16 APRIL 1988, Page 9


In 1968, the Russians invaded

Czechoslovakia. In 1988, Edward Marston

finds signs of a new Spring

IT IS 20 years since the Prague Spring. But no one has forgotten. Explicitly or implic- ity, 1968 remains the central reference point of all political discussion in Czechos- lovakia, as much for the ruling Communist Party as for the democratic opposition symbolised by Charter 77, for disillusioned old communists but also for men and women who were not even born when the Soviet tanks crawled into Wenceslaus Square that August. Beyond the towering mountain range of 1968, Czechs and Slo- yaks look back to 1948, when the communists took power in the February coup, to 1938, when democratic Czechoslovakia was bet- rayed by Britain and France at Munich, and to 1918, when the first republic of the Czechs and the Slovaks was conjured out of the ashes of the Austro- Hungarian empire by Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Things hap- pen for Czechoslovakia in years ending with eight. And in 1988. . . ?

The great document of April 1968 was the 'Action Programme' of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, adopted at a plenary ses- sion of the Central Committee, and defin- ing its task as 'to give a new shape to socialist development, drawing on creative Marxist thinking and the knowledge of the international working-class movement, but relying on a correct understanding of the conditions of socialist evolution in Czechoslovakia' etc, etc. The major docu- ment of this spring is a petition for freedom of the (Roman Catholic) Church. Its 31 demands include the separation of church and state, an end to the state veto on the appointment of new bishops, and greater freedom for religious publications. It has been signed, at the last count, by some 440,000 people, and not only Catholics — a staggering manifestation in a state where every form of public dissent has been so rigorously suppressed for almost 20 years. The contrast between the origins, the demands and the very language of the two programmes is eloquent of the distance Czechoslovakia has travelled between that spring and this.

And yet, as the playwright and opposi- tion leader Vaclav Havel always stresses, the origins of the Prague Spring are also to be found in pressure 'from below', from non-communist intellectuals and journal- ists who were mostly still communists or, at the very least, socialists. Its enduring sym- bol is not a worker or a priest but the Party leader, Alexander Dubcek. Its slogan is 'socialism with a human face.' This peti- tion, by contrast, could hardly be less socialist, or more from below.' It is the handiwork, not of any Party members, nor of some Prague intellectuals, nor yet of the Church hierarchy, but of one devout Mora- vian peasant, Mr Augustin Navratil.

I went to visit Mr Navratil in his remote Moravian village of Lutopecny, near Kromeriz. A portly, rubicund lady in shabby working clothes was sweeping the path as I arrived at the modest red-brick Without more ado he plunged into a detailed recitation of his last ten years' activities, while his wife plied me with home-made sausage. His first petition, he told me, was made in 1976 and had 17 points; his second petition, in 1984-5, had 20 points; the latest, launched at the end of last year, has 31. I should note particularly the number of points. The first, which was a local affair, organised with a friend, collected some 700 signatures before he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. The next time he sent the petition first to the Ministry of the Interior, and all other conceivable ministries, with a covering letter asking: is it legal to circulate this? He did the same with several open letters about issues of religious freedom and persecution. None of the bureaucrats, he says, dared give him a straight answer; they referred him from one office to the next, and then back to the first. Only the secret police, he says wryly, declared themselves `kompetentne. They had him interrogated, detained, and then put into the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital, where he was nightly threatened by other inmates: 'We'll kill you before morning.' When his case finally came to trial, the judge cited the diagnosis: 'paranoia querulans'. His re- maining at liberty would, it was claimed, be a danger to society. After almost a year in detention he was released — only to be beaten up by 'unknown assailants' at his railway station.

At this point Mr Navratil broke off to tell me how much letters from abroad had helped him in captivity. They had put pressure on the authorities and they had kept his spirit up. He had received letters from Holland, Germany, England, Scot- land — yes, particularly from Scotland. And he would like to ask me, if I could, to express his heartfelt thanks to all those who had written — and particularly to those in Scotland — and to tell them how much it had helped. The global emphasis on Scotland might have seemed, in other circumstances, a trifle comical; but he gave his message so warmly and sincerely, and with a moistening in his eyes, that I'm not sure my own eyes were entirely dry.

Then, in a sudden change of mood, he leapt up and produced his duplicator: a home-carpentered affair, the size of a large hook, with a silk screen, black ink and a roller. 'You see, I'm permitted to possess this,' he said, and produced a certified notarial copy of a letter from the Ministry of Culture (1 have it before me as I write) solemnly affirming that 'the citizen does not require a permit . . . to employ dupli- cating equipment for his own use'. I could not detect even the faintest Svejkian glint in his eye as he went on to explain how he distributed these duplicated texts to all and sundry. And here they are: open letters, petitions, open letters in connection with the petitions, letters from the prosecutor, an annotated list of the vacant dioceses, on pink paper, on blue paper, on tissue paper. Anything he thinks of interest is hand- typed by his wife and then hand-duplicated by him, on his wonderful Heath Robinson machine. And here, at last, is the latest petition, on coarse, yellowy paper, with a copy of the open letter of 4 January 1988 from Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, Archbishop of Prague, urging the faithful to support the petition, assuring them that to sign and circulate it is not illegal, and concluding, 'I affirm most emphatically that cowardice and fear are unworthy of a true Christian.' Augustin Navratil had earlier made per- sonal contact with the Cardinal, himself from Moravia and a man who seems to stand more upright and speak more firmly with every passing year — he is now a mere 89. Mr Navratil tells me that he personally discussed the text of this petition — should we call it the Thirty One Articles? — with the Cardinal. He now goes up to visit him in Prague about once a fortnight, he says. The Cardinal's public endorsement was of course crucial to the extraordinary success of the petition, which since January has been displayed and signed in churches. Yet the Cardinal was as surprised as anyone by the scale of the response.

As I prepare to leave, Mr Navratil thanks me ceremoniously for my visit and tells me that I am the first foreigner ever to have visited his house. He also introduces me to the cows, who are charming. His is, I think, a wonderful story: the tale of the Yeoman and the Cardinal. He has de- veloped to a high degree that art, common to many oppositionists in Eastern Europe but perhaps most characteristic of the Czech lands, of embarrassing the author- ities by taking them strictly at their word. He also has that quality of divine stubborn- ess which one finds in the lives of much better known resisters to communist oppression; in Poland's Cardinal Wyszyns- ki, in Grigorenko or Bukovsky.

Where it will lead is, of course, another question. The 'new' Party lead- ership of Milos Jakes is clearly in the business of assuring that no spontaneous 'spring' does bloom in this anniversary year. At last week's plenary session of the Central Committee (20 years almost to the day after that which launched the 'Action Programme'!) Mr Jakes inveighed against 'anti-communist forces' aided by 'certain Western mass media' causing trouble 'be- hind the mask of religious motives'. At the end of last month a wholly peaceful candle- lit demonstration for religious freedom in Bratislava was brutally broken up by riot police. But the authorities' touch is uncer- tain. At the same time that the water-

cannons are turned on the Catholics, what one might almost call the 'old' opposition, grouped in the rainbow coalition of Char- ter 77, is more active than ever. This January some of them launched a new monthly called Lidove Noviny (roughly 'People's News') specifically designed to appeal to a more general public, with short news article, photos, cartoons and even a monthly song. Most articles are signed, and the editors give their full names — yet they are all at liberty. Each issue carries a calendar of the month's events in 1968. The January number has on its masthead a cartoon of a sad-looking 1988 baby with a large gob-stopper in his mouth and a huge ball and chain attached to his ankle. The ball is marked '1968'.

Ay, there's the rub . . . One may enjoy the spectacle of the Czechoslovak Party leadership being unsettled by Moscow, of all places. Most specialists agree that a Soviet reassessment of the Prague Spring was only stopped on the insistence of the Prague leadership. A Soviet journalist recently published a relatively friendly account of a meeting with Vaclav Havel. Repentance, the Soviet cinematic allegory of Stalinism, has been showing in Prague cinemas to an electrified response. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the overall political conditions for a peaceful, evolutionary change, with state and society in some sort of controlled dynamic inter- play, are almost as unfavourable in 1988 as they seemed favourable in 1968. For a start, there is the present leadership. 'When will perestroika succeed?' asks the Prague joke. 'When Bilak's widow visits Strougal in prison to tell him how Jakes was shot at Husak's funeral.' But even if the old gang are replaced — after 1988 by newer, more flexible and realistic men, the possibilities of constructive comprom- ises (or a modus vivendi) between author- ities and society will seem small.

Unlike in 1958, this society will not now lightly trust its communist rules. Yet the whole divided history of the Czech and Slovak lands, and the memory of their common defeats ('38, '48, '68), still make it difficult to imagine how this society can 'I'll kill that bastard Geller!'

really agree and effectively pursue its own common 'action programme', as opposed to supporting one formulated by the Party `from above.' This petition for the freedom of the (Catholic) Church is an inspiring thing. But just look for the moment at the state of that church. Only three out of its thirteen dioceses have bishops: two of those, in Slovakia, are old and comprom- ised, the third — Cardinal Tomasek — is a leader, and increasingly outspoken, but he is 89 years old. Priests are paid by the state, closely supervised by a local Party secret- ary for religious affairs, and dependent on him for the annual renewal of their state licence to preach. (There is, however, a thriving catacomb church of banned priests.) The religious orders were brutally dissolved in the Fifties. The Church has virtually no .property of its own. There are no seminaries worth the name. It is in- finitely worse off than the churches (both Protestant and Catholic) in East Germany, let alone in Poland. Far from intervening, like them, for the universal human rights• of the whole society, this church is struggling to defend its own.

Then there is the division between Pro- testants and Catholics which has in Czechoslovakia an almost Irish politico- historical accretion: Catholicism associated with Habsburg counter-reformation and empire, but also with post-1948 resistance, Protestantism with Masaryk and independ- ence, but also with post-1948 collabora- tion, and so forth. Within Charter 77 there are still deep divisions between Catholics and Protestants, old communists, demo- cratic socialists, and liberal conservatives in search of a past. Agreement on anything beyond a basic human rights strategy is hard to achieve. In the country at large, Czechs are still Czechs and Slovaks remain Slovaks.

Economic stagnation, slowly sinking standards of health and welfare provi- sion and worsening pollution are cumula- tive irritants for a wider public. People obviously find it absurd, embarrassing and distressing that Czechoslovakia, once an advanced European industrial democracy, is slowly sinking away from most of Europe while its ridiculous rulers gabble the kind of prefabricated nonsense that even the Kremlin has abandoned. But where is the common focus for these diverse discon- tents? And where the strategy for change? Whether for good or evil, we cannot know the future — as the great Raymond Aron once unshallowly remarked. Particu- larly in Central Europe, change is likely to come from the corner where we least expect it. We spend our time looking at the names in the headlines, at the powerful and the famous. We think they make history. But meanwhile, behind our backs, there is this irresponsible old yeoman toiling up in the slow train from Kromeriz, with his home-duplicated Thirty One Arti- cles in the battered leather bag — and he makes history.