RIP Vaclav Havel
The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.
It was December 1989, in the days when the Net was something which only existed in science fiction, and TV meant Doordarshan only, and we were still using the good old STD(Subscribers trunk dialing not the other STD, please!).
The only way we could get the news of the world around us on TV, was Prannoy Roy’s program, The World this Week and of course good ole DD News. And yes the newspapers, which then still printed News mostly. I was just entering into my 20s, into my adulthood, but the momentous images flashing on TV, in the World this Week and DD News, could not be missed out.
The unthinkable was happening, the Iron Curtain that had descended on the European continent was breaking down, slowly. One by one, the Soviet backed communist regimes, hitherto considered invincible, were toppling like dominoes, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and this time there were no Russian tanks, rumbling into Prague or Budapest as in 1956 and 1968.
While I had some inkling of Lech Walesa, Solidarity, thanks to an article I had read some time back in a copy of Time magazine, most of the other names, seemed quite unfamiliar to me. I did catch note of one name, Vaclav Havel,and 4 years later, the name cropped up when the erstwhile republic of Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel was the president then.
You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances.
With his unruly mop of hair, a wispy moustache, and a rather avuncular persona, Vaclav Havel, would be the most unlikely person you would ever associate with the term revolutionary.
In fact at first glance, he would seem the typical kind of academic, writer, more at home in the cozy environs of academia, rather than leading a nation against their tyrannical rulers, and later on becoming the president of the Nation, and guiding it through one of their most turbulent phases. Vaclav Havel born Oct 5,1936 in the city of Prague, hailed from a family that was wealthy and intellectually eminent. His father owned the Barrandov studios, his mother’s father was an ambassador and journalist himself.
His bourgeois background though would be a disadvantage for him, growing up in the Communist era Czechoslovakia. Forbidden to have formal education, he worked part time as an apprentice at a chemical lab, while doing night school to complete his studies. Later on he taught at the Faculty of Economics at Prague Tech University for some time, before dropping out, and in the meantime, married his long time love Olga, who came from a working class background diametrically opposite to his.
It was the discrimination he faced, both at getting an education, as well as a job later, due to his bourgeois background, that helped in shaping Havel’s strong ideological opposition to the Soviet backed regime.
We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it.
From Franz Kafka to Milan Kundera to Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia always had a strong intellectual, culture, where writers, artistes, directors used their works as a tool for activism, taking on the system. Havel, started his career as a playwright with The Garden Party, where the protagonist while adapting to the whims and fancies of the bureaucracy, ultimately ends up becoming one of them.
His next play The Memorandum, would however be one of his most memorable ones, where he came up with an imaginary artificial language Ptedype, basically a satire against the excessive bureaucratic jargon used by the Govt.
Both the Memorandum and Garden Party, used satire effectively, to mock at the Soviet style bureaucracy that was stifling the citizens. It was The Memorandum that made him well known in the US, where his plays regularly continued to be exhibited, even after they were banned in his country, post 1968. After the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, Havel, again was forced to take a job at a brewery to survive, after he was banned from theater.
That was the time, Havel became even more politically active, interacting with other dissidents across the Soviet bloc.
It was the time when his Vanek trilogy of plays, so called because of the central character, often believed to be his alter ego, were circulated by the Samizdat, a form of communication, in which banned literature was transferred in the form of hand printed copies from one person to another.
Havel’s political activities, earned him the ire of the authorities, and he spent 7 years in and out of prisons, constant surveillance by the Govt. It was during one of his long stays in the prison, that he wrote Letters to Olga, his wife, documenting his prison experiences.
It was a deep love between them, which lasted until her death from cancer in 1996. His long stays in prison, also impacted his health, making him prone to breakdowns. But at no stage did he give up on his opposition to the Govt. Havel’s reputation as a leading revolutionary, was further enhanced with the publication of Charter 77, a manifesto that was jointly signed by him and other dissidents, primarily in protest against the detainment of the Czech band, Plastic People of Universe.
The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.
A firm believer in non violence, it was his leadership, during the 1989 revolts in Eastern Europe, that ensured the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, went off without a shot being fired. The demonstrations in the neighboring countries were having their impact, and the poor economic conditions, rising unemployment bought many Czechs and Slovaks on to the streets. Considering that the mass media was controlled by the Govt, and there was no social media around that time, the dissidents and protesters began to use home made posters denouncing the Communist regime.
Mass demonstrations had broken out all over Prague and other cities in Czechoslovakia. While the strike was first led by the students, soon other sections of the society started to pitch in more and more. By Dec 10,1989, the Communist Government resigned, and Vaclav Havel was sworn in as President. The most inspiring sight was Havel, appearing on stage with Alexander Dubcek, the hero of the 1968 Prague Spring, the crowds erupted into applause seeing them.
I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn
Winning the Revolution was the easier task though for Havel, the challenges ahead were enormous. What he had was a nation, scarred from years of occupation first by the Nazis and later on the Communists. Economically, the nation had to pay a heavy price, with shortages, low growth, unemployment. One of the first acts by Havel as President, was the release of political prisoners, though many critics claimed it would just increase the crime rate. Havel’s biggest challenge however was the very existence of Czechoslovakia itself.
A firm believer in a united nation, he resigned in July 1992, after the Slovak MPs turned against him, stating he would not preside over the breakup. The sentiment against break up though was overwhelmingly high in both places, the Czechs felt that breaking away from the Slovaks would free them from subsidizing the economically weaker Slovak region,and bring a higher rate of growth, while the Slovaks felt that having their own nation, would be more beneficial economically for them.
The Velvet Divorce occurred, and by Jan 1993, the nation of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Havel, who had earlier resigned over the breakup of the nation, was again voted to power in the 1993 elections, and once again was sworn in as President. After his re election once again in 1998, he finally resigned from office in 2003.
A humanist, writer, dissident, president, playwright, Vaclav Havel was all of these. But more than history would remember him as the man who refused to bow to tyranny, who stood unflinchingly against the dictatorship, and waged an uncompromising struggle for freedom, without a single shot being fired. Along with Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, would be one of the most visible icons of the East European revolution in 1989. In a world increasingly filled with leaders, who seem bereft of any leadership or character, Vaclav Havel will be sorely missed. RIP.