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.

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.

Did you feel that you were destined, or compelled in all this by some kind of larger purpose?

I can’t say I had the feeling that my acts were driven by any sense of historical destiny, or by any uniqueness on my part. Nevertheless, I’m not stupid and I knew that for some people I had become a symbol, an icon. In some ways, the further away from Prague you were, the greater a symbol I was. I was a kind of mythological figure, someone trying to break down a wall with his head and everybody makes fun of him, saying it’s not worth it. But the wall finally does break down and the person who beat his head against it becomes king and rules over the land for ever and ever. It’s the sort of happy ending that Americans like. But I also know some people who could have done my job better than I did; it’s just that history determined it would be this way, and not otherwise.

And the people who, at various times thought of me as a quasi-mythological figure or, as I saw it, attributed a disproportionate authority to me – I treated them with respect too. I didn’t ridicule their deference; I completely understood it. People need hope, and they need someone to personify that hope.

In addition to serving as a symbol and fulfilling the various duties of office, you also had to author all the traditions for the country from scratch. Did it sometimes feel like too much?

It annoyed me sometimes that I had to receive several visitors a day, some of them only because protocol demanded it, and I had to have a conversation with these visitors, not really knowing what to talk about. And what’s worse, if they were not very talkative, I had to do all the talking. There was also the danger of mistaking someone for somebody else. All that was in some ways painful, but the most difficult was probably speechwriting, because it was out of the question that someone else write my speeches for me. Since I was originally a writer by profession, I wanted my speeches to have my own personal stamp, my own handwriting, my own voice, but I had very little time for writing all those speeches. I couldn’t wait for the ideas to come, I had to write one, sometimes two, speeches over a weekend, and it was terribly painful.

When I was in prison, where I spent almost five years, I experienced the collective life. There is never a minute to be on your own – you’re not even alone in the bathroom – and in this way, being a president is similar to being in prison, because I was always with people, from morning till night, and so those occasional escapes into solitude were quite important for me.

You’ve said that after the revolution the former satellite countries entered a period you call “mafia capitalism,” and that the revolution was not complete. Now that more time has passed, would you say that the revolution has been completed?

I think it’s far from over, that phase of having to deal with mafia capitalism. It’s the product of the previous era, when absolutely everything, even the smallest barbershop, was state-owned. So what followed, the massive, historically unprecedented transfer of property – privatization – naturally presented a major temptation for some people, especially in a society that had been so deeply demoralized.

Thus, the so-called post-communism phase came along, when a lot of bad things happened, and former communists became the most entrenched of capitalists, and the new legal system wasn’t far enough along yet to regulate the various [market] mechanisms, and so forth.

It’s probably impossible to say exactly when this phase will be over, or when we will reach the point where we can call ourselves a stable democracy. Our basic experience, however, is that it has taken longer than we thought it would, and that it will continue for some time. It will certainly be some time before we achieve a parity with the so-called old-line democracies. Maybe it will take a new generation of people to get us there. It has turned out that the complete subjugation of society by communism or, shortly before that, by Nazism, can take decades to recover from.

On the other hand, I would add that we have an opportunity to do more than merely become a democracy as stable as the Netherlands, which is a constitutional monarchy, or Spain or England. We have gone through an experience that they have not. Our history came to a standstill, and I often encounter Western politicians who say they envy us because we started again from scratch and were able to avoid some of the mistakes they once made—mistakes that for them are irreversible. So there was a hope, when they provided assistance to us, that we would be able to pay them back by demonstrating something interesting, something new – new ways of dealing with the various dangers inherent in modern civilization, things like that. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to show them very much.

It seems – and here I’m talking about my own country – that standardization has become the ideal – the desire to be average, to be like all the others, not to search too hard for new approaches or not to make any special effort. So the ideal is something that lacks any inventiveness or creativity.

And on that idea of the revolution’s still unfolding—do you see progress, or do you feel like things have stalled?

Some things have stalled, other things have come a long way. For instance, observe how rich and complex our civil society has become. Civil society was practically wiped out by the totalitarian regime. For the communists, it was even more important to liquidate civil society than to nationalize private property. So the restoration of civil society represents a very successful self-structuring from below.

Another success story would be all the small businesses that have popped up, small shops, services of various kinds. There are thousands and thousands of small business people who offer different services. Life is more colorful now compared to life under the communists, where everything was gray and uniform. So there has been a gradual movement forward. But at the same time, political life remains subject to the model of standardization that I mentioned earlier, meaning it’s better not to come up with new things, and if anyone does come up with new ideas, kick him in the shins.

There are young people in the world today—in Cuba and North Korea—who are in the situation you and your peers were once in, where they have to decide whether to seek something else, fight against the system, or take an easier path and live their life as the system exists. What would you say to those young people?

Well, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to give them much advice, but I might say in passing that when someone makes the effort to become a dissident and joins the opposition and runs the risk of being persecuted, that fateful step has two positive aspects to it.

The first is that they feel good about being in harmony with their conscience and their beliefs. When you lie a little, or make compromises you shouldn’t, you can have the ugly feeling of being soiled. If you decide to do something good, regardless of whether that advances your cause or not, you at least have the positive feeling of being on the side of truth. And the second aspect – and the experience of my country and of the other post-communist countries bears this out—is that these seemingly pointless, quixotic efforts may rather quickly turn into something important, and may eventually bear fruit. The just may be successful.