Cover: Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism, from Harvard University PressCover: Worlds of Dissent in PAPERBACK

Worlds of Dissent

Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674416932

Publication Date: 09/01/2014


360 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches


Western scholars of the Cold War have only recently begun to try to reconstruct what life was actually like in Eastern European societies during the Soviet era. And until the publication of this book, the phenomenon most central to the Western narrative of communism’s collapse—dissident opposition—had escaped this treatment. In an intelligent, fluent study of Czechoslovak dissent in the 1970s and 1980s, Bolton pushes aside the mythologized image of Czechoslovak dissidents and examines the diverse and sometimes conflicted ways they went about their lives. He is not so much deflating the political influence or courage of dissidents such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik as he is ‘explaining the texture and psychology of dissident life,’ breaking down the compartmentalized notions of dissidence and ordinary life and allowing them to flow together. In doing so, he affords a much broader understanding of what constituted a defection from regime orthodoxy, including the role of the underground music scene and the free thinkers and artists whose work predated the existence of a ‘dissident’ label.—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

Jonathan Bolton’s inquiry into the formative years of Czech dissent responds by taking dissidents off the Cold War pedestal they never wanted, and telling the stories they told to and about themselves. Though such stories are often the stuff of legend rather than hard fact, Bolton appreciates their importance in creating group identity. Taking the stories seriously allows him to replace haloes with something much more human—a sense of the thrill, the happenstance and the grind that marked dissidents’ lives. The result is a new and very welcome type of narrative about dissent, one that respects but does not exaggerate its place in the history of Communism. Through diaries, memoirs, letters, oral history and samizdat debates, Bolton brings to life the key moments of the 1970s when men and women struggled to make sense of what had befallen their country and of themselves as non-conformists. An act such as signing Charter 77, a petition calling on the government to honor its human rights obligations, emerges as a thoroughly social, contingent experience, something to be negotiated with recruiters, gatekeepers, companions and spouses, rather than just an impulse of conscience.—Kieran Williams, The Times Literary Supplement

Jonathan Bolton’s fascinating and sensitively argued study of the period, Worlds of Dissent, shows how little consensus there was about dissent itself. The Czech resistance, like all others before and since, was riven by controversies—dividing reform-minded or former Communists from those who had never joined the Party—and by different ideas about how to respond to the ‘crisis of the Charter’ prompted by the state’s vicious crackdown.—Michael Weiss, The Wall Street Journal

The Arab Spring saw more than 300,000 protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square bring down Hosni Mubarak. But did these protesters represent the average Egyptians who stayed home? Writing about another equinox—the 1968 Prague Spring that introduced liberal reforms to communist Czechoslovakia and provoked a Soviet crackdown—Jonathan Bolton examines in Worlds of Dissent how revolutionaries speak for a nation… The author’s nuanced view of Czech activism is helpful in understanding the Middle East’s blithely named ‘Facebook revolutions’ as they enter their second year.—Justin Moyer, The Washington Post

It’s a rich, insightful, and fantastically well researched portrait of how Czech dissidents lived and wrote about their lives during the difficult years between the Czech Spring of the late 1960s and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.—Caleb Crain, Barnes & Noble Review

Jonathan Bolton’s study of dissent in post-1968 Czechoslovakia is a breath of fresh air. He has managed to dust off this tired topic and bring it out into the post–Cold War world with new vigor and a complexity that was lacking in much of the earlier literature… The result is a sharp analysis and a genuinely good read.—Paulina Bren, American Historical Review

Worlds of Dissent would be valuable simply because it meaningfully gathers in one place so many familiar and less familiar voices, themes, accounts, and analyses of episodes and aspects of social and cultural life in 1970s Czechoslovakia… Readers unfamiliar with the personalities or events discussed are given plenty of help, while Bolton writes with painstaking clarity throughout. As contemporary Bohemia’s public life drifts ever further away from that apparently dreamed and lived by the 1970s dissidents, at least its past may be in safe hands.—Rajendra A. Chitnis, Central Europe

This is a superbly written, researched and argued account of a brief but crucial period in the development of independent intellectual milieux in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s.—Simon Smith, European History Quarterly

Worlds of Dissent is a much-needed corrective, allowing us to consider from a fresh perspective the broader relationship between culture, politics, and non-violent resistance under communism.—Shawn Clybor, Nationalities Papers

In his marvelous new book, Harvard Slavicist Jonathan Bolton tells us that the dissidents did not have the Helsinki accords foremost in mind when founding Charter 77, nor did they see themselves as ‘laying political groundwork for an alternative to the Communist regime.’ Putting aside questions of longer historical trajectories, Bolton uses the dissidents’ own accounts to explore the overlapping worlds of reflection and activity in which they once lived… [A] provocative and original analysis, couched in a rare mix of compulsively readable style and resolutely scholarly idiom… We now have a history of the circumstances and people who produced the texts that we and our students love.—John Connelly, Slavic Review

Jonathan Bolton’s Worlds of Dissent must surely be read as the corrective and revisionist account of Czech dissidence under communism… Bolton’s seminal work reaffirms the relevance of dissent and area studies, for only by understanding the historically specific and contingent texture of closed societies can we imagine challenges to authoritarian power and possibilities for change.—Barbara Falk, Social History

This is an impressive attempt at reconceptualizing the received view of Czech underground culture between 1968 and 1989 from a new, imaginative perspective. Among the merits of this study is the wealth of material accumulated in it. If for no other reason, this makes the book an indispensable source of information about modern Czech society and culture… What arises from this kaleidoscopic display is recognition that the dissent is infinitely more than a sum of the texts it generated: it is a special modus of social existence that in its fluid heterogeneity resists any neat streamlining or totalizing.—P. Steiner, Choice

In this riveting and thought-provoking book, Bolton masterfully captures oppositional intellectual life under communist rule in all its vibrant and often contradictory complexity. He demonstrates that ‘dissent’ and dissidents were neither what outsiders thought they were at the time nor what later historians have imagined them to be. And he does so in a gripping style that brings to life the dissidents and their ideas. Anyone who seeks to understand everyday existence and oppositional thought in the later decades of communist one-party rule must start with this book.—Benjamin Frommer, Northwestern University

One of the first truly post-communist, post-commemorative histories of communist Central Europe. Worlds of Dissent is neither embroiled in battles over the past, nor beholden to rigid interpretations of the end of communism. Bolton succeeds in approaching communist Czechoslovakia as it was; he opens the door widely, admitting the reader to the messy world of the past without prejudice. This is a major contribution to our knowledge of dissent and of the communist experience.—Padraic Kenney, Indiana University

A remarkable book by an erudite and thoughtful scholar who revisits, redefines, and reinvents the study of Czech dissent. Bolton’s history wisely rejects the mythologies that have plagued most accounts of the dissident movement. Instead of telling the history of dissent solely through the pronouncements of its leaders, he enlists the stories of a variety of protagonists and, through their eyes, provides the reader with the great diversity of the meanings of ‘dissent.’ The originality of Bolton’s approach lies precisely in his blurring of the borderlines between disciplines, which allows him to author a much-needed fresh perspective on dissent in Central Europe under communism.—Jacques Rupnik, Sciences Po

Intelligent, judicious, and deeply researched, Worlds of Dissent takes us beyond both romantic simplifications and cynical dismissals to recover the ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions of the Cold War phenomenon to which the West once gave the name ‘dissidence.’ Perhaps Bolton’s greatest achievement is his ability to put communist Czechoslovakia’s worlds of dissent into the contexts of their times and places without losing sight of their continuing relevance for our understanding of power, resistance, and subjectivity in the modern world. This is a major addition to the scholarly literature—as well as a damn good read.—Derek Sayer, Lancaster University

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