PRAGUE -- Vaclav Havel has grandiose plans to save the soul of Czechoslovakia. Only then, he told us, can his people transcend the daunting economic and political problems in front of them.

That means shoveling out the muck of 40 years of Communism, when Czechoslovakia's spirit was crushed and when the most patriotic thing a Czech could do was steal from his government so his family could survive.

"The devastation of the spirit, of human behavior here, has been much deeper, much more profound than the devastation of all other forms of life," President Havel told us in an interview. "There has been much deformation of soul. There has been a deformation of interpersonal relations. And it is sure now that it will take a long time before the situation can be rectified."

Czechs and Slovaks had learned under Communist rule to cheat, steal and lie. For example, to survive the spiritual void of Prague's officialdom, many city dwellers maintained weekend cottages in the country. The common joke was that only East Germans spent Sundays in Prague.

The country cottages were built, restored or maintained by tools and supplies stolen from government workplaces. It was popular among workers to say, "If you aren't cheating, then you are cheating your family." A Czech movie, "Friday Is No Holiday," satirized the custom. It portrayed workers who were lazy Monday through Thursday, but who came alive on Friday to filch things from their employers.

The Communists in Czechoslovakia, more than any other Warsaw Pact nation, learned to pacify their people with consumer goods. Life in Czechoslovakia was relatively easy compared to Poland or East Germany. But the Czechs paid dearly for allowing themselves to be bought off by creature comforts. A famous character in their literature, called "The Good Soldier Schweik," typifies the sellout. Schweik pretended to be an idiot to save his skin in World War I, once exclaiming to the enemy, "Don't shoot. There are people here."

One of the top dissidents who helped Havel stir Czechoslovakians to revolt was Josef Vavrousek, an economist. He said the single "integrative factor" of the dissidents who made that revolution work was a sense of ethics. Other Czechoslovakians had pulled within themselves -- Vavrousek called it "inner emigration" -- to survive one repressive regime after another from the Hapsburgs to the Nazis to the Communists.

Academy Award-winning film director Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), a friend of Havel's, predicted to us that the transformation of the Czech soul will be "a long process. It really needs a certain kind of spiritual grandeur which Havel and some of his people have." Forman thinks Havel is trying to break the cycle of action and reaction, crime and revenge in Czechoslovakia's history.

Forman once wrote in The Post, "The most difficult task in these {East European} countries today is not the health of their economies, but the ecology of the human mind. Havel understands very well that if the 40-year-old ghost of totalitarian thinking is not exorcised from the minds of millions, the money invested in the economy will disappear like water in the sand. For decades these societies valued and celebrated dishonest victory more than honest defeat. This simple perversion did immeasurable damage to the hierarchy of principles that govern the relationship between man and society."

Havel agrees with Forman. "I'm convinced -- even before our revolution -- that global problems of our civilization can be solved only if and when human spirituality is reborn. And by this, I mean also all the human qualities," Havel told us. "I believe it is important that people realize that there are more important things in life than their own immediate and particular personal needs."

Havel thinks it is time for "the interpreters, or the bearers or the guards, if you will, of spirituality to come forward and assume more political responsibility." He has already done that himself. He was offered freedom to emigrate to the United States in 1979 or imprisonment in Prague, and he chose to stay. "The solution of this human situation does not lie in leaving," he said then. "Fourteen million people just can't go and leave Czechoslovakia empty."

So the country is in the hands of at least one interpreter, bearer or guard of spirituality. Some may write off Havel as an irresponsible dreamer leading a nation that needs politicians, not playwrights. Time will tell whether the other Eastern European countries that also need spiritual healing will make more headway with pragmatism.