The Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring of 1968 and the consequent Soviet occupation gave rise to an anti-politics movement established by cultural leaders who felt artistically oppressed by the government. The non-conformist rock band The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) was not created with the intention of challenging the political system, but soon drew a large audience united on the desire for freedom of expression and human rights. The band represented creativity and freedom of thought and asserted that their motives were artistic rather than activist, but their trial on the grounds of “disturbing the peace” instead suggested the political significance in the ensuing movement against an oppressive regime. Thus, in the post-Prauge Spring Soviet Communist nation, the underground music culture represented the group of dissenters articulating opposition to the political tyranny. Eventually, the band became the leading catalyst for the drafting of a political decree Charter 77, which challenged the human rights and legal violations from the Communist government.
Despite the lack of political motive of PPU’s music, the band served as an outlet for political dissenters and creative leaders to unite in an underground political sphere that naturally, albeit passively, suggested an opposition to the diplomatic situation. By the mid 1970s, it was obvious throughout Prague that the band had become one of the “focal points for a larger grouping of nonconformists, many of them artists and musicians, but many of them just youth who enjoyed the solidarity and liberating atmosphere of the Plastics’ concerts” (Bolton, 122). Concerts soon boasted audiences of thousands, and became the epitome of underground subculture that marked individuals as nonconformists. Consequently, run-ins with the Soviet-backed police by both band and audience members were not uncommon, and resulted in the landmark 1974 České Budějovice massacre that led to the band’s transition as passively apolitical to a representation of the drastic importance of political change. During the massacre, police raided a concert and forced people to leave, brutally beating and arresting many young people before they could reach the trains back to Prague (123). Ultimately, the event demonstrated to the underground nonconformists that the regime would not passively allow dissent from these cultural leaders.
Whereas the PPU employed focused on their art as a source of inspiration and never directly challenged the policies of the regime, the regime viewed such the very existence of the underground culture as a form of inappropriate political dissent, consequently responding with harsh force and violent action to demonstrate their condemnation. By the March 1976 raids on the PPU, the attacks extended farther than a distrust for the PPUs music, and instead represented a “campaign against the underground” that was a “well-thought-out attempt to stifle the activities of a specific group of nonconformist youth” (124). However thoroughly planned and executed the efforts of the regime to obliterate the underground dissent culture, it was not prepared for the sudden response to the arrest of 19 members of the underground. Within a couple weeks of the arrests, four intellectual leaders signed and sent a strong protest letter to then-President Husak of the Communist regime. In the following two months, five more writers signed a proclamation that linked their own fates to the PPU, and therefore highlighted the resounding political significance of the musicians. They believed that the PPU should be free to use art as a nonviolent and free method of expression, whether motivated by political dissent or purely artistic reasons. Through these nonviolent outlets such as music, theater, and writing, individuals should be allowed to unite peacefully, assert their beliefs, and demand rights from an oppressive regime. The “underground,” with the PPU as an identifying element, could unite a variety of intellectuals in opposition of the government.
To Vaclav Havel, leader of the upcoming Velvet Revolution and the first president of the ensuing democracy, the trial of the PPU members suggested the importance of having an “ordinary citizen” and non-political medium at center stage. Havel ultimately drafted Charter 77 in December 1976, which outlined the legal and human rights violations of the Communist regime. The declaration was informed by the underlying philosophy that “the idea of the innocent artist being a kind of analogue for the ordinary citizen coming face-to-face with his or her own sense of right and wrong, uncorrupted by the compromises necessary to get ahead in normalized Czechoslovakia,” inevitably becomes subject to the atrocities of the regime and is unable to freely and innocently pursue their art. Charter 77 and the impact of the underground developed around the PPU was so inspiring to the society of Czechoslovakia because of its direct, and matter-of-fact tone that plainly outlines the facts of the regime’s violations. It did not attempt to promote social or political reform, but rather drew attention to and educated global society on the atrocities and violations consistently arising from the Communist regime. In the words of keyboardist Josef Janicek, “We were unwilling heroes who just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll.” Nevertheless, he also recognized that “the Bolsheviks understood that culture and music has a strong influence on people, and our refusal to compromise drove them insane” (Bilefsky). Thus, the PPU (and its subsequent impact on the creation of Charter 77) demonstrates a drastically significant dimension of the role of art within the tradition of nonviolent resistance; although the art may not have even begun as politically motivated, art is the most capable medium of exposing an un-politicized audience to political issues and unifying masses to recognize the significance of the political context.
The music of the PPU united an entire underground political movement that was not originally intended to be political. Although the band began as a group of teenagers who rejected the political sphere, its identity soon became a symbol of the faults of the oppressive regime. Additionally, the band catalyzed the movement to vocally rather than passively reject the government and instigate a transition towards a democratic system that upheld fundamental human rights. Overall, the PPU serves as a historical representation of the power of art in nonviolently promoting political change. The PPUs music exposed a mass audience of youth to a nonconformist cause with which they could identify and understand. Whereas these individuals of the movement might not have been politically motivated to begin with, they were all unified on their mutual appreciation for the band’s art. Art has the power to eliminate the separation between the cultural and political realms, and ultimately can be successful in creating legitimate political change through nonviolent methods.
For more information on the significance of the PPU in the political movement in Czechoslovakia during the 1970 and 1980s, please read the New York Times 2009 article, “Czech’s Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People.”
3. Bilefsky, Dan. ““Czech’s Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People.” The New York Times. Nov. 15 2009.