Vaclav Havel laid to rest: A look back at the dissident in 1989

Dignitaries from around the world gathered in Prague on Friday to attend the funeral of Vaclav Havel, the dissident, playwright, political prisoner and president. In memory of the man who changed the Czech Republic, we look back at Mary Battiata’s Washington Post article from Oct. 27, 1989: “The Playwright in the Fire of Dissent: A Reluctant Hero Ponders His Role.”

He is the dissident who hesitates. Sometimes he will and then he won’t.


People light candles and lay flowers at Vaclavski square to pay respect to former Czech president Vaclav Havel. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

“This does not mean he’s safe. The police have been known to take people away from hospitals at 3 in the morning,” his wife, Olga, told Reuter.

Given an opportunity to demonstrate two months ago, Havel stayed away. Then, the Czech government was crudely warning that Wenceslas Square could turn into another Tiananmen Square. Havel didn’t go and advised the country’s young people not to either, a decision another prominent dissident here called a “grave political mistake.”

“I didn’t tell anyone not to go,” Havel said, a bit wearily, on a recent afternoon. “I just pointed out the dangers, because I know many young people could not see them. I am ready to put my hide on the line; I have done it before and I will do it again. But I pause at telling someone else to take his own hide into a situation that I myself will avoid.”

For 20 years, with his plays, essays, and especially in the founding of the Charter 77 human rights movement, Havel has served as a moral beacon for those who want democratic change.

Now the beacon is being asked to burn brighter, to turn up the heat on a regime still frozen in a Stalinist past.

Czechoslovakia is an eye of eerie calm. To the north and south, Poland and Hungary are wriggling out of their communist skins. In East Germany, hundreds of thousands take to the streets demanding freedom. Czechoslovakia’s own opposition movement, limited since the 1970s to about 1,000 brave souls, lately has been showing signs of new life. New groups are cropping up like crocuses, small acts of bravery bloom. The Society for a Merrier Present marched in Prague this past summer, its members waving cucumbers and wearing watermelons on their heads. More than 30,000 Czechs, many of them middle-class and professional people, have risked government wrath by signing “A Few Sentences,” a petition calling for an end to censorship and the immediate release of all political prisoners.


A couple pause after lighting a candle at a graffiti artists's rendering of former Czech President Vaclav Havel. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“Havel has been pushed into the role of an unwritten leader,” said Vaclav Maly, a dissident priest. “He must ... do real politics. In my opinion, he doesn’t have a choice.”

On hearing this, Havel sinks back into a chair in the small, sunny living room of his apartment and fingers a tumbler of Grant’s whiskey. Small, round-shouldered, with bright blond hair and a small mustache, Havel looks younger than his 52 years. But his manner is grave, almost ghostly, a quality exaggerated by the cloud of cigarette smoke around his head. When he speaks he sounds more like Hamlet than Walesa.

“This society needs politicians who would be able to execute politics on a professional level. My only hope is there would be such a group of people soon, so that I, as an amateur politician, would be able to step aside and devote myself to theater.”

He does not agree with those who think demonstrations will force change in Czechoslovakia. Those who do, he says, are naive.


A portrait of late Czech statesman Vaclav Havel stands next to candles at the Wenceslas square in Prague. (Marko Drobnjakovic/AP)

That he is confronted with this cross at all is the fault of Czechoslovakia’s aging leadership, who earlier this year managed what years of favorable publicity in the West never had: They made Havel a celebrity in his own land.

It happened in February, while Havel was on trial in connection with pro-democracy demonstrations the month before. For five icy nights, thousands of young people faced down water cannons and police truncheons. Heads were cracked and blood flowed. It was the biggest demonstration since the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 crushed a Prague Spring of reform. This fact was not lost on government.

Intent on intimidating anyone else who might be thinking of demonstrating, the government decided to make a public example of Havel. The leadership mounted a campaign of such vitriol that even ordinary people sat up and took notice.

“The communists attacked him so strongly that everyone in Czechoslovakia said, ‘Who is this Havel? They have slandered him so strongly that he must be important,’ “ said Maly.

By the time the trial ended and Havel was locked away in a prison cell with two corrupt Stalinists and a state-censored television set, a transformation had occurred, one that today leaves Havel confronted with a dilemma.

“He cannot say forever, ‘I am only a moral voice.’ People in this country are searching for a charismatic symbol, and that symbol has certain responsibilities. He must take risks,” said Maly, a close friend and an admirer.

He has, of course, taken risks all along, and paid a high price.

He has spent five years in prison, where he got sick and nearly died, and picked up the lung infection that hasn’t healed.

All of his plays are banned here. He hasn’t seen one performed since 1975. He’s watched a few on videotape, but it’s not the same. He hasn’t been out of Czechoslovakia in 20 years. He’s been afraid that the government wouldn’t let him back in if he left.

And he is watched.

Sometimes the police barge in and take his word processor. Sometimes it’s a batch of papers. Sometimes they take him. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes longer. Always without warning.

It’s the uncertainty that gets to him, he says. It’s getting up in the morning and not knowing if you will make it back to bed.

“You plan something, and then this storm appears, and then nothing is as you planned,” he says. “If they told me today that on January 1 I go to prison, I would plan my week up to January 1. I would finish my work, give some instructions to my wife, write a will, and then I could go smiling to prison. But the thing is, it can happen tomorrow or not at all.”

He has been a thorn in the side of the government since the 1960s, writing letters critical of communist leadershipand more than a dozen plays that pick apart the absurdities of a system that tolerates no public criticism. In 1977 he was one of three founders of Charter 77, which was set up to monitor government persecution of dissenters.

In a speech that was secretly tape-recorded this summer, Milos Jakes, the country’s hard-line Communist Party leader, said Havel is now too prominent to arrest. Jakes suggested that government must confine its harassment to smaller fish, and to a certain extent it has, busying itself with detaining a younger generation of dissidents.

Havel volunteered last month to be the Charter 77 spokesman while the official spokemen were in prison. The phone in his apartment rings incessantly. He was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Asked what the prize would mean to him, he groans. “It would mean tremendous support for our people, but for me it would be a tragedy, because until the end of my life I would have to talk to journalists.”

Before he went to prison, it took him an average of two years to write a play. Now he can do it in a month, but the trouble is he can’t even get that much time.

“I have to rearrange my schedule,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “My wife and I must do this soon.”

His apartment is filled with the smell of his cigarettes, Petras, a Czech brand. They have a queer, sour smell -- more like burning vegetables than tobacco. It is the perfume of opposition in Eastern Europe.

He quotes his last prison conversation with a Charter 77 co-founder, Jan Patocka, who died soon after in his cell. “He said the real test of a man is not the way he fulfills the role he invented for himself, but how he fulfills the role fate casts upon him.”

Wenceslas Square is actually a long, open boulevard that stretches on a gentle course upward between two rows of shops and hotels, capped by the sooty, baroque glory of what is now a large state museum.

On normal days, the square is clogged with Western European tourists. Czechoslovaks walk arm in arm. Taxicabs idle along the curb, soldiers in uniform walk unacknowledged by the crowd. Up at one end of the boulevard, in front of the museum, there is a small statue of Saint Wenceslas. It was there, in January 1969, that a student named Jan Palach immolated himself to protest the Soviet invasion. The anniversary of Palach’s death this year started as a flower-laying ceremony, but it grew into a protest, swelled by ordinary passersby who joined it.

August, the 21st anniversary of the actual invasion, was different. The government began issuing ominous warnings weeks ahead of time. All dissidents would be arrested. Force would be used. Havel and many other dissidents left the city. Havel even went on Western radio to warn people of the danger.

By early morning, the square was peppered with undercover police, dressed in denim sports clothes and holding the telltale leather handbags they use to carry their guns. At 9 o’clock, approximately 500 police moved into the Catholic cathedral -- an effort to intimidate anyone who showed up for the Mass to be said by the outspoken cardinal. The police had many video cameras. They wound up taking a lot of footage of themselves. There were more police than worshipers. Mindful of Havel’s warning, only about 300 people showed up on the square that day, about a fourth of them foreigners. They were arrested, and most were released soon after.

Havel’s decision was supported by Charter founder Jiri Hajek. But not everyone was happy.

“I think Havel estimated the situation incorrectly. He did not call their bluff,” said Peter Uhl, a Charter 77 member who has spent nine years in prison. “I wouldn’t wish any bloodshed here, but mass demonstrations are contributing to change here.”

Havel looks pained when this is repeated to him.

“There might be 20 demonstrations like this. Each, of course, is important, each is expressing something about the state of society, but even so, 20 demonstrations won’t create democracy. Democracy has to be learned by everyone, step by step.

“I’m a bit afraid that people here have unlearned to behave in such a way. I think it’s necessary to remind people that this is the most important obligation, and we can’t get out of it by, on a certain anniversary, letting 5,000 of our courageous children go somewhere where they are bound to be confronted with danger.”

Poland’s Solidarity had 10 million members — nearly a fourth of the population — when it pushed the government to outlaw it in 1981 and impose martial law.

“I believe that this society will change and become more democratic at the moment when all citizens strive for it with all their activities -- in everyday life,” Havel says. “Not even the most charismatic leader in the world would be able to do it for them.”

That’s not the way Uhl sees it. “Vaclav Havel is a man of good heart, a humanitarian,” Uhl said. “The problem is he does not support any concrete political program. He is an intellectual to such a high degree that I don’t think he will be able to pursue one.”

In Czechoslovakia, there are 1 million members of the Communist Party, of a population of 15 million.

The conventional wisdom is that the quid pro quo imposed by the government — a degree of material prosperity in exchange for surrendering their political voice — is still holding. Czechoslovaks are still among the most prosperous Eastern European citizens. Most still have too much to lose — cars, country houses — to risk real challenge to the government. The economy isn’t growing, but it will be a long time before things deteriorate to the level that drove Polish workers to Solidarity.

When Havel was on trial in February, he received cards and letters of support. One postcard came from a state factory, from the kind of people who will have to be won over before Czechoslovakia will change.

“We shake your hand,” the card said. “The majority of the nation is with you, but fear is still dominant. Long live free Czechoslovakia and all independent organizations.” It was signed by 25 workers.

It will take more than 25 workers to make a difference tomorrow. The ostensible reason for the gathering is to commemorate the 71st birthday of the Czechoslovak state.

Five opposition groups, including Charter 77, have issued a statement asking “free citizens” to gather in “peaceful commemoration” of the event. They had hoped to win the government’s permission for the legal right to demonstrate.

They didn’t get it. On a visit to Austria this week, Czechoslovak Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec ruled out any dialogue with independent groups. He regards the opposition as lawbreakers, and threatened to arrest opposition figures who show up.

“It is very difficult to find a common language with these people,” he has said.

Wenceslas Square will be sealed off tomorrow morning while the army inducts new cadets. At noon, the ceremony is supposed to be over. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Ten thousand, it is said, are too easily dispersed to make a difference. One hundred thousand would be a problem for the government, but no one really expects that many to show.

Havel this week had announced to Radio Free Europe his intention to come this time.

“The risk of being imprisoned is actually the smallest risk,” he said in his apartment earlier this month. “The annoyance is that I go out, but I may not get to the demonstration at all.

“But I am ready to play my role further. I can’t judge if I am a charismatic leader, but I am ready to serve a good cause.”

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