A Conversation with Vaclav Havel
What was Vaclav Havel’s role in bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s?
April 30, 2010
It was about six in the evening. We were drinking coffee in Vaclav Havel's library — resentfully offered and grudgingly served by his wife, Olga. She wanted her husband to rest and stop talking and talking and talking. He was pale, tired.
Western reporters had been traipsing through the apartment overlooking the Vltava since early morning. Havel had been patient with them all, but he didn't have the stomach for another long interview. Could we just have a conversation?
Leaning back on the pillows of his sofa, I mentioned that I had just seen two of his plays in Warsaw — Audience and Temptation. Havel himself had never seen them publicly performed, banned as they were in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, including Poland, until recently.
"I never wanted to be a political figure," he told me. He was the country's foremost dissident almost by default, the intellectual voice of an almost non-existent opposition. There was no Solidarity Movement in Czechoslovakia as there was in Poland, no reform communists seeking to join the West, no Gorbachev. The Czech communist party was as hidebound and repressive in its ways, quite like Honecker's German Democratic Republic.
"I live in such a strange and paradoxical world," Havel said, "that to be a writer, and to write the truth, makes you something more than a writer. It has political consequences, and you acquire political authority. This is all the more so because people know I do not want power. And so, perhaps, they trust me."
We stood at one point to look out the window, over the river and across Prague's rooftops, as picturesque as those of Paris. Did I know, Havel asked, that thousands of Czechs signed petitions demanding his release from prison? He received hundreds of letters every week from students, workers and people all over Czechoslovakia.
This was significant, a sign of a coming thaw, as though the ice that had for so long bound the country might finally be breaking up. Writing to Havel, or petitioning for his freedom, was dangerous and deliberate.
It was to choose sides, to stand up and be counted, declare yourself as one of those who resisted the regime and do so in the knowledge that those who watched Havel would now know you.
"I read these letters, and I reread them, and each time I am again shocked at how things are changing." Havel paused, sipped his coffee, drew on his cigarette. "We lived so long in a state of helplessness," he went on reflectively, giving each word its weight. "There has been no progress, only stillness. So we wait, hoping for history to resume."
Havel delivered these lines almost diffidently, leaning forward in his easy chair, elbows on his knees, hands cupping his chin or stroking his mustache. Then he glanced directly into my eyes, a look almost more eloquent than his words. "We Czechs, we are finally finding our courage."
This was rather too good to be unrehearsed. Havel was a playwright, after all. But it excited me, even so. Czechoslovakia was an absurdity. The most talented people worked as bricklayers or night watchmen. The only good artists were those whose works could not be shown. The most honest people spent their days worrying whether the next would be spent in jail.
The gentlemanly elevator attendant at the Hotel Esplanade, where I stayed, with his beautiful English and neat tweeds and bow tie, in such contrast to the brusque and unkempt manager, had been a deputy foreign minister in 1968.
Poles envied Czechoslovakia as a consumer paradise. Food was ample. Everyone seemed to have a weekend country house. Prague was a well-tended jewel. Czechs, on the other hand, envied Poles their freedom. For decades, Prague's austere leadership enforced a tacit social contract — political subservience in exchange for a decent living standard. "We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us," the old Czech joke went. It was a formula for stagnation.
Havel said: "They are in a corner. One day, they permit a rally, the next they do not. One day they jail me for eight to ten years, three months later they release me. They do not know what to do." One day, Havel predicted, the authorities would make a mistake.
"Sooner or later they will make a mistake, perhaps by beating up some people. Then 40,000 people will fill Wenceslas Square." Black Friday — as the night of November 17, 1989, came to be known — was the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight. The challenge for Havel and his small band of dissident revolutionaries would be to fan that spark, stoke the fire and guide it.
How brilliantly they performed! Prague was Eastern Europe's happiest revolution, a delirium of good feeling. It was also the fastest — a revolution of passionate compression.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from THE YEAR THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Michael Meyer, published by Scribner books. Copyright 2010 Richard Duncan. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Director of Communications, United Nations Secretary-General Michael Meyer is currently Director of Communications for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Between 1988 and 1992, he was Newsweek’s Bureau Chief for Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans, writing more than 20 cover stories on the break-up of communist Europe and German unification. Mr. Meyer is the […]