Martin Butora: Message to Dissidents

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.

In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.

Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.

From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.

Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

I will try to sum it up in a few points. Perhaps the first thing would be for the people not to give up. Not to give up, and in this sense to have deep faith that even if it doesn’t work the first time, maybe even the second time, maybe not even the third time, but one day it will work because they are right. Because they are right in their absolute power of ideas, ideas of freedom, they are right to call for the human dignity, and they are right that things can be done differently and better.

Václav Havel wrote about it very beautifully when he said that hope is not a forecast of the future, that it is a type of orientation of the heart. I can do some things not because I expect for them to come true immediately, but because I am convinced that they need to be done this way. [A writer and dissident, Vaclav Havel was twice selected Czechoslovak President by the parliament, in 1989 for an interim term, and after the first free elections in 1990 for a two-year term.

He later served two terms as Czech President, following the division of Czechoslovakia.] That is the first thing. The second thing is that these activists are often young people for whom it is difficult to imagine, but as a man who experienced these cycles I think it is important to know and be aware of time. That means that what we leave here now, what they leave is something that others who come after them will build upon, and other people after them, and it is an unbelievable furrow that can be plowed, that can be dug out, and it simply makes sense to put it out there, and to have the ability to judge things in the context of time, that is extremely important.

And then I would perhaps say one more thing, that often there are people who are dissidents or prisoners of conscience, but operate in very polarized, fragmented societies. Sometimes it is really tragic how fragmented a society becomes, but they should never forget that there are people on the other side too who got there, and that not everyone is guilty of doing it, it means that one of the key things is always to remember where to find allies to support my cause.

Where I can talk to the unawakened people, where I forgive the people who have trespassed, where I invite those other people because I convince them that what I do makes sense, that these categories of dignity and freedom are better for their lives than what the other side is offering.

The Vaclav Havel Center