In fairly predictable sequence, the Western agitation over the trial and conviction of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot has itself become the subject of political scrutiny. Some commentators ask whether foreign sympathizers are aware of the scope of their cause célèbre’s views and behavior. Others denounce the hypocrisy of any Western upset over the band’s fate. The whole affair reminds us of the so-called “trial of the Plastic People” in Czechoslovakia in 1976, an episode in which various members of the underground music scene were convicted for “organized disturbance of the peace.” In the common telling, the persecution of these supposedly apolitical young people inspired the writers, politicians, and philosophers who would coalesce into Charter 77. Only, as Jonathan Bolton explains in the following excerpt from his recent Worlds of Dissent, the common telling gets a lot wrong.
The standard account goes like this: In September 1976, the trial in Prague of a nonconformist psychedelic rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, became one of the catalysts for the drafting of Charter 77. The band was accused of “disturbing the peace” and portrayed by the Communist regime as a group of long-haired, foul-mouthed, drug-using delinquents; but many Czech intellectuals, foremost among them Václav Havel, correctly perceived the trial as an attack on freedom of thought and creativity. The band, after all, had no interest in politics and just wanted to be left alone to play their music in their own way; the state’s attack on them, in Havel’s stirring formulation, was “an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity.” Havel helped mobilize writers, artists, philosophers, and other opposition intellectuals into a strong show of support for the band, and by December 1976, their meetings to protest the trial had evolved into something larger: the drafting of Charter 77, a document calling on Czechoslovakia to recognize the basic human rights it had solemnly (and, of course, hypocritically) agreed to uphold when it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. The trial of the Plastic People had galvanized the opposition, convincing everyone of the “indivisibility of freedom” and making it clear that no compromise with the Communist regime was possible.
Is that what really happened?
Well, not exactly. Czech and English sources alike commonly refer to “the trial of the Plastic People,” but in fact there was no such thing. Of the four defendants, only one—Vratislav Brabenec, the saxophonist—actually played for the band. A second, Ivan Martin Jirous, was not a musician at all; he was the Plastic People’s artistic director, but to call him a member of the band does not really capture his importance as an organizer, theorist, and cult hero of underground circles. A third defendant, Pavel Zajíček, belonged to another band, DG 307. DG 307 shared a member with the Plastics, Milan Hlavsa. But Hlavsa was not put on trial. The fourth defendant, Svatopluk Karásek, was associated with the music underground but was not a member of the Plastic People, DG 307, or any other band—he was a Protestant minister and folksinger in his own right, whose spiritual “Say No to the Devil” had given the underground one of its rallying cries.
So “the trial of the Plastic People” was not really a trial of the Plastic People. What’s more, it wasn’t the only trial of the music underground in 1976. Three young men—Karel Havelka, Miroslav Skalický, and František Stárek—had already been put on trial in Plzeň in July 1976. They were prosecuted for organizing a lecture and concert, at which Jirous had spoken and Karásek had played with another folksinger, Karel “Charlie” Soukup, the previous December. They received sentences ranging from eight months to two and a half years, which were later reduced on appeal. Both the July and September trials were the result of a large-scale police raid that had begun on March 17, 1976. During a three-week period, nineteen people were arrested, including all the members of the Plastic People, and many more besides. Only two members of the Plastics, however—only one of them a musician—were actually put on trial.
Contemporary sources did not start calling this event “the trial of the Plastic People” right away. Protests and essays from the summer of 1976 still speak of the “campaign against the Czech underground,” for example. In a July open letter, Věra Jirousová spoke of “the arrest of twenty young musicians.” An Amnesty International report from September 1976 was titled “Trial of Czech Non-Conformist Artists.” As Václav Havel walked out of the courtroom after the trial, he met an acquaintance who asked him how he was doing: “I replied, none too logically, that I had just been at a trial of the Czech underground.” None too logically, but at least, for now, accurately.