This week marks the 35-year-anniversary of the founding of Charter 77, an informal civic initiative against the communist regime. Many of its signatories would later become important figures in post-communist Czech society, such as philosopher and playwright Václav Havel, who was elected the country’s first president after the revolution. Now, the anniversary of the charter is being honored in Prague with a week-long commemoration, the Week of Charter 77.
Thirty-five years ago, in March 1977, philosopher and Charter 77 spokesman Jan Patočka became the first victim of the communist backlash against the human rights manifesto. He was arrested for signing it and suffered a fatal stroke after an 11-hour interrogation by the communist secret police. The Week of Charter 77, organized by former dissidents and charter signatories, is intended to honor the philosopher’s memory, as well as educate younger people about its significance. One of the organizers is Petruška Šustrová, who herself signed the document, which was considered a political crime by the communist regime. She says it remains relevant today.
“We believe that the mission of Charter 77 went beyond the things it declared directly, and that it also called on citizens to be active, to make themselves heard, which I think is still as relevant today. And it also highlighted the importance of being interested in public affairs. We fear that today, the focus on financial success distracts many people from these values, and a society which forgets their importance is destined to fail.”
A series of special events will mark the charter’s 35th anniversary. They include seminars, exhibitions, film screenings, public debates and a series of special performances of the late president Václav Havel’s plays. At the plaza of the National Theatre, the open-air photo exhibition “Prague through the lens of the secret service” offers visitors a chance to see photographs taken by secret police agents who were spying on and following dissidents.
Charter 77, which criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed and grew into a protest movement, has inspired people fighting against human rights violations around the world. In 2008, Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists authored Charter ’08, which calls for the elimination of China’s one-party rule.
Are young Czechs today also inspired by Charter 77? I put the question to Petruška Šustrová.
“I would say that young people have not changed that much. They are curious, brave and more flexible in their way of thinking. I think that they are more open to public initiative and becoming involved. Just recently, students organized a nationwide Week of Protests, so I think the young generation continues to be concerned about the world they live in and how to change it.”
The Week of Charter 77 runs until Sunday, when Václav Havel’s play Asanace will be shown at Prague’s theater Divadlo Na zábradlí.
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