Vaclav Havel, the much-lauded Czech writer and dissident turned President after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which “people power” led to a peaceful transition of power after 40 years of communist rule, passed away on December 18. He was 75 years old and died in his sleep at his country house in northern Bohemia with his second wife, actress Dagmar Veškrnová, present. His experience as a dissident who spent years in Communist prisons and his powerful writings — not only his plays with their critique of the regime but even more his open letter to the Communist leader Gustav Husák, his essay “The Power of the Powerless” and his Letters to Olga, written while imprisoned from 1979 to 1983 — seem all the more important to recall now, as we close a year in which popular uprisings have ended the rule of dictators in the Arab world and in which the protester,”occupying” on Wall Street and cities throughout the US, Canada and Europe, has become an emblematic figure.
Born to wealth
Born to a wealthy bourgeoisie family — both his father and grandfather were architect-engineers and his mother’s father was a writer and ambassador — Havel grew up, by his own admission, as a child of privilege. After the Communists came to power in 1948, the family properties were confiscated and in what David Remnick in the New Yorker calls “an act of reverse social engineering” Havel and his brother, Ivan, were not allowed to attend the better schools. Indeed, Havel had to leave school at 15 and worked as a laboratory assistant and served in the engineer corps before entering the world of the theatre and in particular the Theatre on the Balustrade, “a center of bohemian artists” where he was one of the few from a bourgeois family. Havel’s plays from this era — “The Garden Party,” “The Memorandum,” and “The Increased Difficulty of Concentration” — were politically daring (they included satires of “old guard Stalinists“) and won him an international reputation during the 1960s Prague Spring under Party reformer Alexander Dubcek.
Soviet invasion changes everything
But in 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Prague and Havel’s plays were banned in his own country; he then composed one-act plays that were performed covertly in private homes. He also became one of the founders of Charter 77, a movement for democratic change, and of Vons (the Czech acronym of Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted) — and Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident. Havel was kept under constant surveillance by authorities and jailed for “anti-state activity.” Letters to Olga was written, as Remnick says, “under terrific pressure, including that of a pro-Nazi warden who made sure the letters had no mysterious erasures or codes,” while Havel was working in the prison laundry. As he wrote, he hid the drafts “in mountain of dirty sheets stained by millions of unborn children” and revised them during the noon break.
But by the end 1989, as the BBC recounts, the communist party was “disintegrating.” After 18 days of peaceful protests and strikes — the Velvet Revolution — the communist government was defeated and, by December of 1989, Havel was installed as the head of state in Prague’s Roman Catholic cathedral, an occasion that he afterwards said he had “never felt so absurd” about.
Read more: communism, czech, czech republic, czechoslovakia, dissident, europe, human rights, literature, liu xiaobo, ows, plays, playwright, prague spring, protests, saddam hussein, slovakia, vaclev havel, year of the protester
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