Scholar Interviews

How do you put the anti-Charter into context for students?


One of the things about reading a communist document in general, and this document springs to mind for me because I translated it for this discussion. And you really have to translate in two ways because you have to translate the document from Czech, in this case into English, but you also have to know how to read it and how to read communist documents. It’s got certain stock phrases. It uses a number of words that are unusual or obsolete or very rare in other ways and it has its own style and its own rhythm.

The sentences are very long. So when reading communist documents you have to know the language. And then you have to know what the words in the language mean because sometimes they have different valences in communist speaking than they would in ordinary commonsense speaking. And you can find this by picking up any communist document or any collection of communist documents.

What strikes me about this is that Charter 77 is only mentioned obliquely, but everyone in the National Theater on the night of January 28th knew that this was the anti-charter. And letters that came in to Rude Pravo afterwards gave praise to the people who signed the anti-charter. So it was clear that everyone knew what this document meant and what it entailed, but what is interesting is in the translation, the first thing that comes out, the first line is “our land in its thousand guises so sweet and so dear to each of us was given to us as a cradle and as a home.” And it goes on to talk about its social strivings, the nation’s strivings and the whole of its national culture, that the nation comes first. In the ’50s, it was all about internationalism, and the nation and nationalism were not really to be discussed. But in the ’70s and the ’80s, as they’re looking for ways to legitimize themselves to their populations, and this was approved within the Soviet Union as well, appeals to national pride were perfectly acceptable.

But, of course, the majority of the language in here is laden with all kinds of socialist language and I’m going to point a few different things, the kinds of stock phrases that you’ll run into. “The Soviet Union at the head of the Socialist International Fraternal, Fraternity of States” comes up. You’ll see that in many things. References to the working people and so on come up throughout this, but not just that. There’s communist language or what I would call communist language that’s less easy to decipher, that is stock.

I want to read this very long sentence just so you get some of the flavor of how this thing is written and then I’ll talk about the two other matters—imperialism and— and the mention of Charter 77 or sort of mention.

“Herein” and they’re referring to the certainties of socialism, what the Great October Revolution brought and the liberation by the Soviet army brought to Czechoslovakia. “Herein lies the source of our certainties, of our proud self-confidence, of an optimism that has not been made blind by our successes, unshaken by any difficulties or even by temporary failures.” That’s a short sentence.

“Here lies the source of our deliberate, concentrated, and joyful activity for it is with satisfaction that we measure our dreams and programs by their achieved result for we see how after a mere three decades,” since the coming of communism, “the face of our land and the lives of our people have changed. We see how daily seemingly even routine every-day labor yields exquisite fruits, how the appearance of the world and the balance of power in it have been changed, for we feel that magnificent, unstoppable energy with which the history of our land and world history surges forward as a result of common concerted effort.”

This joyfulness and the official optimism in the sense that things are moving forward is part of the communist way of understanding the world. It’s official optimism. This has to be said. You can’t say ‘Oh, we’ve had a lot of struggles and things are not going so well, but we’ll try and make them better.’ No, things, even when we had those few difficulties, we were still filled with joy at our labor and this is just the floweriness of the prose and the length of that sentence.

There’re several mentions of imperialism, the dogs of war, the imperialists are trapped; there’s a reference to atomic war. And then we get at about the same point in the text that Charter 77 comes around to the point, and it starts off with a reference to the Helsinki Conference, which might very well be construed to be unwise, but the communists believed that they were fulfilling their understanding of the Helsinki, um, third basket on human rights. “That is why in accord with the final act of the Helsinki Conference we stretch out our hand across the borders of countries and continents fully aware that true art and true culture should help individual nations and all of humanity move forward. They should create understanding among people of diverse countries. They should win people over to the humanistic perspective, um, on peace and mutual cooperation in the interest of happy human life.”

“That is why we hold in contempt those who in the unbridled pride of their narcissistic haughtiness for selfish interests or even for filthy lucre in various places all over the world, even in our land a small group of such backsliders and traitors can be found. They divorce and isolate themselves from their own people and its life and real interests and, within inexorable logic become instruments of the anti-humanistic forces of imperialism and in its service, the heralds of disruption and discord among nations.”

Now, to someone who doesn’t know the context of all of this, there’s some backsliders or something, hmm, what’s that all about. But if you know the context that all these people have been brought into this room and they’re going to be forced to sign this document on pain of perhaps losing their professional position, it was clear to everyone in that room and everyone watching on TV exactly what this document meant. That these are the traitors who’ve divorced themselves and are isolating themselves from their own people.

This is why I think the document starts with this nationalist, and the national culture, is to paint the Charter 77 signatories as instruments of imperialism. They would destroy our national culture and what it has created. We’re not going to allow the imperialists to do this. It brings up that these are selfish people who may be in it for the moment. That these people are traitors to not just the state but traitors to the nation as well and I think that everyone who read this document on January 29, or who saw this television broadcast would know exactly what it means. But if you abstract it from its context, the document would be filed in a file marked “empty rhetoric” I think. But it’s not. It’s laden with meaning but you have to know how to read it and you have to know the context in which the document was created.

How to Cite

Bradley Abrams, interview, "How do you put the anti-Charter into context for students?" Making the History of 1989, Item #627, (accessed September 17 2019, 12:18 am).