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Artists marginalized by own revolution
PRAGUE | Martin Putna stood next to his favorite poster at an exhibit that opened here recently celebrating the life of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and former president who became the face of the peaceful revolution that brought down communist regimes throughout much of Eastern Europe 20 years ago.
“Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself,” reads the caption on the poster, which shows a smiling Mr. Havel sitting on an ornately decorated chair. A tagline notes that Mr. Havel made the statement in 1991, when he was awarded a prize for outstanding contributions to European culture.
Artists and other cultural figures played an outsized role in the demise of governments in the old Soviet satellites — a role that has diminished as societies have opened up to a freer interchange of ideas with the rest of the world.
Under communism, mimeographed manuscripts known in Russian as “samizdat” or self-published works, passed from hand to hand to avoid the censors. Other works were smuggled out to the West for publication. Western culture, from modern art to heavy-metal music, was coveted forbidden fruit.
The catalyst for the Charter 77 movement co-founded by Mr. Havel in 1977 was the arrest of a Czech psychedelic band known as the Plastic People of the Universe. The “velvet” revolution that remade Czechoslovakia in 1989 took its name from the Velvet Underground, a U.S. rock band that was a favorite of Mr. Havel’s.
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The role that culture and literature played in Central and Eastern Europe was “bigger and more important than in the free world,” said Mr. Putna, who is director of the Vaclav Havel Library.
“Literature played a role in society. Literature played a role in politics,” he said.
Now, American writers Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer by far outsell Czech authors, and culture has lost its place here as a focus of political life.
The Havel Library, which opened its doors earlier this year on a quiet street in Prague’s picturesque Old Town, illustrates a different time when the printed word could be a matter of life and death.
Born into a well-to-do family, Mr. Havel was not necessarily the most talented of those who opposed the communist regime, Mr. Putna said. Yet by the time he and four contemporaries founded Charter 77, Mr. Havel was on his way toward becoming the leader of the opposition.
Charter 77 was an informal civic initiative that lasted from 1977 to 1992. Beyond protesting the arrest of rock musicians, the group criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions in international treaties it had signed.
Pavel Pechacek, one-time director of the Czech Service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and now a senior adviser to the radio’s president, said Czechs who had earlier fled their homeland aided those left behind by publishing their works in the West.
Josef Skvorecky and Zdena Salivarova, a renowned literary couple who emigrated to Canada in 1968, founded 68 Publishers, a Toronto company that published works smuggled out of Czechoslovakia, including books by Bohumil Hrabal, Nobel Prize-winner Jaroslav Siefert, Jewish writer Arnost Lustig, human rights activist Vaclav Cerny and poet Ivan Blatny.
The couple surreptitiously sent printed materials back to their homeland to be passed hand to hand. They included a Czech translation of Alan Levy’s “Rowboat to Prague,” an account of the 1968 Soviet invasion that became an underground classic here. For their efforts, Mr. Skvorecky and his wife were awarded the Czech Republic’s highest order in 1990 by Mr. Havel, whose works they also published.
By Tom Fitton
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