And yet, Charter 77’s recent 30th anniversary passed in the Czech Republic without so much as a hint of an official -- or unofficial, for that matter -- celebration.
Text Smuggled Abroad
A symbolic answer of sorts might be found in the saga of a little pub along the Vltava, the river that wends around Prague.
In the late 1940s, communists nationalized Jan Soukup’s Restaurace Vltava, which became a famous meeting place for dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s. There, Havel and others discussed Charter 77, which they drafted to protest the 1976 arrest of members of the dissident psychedelic rock band Plastic People of the Universe.
“[Havel] had his own relationship to this restaurant, especially because the members of Charter 77 used to meet here,” Soukup tells RFE/RL. “And it was very close to his heart because his [late] wife Olga used to visit him here with their dog, Dula.”
The Charter 77 text criticized the communist government for failing to implement human rights provisions of agreements it itself had signed. They included the Czechoslovak Constitution, the so-called Helsinki Accords on human rights and United Nations conventions on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights.
The document was circulated clandestinely in Czechoslovakia, but it was smuggled out of the country. And on January 6, 1977, it featured in articles in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," "Corriere della Sera," "The Times" of London, and "Le Monde."
The same day, Havel and other founding Charter signatories sought to present the document to the authorities. They were arrested.
Those dark days are now gone -- but not for Soukup, who still faces his own existential battle.
A massive rent hike -- from about $100 a month to $2,300 a month -- planned for the city-owned land on which his restaurant lies will almost surely put him and his famous pub out of business.
Havel recently intervened. In a letter this month, the former playwright urged Prague Mayor Pavel Bem to reconsider city plans to redevelop the Vltava embankment. Those plans appear likely to push out the tiny wooden restaurant -- which is considered a protected historic building by the Culture Ministry -- in favor of new businesses.
But at least for now, Havel’s missive appears to have had little effect.
Given the legal battles he faces, Soukup is careful with his words. But he clearly blames his woes on what he sees as less-than-honest bureaucrats.
“They are worse than Communists,” he says. “Nowadays, the market system shows without inhibition that a number of entrepreneurs must be liquidated because they lack the [political] support needed to survive. [We get] just words. And that’s not enough.”
Thousands Signed 'Anti-Charter'
The restaurant story served as a sort of symbolic backdrop to the lack of ceremony, official or other, to mark the Charter 77 anniversary and its alter ego -- the anniversary, three weeks later, of the communist government’s reaction to the manifesto.
On January 28, 1977, thousands of artists, musicians, and writers signed a petition – known popularly as the “anti-Charter” -- dismissing the dissidents as "drop-outs" and "traitors."
Many of those who signed the anti-Charter were celebrities, such as singer Karel Gott or actor Jan Werich. And many, such as rock star Michal Prokop, have expressed embarrassment and even shame for having done so.
And that may partly explain the lack of fanfare over Charter 77’s anniversary, says Czech pundit Jan Machacek.
“[Charter 77] reminds [Czechs] more of their past, which perhaps most people are not very proud of,” says Machacek, who signed Charter 77 himself in 1988. “But I think it is really embarrassing that we have many universities these days -- like in Brno, in Olomouc, also in Prague -- and no one was organizing anything. I really think it’s embarrassing.”
Frantisek Sulc, an editor for the daily "Lidove noviny," says most Czechs probably don’t feel guilty for not having signed Charter 77. Instead, he says, they probably just don’t like it that a small group of dissidents -- only about 2,000 signed Charter 77 -- seem to get all the credit for helping to bring down communism.
Conference To Honor Charter 77 Signatory
Also worth nothing, Sulc says, is that with Havel out of office, very few if any current political leaders signed Charter 77, including President Vaclav Klaus.
“[Klaus] really mirrors the feeling of, I would say, most Czechs,” Sulc says. "That is, ‘We didn’t do anything bad, we didn’t hurt anybody, we just tried to survive and tried to live.’ And now, there’s a group of the few people, a small group, who is now taking all the benefits and the heroism for putting down the communist regime.”
Both Machacek and Sulc also note that had Havel not been spending the winter in the United States, he likely would have organized a conference to mark the manifesto’s anniversary.
In fact, Havel actually has plans to do that. In March, Machacek says, the former president will host a conference on late philosopher Jan Patocka, a founding Charter signatory, and philosophy’s contribution to the Czech dissident movement.
Perhaps, if the Restaurace Vltava is still open, Havel can drop by for one last beer.