When I walked into our first class on July 15th I quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to research. “Modern Media and Democracy” is a broad topic, and trying to choose one aspect of a country with a history as vast as the Czech Republic’s felt close to impossible. Somehow in reading an incredibly brief history of the nation these two short sentences jumped out at me: “In 1977 a human rights group of intellectuals called “Charter 77,” which included the playwright Václav Havel, was formed. This led to a crackdown against dissidents.”

So what the hell is a “dissident?” I didn’t know either. Thus genuine confusion landed me in researching a topic that is now more dear to my heart than I would ever imagine a project could be. Soon those two sentences would seem both inaccurate and insulting, as I realized the dissidents deserved more than just a short mention. I started reading about Havel and the others. I read about what it was like to live under communism, and the effects it had on the Czech people. I read about how freedom of expression wasn’t an option under the regime, and how some people – the dissidents – wouldn’t take that for an answer.

I read about the secret police and interrogations and the constant surveillance dissidents had to live under. I learned that those who resisted the communist party had to live with the consequences – they were put in jail, fired from their careers, and blackmailed. Yet, they knew the risks and consequences of defiance, and they continued to stand for their rights.

The more I learned about the dissidents, the more I knew I wanted to tell their story. I started to feel attached to the people as I learned about their struggles and what they went through. I made a list of all the places in Prague I wanted to visit that had anything to do with the dissidents – Café Slavia, Melantrich Balcony, and the Monument to the 17th of November, to name a few.

But I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. My books and my photos weren’t enough. I could write a paper about them and Google pictures on the internet while sitting at home in Kent. Why go all the way to Prague to write a paper that I could write here?

I had to meet a dissident. I began my search and started sending numerous emails. It wasn’t until the very end of my last week in Prague that I received a response from a man named Jan Urban. Urban asked if I could meet him the next day for an interview, and I immediately responded yes. I was excited, but more than that I was nervous. Urban was kind of a big shot in the dissident community. Talking to someone who lived through, and played a vital part in the movement I’m currently writing a ten-page paper about was an opportunity I couldn’t be more thankful for.

I knew as a journalist I was supposed to be objective and not show my opinions, but (if it isn’t evident from this blog) I have incredible amounts of respect and admiration for the dissidents – and that’s exactly what I told Mr. Urban. He told me he thinks it’s a good thing to feel connected to your research. He said that it’s important to “know how to write a story with a heart, and not only the rules of absolute objectivity.” I think my classmate Katy Coduto pretty much hit the nail on the head in her most recent blog. Interviewing gives you an entirely new connection with your work.

I’d like to share a short excerpt from my interview with Mr. Urban here. If you are interested in hearing more about the dissidents and their means of defiance, my essay and photos are posted under the Projects/Papers section above.

 

What was it like to be part of the community of dissidents? How did you get involved?
I don’t know anybody who would start a dissident career… out of a rational decision. It always came by chance. In most of the cases, as well as in my case, it just happened by chance. At one point somebody on the regime side pushed to hard to fast, and you just felt pushed, and… rebels without reason, really. Because we all knew the rules of the game. You were not allowed to make a mistake. So once you made a mistake and showed your disagreement, you were out. So you had to be really hysterical or desperate enough to make that mistake. In my case, it was quite soon in my life. I was 26, I worked as a teacher in a high school, and in January ’77 we were all… asked to sign a condemnation of Charter 77. I refused, and ten days later I was walked out from the middle of a lecture, and out of the building… and that was the beginning.

Is there a way to define “dissident?”
[Dissidents were] those who made a mistake and fell out of the loop… But did I want to get into trouble? No. Did I see all the risks? No. It just happened, and then it goes with a mixture of hatred and trying to do something that would prevent you going insane… not to allow them to humiliate you… and just being desperate. You don’t calculate, you just go on. I never believed I’d see the end. My only aim was, at the end, to inflict as much damage as I could… it changes all your life. You distrust everybody and everything. It’s changing you. You become a monster, really. You lie constantly because it’s the safest way to stay out of trouble. You check, recheck, everybody else. You really turn into a monster…. And then it comes to a surprise when something changes. I was fortunate enough to realize I am half-mad, and I need time to kind of recollect my marbles.

Was the term dissident embraced?
I loved it… the content, the meaning of the word, is somebody who was trying to reach the same goal, but taking another route than the mainstream – which was in line with what we were constantly saying to the regime. “Guys, hell with politics! We are just here to defend human rights. We have our rights, and you are constantly violating them – so let’s talk.” We were pushing politics aside, most of the time, understanding that it is political, but pretending that it is not – simply because it is too dangerous.

I learned that once you start to act like a dissident – it’s forever. By now I’m incapable of going mainstream. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m talking about myself being better than the rest –it’s not about better or worse, I’m just different. And I want them to respect my differences. It’s not about being moral or more experienced – well, some of it – I just want to keep my perspective that I believe is right. I respect the right of the rest to criticize me – I want them to respect my right to criticize them.

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