From a Small Room In Prague

Jiri Urbanek is a cofounder of Charter 77, the Czech dissident movement. This interview by independent writer Mark Sommer took place in the study of Mr. Urbanek's apartment in Prague. Urbanek began the conversation by recalling some of the history made in this very setting.

ON Jan. 5, 1977, the last night before we issued the declaration, Vaclav Havel sat here dictating addresses to me. The Charter was just one page, a very simple and very cleverly written document from a lawyer's point of view. It appealed to citizens to behave exactly along the line of the laws of the country, the constitution, and the Helsinki Accords concerning freedom of expression....

On the morning the charter was released, we put the stamps on the envelopes and waited for the right moment to start distributing it.... But the moment the first car started, five police cars began following. It was like an American detective story, driving eighty miles an hour through the streets of Prague!

Isn't it paradoxical that a regime that exercised such complete control over the population should have been so afraid of such a small number of people without any weapons or official power?

About ten years after Charter 77 there was a debate about whether the charter had been a political act or only a moral appeal to citizens to behave as the laws are written (because the police are actually acting against the laws). At first I thought of it much more as a moral act than a political one. But that's only a question in a country ruled by one party in an authoritarian way. Every act different from what the authorities think everybody should or must do, every word of truth is a political act.... In retrospect I think that without the very small group of people 13 years ago who started these activities, nothing like the November revolution could have occurred.

Do you see a role for Western nations either at the governmental or citizens level in assisting the transformation?

I would take it from a different angle. Some Czech exiles in the United States ask me whether they should come back. I advise them to shuttle between the two countries.... The other day I attended a ceremony for some young Canadians who will be teaching English here ... perhaps there could develop an exchange with some of our people going to Canada to give advice on how not to allow any politicians to become totalitarian. We could become quite good advisers on this point!

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