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The actual Velvet Underground back in the United States was being used as a cautionary tale for parents about their drug-addicted teens. “The light show, the intensity of the sound, the wild dress and appearance of the musicians has turned many adults away from listening to the lyrics,” the Utah Deseret News quoted one cultawareness seminar leader as saying in 1974. “But if heeded, the words vividly convey a message of confusion, searching, longing, destruction, and morbidity.” At the same time, the band’s Czech apprentices were being portrayed on propagandistic communist television shows as dangerously nihilistic longhairs who might just convince wayward teens to hijack an airplane. Forced underground by the censors, the Plastics and their followers christened their own artistic movement as “the underground” (in English), or druhá kultura (“second culture”). It was alternative before there was Alternative. As Hlavsa would tell an interviewer in 1997, “Our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as ‘underground,’ was a pocket of normal life. . . . People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts. Their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn’t as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don’t know if anything like that would be possible had the Plastic People of the Universe not existed then.”
By 1976, the regime could stand it no more. At a festival celebrating druhá kultura, four members of the Plastic People, along with many other festival attendees, were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, no small offense in communist Czechoslovakia. It was a move that would not only backfire on communist authorities but help create source code for citizens of any lousy country to stand up to their oppressors. Dissent itself was about to be democratized, planting seeds that would eventually free hundreds of millions of people. Václav Havel, by this time, was not your typical rock ‘n’ roller. At age thirty-nine, this disheveled, chain-smoking playwright with the awkward stammer, son of one of the richest families in modern Czech history, spent much his time with his regal wife futzing about the garden of their vacation cottage outside of Prague, under the perpetual surveillance of the police. As an enthusiastic participant of the 1960s—“That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world,” he told an interviewer in 1975—Havel was a rock guy. He preferred the Stones to the Beatles and took from amplified music “a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated,” he would later write. This may help explain why, the year before, after more than a half decade of depressed indolence brought on by normalization and the experience of being banned in his own country, Havel had uncorked a piece of literary and political punk rock whose ramifications are still being felt.
In April 1975, Havel sat down and, knowing that he’d likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustáv Husák, explaining in fearless and painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia. “So far,” Havel scolded Husák, “you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”
It was the big bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to, well, those few people who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, “Wait a minute, I can do this too!” By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises—indeed, by identifying those compromises and vowing to forego them in the future—Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to call things by their proper names, never mind the consequences, and maybe you’ll put the bastards on the defensive. “In general, I believe it always makes sense to tell the truth, in all circumstances,” he told interviewer Ji í Lederer three weeks after issuing the letter. Besides, “I got tired of always wondering how to move in this situation, and I felt the need to stir things up, to confront others for a change and force them to deal with a situation that I myself had created.” A Czech, then Slovak, then Polish, then communist-bloc dissident movement sprang up around Havel’s letter, producing entire genres of literature within the confines of samizdat. Writers grew their hair out a bit, joked out loud about the secret police, and began looking for a cause célèbre. When the arty longhairs of the Plastic People got charged with disturbing the peace, it became a turning point both in Havel’s life and the future of the world.
“What Havel realized was that this represented something very dangerous,” said Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose award-winning 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll centered on a Plastic People fan becoming radicalized in communist Prague, in 2009. “Now the state could put you into jail simply for being the wrong sort of bloke.” As Havel would later recall, “Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.”
Havel’s 1976 essay on the Plastic People trial—which he and his friends brazenly attended every day, shocking officials in the courtroom—has the rushed and liberated tone of someone who has just crossed a personal point of no return, or has just heard the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time. “It doesn’t often happen and when it does it usually happens when least expected,” the piece begins. “Somewhere, something slips out of joint and suddenly a particular event, because of an unforeseen interplay between its inner premises and more or less fortuitous external circumstances, crosses the threshold of its usual place in the everyday world, breaks through the shell of what it is supposed to be and what it seems, and reveals its innermost symbolic significance. And something originally quite ordinary suddenly casts a surprising light on the time and the world we live in, and dramatically highlights its fundamental questions.”
Ivan Martin Jirous and his compadres, Havel writes, may not have “had any other aim in mind than persuading the court of their innocence and defending their right to compose and sing the songs they wanted,” but through the absurd theatrics of totalitarianism they became “the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names . . . and to do so at one’s own risk, aware that at any time one may come up against the disfavor of the ‘masters,’ the incomprehension of the dull-witted, or their own limitations.” Havel and his friends began to experience “the exciting realization that there are still people among us who assume the existential responsibility for their own truth and are willing to pay a high price for it.” Suddenly, “much of the wariness and caution that marks my behavior seemed petty to me. I felt an increased revulsion toward all forms of guile, all attempts at painlessly worming one’s way out of vital dilemmas. Suddenly, I discovered in myself more determination in one direction, and more independence in another. Suddenly, I felt disgusted with a whole world, in which—as I realized then—I still have one foot: the world of emergency exits.”
The essay ends with a classic description of Havel bumping into a film director who doesn’t understand his sudden enthusiasm for defending a bunch of derelict, possibly drug-addled rock musicians. “Perhaps I’m doing him an injustice,” Havel writes, “but at that moment, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling that this dear man belonged to a world that I no longer wish to have anything to do with—and Mr. Public Prosecutor Kovarik, pay attention, because here comes a vulgar word—I mean the world of cunning shits.”
With this middle finger pointed at commie censors and other cunning shits, Václav Havel and his friends then launched Charter 77, arguably the most influential human rights organization in modern history. The charter of the organization’s name was an ingeniously clever petition: Like Martin Luther King Jr. asking for the “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence to be enshrined in official policy, the Czech and Slovak signatories of Charter 77 merely asked their government to abide by its own laws—specifically, the 1960 Czechoslovak Constitution, plus the human rights provisions in several international treaties that the country had signed onto to shore up its image, most critically the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the major Cold War diplomatic effort the Helsinki Accords.
The Final Act, signed by President Gerald Ford, was roundly criticized at the time by American conservatives—and especially neoconservatives—as a “betrayal” since, among other things, it codified the existing postwar borders of Europe, which meant accepting in treaty form the imperial Soviet subjugation of the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But the act also included important covenants on civil, political, and economic rights. Living up to Helsinki would have meant allowing free expression, “freedom from fear,” freedom of religious practice, and other rights then quashed by totalitarians and authoritarians everywhere. The narrow, legalistic tactic of petitioning the government to follow its own laws was a built-in defense against charges of political subversion and a clever way to attract the attention and support of international activists and governments. It started with Charter 77, spread to the Committee for the Defense of Workers in Poland, then the Moscow Helsinki Group, and on and on. In the West, Helsinki helped spawn Helsinki Watch, which would later become Human Rights Watch, which linked up with the fate of Eastern Bloc dissidents, and by the time Ronald Reagan was negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev about nuclear warheads and the Strategic Defense Initiative in the mid-1980s, the Final Act was a handy spotlight with which to expose communist hypocrisy. It acted as a crowbar wedged into the seams of the Iron Curtain.
Czechoslovak authorities initially responded to Charter 77 by trying to suppress the document and harass its authors, but the petition had gone global and was being beamed back into the country through Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Emboldened even in the face of a new round of arrests and show trials, the chartists launched the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, and Havel even brought the just-back-from-prison Plastic People over to his country house to record their 1978 album Passion Play. The wind now in the anticommunists’ sails, Havel in October 1978 uncorked his most famous and influential essay of all, “The Power of the Powerless.” The lead essay in what was supposed to be a joint Polish-Czechoslovak dissident forum, Havel’s meditation on the meaning of dissent and the architecture of lies required by totalitarianism had a profound impact across the Eastern Bloc and beyond. It was a how-to guide for regular people to create daily acts of subversion just by choosing to live and act honestly and openly. Solidarity activist Zbygniew Bujak once told Havel’s Englishlanguage translator (and former coconspirator of the Plastic People), the great Canadian journalist Paul Wilson,
This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. . . . Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later—in August 1980—it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.
Havel spent most of the next five years in jail. But such arrests only served to make the plight of the dissidents more internationally famous and to drain what remaining sympathy there might have been among Western intellectuals for the projects of communism and Marxism. Like George Orwell, another self-described “man of the left” obsessed with the meaning of words and the endless search for truth, Havel became one of the twentieth century’s most effective anticommunists.
And, like Orwell, Havel saw political and ideological tribalism as the great impediment to that search. Personal independence, he has said for decades, is the prerequisite for living in truth. Havel’s Civic Forum movement, which rose up against and eventually took power from the Communist Party, was intentionally designed as a unified front against communism. In the first months of his presidency, which began in 1989, he championed “nonpolitical politics,” and even when that ideal disintegrated upon contact with modern democratic realities, Havel refused to ever join a political party. As he wrote in his 1991 book Summer Meditations,
All my adult life I was branded by officials as “an exponent of the right” who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country. Today—at a ripe old age—I am suspected by some of being left-wing, if not of harboring out-and-out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine—left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me.