Charter 77

In January of 1977, Czechoslovakian dissidents composed a document entitled Charter 77 which sought to hold the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic government responsible for human rights violations.  The document’s architects included prominent Czech dissidents Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka, and Jiri Hajeck; however, only 230 signatures initially appeared on the charter and by 1989 included merely 1,864 signatories out of a population of over fifty million.[1]  Charter 77’s objective was to organize an informal network of citizens to hold the Czechoslovakian government publically accountable for frequent human rights abuses which the government had declared to uphold by signing the Helsinki Accords in 1975.  The charter advocated for the universal recognition of human rights specifically citing suppression of civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the blacklisting of dissidents and their families from employment and educational opportunities.  While the charter was political in nature, the crafters and signatories never sought to advance a mass movement so as to prevent violent repression against the charter’s supporters, and instead relied upon informal associations to report the government’s human rights abuses.  Though Charter 77 was a Czechoslovakian dissident movement, this essay will examine the charter’s emphasis on human rights and how human rights developed into an important factor in post war Eastern Europe on the international, national, and individual levels.

Internationally, Charter 77 demonstrates the importance of human rights in foreign relations during the Cold War specifically between the Soviet Union and United States.  In Vladislav Zubok’s Failed Empire, he states that, “the commitment to human rights embedded in the [Helsinki] act proved to be a time bomb under the Soviet regime.”[2]  The Helsinki Accords, signed by thirty-five nations including the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, was initially hailed as a foreign policy victory for Leonid Brezhnev as the agreement recognized long term Soviet goals of non-intervention in domestic affairs and territorial integrity; however, as Zubok points out, the human rights articles of this agreement developed into a rallying point for Eastern European dissidents.  The Charter 77 dissidents specifically cited the Helsinki Accords to criticize the Czechoslovakian government stating that since the signing, “our citizens have the right, and our state the duty, to abide by them,” but that these rights “exist on paper only.”[3]  Dissident criticism of the Soviet state through the frame of human rights developed into a point of contention between the United States and the Soviet Union.  During the Carter Administration, his National Security Advisor Zbrigniew Brzezinski, a native of Poland, fiercely insisted that the Soviet Union uphold the Helsinki Accords perplexing the Soviets who believed arms control was more important than human rights.  The promotion of human rights under the Carter Administration factored into détente’s unraveling and the hardening of relations as dissidents, journalists, and Carter perceived détente as an appeasement policy.[4]  With the rise of dissident movements clamoring for human rights, especially in Poland, the United States continually insisted that the Soviet Union respect human rights which Zubok describes as, “the most important criteria for the president’s assessment of Soviet intentions.”[5]  Zubok’s emphasis on human rights in US-Soviet relations reveals that dissident movements like Charter 77 advocating for human rights, though small, profoundly influenced high politics and the foreign policy strategy of the United States towards the Soviet Union.

While Zubok describes human rights as a time bomb, he fails to discuss why they were a bomb and when, if ever, this bomb exploded.  By examining the rights demanded by Charter 77, such as civil liberties and freedom of expression, and observing when the Soviet Union began recognizing these rights exhibits why human rights were a bomb and how it detonated.  According to Zubok, the catastrophe at Chernobyl, the decline of oil prices, and the development of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” resulted in the liberalization of Soviet human rights.  Following the disaster at Chernobyl, Gorbachev realized that nuclear war was undesirable and parity with the US was unattainable; furthermore, with the decline in oil prices, reducing arms spending would provide hard currency for the dilapidated economy.  However, the failure of negotiations with Ronald Reagan persuaded Soviet officials, “that the persecution of dissidents and religious groups presented a major obstacle for negotiations with the United States.”[6]  The failure of negotiations compelled Gorbachev to seek the support of Western Europe in the hopes of pressuring the US into arms agreements yet European support remained contingent upon recognizing human rights as well.  These demands by Western Europe and the United States coerced Gorbachev and the KGB to free political prisoners and reduce arrests for political crimes which furthered the growing influence of enlightened dissidents.[7]  Ultimately, while dissident movements clamoring for human rights remained small, they were an important negotiation tool for the West, and Gorbachev’s liberalization of Soviet society and suspension of the Brezhnev Doctrine to gain Western European support for arms reduction agreements exploded into mass movements that demanded autonomy from the USSR.

On the national level, Czechoslovakia and the Charter 77 dissidents conform to the paradigm presented by Stephan Kotkin in his study Uncivil Society.  Czechoslovakia, like the case studies of East Germany and Romania, was governed by a ruling clique that complied with Kotkin’s term uncivil society, remained economically dependant upon Western loans, and experienced spontaneous mass mobilization in 1989.  Within this paradigm, Charter 77 emphasizes and supports Kotkin’s understanding and differentiation between civil and uncivil society.  While some scholars have suggested that dissident movements represented an emerging civil society, Kotkin understands their arguments as “profoundly misleading” and “falsely generalizing,” and instead argues that though dissident movements were morally important they did not, “constitute any kind of society.”[8]  Kotkin’s argument that civil society failed to develop in Eastern Europe is supported by Charter 77 which states, “Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies, or formal membership . . . It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity.”[9]  The authors of Charter 77 explicitly denied formal organization because political opposition was illegal in a single party state; furthermore, if the creation of political opposition remained illegal, the dissidents could not constitute a civil society as this required the protection of civil liberties, private property, and the ability to self organize; all unattainable in the communist system.  Therefore, Charter 77 dissident criticized the government through the language of human rights provided by the Helsinki Accords; however, they denied political organization as it was illegal and, by denying this, Charter 77 confirms Kotkin’s argument that dissident movements were incapable of forming civil societies or a significantly influential movement.

However, while Charter 77 supports Kotkin’s argument concerning civil society, there is a vast divergence concerning human rights.  For Kotkin, human rights and international agreements such as the Helsinki Accords are quickly dismissed to explore uncivil societies’ ossified bureaucracy, ineffectual governance, and financial mismanagement.  He posits that though dissidents appealed to the Helsinki Accords and Communist regimes’ own constitutions to demand recognition of human rights, their appeals were unheard and unattainable due to the nature of communist rule.[10]  The exclusion of human rights from his analysis allows Kotkin to support his argument that the failure of uncivil society resulted in “bank runs” whereby the unorganized panicking masses run to the bank (the national government) to withdraw their personal deposits (governmental legitimacy) causing the bank to default (the failure of the communist government).  However, this metaphor fails to persuade concerning Czechoslovakia and instead reveals that dissident movements, while not widely influential, represented embryonic civil societies which the masses organized around especially in Czechoslovakia.  This is supported by the fact that many of Charter 77’s architects formed the Czechoslovakian political organization Civic Forum which negotiated with the communist regime to secure the transfer of power and the creation of a new government.  The representation of dissidents as embryonic civil societies is particularly evident when examining Vaclav Havel who drafted Charter 77, was president of Civic Forum, and elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989.  Thus dissident movements advocating for human rights, though small, should not be dismissed as ineffectual as they played a key role in the collapse of communism on the national level: they symbolized an emerging civil society that grasped authority in the tumultuous days of 1989, organized the masses against the communist regimes, and negotiated the transfer of power.

While the Czechoslovakian dissident movement remained small, in Poland the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union developed into a national phenomenon; however, unsanctioned trade unions like Solidarity were illegal under the communist regime and fell into the basket of human rights advocated by Charter 77.  The charter states that communist governments’ prevent “workers and others from exercising the unrestricted right to establish trade unions and other organizations to protect their economic and social interests.”[11]  The charter advocated for the establishment of independent trade unions because all organizations in a communist nation were sanctioned by the party and therefore supported the state’s interests and not those of workers and individuals.  The inability of workers to promote their own demands led the establishment of Solidarity in 1980 during a general strike over an increase in food prices.  Unable to suppress the strikes, the state relented and allowed for the establishment of free labor unions and, on November 10th 1980, Solidarity became the first independent trade union in a communist country.  Nevertheless, viewed from Warsaw and Moscow, these concessions were deemed unacceptable and Poland’s new Prime Minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared marshal law arresting Solidarity’s leaders.[12]  The pronouncement of marshal law and the imprisonment of dissidents violated not only the human rights of the workers but also those of the nation as marshal law led to increased censorship and violent clashes between protestors and the government.  This catapulted the national to the international as world leaders and Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, expressed outrage at the human rights abuses carried out by the communist Polish government.  Hence, the Polish situation in the early 1980s reveals the importance of free trade unions to the concept of human rights and why dissident movements like Charter 77 supported them.

Nationally, Charter 77 also advocated against the, “inference in the private life of citizens exercised by the Ministry of Interior.”[13]  The intrusion of private life by state security forces occurred in all Soviet states, whether the KGB, StB, or the Stasi, and resulted in numerous arrests for subverting the state.  The East Germany Stasi were the most prominent of the secret police forces in the Eastern Block and their violations are describe by Tony Judt in Post War.  The Stasi employed 85,000 full time workers and collected information on over 6 million of its citizens revealing the vast web of information that the state collected on its own citizens; furthermore, the state used illegally collected information to force citizens into collaboration against their families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.[14]  Collaboration by citizens with the security apparatus also garnered Charter 77’s attention; “setting up networks of neighborhood informers (often recruited by illicit threats or promises).”[15]  The formation of collaboration networks further emphasizes the states intrusion into the lives of private citizens but also how the violation of human rights affects the individual.  Tony Judt states that these collaboration networks created, “devastating domestic consequences,” as, “[h]usbands spied on wives, professors reported on students, priests informed on their parishioners.”[16]  By intruding into its citizens’ private lives, the state violates their basic human rights to personal property and freedom of speech that Western nations take for granted.  The dissidents of Charter 77 also understood these violations as they occurred in Czechoslovakia as well, and they sought to draw Western attention to the communist regime’s violation of rights and the inability of citizens to defend themselves against the government’s clandestine actions.

While examining the role of dissident movements on the international and national levels reveals dissidents’ political influence, Slavenka Drakulic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed demonstrates how individuals’ human rights were violated and why they developed into important points for dissident movements like Charter 77.  The demand that the government cease discriminating against those holding dissenting views appeared first in Charter 77’s list of human rights abuses.  It stated, “citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from officials ones . . . [they] live in constant danger of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions.”[17]  This type of suppression is demonstrated in Drakulic’s anecdote concerning Tanja, a Yugoslavian journalist, who wrote an article arguing against nationalizing pinball machines.[18]  While her article appeared innocent, she actually utilized the pinball machine to present a much broader argument concerning the absurdity of dismantling small private business.  As a result of this articles renunciation by the communist regime, Tanja’s colleagues disregarded her and her editors refused to publish her work.  Now labeled a dissident, Tanja could no longer work in her chosen field because she had proposed alternative ideas differing from the official government line.  Tanja’s story exhibits the dangers and penalties of proposing ideas counter to the official line and demonstrates the realities of the human rights violations that Charter 77 emphasized.  Furthermore, Drakulic underwent this type of scrutiny herself when a government censor requested a meeting with her.[19]  Prior to her meeting with the censor, Drakulic racked her brain thinking of articles she had written that may have drawn the censor’s attention but she recalled none.  However, she came to the revelation that censors applied this subtle pressure to internalize auto-censorship within journalists thus causing the journalist to modify their own behavior so as prevent them from writing anti-government material.  The communist regimes’ blacklisting of intellectuals and intimidation of journalists reveals why Charter 77 advocated for the freedom of expression and the ability to hold dissenting views.

Another source of repression cited by Charter 77 was the freedom of religion and the communist regime’s interference, removal, and threatening of church officials.[20]  The Czechoslovakian dissidents argued that citizens should be able to freely and indiscriminately practice their religion without government intrusion.  In examining the church, Drakulic recalls her childhood in which her grandmother continued religious holidays and traditions such as giving gifts on Christmas and dying eggs for Easter but that she did not discuss these activities with her father a communist partisan which reveals the suppression of religion under communism.[21]  Furthermore, this shows a divergence between the public and the private sphere concerning religious practices within the communist system.  Publicly, the nation disregarded church holidays and participated in replacement public holidays imagined by the communist regimes.  The participation in replacement holidays is displayed by Drakulic’s reminiscence that as child she received a song book titled Partisan Songs instead of learning hymns and carols.  However, privately citizens continued practicing traditional church customs as shown by Drakulic’s story of her grandmother.  This reveals that even though the public participated in new imagined communist holidays, the traditional religions remained influential.  Thsi is demonstrated when Drakulic recounts attending a Christmas Eve mass shortly after the reinstitution of the church and discovered that it was overflowing with people who can still recite prayers and sing the hymns.  This relates to Charter 77 because it shows that religion remained an important factor in citizens’ lives and that suppressing peoples’ ability and choice to practice religions violated their human rights.

Ultimately, Charter 77 demonstrates the importance of human rights to the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, and an examination of the historiography of post war Eastern Europe displays the significance of dissidents and human rights on the international, national, and individual levels.  On the international level, human rights developed into a crucial negotiating point between the United States and the Soviet Union especially after the signing of the Helsinki Accords.  As Zubok shows, the United States ceased détente policies and consistently based arms negotiations strategies around the Soviet’s adherence to human rights coercing Gorbachev into liberalizing aspects of Soviet society.  Nationally, after the communist regimes’ recognized human rights agreements, Kotkin and the authors of Charter 77 both demonstrates that small dissident networks utilized the language of human rights to expose the communist system’s hypocrisy.  In Poland, the Solidarity movement proved the exception to Kotkin’s paradigm as the trade union represented an organized mass movement; however, the suppression of this movement by marshal law reveals the importance of human rights in a national context.  While small networks of dissidents, never exercised any real power, they represented emerging or embryonic civil societies.  In Czechoslovakia, the organizers of Charter 77 negotiated the transfer of power in 1989 and were elected into national governments while the same is true of Solidarity’s leaders in Poland.  Individually, Charter 77 recognized that the machinations of the communist regimes’ profoundly affected individuals’ lives.  This is evident in Drakulic’s book which examines individuals and demonstrates how the communist system prevented people from working in their chosen profession, censored ideas that challenged the official line, and suppressed religious practices that were integral to community traditions.  The peoples’ anger towards government repression eventually boiled over with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika which allowed for the liberalization of society and they rallied behind the dissidents that had long agitated against the communist regimes.  Thus, by influencing all levels of society, Charter 77 and its appeal to human rights formed the foundation of dissident activism and played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s dismantling.


[1] Jan-Werner Müller, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 174; Charter 77 Declaration, The Global Revolutions of 1968, ed. Jeremi Suri, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 284.

[2] Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2009), 238.

[3] Charter 77, 285.

[4] Zubok, 192.

[5] Zubok, 286

[6] Zubok, 298.

[7] Ibid, 301.

[8] Stephan Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, Uncivil Society, (New York: Random House, 2009), 10.

[9] Charter 77, 289.

[10] Kotkin, 9.

[11] Charter 77, 287.

[12] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 588, 589

[13] Charter 77, 287.

[14] Judt, 697, 698.

[15] Charter 77, 287.

[16] Judt, 698.

[17] Charter 77, 285.

[18] Slavenka Drakulic, House We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 2.

[19] Ibid, 78.

[20] Charter 77, 286.

[21] Drakulic, 152

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