The Campaign Against “Vlasatci” in Communist Czechoslovakia

With the gradual opening of the archives of the communist era, documents of repressive organs of the socialist Czechoslovakia surfaced to challenge the common understanding that the 1960s were “young”, “free” or “open”. These documents, together with recollections of interviewees – former long-haired youngsters, the so called “Vlasatci”  – reveal that cultural changes brought by new generations in the second half of the sixties, faced strong resistance from all strata of the society. 

The fact that younger generations of Czechoslovakians were not following the party policy with appropriate enthusiasm was acknowledged in the second half of 1965 by the Communist Party. In the preparations for the forthcoming 13th Congress of the Party, party officials debated about an extensive elaborate directive named “Problems of the Current Young Generation”. In this document the party tried to establish the right approach towards young generations that would first of all involve apathetic youngsters into the “overall fight of socialism with capitalism”. However, one of the important tasks in that fight was also finding a strategy to face the western cultural indoctrination of the youth.

But the influence of fashion trends on some of the youngsters seemed difficult to regulate into line with the party needs. The country’s enfatutation with emerging rock culture was impossible to contain. This became apparent not only through the concerts of a rock singer Johny Hallyday – which ended in violence after the intervention of the police (and led to the decision of the authorities to ban concerts of the western rock groups for the next two decades) but also in the election of the poet of an American beat generation Alen Ginsberg for the king of the Majales (student feast) in 1965. Estimates suggest that by that time there were over one thousand active rock bands in Czechoslovakia. This cultural move amongst the younger generation went together not only with a new music and dance style but also with the arrival of new ideas and, more apparently, changes in dressing and hair styles. The authorities and press soon enough realized these new dangerous trends among the youth, but it took them a while to prepare a coordinated reaction. Outrage caused by the “fans of long-haired Beatles” was mentioned by the daily Svobodné slovo as early as 19th May 1964. From that date onwards the numbers of fans rose. Reports published by the censored press of acts of vandalism by rock fans were also on the rise.

In May 1966 when another Majales took place, some of the students and young people clashed with the police and marched on the streets of Prague shouting anti-regime slogans. Some of them were also anti-soviet. This provoked criticism from the soviet authorities, which was reported to the leaders of the Communist party.

At the end of June the issue of “deviant youth and their inappropriate appearance while dwelling in the popular vacation places” was raised by the member of parliament in a debate on reports about the criminality of the youth. MP Kozák reported about complaints from common citizens and also suggested appropriate measures: “… the most effective measure would be to exclude these provocatively dressed, often unwashed for several days, dirty individuals from public transport… relevant officials of the government should think about it and take appropriate measures.” It is difficult today to decide if the debates in the parliament, then totally directed by the communist party, had any influence on actual policy or if the speech was actually prepared in advance by party officials or security officials to pave the way for the new measures. Similarly it is difficult to establish the role of Soviet intervention and setting of an example in regards to the preparations of the Czechoslovakian campaign. But from existing documents in the archive of Ministry of Interior one thing is clear – authorities gave deep thought to the problem and took measures to combat it.

In July 1966 the headquarters of the Public Security in Prague sent proposals to leading party officials describing the new public threat and suggesting measures. “For a long time now we have registered so called “Máničky”(another common pejorative nickname for Vlasatci) among the youth, they are characterised by wearing extremely long hair for boys and inadequate dressing. Often even their sex cannot be recognized. A common feature of this group of youth is provocative and repellent behavior towards citizens in public…”

The first repressive measures were taken in Prague where the numbers of long-haired were the highest according to police reports. The local organisation of the Communists of the National Museum in the middle of August 1966 complained: “a scandalous situation has been created during the last six months on the ramp and on the steps in front of the main building of the National museum on Wencesless Square. The front of the museum became a gathering point for young people with long hair wearing ripped and dirty jeans, with different slogans written on their shirts…” The authorities were quick to respond to the complaints. On 19th August 1966 police detained 140 young people in that area, many of whom were fined or given other administrative punishments. 19 of them were forced to have their hair cut for hygienic reasons at the police station.

Meanwhile the police material on Vlasatci was discussed at different levels and organs of the party bureaucracy and at the end of August 1966 the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopted a resolution “On some negative effects among groups of the youth”. This resolution not only contained a slightly modified definition of the Vlasatci but also a broad set of repressive measures that were as a rule quickly distributed to all party organs around the country.

By the time the material reached the regional level, the official description of the Vlasatci read as: “…intensified tendencies of infiltration of bad taste in hair style and dress among parts of the youth, especially boys. …this outer dressing is in most of the cases related to unclean and offensive dressing, bad and provocative behavior, crudeness, etc. These youth take as a virtue provocative and repelling behaviour in public and apparent disrespect and unpolite behaviour towards their co-citizens. A number of these so called “mániček” long-haired want to, with their unkept look, demonstrate their passive, in some cases even hostile attitude, towards society as well as ostentatious unconcern about any social event. Unkept hair, dirt on the body and decrepitude of clothing, tendencies to drink excessive amount of alcoholic beverages, sexual promiscuity, tendencies to provoke and violently show off at bigger gatherings only illustrate their overall profile.”

The Self-image of Vlasatci

Excerts of Party documents and police records help to recollect how the official image of the Vlasatci was established in the second half of  1966. However, the official reports were in sharp contrast with the image the affected youth had about themselves, revealing the cultural and ideological gap that was broadening between the different generations and groups in society.

“Those days it was enough to have a haircut this way, slightly over the ears, like the Beatles, and then we were “Máničky” and the police were called,” recalls one of the witnesses. In following years young men grew their hair even longer. The reasons for the popularity of long hair among young men varied. Though most of those interviewed stressed the influence of the look of Beatles and other rock musicians, some also mentioned the role of the image of long-haired savage Indians (the “Vinnetou” series was shown at Czechoslovakian cinemas at that time), some mentioned the importance of the image of enjoying life to the full, the musketeers with their lack of respect for authority and the so called Moscow effect: “Muscovites did not wear it (long hair), they had crew cuts. So you knew that you should have long hair (as the symbol of cultural resistance or superiority).”

But it was not only the length of hair which was important. “Of course it had to be jeans… it was important”, recalls another Vlasatec. But jeans produced in the US or western countries were difficult to get in the socialist Czechoslovakia and they were also too expensive for many of the long-haired youth. In addition a good costume also included appropriate handmade shoes. But to have all the parts of the uniform was for most of the long-haired, more of a dream than reality.

But the image of long-haired young men of that time was not created only by visible symbols. Many of them carried another secret insignia that were not that ostentatiously presented to the public. These symbolical items had their deep meaning and sometimes also practical use. “A chain on the ankle, razor in the pocket and many things on the wrists” …(Broken) “A razor blade was carried maybe by everyone,” recalls of the interviewed long-haired. “The principle of suicide was at that time very important. Suicide was seen as a possibility of freedom. It was part of the philosophy of the beatniks,” he explains.
Attempted suicide was a frequent topic among the long-haired. A “successful” attempt of suicide was often seen not as resulting in death but, as one of the few ways that could result in obtaining a psychiatric record that would free the young man from compulsory military service. But self-murder remained to be seen also as a gesture of hopeless resistance against the pressure of society, which produced several attempted suicides by the long-haired during the campaign against the Vlasatci.

What we can see when comparing official descriptions of the “deviant” youth and the self definitions of the long-haired is the importance that the authorities ascribed to the outer appearance of young people. It was perceived as threatening despite the fact that these young people were usually not conducting any political or other specific activities. They were mainly “gathering“ in front of the National Museum, or they showed vaguely defined “hostile attitude” or “ostentatious unconcern”. At their best they might also be “dirty”, “inpolite” or try “to provoke with forced achievements” whatever it meant to the authorities. But the main threat obviously rested in their different hair cut and its symbolical meaning. It was the length of the hair that was seen as challenging established gender roles (“Often even their sex cannot be recognized.”) and discipline in society (“no common crew cut”). It pointed to the values of the western enemies (freedom, pop-culture, rock music) as well as to values that were opposing the official communist cult of progress (noble savage Indian, heroic musketeer of old France). These values were sometimes not reflected at all, sometimes consciously declared by the long haired themselves, sometimes even a subject of the controversy in the media of the sixties.

Official measures and public reaction

According to the report of the Minister of Interior there were 3976 people affected (only 87 of them girls and young women) during more than a month of statewide campaign. 397 of them were made to forcibly cut their hair based upon the decision of hygienic personnel, 2858 changed their appearance voluntarily, 1408 people were prosecuted (mainly for administrative offences), 140 people arrested, 1249 fined. Police statistics also reveals interesting information about social stratification of the Vlasatci: majority of them were under 18 years of age (2363) and from the working class (2749). Only 245 of the persecuted were students.

Activities of the police were accompanied by wide range of other “disciplinary” measures. A resolution of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia from the end of August 1966 also ordered that organs of the Ministry of the Interior will not issue passports and identity cards (carrying ID was obligatory for identity checking) to the long-haired, prescribed that there will be no long-haired allowed in and out of the country, regional authorities were ordered to adopt measures to prevent the entering of the long-haired into spa cities and areas of recreation for the citizens; the restaurants, cafés and hotels were ordered to not to serve the long-haired. The trade union organisation was asked to educate young boys about cutting their hair. Employers should add to the working or training contracts paragraphs entangling youngsters to take care of their appearance. The youth organization (ČSM) was asked to criticize the fashion of wearing of long hair by boys. Military officials were ordered to look after the proper appearance of young soldiers. Travel agencies were forbidden to sell tours abroad to long-haired. The organisation for health education was asked to campaign against long hair. Schools were asked to modify their internal regulations so they will not allow the wearing of long hair by boys. Though the statistics showing exact numbers of the people affected by these administrative measures are not available, it can be said that all these measures were at regional and local level basically respected and applied for at least one year. At many places some of these measures, applied with changing consistency, survived till the end of eighties.

Strict administrative and other persecution resulted in an incident not yet seen in the socialistic Czechoslovakia of the sixties – Vlasatci decided to organise public protest. More than a month after the start of the coordinated police repression against Vlasatci in Prague, some of the affected youth met on 20th of September 1966 at Old Town Square in the centre of the city and protested against the oppression they faced. Dozens of Vlasatci marched from the Old Town Square to Wencesless Square and then back, shouting highly political slogans, such as “Give us back our hair!”, “Down with barbers!”, “Communists are idiots!”, and criticizing functioning of Prague’s public transport.  The demonstrating youngsters then moved through Pařížská Street accross the river into Letná Park where their demonstration was dispersed by police units from the nearby Letenské Square. Police intervention resulted in the detention of 58 people. 

The official campaign itself did not face significant resistance from the public and even got substantial support from citizens. The majority of the parents of the long-haired either acknowledged or endorsed the measures. From almost all regions cases were reported when parents came to the local police to thank them for successful intervention. Solidarity of parents with their sons, when parents complained against the government measures, was exceptional. Overall, the reaction of citizens to the measures was predominantly positive.

While saying this we must not forgot that the campaign took place in a country where liberal changes in the culture and political sphere were about to start a year later. These latter changes acquired wide support across the whole nation. But this earlier striving of the young boys for the introduction of new cultural patterns into society were seen as unacceptable not only by the communist party but even by those citizens of Czechoslovakia who did not identify themselves with rigid communist ideology. The reason could be found in the fact that ideologists orchestrating the campaigns were in an attempt to provoke hatred towards the long-haired. They resorted not to the official ideology but to the “common sense” or set of values that could be called “petit-bourgeois” – order, hygiene, non-extremism, “normal” sexual relations and roles. Vlasatci were then seen not as some specific threat to the socialistic regime but as a threat to society in general.

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