Sakharov Prize: Europe's answer to the Nobel honours artists and dissidents from Tehran to Moscow

The spirit of Vaclav Havel - who did more than anyone to pull down the Iron Curtain - lives on in a prize that honours the twin impulses of law and the arts

Related Topics

You may not have noticed, but the EU has it’s own equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is given to those who strive, through dissent, to give expression to the battle against oppression. The first recipient was Nelson Mandela, the latest, honoured this year, are two Iranians, Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh. 

Panahi, a film director, has portrayed the lives of the marginalized and oppressed in contemporary Iran – women, children, the poor – with commitment and lack of sentimentality.  Iranian authorities have construed this social criticism as a threat and have detained Panahi since March 2010.


He is now serving a six-year prison sentence, banned from film-making or giving interviews for the next twenty years. Sotoudeh is a lawyer who has represented abused women and children as well as intellectuals and activists who have fallen foul of the Iranian regime. She too is now in prison, serving an eleven-year sentence and banned from leaving the country for twenty years. This artist and this lawyer are paying the price for their principled opposition to authority.

The alliance of law and the arts in resisting state violence is familiar to observers of Central and Eastern Europe, and will be discussed in London on Thursday in a debate hosted by the EU Parliament and the University College, London.  It’s one year on since the death of Václav Havel, above, and its his spirit of dissent that the Sakharov Prize honours more than most. Back in 1977 in Czechoslovakia, a small group of intellectuals and ordinary citizens, of artists, philosophers, lawyers, economists, priests and workers, of enviromentalists, liberals and Marxists, united to express their opposition to the actions of their government.

This government had held its people in a repressive stranglehold since the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. Charter 77, as the group called itself, was formed specifically in response to two events.  First, in 1975 the Czechoslovak government had signed the Helsinki Declaration on Human Rights. Charter 77 sought to hold the government to the standards that it had subscribed to and yet was flouting with its continued imprisonment of its citizens on political grounds.

This was, then, a statement about legal norms. Second, Charter 77 responded to the arrest, trial, and banning from performance of the underground rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe. Charter 77 was equally about the right to challenge norms and to experiment socially and aesthetically. 

Dissent in Czechoslovakia was born from these twin impulses: law and the arts, norm and experiment.  From these impulses came a movement that, in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, played a central role in the overthrow of the European political order.

In the writings of Charter 77’s spokesman, Václav Havel, who later became the leader of that revolution and then his country’s president, dissent was defined as the ‘art of the impossible’: the art of not accepting the status quo as the only state of affairs possible, despite all apparent evidence to the contrary. Through his own years of imprisonment, Havel practiced this art and kept his faith in radical political change, a faith that, arguably, demanded the creative vision of a playwright more than the realism of a lawyer.

Dissent in Central and Eastern Europe was not just about overthrowing a debased form of Communism. It was fundamentally about emancipatory modes of thought and action. This legacy has lost none of its relevance at a time when, as Slavoj Žižek has claimed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.


Today we see dissent throughout the world: in Iran, but also in Putin’s Russia and in Charter 08, the Chinese movement that explicitly models itself on its Czechoslovak forerunner, in the upheavals of the Arab Spring, in pro-democracy movements in Belarus, Burma and Bahrain.

Here the arts often play a vital role, perhaps in Pussy Riot’s punk prayer, but certainly in Ai Wei Wei’s ludic yet politically trenchant artistic practice. We see dissent closer to home in Europe and the West too: in the Occupy movement, in anti-austerity movements in Greece and Spain, and in the growing conviction that — given the collapse of our economic system and the bankruptcy of our political system — there must be other ways of doing things.

The European Union does not only give out prizes to honour the courage of dissidents like Panahi and Sotoudeh.  It now also receives prizes.  We can all take some pride in, and even some credit for, the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the EU. Yet the EU seems more comfortable with dissent when it happens beyond its own borders.  Our task as ordinary Europeans is to resist this by drawing on the legacy of Havel: to demand justice as well as experiment, to dare to think and do the impossible.

Tim Beasley-Murray is a  Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture and Peter Zusi is a  Lecturer in Czech and Slovak Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, both at the University College London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot