For a Night, Dissidents Rekindle Their Fire

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Vaclav Havel, in a photograph taken at the time he was spokesman for the dissident group Charter 77.

Sparkles in their eyes, their long hair graying now, bearded men in jeans scan the crowd for familiar faces. In something resembling a crossover between a Woodstock reunion and an academic conference, several hundred of them — interspersed by the rare business suit — gathered at a church in downtown Prague to celebrate an act of courage they jointly undertook 30 years ago. In 1977, a decade after Soviet tanks had crushed the last flowering of free expression on their city's streets, these men and women signed Charter 77, a human-rights declaration demanding freedoms suppressed by the totalitarian communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.

"The boys won't recognize me. I am fat as a pig now. In comparison to them, though, I look swell. I am not bald," jokes around 53-year-old toolmaker Oldrich Loukota, whose graying mane falls all the way down his back.

A few steps away, librarian Olga Stankovicova, who brought along her black poodle named Afra, tells another woman: "I haven't seen you in ages! This is another dog already."

Their signatures on the document cost most of them their jobs, and many of them their freedom, yet they recall their dissident years with nostalgia. "I miss that connection with those people back then," Stankovicova says.

The bustle of excited chatting outside the packed church seeps inside where speakers, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel, take turns on stage.

One of them, legendary underground bard Ivan Martin Jirous, also known as Magor (loosely translated as dimwit or bonehead), thunders that he will eliminate a communist prison warder who now sits in parliament, but whom once-jailed dissidents remember for, among other things, forcing them to lick a toilet bowl.

"Petitions are a piece of crap!" the poet shouts, dismissing a peaceful solution to the matter.

Magor, the 62-year-old untamed free spirit, is the star of the night. After his speech, a gang of four guys roar with laughter. "Magor was great!" crows a former interior minister in their midst.

When Magor takes off to scour the room in search of beer, he is constantly stopped by fellow dissidents. Then, he drags four of his gray yet hairy buddies — one of them a former politician — on stage to sing an exile blues song, supposed to have been performed by a friend who is at home with fever. "What a hypochondriac! I told her, real artists die on stage!"

Magor's face is red with anger, when I interrupt him during a concert of one of the legendary underground bands. But later his kind-heartedness overcomes him and with apologetic smiles we step outside for a brief chat.

These days, signatures do not matter as "nobody reads petitions and if someone does we signatories are a laughingstock", Magor says. He waits for his knuckles marked with cuts from a fistfight with "some cretin" to heal, so he could smash the one-time communist prison guard into pieces. The new era with its corrupt politicians makes him "throw up", but in the end fighting for it was worth it.

"Our life was filled with the battle against communism, which we defeated. What is happening beyond that is yet another chapter. The enemy now is like an octopus, so amorphous that it can't be killed," Magor continues his dark appraisal of the new order. But there's a resignation to his anger: "While communism can be defeated," he says, "the current system can't."

Why not?

"It's just no go. End of interview."