Petr Pithart: Charter 77 saved the soul of the nation

Petr Pithart

Charter 77, the most significant protest petition in Czechoslovakia in the Communist period, was published 45 years ago, on January 6, 1977. The document called on the government to adhere to its international human rights commitments and was initially signed by a couple of hundred people. I spoke to one of them, Petr Pithart.

Charter 77 was drafted in 1976 and the first signatories put their names to it in December of that year. The document was published over January 6 and 7 of 1977, appearing in outlets such as The New York Times and Le Monde.

The petition called on Czechoslovakia’s Communist government to adhere to the commitment it made to human rights by signing the Helsinki Agreement.

Among the first dissidents to put their name to Charter 77 was Petr Pithart.

“The original idea was conceived in the corridor at the court where an underground band [the Plastic People of the Universe] were convicted.

Václav Havel,  Petr Pithart | Photo: Milena Štráfeldová,  Radio Prague International

"Surprisingly, people of a huge range of political leanings met there, including ex-reform Communists and Christians.

"[Václav] Havel had the ingenious idea that people of such varied orientations had never come together in one protest, and that a joint statement should be made.”

Around this time the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Agreement were published in Czechoslovakia’s collection of laws, so it made sense for the drafters of Charter to refer to them, Mr. Pithart says.

After the fall of communism in late 1989 he became one of the faces of the country’s transition to democracy as Czech prime minister.

But back in 1977 Mr. Pithart and the other Charter signatories felt the wrath of the regime, if “indirectly”.

“We were all hit in existential terms, one way or the other, through non-stop harassment.

"We lost our jobs, drivers’ licenses, passports. People’s children were barred from education. Some were forced to leave the country, under Operation Clearance.

"We all paid in some way. But nobody was prosecuted for signing the Charter itself.

"It was so artfully written that nobody was locked up for actually signing it, not even Havel.”

Charter 77 | Photo: Czech Television

Petr Pithart, who is today 81, is reluctant to assess whether Charter 77 can be classified a success – but says it was in any case an invaluable initiative.

“That’s a question for someone other than me.

"But the Charter basically saved the soul of the nation. Everybody said, At least not absolutely every one of us is too gutless to do anything.

"Secondly, it created a kind of ‘protected environment’; more and more activities gradually sprang up, under the umbrella of the Charter.

"But the main thing is that it gave practical meaning to the Helsinki Agreement signed by socialist states.

"For many years, Charter 77 and the [later] Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Prosecuted systematically monitored every breach of people’s human rights throughout the whole country.”