Children of the Underground

Charter 77

To mark the 15th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Nikola Brabenec set out to speak with the now full grown children of dissidents involved in Charter 77, the human rights declaration which brought together the dissident movement.

Charter 77 was born at the beginning of 1977 following the incarceration of musicians from the underground band, the Plastic People of the Universe. Diverse groups of people including Christian conservatives, Trotskyites and artists of all kinds were united in their quest for basic human rights.

Signing the Charter marked a turning point in the lives of many of these people and their families. Jan Jonak's parents were forced to emigrate after continuous police harassment. I joined him in a smoky pub to talk about his impressions of the underground band DG 307 that his mother, Jana, sang with.

Jan Jonak: "It's really indescribable. The Residents is the only thing that comes to mind, it was definitely more over the top, because of what these artists, musicians were feeling in this society, well depressing is a weak word, really."

I asked Jan how he felt about the band as a child.

Jan: "Well I mean when you are eight you don't have much appreciation for string instruments that are being tortured and screaming and screeching, that's what there music was like..."

Although Jan pokes fun at DG 307 he was quick to emphasize that their significance went beyond the screeching.

Jan: "Well, it was these artists, who in a sense, laid the groundwork for the whole dissident movement."

A few days later, I sat in the Benda family's quiet living room. On one side of the room, shelves of books covered the wall from floor to ceiling, a huge Crucifix hung on the other side of the room. Former dissident, Vaclav Benda, was a philosopher, mathematician and practicing Catholic. His son, Martin Benda explained that this room had been the site of many underground meetings, seminars and discussions. In those days, there was a network of families whose doors were always open to other dissidents. These central meeting points, allowed people to stay connected.

The whole battle that was led for twelve years was about breaking through the information blockade. It was our only weapon and their main source of power, they were used to quietly silencing people individually somewhere, they would shut them up. In the 1980's we succeeded in breaking through this information blockade, we made sure people knew about each injustice, and so more and more citizens knew about it.

Childhood memories of their parents' involvement in the dissident movement are a mix of adventure, fear and absurdity.

Vaclav Benda
Martin described his first memories of Charter 77.

"Of course we were scared, we figured out very quickly that something was going on, there were police, that our parents were endangered, house searches began, they were very dramatic, they would start at 6 am and the police would be ringing the bell and kicking the doors down and ten of them would come and they would be crawling through the whole apartment so those were pretty traumatic experiences, but our parents explained what it was about. Even though we were scared, it also had this feeling of adventure."

Jan also spoke of his experiences with the police.

Jan: "I got interrogated by the cops even, I was maybe eight, visiting Marek Tomin and the cops were really laying the pressures on me, out in the hallway, the cops had a desk, whoever would come, you know, the cops would give you the twenty questions."

Martin Benda explains that bizarre anecdotes were only one part of the story.

Martin: "And then there was the phase where dad was locked up in jail, which lasted four years, so from the time I was nine to the time I was thirteen. What can I say about that? It had many sad sides to it, looking back at it today, I think, everything that is bad is good for something. I grew up very quickly, my brother and I starting taking care of the family, shopping and cooking, things like that."

November 1989
As a young adult, Martin played a key role in organizing student demonstrations leading to the fall of communism. He described his feelings during November 1989.

Martin: "As a family we lived for the fall of communism, so during those days, I felt euphoria. During the demonstration, going along the riverside people were hanging out the windows of the National Theatre waving at us and I thought, finally, maybe this is it!"

Now 15 years later, the children of former dissidents are full grown adults, pursuing lives of their own.

I spoke with Vaclava Parkanova the daughter of former dissident Viktor Parkan. I asked her how she viewed Czech society today:

Vaclava: "You can still feel in society that they have not accepted the freedom as their own completely, not everyone seems to feel the right of the individual, the right to decide about society, they are stagnating, I am not talking about everyone, there are plenty of people doing all sorts of things but the majority, if they want something, they will not go and do it, it's like they are waiting for something, that something will happen, that someone else will solve the problem for them."

The son of former dissident and literary critic, Jan Lopatka was 14 at the time of the revolution. Now a successful journalist, he speaks about the impact his parents' involvement in the dissident movement has on him today:

Jan: "I have a feeling of responsibility, I think that ethical issues should play a stronger role, when I am making decision, I always try to think that it is easier to be honest and straightforward now when I am facing no real pressure than it was 15 or 20 years ago, when I could have gone to jail for making the right decisions, and I know that still there were many people who were able to face the threat and make the right decisions back then, and so I feel responsibility to make the right decisions now when it should be much easier."

November 1989
Back at the Benda's living room, Martin reflects on people's perceptions of the Velvet Revolution today.

Martin: "Today it is easy to talk about it and it is kind of nice how today I am sitting here talking about how I was demonstrating. One day I will be able to tell my grandchildren about it, and the listeners are hearing it that way too. It's all nice and good that I have a heroic chapter in my life, but in reality it was very serious. In hindsight people say, well it was clear, by 17th November the regimes around us had collapsed, but my father's battle, his friends' battle, the battle that all the dissidents led, had a great significance. That is not only from a moral point of view, but also on a practical level. All these individual activities, and each individual fate, and each victim, each sacrifice, contributed to the chipping away of the regime, and it was more serious back then, than it seems in hindsight, fifteen years later."