One Tenth of the Iceberg

Jussi Suvanto

January 16, 1969 an event took place in Wenceslas Square in Prague. As a political protest against censorship imposed by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, the twenty-year-old student Jan Palach committed suicide by self-immolation, the act of setting oneself on fire. According to Palach’s letter to authorities, this was to be the first of a series of similar acts performed by a group of devoted activists unless their demands were met. It is unlikely that such a group ever existed, but this is far from saying that Palach was alone in his demands. While many creative groups and individuals submitted to the restrictions inflicted on their activities, just to be able to remain productive and make a living out of it, others had chosen to ignore these regulations even if it limited or altogether choked the possibility of having their work reach other people. These groups and individuals formed the Prague underground, a culture that refused to follow the norms of the establishment.

What is meant by the word “underground” in this context is “the spiritual position of intellectuals and artists who consciously and critically confront the world in which they live”, as determined by Ivan Martin Jirous in his essay A Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival. During the Czechoslovak normalization, a period in 1969-1987 that restored and maintained the Communist rule that had been reformed by a liberal government in 1968, this was prohibited under grave penalties, no matter whether the intellectual or artistic content could directly be considered political, and Jirous himself spent several years in prison on account of “disturbances.” Dana N?mcová writes in her essay Who Is Ivan Jirous? about one such instance that was “committed by interrupting a planned program for an exhibition by giving a speech.” The 8-month sentence in prison was later “extended to one and half years unconditionally in the second corrective group during the process at the appeal court. The verdict came by simply reading his criminal record, without proving any guilt of the alleged criminal deed”.

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April 17, 2013 a small event took place at The Space for Free Arts, a project space of the student union of the University of Arts in Helsinki. Invited by the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, the artists Taf Hassam and Kirby Mages were to give – in their own words – a “lecture (which will be more of a gathering)”. The prophecy was fulfilled as a small audience was gradually formed of individuals arriving alone or in groups of no more than three at a pace set by nothing else than an indicative time frame and their own schedules for the evening.

The inception of the lecture and the inspiration for the form it was to take was a photograph from 1982 that Hassam had discovered in an archive. Czech Dissidents Gathering Somewhere in Bohemia by Jef Helmer shows a group of young people standing by what appears to be the backdoor of a slightly run-down farmhouse. The individual stances, as well as the expressions we can make out, not only convey a wide range of sentiments evoked by the issue at hand, but also seem to reveal the people’s general conviction in the whole dissident cause. From pensive to diligent, nurturing to authoritative and laid-back to just plain relaxed, each person’s attitude is just as accepted as the other’s, and all are needed in a truly lively movement, even if an individual may not be demanded to give them an equal amount of precedence in his or her own way of life.

Photo 1982 Jef Helmer, courtesy of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

The conditions that restricted the work and private lives of liberal-minded people are described in the document Charter 77, which also points out how the Czechoslovakian state was constantly violating the declarations of human rights that had been signed on its behalf in 1968, and were supposed to be enforced as of March 23, 1976. The philosopher Jan Pato?ka, a founding member of the civil initiative that produced, distributed and took its name from the document, pointed out in the short essay What Charter 77 Is and What It Is Not, written shortly before his death following extended interrogation by the police in 1977, that “participants of Charter 77 are not acting out of any interest but solely out of obligation, following a command that stands above political obligations and rights and is their true and only reliable foundation.” This conviction had its roots in the underground, where it could have been forged because of the clear-cut division between the mainstream and counter cultures. According to Jirous, unlike “the sad and common practice of the Western establishment to co-opt and embrace enthusiastically any new musical fashion, just as it would embrace a new automobile design or any other fashionable innovation,” a mutual rejection between two cultural spheres effectively “eliminates the major source of temptation for anyone [in the underground], including the most resolute soul: the longing for recognition, success, awards, and titles, and, last but not least, material prosperity gained by fame.”

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May 23, 2013 another event took place in the SPZ Gallery in Prague. The white cube had been turned into a fully functioning bar, to be utilised by local artists and musicians, invited by Hassam and Mages, to host events in the course of a month. Presented was a slice of the continuing research into the photograph, including the essays referred to in this article. Some of the people had been identified, the woman in the foreground being afore mentioned Dana Nemcová, who frequently accommodated dissidents in need of a safe house.

In his writings Pato?ka emphasized that “Charter 77 is not an act that is political in the narrow sense, … it is not a matter of competing with or interfering in the sphere of any function of political power,” which is affirmed in Václav Havel‘s essay The Power of the Powerless, where he stated that “the most important political event in Czechoslovakia after the advent of the Husák leadership in 1969 was the appearance of Charter 77. The spiritual and intellectual climate surrounding its appearance, however, was not the product of any immediate political event. That climate was created by the trial of some young musicians associated with a rock group called ‘The Plastic People of the Universe.’ Their trial was not a confrontation of two differing political forces or conceptions, but two differing conceptions of life.” While the so-called first culture didn’t pay heed to the activities of the second, its mere existence was perceived as a threat to the establishment. Ironically the act of bringing these musicians to trial simply for their desire to play the music they enjoyed was the last straw. Instead of functioning as a warning example, the trial raised people’s awareness and “groups of differing tendencies which until then had remained isolated from each other, reluctant to cooperate, or which were committed to forms of action that made cooperation difficult, were suddenly struck with the powerful realization that freedom is indivisible.”

Even if people in the underground had nothing to gain in terms of material wealth, the division among the dissidents bespeaks of personal ambitions, especially held by those who before the normalization had worked in respectable positions. Even if there weren’t awards or titles, artists were still admired for their deeds, and while nobody was necessarily seeking notoriety, or time in prison for that matter, any clashes with the authorities were sure to heighten the importance of a certain group or individual in the underground movement.

“Great ethical acts are always isolated, just as mountaintops and city spires are isolated”, writes Eva Kantu?rková in her essay On the Ethics of Palach’s Deed. Whether or not this was consciously acknowledged by dissident authors, the potency of fewer focal points is evident in much of their writings. For instance in the statement above, Havel reduced a trial against a dozen people, who weren’t even all musicians, to concern only those associated with the best known underground rock group in Czechoslovakia at the time.

While the significance of anonymous voices must never be underestimated, it seems that there are always those whose active engagement and prominence in a movement holds the big picture together. The question is, could this be enough to provoke change? Is a certain amount of myth indispensable for a revolution, or is it just employed to achieve quicker results?