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Czechoslovak dissidents' mental resistance

By Brian Hanrahan
BBC News

People cheer in Prague in 1989
People in Prague cheer as a non-communist government is formed in 1989

Dissidents in Eastern Europe had a bitter joke about the communist approach to compromise. "What do you do when you've made someone 99% communist," it went. Answer: "Beat the other 1% out."

It was the approach adopted across the entire Eastern bloc.

Communism wanted to control not just politics but the entirety of daily life. It dictated how people should behave and think. It wanted to run industry, set university syllabuses, and decide what they could read.

Those who questioned the state could lose their jobs, and their homes. Everyday life could be made a misery by denying them the right to buy furniture or travel to another town. Their children's education could suffer.

When I was stationed in Moscow I ran up against government controls all the time.

I even had to import wood to put up shelves because the local shops refused to sell me any.

Because the state owned and ran everything, it could mess with you in a thousand different ways. But I could leave, the people who lived there would have to put up with it until they died.

Ghost world

In Czechoslovakia - which had suppressed the reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968 - there was a particularly chilling quality to the way that conformity was enforced.

Jan Urban. Photo: 1989
Jan Urban paid for his defiance of the regime

Jan Urban, a leading figure in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, took me along to the secret police archives to show how it was done.

Here was a ghost world that was never meant to see the light of day - 25km of shelving filled with fading files documenting how the StB , the Czechoslovak secret police, went about harassing and intimidating the handful of souls brave enough to stand up against them.

Mr Urban paid for his defiance. His pregnant wife was interrogated and lost their child. Local authorities questioned them about child neglect. He received death threats over his tapped telephone. And once he was sent a coffin with his name on it.

All of this happened in a country where nothing could happen without the authorities say-so.

The files show how the dissidents were watched by up to a dozen secret agents at a time - with a minute-by-minute log of what trams they caught and what they were wearing.

There are snatched photographs of people they encountered in the street - all in the hope of finding something that could be used against them.

Mental resistance

This is the first time that Jan Urban has looked at the records and at first he was amused at how many people were deployed to follow and analyse his movements.

A BBC's Newsnight report at a strike by theatre staff in Czechoslovakia in 1989

But when he remembers the microphones plastered into his bedroom and his children's room, his equanimity snaps.

"They were filth," he says, "a criminal organisation. What was the point, except intimidation."

But intimidation was the point. Dissent was the one thing that communism could not tolerate. Simply by existing - by holding different views - the dissidents were challenging the state.

They circulated poetry and plays without permission. They organised underground theatre with banned actors and actresses.

One performance of Macbeth was raided by the police, and so many of the audience were followed that the street outside resembled a secret policeman's convention.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who was to become president, argued that it was important to behave as though they were not oppressed.

The more the state tried to occupy all public space, the more it would be undermined by those who carried out normal activities outside it.

Mr Havel was an influential voice in a debate that shaped the way dissidents behaved across the whole Soviet bloc.

So was Adam Michnik, who had told Poles that a society in captivity must produce an illegal literature if it was to know the truth about itself.

Another was Andrey Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear physicist, who would not be silenced by rewards or punishment.

The common concept was that mental resistance could in time bring down even a totalitarian state.

They shaped their philosophy of resistance at secret summits held between dissident leaders in the mountains that bordered Czechoslovakia and Poland.

And the skills gained in organising themselves - even on innocuous issues - meant they had the ability and reputation to step into the vacuum when communism collapsed. It averted a struggle for power that could have become bloody and brutal.

Plastic People

But the unlikely inspiration for many Czech intellectuals was a psychedelic rock group who were banned by the Czech government.

We weren't political. We were just trying to be poetical
Vratislav Brabenec
Plastic People of the Universe

The Plastic People of the Universe were jailed for performing at an underground rock festival in 1976.

They are still in business and I found them playing in a muddy field about an hour's drive outside Prague, and bickering with the organiser who said he did not have the money to pay them.

Vratislav Brabenec, their saxophonist then and now, looked much as John Lennon might if he were alive today: round-rimmed glasses, long greying hair, with a quirky sense of humour, and a continuing lack of respect towards authority.

"We weren't political, man," he said. "We were just trying to be poetical."

As to why they would not accept government control, he answered: "That's freedom, man, I'd die for that."

But whether they wanted to be or not, they found themselves at the heart of the political battle.

Mr Urban practically wrinkles his nose at the mention of them. He does not like their music and thinks they are dirty and drink too much.

But he adds: "The minute they got into trouble, I was on their side. Everyone has the right to express themselves. They became the symbol."

If the state had not jailed them, the Plastic People would have been just another bloody-minded band of rockers.

Instead they became the rallying cry for Charter 77 - the human rights declaration penned by the Czech dissidents which fuelled a decade-long struggle with the communist authorities.

They also taught a whole new generation about dissent. By listening to music the state wanted to ban, they learnt the habit of rebellion - and so were bred the student activists of 1989.



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