Wild Wild East: Remembering Vaclav Havel

Maria Habanikova

The day before Christmas Eve 2011, the Czech Republic held the grandest memorial service in history of the country since the death of Tomas G. Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak President, for one of its greatest leaders, Vaclav Havel, the last Czechoslovak and first Czech President known in the rest of the world as the leader of the Velvet Revolution.

At the time of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, I was one year and half old and can safely say I remember very little of what I did or where I was on November 17th, 1989. Incidentally, my grandmother’s most favourite memory of me as a child was precisely from this very important day in national history. She always enjoyed telling me how I was sitting on the living room floor in front of her black-and-white TV watching the demonstrations in city squares holding a keychain in my small hands proudly repeating after the crowds “This is it!” or something along those lines. Little did I know back then of the significance of those words, or more importantly of the man who found himself onstage pronouncing that “The moment came when everything is at stake and it is absolutely vital to put our hearts into the game. It has to happen in a peaceful manner so as not to stain the clear face of our revolution. It is a task for all of us.”

Having spent much time in prison as a dissident in the normalization era after the Soviet invasion of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel also spent the first months of 1989 imprisoned only to find himself celebrating freedom and standing up for basic principles of democracy at its end. His words “Truth and love will win over lies and hatred” have prevailed to this day to remind the whole world of the meaning of the Velvet Revolution—a symbol of non-violent resistance, fight for democracy and human rights.

The days of totalitarian regime were coming to an end and Vaclav Havel did not remain idle. He was a well-educated civilian, a playwright and author who entered political life at the time his nation needed him the most. He was a dissident, fighting against the regime that turned him into a refugee in his own country. Never having dreamt of a political career, Havel was there at the formation of civic forum and became its informal and commonly respected leader. A new era was beginning; as my parents—medical students finishing their studies at the time—once told me: “It was a time of hope for a better future; keys were a perfect symbol. We all stood in the square of the city of Martin with keys in our hands ‘opening those new doors’.”

Indeed, new doors opened and not just in the metaphorical sense. Czechoslovakia walked onto the international stage through a very different door with Vaclav Havel taking the lead as its first non-communist President selected unanimously by the Federal Assembly in December of the same year. Ironically, all communist deputies were forced by Premier Marián Čalfa to vote for the greatest opponent of the former regime; it was undeniable that the cards were about to turn.

Vaclav Havel was the most logical candidate for the function of the head of state and his name brought Czechoslovakia back to international politics. In 1990, he became the first representative of a country from behind the Iron Curtain to speak at the US Congress. Needless to say, his speech prompting the United States to urge the Soviet Union towards democracy received a well-deserved standing ovation from all of the Congressmen present.

On the day of Havel’s funeral, many—including several members of the world political elite such as the French Premier Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli President Šimon Peres—gathered inside the Cathedral of Saint Vit in Prague and crowds of thousands stood outside to commemorate Havel’s personality and the message this remarkable man lived for during a large portion of his life. I was deeply moved by the subtle but nevertheless visible tears in the eyes of former US President Bill Clinton as I was watching the live broadcast online wishing I could be in my native land paying respects in person.

Even though it seems that Havel was a great leader in the eyes of all, he had his opponents, especially among many Slovaks. Once the impressions from the revolution calmed down, Czechoslovak Republic was restored without ‘Socialist’ in the official state name and ordinary life resumed. Soon afterwards, a decision of the President was adopted to stop production of armaments in Slovakia which left many unemployed and frustrated. Vaclav Havel, however, was simply doing what was irreversible. He knew conversion was necessary; tanks were produced that no one wanted or needed to use anymore. Already, under the communist regime it was becoming apparent that weaponry was difficult to sell. Also viewed as controversial was Havel’s amnesty whereby two thirds of criminal prisoners were released. He was convinced that new conditions in the country would provide all with an equal chance to start over. While he claimed that criminality would not actually increase afterwards and that sooner or later these prisoners would have been released within a year, he forgot about one seemingly banal fact: that any and every regime in the world produces criminals regardless of how beneficial for its people it might be. Throughout his presidency, Havel gained many opponents but just as many if not more sympathizers.

I can only look at Havel’s work and legacy from a distance now but I do so with a significant amount of respect and also gratitude. I was merely a child when all this was happening. Nevertheless, having studied the events of the end of 20th century in Czechoslovakia, I can’t help but wonder what if. I wonder where Czechoslovakia would stand today had it not separated in 1993. In fact, when Vaclav Havel resigned in 1992, as he did not want to be forcefully changing the course of history or having anything to do with the split, he left the decision in the hands of Vaclav Klaus (CZ) and Vladimir Meciar (SK).

On December 18th, 2011, as Dalai Lama—Havel’s lifelong friend—wrote in a letter to Havel’s wife Dagmar, “the world has lost a great statesman whose steadfast and unflinching determination played a key role in bringing freedom and democracy to his country. Havel was an unassuming and courageous leader whom I personally had the greatest admiration and respect for and whom I will miss.” He was a symbol of defeat of communism and a great statesman who, in the times of need, negotiated for his country without bloodshed more than any other politician. It mustn’t, however, be forgotten that he was also a great literary figure and the response to his death from the literary world was no less apparent. Salman Rushdie, an Indian author, said: “Now Havel. Damn it. I have had enough of finding the names of my friends in necrology columns. Could all just stay alive for a while, please?”

In response to the above quote, I’d like to say: “Dear Mr. Rushdie, never fear. Vaclav Havel died, but his legacy will live on forever.”