Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


`Living in truth' is path to reform, say East-bloc dissidents

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1987



Prague

FOR Vaclav Havel, reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represents no savior. The neighborhood greengrocer does. In a book published this year called ``Living in Truth,'' Mr. Havel, Czechoslovakia's leading dissident intellectual, tells the story of a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop. Among the onions and carrots, he puts in his window the slogan ``Workers of the world, unite!''

Skip to next paragraph

Nobody believes in the slogan, but if the manager refused to display it, he would be demoted, he would lose the chance of spending his holidays in Black Sea resorts, and his children would not be able to go to university. Out of fear, he keeps the slogan in his window.

If positive change is to come in the Soviet bloc, Mr. Havel told the Monitor in his Prague apartment, the grocer must take down the false sign and begin ``living in truth.''

Unlike Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, other leading East European dissident writers join Havel in expressing skepticism about Mr. Gorbachev. Instead of change coming from above, Adam Michnik and Miklos Haraszti, interviewed recently by the Monitor in Warsaw and Budapest, count on change coming from below. They stress that the individual must stand up in public and speak the truth if communism is to be reformed.

This idea of ``living in truth'' is often dismissed in the West as intellectual posturing. But Havel and his friends explain that Westerners understand little what it means to live in a system that they say is founded in hypocrisy, which governs through force and yet claims to base its rule on popular support, which signs human rights declarations and then censors, harasses, and jails its critics.

Havel, Mr. Michnik, and Mr. Haraszti are all writers unable to publish in their homelands. They endure constant surveillance by the secret police. Both Havel and Michnik have spent years in jail for their human rights activities, Michnik as a leader of the now-banned independent trade union Solidarity and Havel as a founding member of Charter 77, his country's leading dissident group.

In such an atmosphere, Havel says, ``the weight of truth is bigger than in the West.'' The truth, he said, will inevitably lead Soviet-bloc citizens into open confrontation with their governments. To understand this concept, the Westerner must understand what Havel and his friends consider the true tragedy of their countries: how communism destroyed open criticism in public and forced the individual to retreat into his personal life.

This retreat has taken place throughout Eastern Europe, albeit differently in each country because of the huge diversity of national experiences. In relatively liberal, market-oriented Hungary, Haraszti criticizes the professionals, the doctors, the lawyers, the scientists, who have given up their careers to make more money as taxi drivers and restaurateurs.

In politically volatile Poland, Michnik worries about the huge number of factory workers, who have joined the new government-sponsored trade union after losing faith in Solidarity.

Czechoslovakia is perhaps worst off. Since 1968, Havel says, the normally voluble, critical Czechs and Slovaks have invested their energies in building small country cottages, to which they flee every weekend, while letting the nation drift under the direction of a team of aging leaders.

From this perspective, Havel says, it matters little whether Gorbachev forces his fellow East European communists to follow his lead and press for glasnost (openness), greater tolerance of public debate, and multicandidate elections and secret ballots.