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).
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.