A Few Sentences: “One of the most important steps before November 1989”

Několik vět, photo: Marián Vojtek / Czech Radio

The publication of the manifesto Několik vět, or A Few Sentences, was a milestone in the final year of communism in Czechoslovakia. After being broadcast by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America on June 29, 1989, the document – calling for the release of political prisoners and other freedoms – was eventually signed by around 40,000 people. I discussed its contribution to the eventual fall of communism with historian Jakub Jareš.

Několik vět,  photo: Marián Vojtek / Czech Radio
“The contribution of the Několik vět petition was quite important.

“But even more important was of course what happened in the Soviet Union and what happened afterwards in Poland and Hungary.

“And I guess that these developments in these foreign countries contributed much to the public response to Několik vět in Czechoslovakia.”

Among the signatories of Několik vět we find such names as the actors Zdeněk Svěrák and Rudolf Hrušínský. Is that a sign that the opposition to the Communists was spreading beyond the dissent and becoming more mainstream, if you will?

“Yes, that was definitely the goal to concentrate on these, let’s say, celebrities or famous people, who could attract ordinary people.

“Behind the Několik vět petition was a quite well elaborated strategy from Václav Havel of how to proliferate the petition among the public – not only by help of these significant personalities, but also by a media strategy in Western radio stations broadcasting to Czechoslovakia.”

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio
When you speak about strategy, is that the reason Václav Havel and the other authors didn’t call in the manifesto for the end of the constitutionally guaranteed leading position of the Communist Party?

“Yes and no.

“They definitely wanted to attract more people, and therefore the text is somehow moderate.

“But I think it’s also a question of what you can imagine at a moment when the Communist Party is still in power: You can’t imagine that you could demand something like the end of the Communist regime, because it’s not the question of the day.”

Forty thousand people signed the A Few Sentences manifesto. I guess this was unprecedented in terms of size?

“Definitely. It was something extraordinary since 1968 and something extraordinary for the whole normalisation period.

“But we must admit it wasn’t the first petition that provoked kind of broader attention.

“The very first one was the petition of artists and culture workers in winter [early] 1989 which demanded the release of Václav Havel from prison.

Jakub Jareš,  photo: Noemi Fingerlandová / Czech Radio
“Actually the dissidents saw that this petition gained attention among artists – there were a couple of hundred signatories.

“And therefore they decided that they would do something for an even broader public than just artists.

“So it was this experience that motivated them to write Několik vět.”

So basically what you’re saying is that the manifesto A Few Sentences was one of many steps on the road to democracy in Czechoslovakia at that time?

“Definitely. But Několik vět was a really important step, one of the most important before November 17, 1989.”