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Looking-glass world

28 October 1977: Tom Stoppard on the trial of Havel, Lederer, Pavlicek and Ornest, for dissent against the republic.

By Tom Stoppard

In January 1977, around 700 Czechoslovakians signed Charter 77, a manifesto that called for an increase in civil liberties and human rights from the communist government. That October, four intellectuals – playwrights Vaclav Havel and Frantisek Pavlicek, journalist Jiri Lederer, and theatre producer Ota Ornest – were put on trial on charges of “subversion” and undertaking activities that contravened the state’s regime. Ostensibly, this was unrelated to the signing of Charter 77. Officials sent information to the press saying that the four men had been in touch with foreign states who were opposed to the Czechoslovak government. But it was widely believed that the trial was part of the government’s attempts to fight the “dissidents” who signed the Charter. In this piece, the British playwright Tom Stoppard, Czech-born himself, documents the events of the trial, a week on.


Last week’s trial in Prague got Czechoslovakia a bad press all over the political spectrum, but it was the Times which threw the deftest barb in pointing out the irony of one of the charges: “damaging the name of the state abroad”. Franz Kafka, meet Lewis Carroll.

There were signs of nervous insecurity on the Czechoslovak side. Vaclav Havel, a playwright who has brought the CSSR more cachet abroad than all the Bohemian glassblowers put together, and who got 14 months, suspended, on the above charge, having spent four and a half months in prison on the way, told friends afterwards that the whole trial looked funny to him. It wasn’t like the trials he remembered. There was no proper confrontation. It was “not good theatre”. There were different monologues going on. The court was hardly interested in whether the four defendants were pleading guilty or not guilty, and the main prosecution witness was barely utilised; the court said it had the statements it needed. It was a rush job.

There were odd changes of mood. On Monday, the first day, it seemed that the sentences would be harsh. Then overnight the prosecutor lowered the stakes. The trial was wrapped up by lunchtime and it was announced that sentences would be given the following day. But the next thing that happened was that Havel and Frantisek Pavlicek, the two accused who were not in custody, were told to come back at 2pm.

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There was something hapless about the way the puppets kept showing their strings. Even when the whole thing was over, with Ota Ornest and Jiri Lederer sent down for three and a half years and three years respectively, the prisoners’ exit was bungled. When the van carrying them emerged from the main entrance it had to stop for a red light at the corner, and suddenly there was a crowd of well-wishers milling around and shouting greetings to Ornest and Lederer. Those who had been following the case from outside the closed courtroom (at times there had been over a hundred people haunting the steps and corridors) were joined by passers-by who didn’t know who was in the van but chimed in out of natural sympathy.

I hope it cheered Lederer up a little, because he must have been feeling particularly bitter. Arrested in January in the immediate aftermath of Charter 77, he had had ten months to prepare a statement and he had obviously gone to some trouble. In court he started to explain that he had always tried to work for true socialism as he saw it, and that he had always cared about being a good journalist. The court didn’t want to know. After the third interruption Lederer gave up and sat down. The only consolation is that his sentence could have been worse considering that he had been on probation when arrested, having been released from gaol in December 1912. On that occasion his crime had been to write a critical article about Gomulka’s Poland.

Lederer will be 58 when he gets out this time, and it is anyone’s guess whether Czechoslovakia will have moved any nearer towards his kind of socialism, whether men will still be put away for passing literary manuscripts to the West. The timing of the trial, during the Belgrade conference, suggests a tough line (rather like Vorster telling the world to mind its own business), but the unconfident way in which it was carried out permits a more optimistic view. Certainly Lederer’s many friends are sure that the authorities were intimidated by all the publicity, and perhaps Husak reckoned that the longer it was left the harder it would be.

Havel’s friend and fellow playwright Pavel Kohout said afterwards that the essential problem was not with courtroom justice but with legislation, which is in a contradictory state. The court, in other words, did not have to do back-somersaults to make unstickable charges stick. Ornest had come clean. An elderly man in poor health, he broke down very quickly when arrested, and insofar as passing manuscripts to foreigners is a crime, such a crime was conventionally proved. But the defence was squarely based on Czechoslovak law. The very starting point of Charter 77 is Law No. 120 in the Czechoslovak Register of Laws. This enshrines the terms of two covenants signed by the Czechs in New York in 1968, “confirmed” at Helsinki, and “ratified” by the Federal Assembly in November 1975. The texts of the two covenants were published in the Register of Laws a year ago this month, and the legal position is quite clear. It is the right of the citizen and the duty of the state to enjoy and uphold all those freedoms spelled out in New York in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

How little this means to Husak’s government was made clear on both sides of the courtroom door. On the first day about a dozen people, including Kohout, were taken into custody on the premises. Others were picked up at home to prevent them from showing up at all.

One of these was Pavel Landovsky, an actor. It was he who was driving the car on the fateful morning of 6 January when the first copies of Charter 77 were being delivered to the Government, the press and other interested parties. Like hundreds of other signatories of the Charter, Landovsky is not allowed to work at his profession. One night in June he took me to “his” theatre and it was like accompanying a hungry child to the window of a cake shop.

If you saw Closely Observed Trains you saw Landovsky, just. He was the fellow killing a goose. He happened to be passing so the director, a friend of his, put him in the film, and thus Landovsky, a successful and rather well-known actor in Czechoslovakia, accidentally got his only role in an internationally acclaimed picture. He is a gregarious man quite unimpressed by shabby authority, and it is easy to imagine the scene when the police knocked on his door on Monday morning. It seems that Landovsky would not come quietly. Rumour has it that one policeman was thrown down the stairs. But in the end they took him. I hope he doesn’t become famous before he becomes re-employed.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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