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The building next to the Tančící dům (Dancing House).
The text of Charter 77 was created on the fourth floor of this house, in Václav Havel’s study. Charter 77 was a statement of a “free, informal and open community of people of different beliefs, different faiths, and different professions”, which took on the task of “promoting respect for civil and human rights in our country and the world”. Charter 77 took advantage of the fact that the Czechoslovak president, Gustáv Husák, signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975 and this protocol became part of the Czechoslovak legal system. Charter 77 declares that it welcomes the adoption of these laws but points out that their publication reminds one of the fact that “many basic civil rights are valid in our country so far––unfortunately––just on paper.” The short statement, stylistically reminiscent of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, declares as the objective of Charter 77 to “conduct a constructive dialogue with political and state power, in particular by highlighting various concrete cases of violations of human and civil rights, preparing their documentation, proposing solutions ...” Thus, an unofficial platform was created that would put a spanner in the works of of the smoothly-running system. It was an attempt to engage in dialogue with power, albeit with the knowledge that the powerful were not much interested in the dialogue. Charter 77 was essentially a humanitarian document to protect people’s legal rights, its purpose was not primarily to oppose the current regime, although after November 1989 Havel and other signatories of Charter 77 formed an alternative power center.
Two years before Charter 77, Václav Havel had already written a bold, critical letter to President Gustáv Husák, who, as Secretary General of the Communist Party, was one of the main actors behind the normalization of relations after the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.
Havel asked Husák and other representatives of the regime “to consider the extent of their historical responsibility and to act in agreement with it.” What is inspiring about the letter is both the factual tone by which Havel calls on this powerful man to change his course of action, and the fact that Havel does not consider Husák unworthy of communication or unworthy of truth but attempts to open a dialogue with him in an era when such an approach was unwelcome, as was illustrated by the fact that Husák did not reply to the letter but handed it over to the secret police (StB). Less than two years later, the text of Charter 77 emerged, prompted by the need to show solidarity with the underground music band Plastic People of the Universe against police bullying. Petr Pithart recalls: “Until then, prominent people, the people of the eighties, were persecuted. The indivisibility of freedom was just a phrase, but now it became a reality. At that time, Havel decided that we must defend these people, and that was crucial to the establishment of Charter 77.” Just as previously, before opening the possibility of dialogue with Husák, Havel now brought together a community “that did not a priori close itself to anyone nor delegate an inferior position to anybody.” Charter 77 always had three spokespersons. One of them, Jan Patočka, an eminent Czech philosopher, died in 1977 after a stroke following exhaustive interrogations by the secret police while Havel spent the next years of his life alternately under police custody and in jail.
The emphasis on dialogue and non-violent resistance also shaped the Velvet Revolution, in which Havel played a leading role. Upon taking presidential office in late 1989, Havel’s role ceases to be as clear-cut as it was when he was in dissent. He was all too naive in his trust of US foreign policy and could have been firmer in facing free market fundamentalism as manifested by Václav Klaus. Czechoslovakia fell apart before Havel’s eyes, a decision made by Václav Klaus and Vladimir Mečiar without consulting him and without a referendum.
However, this does not diminish his legacy. In a “post-democratic” era––if we use Havel’s concept of the Power of the Powerless – the winner of the election is often determined by the best marketing strategy, and elections themselves may become part of the destruction of democracy. So, Havel’s legacy is still highly relevant as it stresses the claim of life in truth that inevitable falls into lifeless lethargy unless it actively fights the smooth self-running of the system.
Olga Havlová (née Šplíchalová) met Havel in the mid-1950s and they married in 1964. As a little girl from a poor, working class Žižkov family, she attended the Milíčův dům of Přemysl Pitter and Olga Fierzová. After Václav Havel was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, Olga and her brother-in-law, Ivan Havel took over the responsibilities and duties of the self-publishing, “samizdat” edition Expedice (Expedition). In the Karavan trial for the transport of illicit printed matter, she was accused of destabilizing the Republic. Her prosecution was stopped only after 1989. Letters to Olga, a selection of Havel’s prison writings, is one of his most important books, first published in Expedice in 1983. Olga Havlová organized meetings, distributed manuscripts and participated in the activities of Charter 77, which she signed in 1982. At the beginning of 1990 she founded Výbor dobré vůle (Committee of Good Will) with friends from Charter 77, one of the first projects of its kind in Czechoslovakia. Its goal is to help people with disabilities, or who are destitute and discriminated against, in their integration into society.
- Václav Havel: Letters to Olga. Translated by Paul Wilson. Faber and Faber, 1990
- Václav Havel: Moc bezmocných. Praha, Lidové noviny 1990.
- Václav Havel: Power of the Powerless (1978). English online translation: http://www.vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=eseje&val=2_aj_eseje.html&typ=HTML
- Link to Memory of Nation website: http://www.mistapametinaroda.cz/?lc=cs&id=127&ls=en
Next stop ––the John Lennon Wall––is about twenty minutes from Václav and Olga Havel’s apartment. Go to Jiráskův Bridge, turn right and walk by the Vltava River along Janáčkovo Nábřeží until you reach Kampa. Take a left behind Werich’s Villa, cross Čertovka stream around the old mill and you will find yourself facing the painted wall in Velkopřevorské Náměstí.