František Janouch, part 2: Why the Velvet Revolution was “too velvet”

František Janouch, photo: Petra Čechová

When Czechoslovak dissidents produced samizdat literature in the late communist period they did so in large part thanks to the material and financial support of the Charter 77 Foundation. It was run by František Janouch, a Czech émigré who is still mainly based in Sweden. In the second half of a two-part interview with the nuclear scientist, we discussed his relationship with Václav Havel, the Velvet Revolution and the work of the Charter 77 Foundation today. But first I asked Mr. Janouch, now 85, how the organisation had managed to get printers and other technical equipment into communist Czechoslovakia.

František Janouch,  photo: Petra Čechová
“Well, it was quite easy. Because the Czech government understood that they were very under-developed in computers, printers and so on – and they allowed this equipment to be sent.

“So I used this. I was trying to modernise samizdat. Writing with carbon copies for five or 10 people is nothing.

“But if you have a computer, if you have a printer, then you can circulate things just on a diskette, or floppy disc, as it was at that time.

“So I developed the Czech system with my friends. My son, who was a computer fan, was helping me. Also there were several people in Germany.

“We sent ready equipment to be used. But we were also sending TV sets, video equipment, as well as forbidden movies.

“The movies we had to smuggle, but everything else when officially through Tuzex [network of luxury shops taking hard currency/special vouchers]. The government was so eager to get hard currency that they didn’t stop it.”

Did any of the people involved in the network of the Charter 77 Foundation here ever get in trouble?

“Some of the people were arrested. But usually not for a very long time.

“I was wondering and was sometimes astonished that the Czech authorities allowed all this to be done.

“But I understood that the government was afraid that if they took action it would stop the whole Tuzex system. And this was obviously quite essential for the government.”

“When the Charter 77 movement was initiated Vaclav Havel and called each other and wrote each other quite frequently.”

I understand that your first encounters with Václav Havel weren’t in person but were by phone or letter. Is that the case?

“Yes. We knew about each other. I was asked to have a message for the International PEN Club congress in Sweden, in Stockholm. I called Havel.

“He knew about me and we knew each other, but we weren’t friends or anything like that.

“I asked him to say a few words to the International PEN Club congress and he said, OK, Call me tomorrow.

“I taped his message and translated it into English and presented it to the International PEN Club congress, together with Pavel Tigrid, who was there.

“From this telephone conversation I started to call Václav Havel and we established quite regular contacts and became, I could say, friends.

“When the Charter 77 movement was initiated we had regular contact and called each other and wrote each other quite frequently.

November 1989,  photo: Gampe,  CC BY 3.0
“Perhaps you have seen the correspondence, which is a large volume, several hundred pages, and was published in the 1990s.”

You have often said that the Velvet Revolution was “too velvet” – that the revolutionaries were too easy on the Communists. Was that because they were too nice, too good as people? Or were they naïve and didn’t understand how powerful they were?

“I think the Velvet Revolution was too soft, too velvet, so to speak, against high-ranking people in the secret police, in the Communist Party, in the government and so on.”

But why do you think it was that the leaders of the revolution weren’t harder on them?

“I think they didn’t want to repeat what the Communists were doing to them.

“They wanted to establish a more just and more humane regime.

“But of course, you can’t make a revolution, you can’t take power from people who were representing the former Communist regime, without making some hard steps.”

Obviously when Václav Havel and the other former dissidents came to power they had no experience, everything was new, everything was changing very quickly. But generally speaking how do you think they performed in that situation? How did they do as leaders, particularly in the early 1990s?

Václav Havel,  photo: Czech Television
“I think remarkably well, in fact. There was only this thing that they should have been a little bit harder, a little bit more strict, to restrict the power or the action possibilities of the former Communists, former secret policemen and so on.”

Did you consider moving back here full-time? When the revolution happened it was 15 years after you left, so not really very long?

“Yes, but I had a position, I should have a pension somewhere, and so on.

“My kids were already Swedes. My wife was associate professor at the university.

“It was not clear what would happen here. And then there was the Foundation, which needed me to run it, and so on.

“Even after the revolution the Foundation was doing a lot of important things.

“Just a year after the revolution I got a small, single room in Prague and I used to come. The university was rather liberal so I could have a free working schedule

“So I was commuting between Stockholm and Prague quite often.”

Also it seems that the Charter 77 Foundation was unusually successful in finding a new role in the new era with the Barriers Account?

“Movies we had to smuggle, but everything else when officially through Tuzex.”

“Yes. Before the Barriers Account there was a collection to the Míša Account.

“I had been asked to help finance operations for two or three Czech kids using the unique Swedish medical instrument called the Leksell Gamma Knife.

“Then I decided that we could not ask the Swedish people every month to finance another operation, so I decided to buy a Leksell Gamma Knife.

“I discussed it with the Czech minister of health, Bojar, and he was very enthusiastic.

“I didn’t know that it cost three million dollars, but we successfully collected three million dollars, mostly in the Czech Republic.

“And it became the successful Leksell Gamma Knife in the world. In the variety of applications and the number of operations, it became the absolute number one.”

I know this is a very big question, but generally how do you view the Czech political scene today, all these years after the changes?

“This is really a very difficult question.

“The Czech Republic is integrated into the Western European political scene. It’s a member of the EU, NATO and so on. So this I am quite happy about.

“You can’t make a revolution without making some hard steps.”

“I am not happy about many things in the internal political scene and developments.”

Some people say there is again a Russian influence in this part of the world that wasn’t here for example 10 years ago. How do you view that development?

“Well, I am worried about the Russian influence.

“I think Czechoslovakia was probably among the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe perhaps the most strongly connected with Russia.

“Of course these contacts remain. I don’t like them.

“I think we should have strictly commercial, political, but not more, relations with Russia.”