Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Learning Unlimited: Week Six: Challenges to Communist Rule



The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and continued until 21 August when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.

The Prague Spring reforms were a strong attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel.
The reforms, especially the decentralization of administrative authority, were not received well by the Soviets, who, after failed negotiations, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. 

A large wave of emigration swept the nation. A spirited non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country, involving attempted fraternization, painting over and turning street signs (on one occasion an entire invasion force from Poland was routed back out of the country after a day's wandering), defiance of various curfews. While the Soviet military had predicted that it would take four days to subdue the country the resistance held out for eight months, and was only circumvented by diplomatic stratagems. There were sporadic acts of violence and several suicides by self-immolation (such as that of Jan Palach), but there was no military resistance. After the invasion, Czechoslovakia entered a period of normalization: subsequent leaders attempted to restore the political and economic values that had prevailed before Dubček gained control of the Party.  Gustáv Husák, who replaced Dubček and also became president, reversed almost all of Dubček's reforms. Czechoslovakia remained controlled until 1989, when the velvet revolution ended pro-Soviet rule peacefully, undoubtedly drawing upon the successes of the non-violent resistance twenty years earlier. The resistance also became an iconic example of civilian-based defense, which, along with unarmed civilian peacekeeping constitute the two ways that nonviolence can be and occasionally has been applied directly to military or paramilitary threats.


In Philip Kaufman's surprisingly successful film adaptation of Czech author Milan Kundera's demanding 1984 best-seller, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Tomas, an overly amorous Prague surgeon, while Juliette Binoche plays Tereza, the waiflike beauty whom he marries. Even though he's supposedly committed, Tomas continues his wanton womanizing, notably with his silken mistress Sabina (Lena Olin). Escaping the 1968 Russian invasion of Prague by heading for Geneva, Sabina takes up with another man and unexpectedly develops a friendship with Tereza. Meanwhile, Tomas, who previously was interested only in sex, becomes politicized by the collapse of Czechoslovakia's Dubcek regime. The Unbearable Lightness of Being may be too leisurely for some viewers, but other viewers may feel the same warm sense of inner satisfaction that is felt after finishing a good, long novel.


I wrote piece about the politics of the Danube which included my and the people I encountered about Havel and Dubcek 


Vaclav Havel addressing a crowd in Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989.


Sometimes we are forced to choose between self-interest and the greater good. Under pressure at critical moments, we make choices that define who we become. People who remain silent when their government persecutes and imprisons those trying to peacefully reform it, not only make a regrettable choice for themselves; their decision is passed down to future generations. How remarkable it is then, when those who were persecuted, rise up and not only overcome tyranny through non-violence, but forgive those who abandoned them in the crucial moment. The Power of the Powerless, narrated by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons, is a film that deals with this poignant subject by telling the inspiring real-life story of dissidents like the playwright, Vaclav Havel; the struggle against tyranny during the communist era in Czechoslovakia; and young people who provided the final impetus to bring down Czechoslovakia's communist regime during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The film also investigates the relevance of the Velvet Revolution today and asks why a majority of young Czechs know nothing
about it.
 




Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov is often called the "father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb," but most people know him as one of the twentieth century's most ardent and unrelenting champions of human rights and freedoms. It was for his work as an outspoken dissident to the Soviet regime that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 1975. The citation called him "the conscience of mankind" saying that he "has fought not only against the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms, but has in equal vigor fought for the ideal of a state founded on the principle of justice for all." The Soviet authorities denied him permission to go to Norway to receive his award. 

Sakharov was recruited to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons program in June 1948 by his professor Igor Tamm. Later he wrote, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own." In a matter of months, the young physics graduate student came up with a totally new idea for an H-bomb design, one that he would call the "Layer Cake." 
His work on the nuclear program ultimately led Sakharov down the road toward dissent. Following the test of the first Soviet superbomb in 1955, Sakharov became increasingly disturbed by the consequences of his work: "When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?" 

In 1957 his concern about the biological hazards of nuclear testing inspired him to write an article about the effects of low-level radiation. In it he concluded that, the detonation of a one-megaton bomb would create 10,000 human casualties. "Halting the tests," he wrote, "will directly save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." Over the next ten years he became more and more concerned with civic issues. And in 1968, while still working on the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov wrote an essay that would thrust him into the international spotlight.
"Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom", attacked the Soviet political system. In it Sakharov argued for a "democratic, pluralistic society free of intolerance and dogmatism, a humanitarian society which would care for the Earth and its future." A copy of the article was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the New York Times. By the end of 1969 more than 18 million copies of the essay were in circulation worldwide.

Following the publication of "Reflections," Sakharov was fired from the weapons program. He became an increasingly vocal advocate of human rights and when he denounced the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviet authorities were quick to respond, banishing him to internal exile in Gorki in January 1980. His long years of isolation finally ended in December 1986, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev invited Sakharov to return to Moscow. 

Sakharov worked tirelessly to promote democracy in the Soviet Union until the very last day of his life. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies and appointed a member of the commission responsible for drafting a new Soviet constitution. On the day he died, December 14, 1989, he made a plea before the Soviet Congress for political pluralism and a market economy. Later that evening his wife and fellow dissident Elena Bonner found him dead in his study.




Mikhail Gorbachev
Over the course of Yury Andropov’s 15-month tenure (1982–84) as general secretary of the Communist Party, Gorbachev became one of the Politburo’s most highly active and visible members; and, after Andropov died and Konstantin Chernenko became general secretary in February 1984, Gorbachev became a likely successor to the latter. Chernenko died on March 10, 1985, and the following day the Politburo elected Gorbachev general secretary of the CPSU. Upon his accession, he was still the youngest member of the Politburo.

Gorbachev quickly set about consolidating his personal power in the Soviet leadership. His primary domestic goal was to resuscitate the stagnant Soviet economy after its years of drift and low growth during Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure in power (1964–82). To this end, he called for rapid technological modernization and increased worker productivity, and he tried to make the cumbersome Soviet bureaucracy more efficient and responsive.     

When these superficial changes failed to yield tangible results, Gorbachev in 1987–88 proceeded to initiate deeper reforms of the Soviet economic and political system. Under his new policy of glasnost (“openness”), a major cultural thaw took place: freedoms of expression and of information were significantly expanded; the press and broadcasting were allowed unprecedented candour in their reportage and criticism; and the country’s legacy of Stalinist totalitarian rule was eventually completely repudiated by the government. Under Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (“restructuring”), the first modest attempts to democratize the Soviet political system were undertaken; multicandidate contests and the secret ballot were introduced in some elections to party and government posts. Under perestroika, some limited free-market mechanisms also began to be introduced into the Soviet economy, but even these modest economic reforms encountered serious resistance from party and government bureaucrats who were unwilling to relinquish their control over the nation’s economic life.


 Anyone interested in reading a novel about the dissident culture during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras might wish to read my review of   The Big Green Tent

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