The Dissidence of Others

The Dissidence of Others

En route to the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the summer of 2006, I stopped off for some sightseeing in Prague. Having dutifully made the rounds of the city’s hopping tourist spots, I retreated to my bare-bones hotel in an altogether different part of town. No Kafka-themed tchotchkes here: The working-class neighborhood was dotted with soaring concrete apartment blocks, barely stocked stores and cafeterias, and dour-looking citizens who, refreshingly, felt no obligation to smile for passing tourists.

That downbeat section of Prague, a relic of Soviet rule from 1968 to 1989, could plausibly serve as an era-defining backdrop in Burning Bush, Agnieszka Holland’s magnificent 2014 period drama about the political fallout from the 1969 suicide of Jan Palach, a student protesting the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year.

Made as a three-part miniseries for HBO Europe and then edited into a film, it was the Czech Republic’s entry for best foreign-language film at the 2014 Academy Awards, but was disqualified because it had already been telecast. The presentation on the Criterion Channel retains the four-hour miniseries in its original form, a political thriller doubled with an intimately observed chronicle of survival and rebellion in a country that had briefly tasted democracy before a Warsaw Pact coalition moved in to brutally dismantle the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring. The plot centers on the efforts of the Soviet authorities and their Czech flunkies to spin Palach’s death as a right-wing conspiracy, and to contain the possibility of copycat suicides triggering an all-out revolt.

I was a sociology major in my second year at Britain’s London School of Economics when news broke that the twenty-year-old history student had set fire to himself in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Palach left a note calling himself “Torch No. 1,” calling for a general strike and an end to media censorship, and threatening that more suicides would follow if his demands weren’t met.

The LSE—then a cosmopolitan university, founded by Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, where you could be flanked in class by a fully robed African prince on one side and the daughter of a local trade unionist on the other—served as a busy hub of England’s 1968 campus revolt, in which I, a garden-variety London suburbanite fresh from a prim high school for girls, was no more than a chronically shy peripheral player. Palach’s self-sacrifice made a deep impression on the part of me that couldn’t shake the queasy feeling that our elite enclave of the Western counterculture was playing for comparatively low personal stakes. True, Britain’s campus New Left had honorable roots in the nuclear disarmament movement and the fight against social inequality. We marched against apartheid in South Africa, supported the Troops Out of Ireland movement, railed against corporate fat cats, joined in solidarity with the American antiwar and other European movements, among them the Prague dissidents.

We, too, were fighting the revolutionary fight, but mostly by proxy and at little cost to us, a privileged subset of a post–World War II generation that had grown up in peace time without a draft. Our education and health care came free, courtesy of a generous welfare state funded by successive Labour governments. None of us was going to Vietnam, and in a relatively open Western democracy the most punitive repercussions we could expect for our activism were a rap over the knuckles in court and a night in jail. We didn’t have to watch what we said, stand on line for food in a stagnant state-controlled economy, or worry that the student we sat next to might shop us to the secret police.

Some of the domestic fights we picked were self-indulgent at best, at worst arrogant, in some cases downright daft. “Free, free the LSE / Take it from the bourgeoisie,” we chanted, and never mind that as the minority of Brits who actually made it to university, we were the bourgeoisie. Disrupting classes on the doubtful principle that our knowledge was as good as that of our professors—more than a few of whom were refugees from totalitarian Europe with much to teach us about unfreedom—we also took the fight home to our parents, defending the Soviet Union in the name of a socialism increasingly tainted by the emergent horrors of Stalin’s reign. I was far from alone, on visits to the parental home, in provoking strident altercations with my father, a former socialist who had helped found an Israeli kibbutz. “Why don’t you go and live in Russia if you love it so much?” he would mutter, and rustle his newspaper furiously to indicate case closed.

“Holland’s film handily dispatches my fantasies about the excitement of living on the dissident edge.”

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