The Underground and the Dissent

The normalization era that followed the 1968 invasion is a bitter part of Czech recent history. The “Prague Spring” made Czechs hopeful that a change is possible, the subsequent events made it clear that they will not decide for themselves. The following years were, in this sense, desperate.

The underground movement emerged among the disillusioned, who saw there is no point in attempting to reform the party, join the artist organizations, unions etc. They chose not to challenge the system head- on, or they decided not to challenge it at all. Soon this incoherent, anarchic sector attracted the anti- regime intellectuals, often those who were forced to confront the system in 1968, who sought to challenge the state of affairs in a non- violent way.

the plastic people of the universe - the inevitable equipment of a dissidet of that times was 'angel head' Poets, thinkers, musicians, journalists, former politicians, artists… people with different opinions, who shared maybe some kind of ethos and mainly interests. It wasn’t a movement really, it could, in a way, resemble the sixties movement in the US, without the optimism and without explicit politics. Mostly they tended to create king of small oasis of free expression, counterculture, open debate. In a democratic system they should not mean any damage to the people in power.

But this regime tended to make enemies. The Czech underground was not primarily political. Mostly the bands, the artists simply wanted to be left alone. There was no single political affiliation. There were democratic liberals, monarchists, socialists etc. What held them together was a demand for freedom of expression- and the regime’s ongoing idiotic persecution. This is also visible in case of Slovakia, where the formerly apolitical environmentalist movement gradually turned anti- regime, because the regime felt need to persecute them from the very beginning. However it made some sense: the system was so centralized it simply couldn’t cope with any non- state activities. Independent activities undermined its authority.

The most prominent names are Vaclav Havel and The Plastic People of the Universe. Havel always tried to speak for rights, for principles, even as president he wanted to be seen as a man unconcerned with power or influence. The Plastic People reflected the dead of normalization in nihilistic- sounding alternative rock music, influenced heavily by the Velvet Underground.

The reasons why Havel and other dissidents joined the Plastic People campaign, after the band was arrested, were political. Like many other dissidents he probably did not enjoy the music itself, that being pretty hard to enjoy while sober: all kinds of noises, Egon Bondy’s intentionally banal, often extravagant poetry, melodies breaking down. The message was clear though: no matter what we do with our voices and instruments, the state has no right to interfere. The fact that id did, absurdly, by arresting the band and starting an anti- Plastic campaign (calling them “assassins of culture”) underlined the twisted nature of the regime. The regime proving vividly that it would not respect the right of freedom of speech, although it pledged to by signing the Helsinki Treaty and so encouraged all the different formations into a kind of unity.

The most important things to know about the Czech dissent and underground is probably that they based their claims on principles of human and civil rights. They did not form a program, they completely renounced any form of violence, they did not even demand a regime change. All they asked for was respect to the rights the regime itself pledged to respect.

There were many activities, the most well- known being the Charter 77 and VONS (something like The Committee For Support of the Unjustly Persecuted). Both were based on regular publication of facts about any faults, mistreatment, unlawful practices the regime carried out.

As for the Underground, there were many other bands like, for example, DG 307, which soon turned to a more arty, atmospheric style, leaving most of the noise and anger behind. There were people who established connections between the two spheres, mainly Ivan Martin Jirous (“Magor”- The Madman), an extravagant poet who was very much behind the politicization of the underground scene and the rise in attention paid to it by the dissidents. The restrained scholarly part of the movement was represented and inspired mainly by philosopher Jan Patočka, who died in relation to an exhausting series of interrogations by the Czech police.

The fall of the regime was rather a result of the changes in the Soviet Union than of the dissent’s activities, some former underground and/or dissent protagonists attempted for a political career. Mostly with little success. With the exception of the first president, who also remains a controversial figure for many.

© 2008 |