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Václav Havel: 1936-2011

Video: "Citizen Havel", a 2-hour "intimate" documentary mostly about his presidential years. Press the "CC" button (make it red) for English subtitles.

Originally posted on December 18th

We learned about the sad news in the morning. It had to happen at some point and it did happen today. Václav Havel died at sleep: a blessed way to leave the world (a cardiovascular failure). BBC I, BBC II, BBC III, BBC IV, BBC obituary, BBC pix, BBC tributes, others (2,000+ stories). A week ago, Dalai Lama met Havel (again) and he may have been preparing Havel for the leaving.

Right now it's the featured story of the BBC, CNN, WSJ (and others) and the 3rd+4th most viewed one after Brian Cox's "Atoms are empty" and "Prince Harry assisted mugged friend".

"The truth and the love have to beat the lie and the hatred, Václav Havel." Erase excessive articles if any, please: I have really no clue where they belong. A typical poster we would see (and post) everywhere during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The term "truthlovists" for the people around Havel later became a derogatory term used by some Havel's opponents; as a friend of the truth and love, I have never used the term before.

Your humble correspondent and Václav Havel

I was a red [pro-communist] guy until my 7th or 8th birthday. That changed approximatetly when my paternal grandmother returned from West Germany where she was allowed to meet her son i.e. my uncle (father's brother who emigrated to West Germany in the early 1980s). I was invited to West Germany many times, including the time when my other uncle (mother's brother) who emigrated to Australia in the late 1960s visited Munich, Bavaria as well. Of course, the communists never allowed me to go there.

My grandmother could share lots of experiences – and great products (when I think about the religious treatment that was given to a bitter low-quality kiwifruit, something I bought for $0.05 a piece yesterday, it makes us sure that we're living in a totally different era) – and that was the time when I began to be interested in the differences between socialism and capitalism in a little bit more informed way. ;-)

About a year later, when I was 10 years or so, I managed to catch Radio Free Europe on my radio. I was totally excited. It just happened that I was recording everything on that day. So the first 5 minutes in my life when I heard RFE were recorded on my tape and I pretty much memorized them because of that. ;-)

During the following (almost) decade, I was listening to the Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America so you won't be surprised that I could hear the name "Václav Havel" pretty often. And yes, he did become a kind of hero. Although you could count me as a child and teenage dissident of a sort, you can't expect me to uncritically okay everything that the dissidents were doing or thinking – and I think that e.g. much of Václav Klaus' critical comments was justified. Their parties were often wild and be sure that Havel himself has never avoided women or alcohol. Many such things were paid from the human rights money coming from the West.

Let me return to Václav Havel's life. He was born in October 1936 into a very rich and famous capitalist family in Prague (Havel's uncle possessed the film ateliers and famous concert halls, among many other things, while Havel's father had a construction company that built the surrounding millionaires' villa neighborhood at Barrandov). He described himself as a pampered child. (Havel's brother, Ivan Havel, is an interdisciplinary scientist and I kind of know him in person because of that.) However, things became different a decade later when the family lost everything. Havel couldn't really make the career he was qualified to do. He became a playwright, anyway. Without any college, he could become one of the world's most respected intellectuals, something that may reinforce claims about the education bubble. (Well, Havel received dozens if not a hundred of honorary doctorates but let's not count them as education.) During the 1968 Prague Spring, he wrote many well-known pieces of the "absurd theater". It's always hard to judge someone if you have many other biases. But I do think he's been a pretty good playwright.

Havel became a natural leader of the dissident movement in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, due to his important role in the birth of Charter 77, a dissident petition and organization created in 1977, and for other reasons. He was writing a kind of blog that wasn't propagated electronically those days; it was propagated on paper using "samizdat" algorithms. :-)

Now we jump to October 1989, one month before the fall of communism. Everything indicated that the Czechoslovak socialism would continue under the business-as-usual, despite the collapsing and softening regimes in many other socialist countries, and even the Czechoslovak version of "perestroika" was something that our communists weren't terribly serious about. Paradoxically, it seemed to be something good that was imposed upon us from Moscow. But one could still see some cracks during the year 1989.

For example, people including me would circulate a great and funny recording of the General Secretary of the Communist Party's speech known as "Lonely as a Fencepost" he gave to his communist comrades in Červený Hrádek near Pilsen, 2 miles from my home, in the Summer: someone leaked it. It was only an audio tape but you may watch the full 70-minute video on YouTube these days. The tape showed that Mr Miloš Jakeš has always been a cutely candid, uneducated moron who would discuss how they have to prevent Havel from traveling but they have to refocus the attack on someone else. He mispronounced many simple words etc. and talked about some top singers in a very casual way... And a funny thing happened on Havel's birthday in 1989, too.

We were just going to the mandatory brigade to collect the potatoes, a typical activity that high school students would be forced to do during communism (college students would pick hops). And even though virtually all my classmates were members of the Socialist Union of Youth etc. (there were 4 of us at the high school who refused to join), I could make many people kind of interested in a funny "family ad" published in Rudé Právo (Red Right/Law, the main official Czech communist daily). Of course, I learned about it from RFE; don't expect me to have read Rudé Právo.

There was a picture of Václav Havel, with friends wishing "Mr Ferdinand Vaněk" (an autobiographic hero of Havel's plays such as Audience we memorized and starred with a high school friend of mine) who lives in "Little Hrádek" (="Hrádeček", the name of village with Havel's cottage where he died today as well) the best for his birthday. Havel was thanked for the difficult work he has been doing in his life – and wished to experience lots of business successes in the future. This was really juicy if you realize that this daily would otherwise be regularly producing articles about Havel's being an alcohol addict from a pro-Nazi dynasty who wants to undermine the whole society. During that time, communism was collapsing in East Germany as kilotons of East Germans suddenly realized that they could use embassies in Budapest, Prague, and elsewhere to move to West Germany. ;-)

"Use both your hands, both your hands!", we would hear from our class' teacher. :-)

I don't have to tell you what happened six weeks later, on November 17th. The students of the Charles University were beaten by the communist police during their totally peaceful event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nazis' closure of all the Czech universities on November 17th, 1939, which followed similar protests against Nazism. The communists behaved somewhat comparably to their Nazi predecessors exactly 50 years ago (well, I still think the Nazis were much more brutal in similar situations). Despite the superficial impression that everyone in Czechoslovakia was actually satisfied with the communist regime, a huge wave of public resistance was born.

Velvet Revolution rallies especially in Prague attracted hundreds of thousands of people (the rally at the Wenceslaus Square above had about 200,000); the largest one saw 1 million people who came to Prague.

Despite being a naturally apolitical person, Václav Havel became the acknowledged leader of the Velvet Revolution. Once the near-consensus was established that we didn't really want to continue with the "1968 socialism with a human face" but we wanted a proper and full-fledged democratic capitalism (something that Václav Klaus in particular wanted to make very clear from the beginning), Havel was also chosen as the natural president elect. He actually turned out to be a surprisingly good manager in the Civic Forum, an anti-communist movement born after November 17th that included pretty much everyone, from reform communists to Thatcherites. He was elected the Czechoslovak president on December 29th, 1989. The birthday wishes from Rudé Právo turned into reality. I remember those days pretty clearly; this was a great period when people believed in true ideals and for a while, they were even determined to act as angels and to build the heaven on Earth. Of course, folks had to return to the reality at some point, too.

This was of course totally remarkable because just two months earlier or so, the communists were keeping him in prison: the yesterday's dissident became the tomorrow's president. The same communists – who still had a majority in the Czechoslovak Parliament – unanimously elected him the president. ;-) Some legal but vigorous bullying of the communist deputies by their Civic Forum constituents was clearly necessary for the clean communist-style 100% outcome of the presidential election in the Parliament. :-) Just to return a few decades into the past, Václav Havel spent some of his prison years (1981-1983) here in Pilsen, in the famous Bory prison (Bory means "Pine Trees/Pine Forests" and is a neighborhood in South Pilsen). So Havel has become a fellow honorable citizen of Pilsen, too. Current Prague archbishop Dominik Duka was inprisoned here, too.

The Bory prison (Pilsen) from the bird eye perspective. It was built in 1873-1878 for heavy criminals and men serving a long term. At the end of the 19th century, political prisoners of Austria-Hungary were placed there. This got repeated in the late 1950s for political prisoners of communist Czechoslovakia. Earlier, in 1949-1952, some prisoners were tortured and murdered there.

He remained a moral authority which I say despite the fact that I didn't share his views on "apolitical politics" and his desire for the NGOs to be powerful, and many other things, including his support for homeopathy and other occult pseudosciences. Since the end of 1989, it became very clear to me that I would be closer to Václav Klaus.

I've met Havel several times in my life but as far as I remember, we have never really talked to one another. One experience when I met him was paradoxically the inauguration of his successor Václav Klaus as the Czech president in 2003 – when Havel's second and final term as the Czech president (1993-2003) ended. [Oh, sorry, I am an idiot: it was actually the re-inauguration for the Klaus' second term in 2008: Klaus didn't know me before 2007.] Previously, Havel would serve as the Czechoslovak president for 3 years. He was one of the people who were (at least superficially) totally scared of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. I was often influenced by him (and others) but I soon understood that Havel was just wrong. The Velvet Divorce was a good decision for both nations and especially for their relationship. Due to his Czechoslovakism, Havel became a top target of hatred from the Slovak nationalists. It's kind of amazing to see that current Slovak PM Ms Iveta Radičová seems to be among the politicians who are most internally shaken by the death today. She was clearly very close to him. Havel was on the black list in Moscow (even the modern one), too. I don't have to tell him what the folks in Beijing thought about this friend of Dalai Lama and what were the official opinions in Cuba when it came to this staunch supporter of the Cuban dissent. That's the other side of the coin of his remarkable status in the U.S. etc. – a figure that really unified Democrats and Republicans, I could say. Of course, I've been immensely proud to be a Czech when he got a very special treatment in the U.S. Congress and other places.

Václav Klaus would agree that at the end of 1989, Havel was the most legitimate candidate for the president of Czechoslovakia. (When Alexander Dubček, the reform communist who supervised the 1968 Prague Spring, learned in December 1989 that he was no longer the top candidate for the Prague Castle, he cried as a small baby if not like Peter Woit.) There's been some degree of respect in between the two Gentlemen (and Klaus only says nice things today, of course). On the other hand, there has always been a kind of tension that may have been the "truly fundamental conflict" that would be determining the evolution of the Czechoslovak (and later Czech) society and the discourse that is dominant in this society. (Relatively to the Klaus-Havel dichotomy, the official left-right conflicts during the elections could have been just theaters for the eyes.) Even though Havel would spend his life by struggles for freedom and individuality etc., one could say that in some sense, he became an advocate of the political correctness in the Czech Republic and sorry to say, I am happy that he was the loser in this particular battle.

(See also Havel's alarmist views on climate change.)

It is appropriate to say that there have been views in which I found myself closer to Havel than Klaus. Like Ron Paul etc., Klaus is ultimately a very anti-war person. Havel has always been a defender of America's fist. My views were very mixed when NATO attacked Serbia, a step that Havel endorsed and Klaus opposed, and so on...

I could recall lots of stories featuring Václav Havel and deduce various messages. (And I could add various friends and people I know who have known Havel well.) But you wouldn't necessarily be interested and this may not necessarily be the best context for such memories. Havel has been an unusually strong moral autority that has influenced even people such as me who ultimately found out that they disagree with him about many pretty fundamental things. He's been proposed for a peace Nobel prize many times; he has never won it even though he deserved it much more than many other folks who did win it. He actually helped to achieve something good and did so very peacefully, too.

I believe he's been a good playwright. And he managed to live for a pretty long time if one appreciates that after the years in prison and hundreds of thousands of cigarettes he has smoked, he suffered from lung cancer, perforation of intestine and perhaps various other inner organs, and other multidimensional illnesses. He was apparently lucky to get extremely good doctors, too.

Even though many people have expected this sad news many times in the past and a big portion of my nation could have been ready for this information, he will be missed.

RIP Václav Havel.

(See 56 TRF articles that mention Havel.)

President Klaus, in some sense the top nemesis of Havel, became the organizer of all the events, a fact that foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg identified as another piece of the "theater of the absurd" that Havel used to write. However, Klaus fulfilled his role flawlessly and with complete dignity. The speech above was appropriately free of any negative provocations and it almost made me cry. In some sense, Klaus has absorbed some part of the aura that was flying around Havel. It's great – I just hope that Klaus won't cease to be Klaus when it comes to certain important topics...

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reader ThePeSla said...


Thank you for this post- I came on today expecting to find it and not anything less from you.

I heard those broadcasts at the time too before the Brezhnev doctrine kicked in- and for awhile the only news that fit the facts East and West came from a breath of fresh air from Czechoslovakia.

So it is that sometimes the playwright does humanity a service by writing the bad guys out of the play... if we all don't write ourselves out first and live long enough to make a difference.

The PeSla