Martin Butora: Charter 77

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.

In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.

Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.

From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.

Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

Then came Charter 77. [Charter 77 was a document composed by Czechoslovak dissidents, such as then-playwright Vaclav Havel, calling on the communist government to respect the commitments it made to human rights by signing the Helsinki Accords. Signing or promoting the charter was viewed as a crime by the communist government.] Charter 77– I was not in direct touch with those people, because at that time, Prague and Bratislava were – as for the communication, it was not so easy to communicate.

So it was definitely more a Prague invention, or the Czech invention, more people like [Vaclav] Havel [a Czech writer and playwright, political dissident, and later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic] and [Pavel] Kohout [a Czech writer, playwright and dissident] and many, many others. But I knew the names. I also met with Havel in ’68, at least briefly. We have been following all that in the samizdat circles, in the samizdat literature. [Samizdat is a Russian word meaning “self-published,” referring to the underground press in communist societies.]

I was writing some novels and some essays which were published and which were disseminated. So you know the names, and you saw that some of the really most respected representatives of Czech culture have signed the – like Seifert; he later was awarded a Nobel Prize, a great poet – many, many others. [Jaroslav Seifert was a Czech poet, dissident and signatory of Charter 77. He was awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature.] And you know, in people’s life, it is often like this, that there is a moment when someone says “enough” and for me, it was one of those moments.

And so at that time, the Communist Party organized some formal meetings practically in every workplace, in every school, in every company, in every firm where people were gathered. And they had to sign so-called “anti-charter manifest,” without reading Charter 77. It was just a symbolic gesture, and so on. And it was not very nice to see some famous artists who would get that in National Theater in Prague, and who somehow expressed their support for Communist Party again – those, you know, those associates and dissidents and so on.

And so I didn’t sign this anti-Charter. And then I had to leave that work. We were writing and publishing, either in some semi-official journalism or in samizdat. Then I was writing some novels, and then I also joined environmental movement. So I have been functioning in several circles, and at that time, we sociologists, we came to this concept of positive deviance. And so if positive deviance, it means that the person is a positive deviant if he or she doesn’t adapt to the prevailing attitude. But the prevailing attitudes do not have to be very good attitudes, right? But they are just – and prevailing attitudes were adapt. Don’t show up. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t require your rights.

Just that, and try to find your way how to survive. And those people tried to both think, and to act as independent as it was possible. They were more or less existing in marginal environments. They were not the heads of Academy of Science, or whatever. And what was interesting – and I would say from mid-’80s, those circles of positive deviants started more and more to communicate. Yes, so it means there was a concert of the folklore, and some creative artists came there, and there was some discussion.

There’s always different, different environments started, not only to – they started to communicate, they started somehow to run what you are doing, what we could do, they started more to communicate the previous atomization of public discourse as being at least slightly, slightly weakened, and the communication definitely increased. Although, with Gorbachev [Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party from 1985 to 1991 and the last President of the Soviet Union.], and with Perestroika and with Glasnost, the communists at least formally, formally, have been behaving like, yes, yes, of course we will also allow, you know, more free space for discussion. [Perestroika is a Russian word meaning restructuring; Glasnost means openness. Both were key elements in Gorbachev’s unsuccessful attempt to reform and preserve the USSR’s communist system.]

So as far as it was possible, all the main official media, there were some interesting articles or essays. And there was also in Slovakia the clandestine movement of the secret church. There were many young people there. And they had concerts, and it was fascinating to see what was gradually becoming more and more important, to see young people who simply didn’t want to live like the older generation. They didn’t want to adapt regardless from the fact if they will lose, if they would be kicked out, if they would, you know, be excluded from the education.

They are gradually getting more and more and this is in my understanding, there is anthropological constant in people’s lives, and it is like there is a spiritual vertical, there is also this anthropologic concept of freedom. And it was fascinating to see how those people gradually have been growing up, and how practically, they were those who were joined in some acts of civic activism, let it be in church, or let it be in environment, or let it be something artistic or whatever. Those were people who attempted the Candle Demonstration, calling for religious rights in Bratislava. [A March 1988 anticommunist demonstration in support of religious freedom.

The nonviolent gathering was the first major protest against the government and was harshly suppressed by the authorities.] And obviously, those were the students who became one of the builders and one of the bases of Velvet Revolution, and those who simply said both in Prague and Bratislava, because it has been dealing with both simultaneously that no, we do not want this. We want to live more decent life. We don’t know freedom; we only know the opposite.