In 1976, following the arrests of a number of prominent musicians and entertainers in Czechoslovakia, a document was drafted by anti-communist activists that would go on to define the opposition movement for years to come.
Charter 77, as it came to be known, was an embryonic blueprint for the Velvet Revolution. It criticized the government for failing to uphold civil and human rights, and involved a number of the same leaders that eventually went on to participate in the non-violent overthrow of the communist government in 1989.
In the end, close to 2,000 people signed Charter 77. And yet, among those, only one was a non-native Czech. Jefim Fistein, Director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service
, is the man that carries this distinction.
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Jefim had a politically active youth – if only, ironically, due to his inactivity. Growing up, Fistein refused to take part in the Soviet political machine. “I never joined the [Communist Union of Youth] Komsomol as a young person,” he explains. “In my time, this was seen as a strong gesture of disapproval against the regime.”
Fistein’s political involvement took a turn in 1965, when in December he went on to participate in one of the first anti-communist demonstrations in modern Russian history. The protest – a reaction to the arrest and trial of well-known writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel
on charges of publishing anti-Soviet materials in foreign papers – was the first of many to take place in Pushkin Square, considered by many to be the heart of Moscow. As a result of his participation, Fistein was formally reprimanded by the state and deprived of a scholarship to school.
I see my signature under the charter as proof that in real life there is always a chance to bring your social behavior in compliance with your conscience.
Several years later, in 1969, Fistein again bucked the system when he expressed solidarity with the Prague Spring. “I empathized with what they were doing,” he explains. “Around that time, I married a Czech girl and moved to Prague, so you could say I was a bit more invested than many Soviet citizens.”
While in Prague, Jefim worked as an independent translator, despite his training in journalism. Says Jefim, “Although I was trained in journalism, I didn’t want to work in Czechoslovakia because I didn’t want to serve the regime in any way.”
Fistein’s activism came to a head when he signed Charter 77 in 1978. Aware of the ramifications that might result once he signed, Jefim preemptively asked the government to rescind his Soviet citizenship. “I became, effectively, a man without a country,” Jefim explained, “so once I signed, it became difficult for the authorities to know what to do with me. The best they could do was deprive me of my residence permission, which they did.”
Fistein moved to Austria with his family shortly thereafter, where he stayed until after the Velvet Revolution.
Looking back, Jefim is glad to have been a part of such a defining period in history, but is careful with his choice of words when describing his time as an activist.
“I wouldn’t say I’m proud,” he explains. “I see my signature under the charter as proof that in real life there is always a chance to bring your social behavior in compliance with your conscience.”
More important for Jefim was the redemptive aspect of his participation. “It gave me the chance to not be ashamed of my past.”