Dispatch November 2009

Havel's Velvet Anniversary

Twenty years after the revolution that made him an unlikely world leader, Vaclav Havel commiserates with Obama, discusses the particular challenges of being a writer in public office, and offers advice to citizens of repressive regimes today.
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Twenty years ago this month, protestors massed for ten days in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, demanding an end to communist rule, and chanting: “Havel, na Hrad!” (Havel to the Castle.)

Václav Havel, the man whose ascendance Czech citizens so ardently sought and won, is a shy, diminutive figure with a bookish bent – hardly the strapping hero one might imagine for such a pivotal role. Though he was born in Prague in 1936 into a life of wealth and privilege, his family’s fortunes were reversed when communist forces came to power in 1948, and he was barred, as a member of the former elite, from receiving a university education. He became a bohemian, an activist, and an acclaimed playwright, penning works that outspokenly criticized the communist system (landing him, on multiple occasions, in jail).

Vaclav Havel (AFP/Getty Images)

In 1989, after Mikhail Gorbachev announced that Warsaw Pact troops would no longer intervene in the internal affairs of Soviet Satellite nations, Poland, then Hungary, threw off communism in quick succession, and on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell. Just a week later, the Velvet Revolution erupted in Czechoslovakia, resulting, on November 28, in the resignation of the communist regime, and a few weeks later, the election of Havel as the nation’s new president.

Havel would serve two terms, leading the nation into NATO membership, and putting it on a path to EU inclusion. Since the end of his second term in 2003, he has continued to promote human rights, teach, and write.

Today, at 73, Havel is quite frail. I spoke with him in September at the unprepossessing building where he keeps an office in Prague. In a candid and expansive conversation, punctuated at times by a deep, churning cough (an aftereffect of the multiple pneumonias he suffered in prison, and the lung cancer he battled in the ‘90s), he discussed the heady days of the revolution and its aftermath, and offered some words of wisdom for the citizens of repressive regimes elsewhere.

What follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation, conducted with translation assistance by Paul Wilson.

—Brian Till


At one point in your 2007 memoir you say that you wanted someone outside your group to look at a speech, someone who didn’t live “on the submarine.” Were you surprised by how quickly relationships changed after you became president?

Well, it was different with different people. I have noticed that a politician – and this is a general phenomenon – always has a special halo around him, due to the simple fact that he holds a particular office. It has nothing to do with whether he is a good politician or a complete fool: the position itself lends that person a special aura. I realized that myself when I persuaded a friend of mine to become minister of foreign affairs. The moment I appointed him, I started to respect him more and was politer to him, despite the fact that we were old friends and had even been in prison together.

[Upon my becoming president] some people were mad at me and accused me of cutting myself off from them. The simple explanation for that was that I didn’t have time anymore, which they didn’t understand. Others supported me in every possible way. Some thought I had become a stranger, others claimed I had deliberately sought out political power—that I wanted to become president and loved being president. Some found me a strange kind of president who thought of the presidency as a sacrifice rather than an honor. So responses were very different.

And the greater their hopes that I would sort everything out, that I would quickly make the world a better place, the more disappointed they became, because, in the end, of course, the world did not change for the better and they blamed me for it, and some even became my enemies. The greater the hopes they invested in me, the greater their disappointment. This is what I told President Obama when he was here in April: the whole world had pinned their hopes on him, believing he would change the world for the better, and when it turned out to be impossible, some people would start hating him. And he said it had already started to happen.

From what I’ve read, it was your mother who urged you to create the dissident group “the 36ers,” which you’ve said probably would have landed you in jail if you had been a few years older. As you grew more reckless and outspoken in your opposition over time, did your parents push you forward or pull you back?

I think my parents sympathized with everything I did, but at the same time they were very worried. They didn’t want their child to be hurt unnecessarily. My father and my mother, of course like all parents, perhaps, wanted me to achieve something in life, to become someone important, which is why I’m sorry they didn’t live to see my presidency, because then they would have seen me rise to an important position. At the same time, however, they were worried—my mother especially—that I was doing risky things, that I was risking persecution or prison, because they had gone through difficult times themselves as targets of the “class struggle.” So naturally they were concerned.

You were out of the city when the revolution began. How did you know the moment was right, and what were your strongest memories from those ten days?

Well, the time was so full of hectic activity that I wasn’t able to absorb all the events and remember everything that happened. But if a specific moment stuck in my memory, it would probably be a moment before a huge demonstration on Letná where there were about 750,000 people present, and the communists, who were still in power, were flirting with the idea that some sort of mass hysteria might take place that would radicalize the crowd and people would start fighting among themselves, or something along those lines. And there were provocateurs in the crowd whose job it was to trigger this mass hysteria, so we knew that the demonstration had to be brief and conclude quickly, which meant that we couldn’t let everyone speak who wanted to because it would have gone on forever. It was very upsetting to have to deny the microphone to our friends. And this was also immediately after the sanctification of St. Agnes, so it was sort of a breakthrough moment. Jaroslav Hutka, the singer, sang a song to settle the crowd, and then Bishop Vaclav Maly recited the Lord’s Prayer – he was also a fellow prisoner of mine – and I felt that this was a kind of a turning point, that at that moment, if the demonstration were successful, if nothing unfortunate happened during it, we would win, and moreover, that there was a kind of higher power watching over us, keeping us from harm.

The responsibility was enormous because to a certain extent, it was up to us, and to me, whether things would really unfold in a peaceful, “velvet” way, as they say, or whether there would be bloodshed. As we learned later, there had been plans, for instance, to have two fighter jets fly very low over the crowd, and though they wouldn’t fire on it or do anything, they could well have induced a kind of mass hysteria and rioting in the crowd. Another day there was an order for tanks to move on the city, and [a communist paramilitary force called] the People’s Militia was called up all across the country. So it wasn’t entirely clear that it would all happen peacefully, and we had a huge responsibility to remain in the driver’s seat because none of us wanted to be responsible for bloodshed or the death of innocent people.

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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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