“Love, tolerance and creative freedom aren’t just for fairytales”. That’s the central message of a new documentary called The Art of Dissent, which celebrates artistic engagement in Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. Written, directed and filmed by the American intellectual historian James D Le Sueur, the film aims to debunk the myth that life behind the Churchillian ‘Iron Curtain’ was static and grey, and to inspire viewers through the messages of Václav Havel and fellow former dissidents.
Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the publication of the dissident A Few
Sentences manifesto in the then illegal newspaper Lidové noviny, on June
22, 1989. The document demanded the end of criminalisation of
Czechoslovakia’s opposition, the release of political prisoners and the
lifting of a ban on public gatherings.
A Few Sentences is considered to have been officially declared on June 27, when its text was broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Over the coming months it was signed by around 40,000 people, making it the biggest action of its kind. Communism fell in Czechoslovakia five months later.
Translator, literary scholar and historical sociologist Martin Tharp’s current research focuses on the working-class counterculture of post-1968 Czechoslovakia. He finds that – dissident groups such as Charter 77 aside – the “underground” social movement comprised a diffuse and generalised sentiment of an “emotive-artistic resistance to state cultural control” and censorship.
A bust of the late Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is due to be unveiled at Prague’s DOX gallery this coming Monday. The ceremony is part of an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Among the guests will be Liu Xiaobo’s widow and two of the former student leaders.
The 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation brought many thousands onto the streets for protests that had no precedent in communist Czechoslovakia. Palach Week, as it became known, began on January 15 1989 and saw running battles between demonstrators and riot police. Hundreds were arrested, among them top dissidents such as Václav Havel, and the events are seen by some as foreshadowing the Velvet Revolution, 10 months later.
The Communist-era dissident Milan Balabán has died at the age of 89. A
theologian, Evangelical pastor and poet, he was considered one of the Czech
Republic’s leading religious thinkers.
In the 1950s Balabán – who was born in what is today Ukraine – joined a group of Evangelical theologians named Nová orientace (New Orientation), which pushed for reforms in Czechoslovakia. He later signed the Charter 77 protest document.
He lost his license to serve as a cleric in the mid-1970s and was forced to do manual labour, including working for the operators of the Prague sewer system.
You may be surprised to hear that one of the events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia was held at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University in Britain. On October 29 a plaque was unveiled commemorating a secret academic link set up between the university and Czechoslovakia at the height of normalisation in the 1980s. Czech and Slovak students who found themselves unable to go to university because they or their families were out of favour with the communist regime were given the opportunity to study secretly
In December 1988 Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague, providing a major shot in the arm to the Czechoslovak opposition. The Czech Foreign Ministry is now reported to be planning similar events on the 30th anniversary of Mitterrand’s gesture to demonstrate the country’s support for human rights.