In June 1989, a group of people around the dissident and future president, Václav Havel, put together a petition to the communist authorities asking them to stop oppressing freedom in the country. Over five months, more than 40,000 Czechs and Slovaks signed the Několik vět petition, fuelling the demise of communism in Czechoslovakia.
More than 40,000 people signed the appeal between May and November 1989, making it the most successful petition put forward by the country’s opposition movement. One of the reasons behind its success was the fact that the Munich-based, US-sponsored Radio Free Europe broadcasted on daily basis the names of people who put their signatures to it. Olga Kopecká was at the time the editing director of RFE’s Czechoslovak section.
“At that time we didn’t realize how important an event it was, to what developments it would lead to, and that it would lead to the fall of the communism regime so soon. But of course it was very interesting that people were beginning not to be afraid to add their signatures to a petition like that.”
“Several Sentences” demanded the release of all political prisoners, the lifting of the ban on public gatherings, and the end of the criminalization of the opposition, among other things. The document also asked for the removal of all political control of the media. The communist daily Rudé Právo justly noted in a dismissive article that if all these demands were to be fulfilled, the country would in fact no longer be communist.
The petition emerged after Václav Havel’s release from prison in late May 1989. He and a group of friends and fellow dissidents realized the time was ripe for nation-wide action. The petition soon began circulating even outside dissident circles. Music critic Jan Rejžek was one of the most active signature collectors.
“I admit proudly that I was the one who rushed things. The plan was first to show the petition to certain people who we knew would agree with it. Only after we would hear about what they thought, the plan was to draft the final version. But when I saw that the people reacted with great enthusiasm, I pressured for the petition to be released.”
Several Sentences was not the first or the last petition to be put together in the final year of communist rule. But as Jan Rejžek points out what made people join was that many celebrities at the time signed it, too, including singers and actors who regularly appeared in the communist controlled TV and radio.
“The famous names did play an important role. I would always refer to them; when someone hesitated, I would say, ‘look, when Zagorová and Bartoška signed it, why would not you. The authorities reacted in the same, stupid way; they wanted to ban those artists from public life, but to no avail.”
By the summer of 1989, communist regimes in East Germany, Poland and Hungary had already begun to crumble. Former RFE journalist Olga Kopecká says they would normally think twice before broadcasting the names of people who openly stood up to the regime, this time people were no longer afraid.
“We felt that since they put their signatures to the petition, they were
of the potential danger. And we had the permission, or even the request,
from the dissident movement to publish this, so we thought that this was
ok. It was a time when the people of Czechoslovakia would express their
feelings about the situation.”
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