, did they create some kind of opposition grouping which meant that it was inevitable that the main movers in the Charter would become the leaders of the country, if and when communism fell?
“It’s very difficult to say whether it was inevitable or not, when we have empirical knowledge of what happened in reality.
“You’re absolutely right, Charter 77 was not an opposition party.
“But it was maybe a breeding ground for opposition activities.
“If Charter 77 was strongly affected or even motivated by the final act of the Helsinki process in 1975, in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, that was also an important international turning point – and Charter 77’s activities were certainly affected by that fact.
“What we saw in 1988 was the growth of other activities, appearing, again not as political parties in opposition, but as other platforms.
“Other institutions connected in one way or another with Charter 77 were also involved.
“And the fact that Václav Havel turned out to be the leader of that process, I think certainly had something to do with his previous roles before and during the Charter 77 movement.
“But again, it was not, I would say, direct representation of Charter 77.”
When you look back now, 40 years later, as one of the original signatories of the Charter, do you ever think, We did it?
“Certainly, I think it’s one of the periods of my life that I can be proud of, rather than be disturbed by serious mistakes connected with it.
“Forty years after, what bothers me a little bit is that there is still no serious historical reflection.
“I don’t think that this history has been properly investigated and studied by contemporary historians.
“I am now, for instance, very much involved with the Cuban question, travelling in Miami.
“And the Cubans now find themselves at a specific stage in their contemporoary history that reminds me of our dilemmas in many ways.
“Are we human rights defenders? Or a democratic political opposition? Or are we in transition from stage A to stage B?
“Here Charter 77 is still a great inspiration. It’s not just a matter of the past. It’s a question and a challenge that is with us ‘til today.”