Thirty years since birth of Charter 77 human rights initiative

The Plastic People of the Universe

Thirty years ago a handful of people met in a flat in Prague to discuss the communist regime's failure to observe fundamental human rights. What grew out of that meeting was to become the first dissident movement in the Soviet bloc, a movement which played a key role in bringing about the end of totalitarian communism in Czechoslovakia. And, perhaps typically for a country that seems to produce more than its fair share of oddities and idiosyncracies, it all began with a psychedelic rock band.

In 1976 the Plastic People of the Universe - a loose outfit of rock musicians inspired by artists such as Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground - had become something of a legend. Formed in the late sixties, their moody, psychedelic sound had earned them a legion of fans across communist Czechoslovakia, but also the unwanted attention of the police. With their long hair, weird sound and blatant refusal to conform to the stifling norms of the culturally barren period that followed the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, the Plastics must have been the regime's worst nightmare. In 1976 the authorities arrested four members of the group, among them saxophonist Vrata Brabenec.

"For two years before we were arrested we were really nervous about what could happen to us, because everybody knew where the 'bomb' of the underground was, where the centre was. But I guess they wanted to wait for a good moment. Now we know that everything was directed by the Communist Party."

The Plastic People were charged with a number of crimes, including breach of the peace, something that carried a maximum sentence of five years. Several members later served time in prison, for the crime of playing underground rock music.

There the story might have ended, had the Plastics' treatment not come to the attention of a small group of intellectuals opposed to the regime. On December 10th, 1976, five of them met in a flat in Prague's Tyrsova street belonging to a translator called Jaroslav Koran.

"Everyone knew how important this thing was. Noone tried to back away from it. It was clear to everyone that we had to do something, so... we did it."

What they did was draw up a document, criticising the communist government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it itself had signed. They included the Czechoslovak Constitution, the so-called Helsinki Accords and United Nations conventions on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights. The document described the signatories as a "loose, informal and open association of people. .. united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world." And most crucially, everything they said was carefully designed to remain well within the boundaries of the laws of communist Czechoslovakia, which, on paper at least, allowed organised opposition.

Among the five who drew up the document was Vaclav Havel, who was about to be thrust into the vanguard of a twenty-year battle with the communist regime.

"When they arrested the Plastic People we - I and a number of friends - felt that this was something very dangerous. It was a warning signal."

On January 1st, 1977, the group released the document, bearing the signatures of 242 people. It was smuggled to three newspapers in Western Europe for publication. Several days later, Charter 77 activists such as Havel, Ludvik Vaculik and Pavel Landovsky began trying to distribute the document in Czechoslovakia itself.

The reaction of the regime was harsh and predictable. The Charter 77 manifesto was described in the official media as "an anti-state, anti-socialist and demagogic, abusive piece of writing,". Those who had signed it were vilified as traitors and renegades, loyal servants of imperialism and even Zionism.

Those who signed the document were exposed to persecution by the regime. Signatories were thrown out of their jobs, some were arrested and imprisoned, their children expelled from schools. Journalist Marek Tomin was the son of well known dissident parents, who held regular meetings in their home.

"The state security and the interior ministry tolerated this for a little while and then the harassment started. Eventually everybody who came knew that within five minutes, maybe ten, the police would be there and there would be a raid, and everybody would be arrested. They could be interrogated for 24 hours, 48 hours, and maybe held longer. And we never knew."

"The thing about the 70s as compared to the 50s, one didn't see the same kind of crimes, they can't be compared. I mean, then, it was Stalinism: people were disappearing. People were being executed. People were being sent to work camps, to uranium mines. These are things that weren't happening in the 70s. But, we didn't know. Quite simply, Charter never knew what the next step was going to be."

"My brother and I, we weren't sure our parents weren't going to be arrested the next day. We had several amazing plans of course because we messed around as kids and we had a plan for escaping from the country and we said if our parents get arrested we will not allow ourselves to be taken to a children's home, we'll escape and roam the world for the rest of our lives, away from communism! So, the atmosphere was such: at times it was very sinister."

The regime's response only seemed to fuel greater dissent, and in turn more repression. An "anti-charter" was created, which leading public figures were encouraged to sign. The communists even launched an operation designed to force opponents of the regime into exile, and in many cases succeeded.

By the end of the 1980's, as communism in Eastern Europe began to crumble, members of Charter 77 saw their opportunity and became more involved in organising opposition to the regime. It was Charter 77 activists, led by Vaclav Havel, who formed the nucleus of the group which negotiated the smooth and peaceful transition of power from totalitarian communism to democracy.

The Plastic People of the Universe are still around, still making rather strange rock music, which is essentially all they wanted to do in the first place. Charter 77's role in the regime's demise is still a matter of debate. But saxophonist Vrata Brabenec says for him, his group and for Czechoslovak society as a whole, Charter 77 was a watershed.

"We knew we were not living on the moon, we were living in the Eastern bloc. We knew the situation, we were reading about what was happening around us, we weren't separated from other young people. After Charter 77 was published, Czech society was divided. Some people were for Charter 77, but I guess most people were against it. Because it was very easy to live in a communist regime. People weren't worried about their jobs, everything was...let's say...comfortable. It was very comfortable for most people."

And for Jaroslav Koran the translator and now publisher in whose flat it all began, while Charter 77 didn't achieve everything it set out to achieve, it remains a source of deep and lasting pride to this day.

"We had a vision. Part of it was fulfilled, part of it wasn't. I think that's natural with every manifesto, with every document like Charter 77. Such a manifesto can never be fulfilled 100 percent. But I think what it did - the way it shook the conscience of the nation - was wonderful."