Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday, will be remembered as a dissident playwright and Czechoslovakia’s first president following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. But he was more than a writer and a statesman. He was also a moral and intellectual leader of world stature and significance.
More so than any of the prominent figures from the period of anti-communist dissent, Havel used his position, voice and moral authority to advance present-day struggles for freedom. If he looked backward at all, it was only to find lessons from his own experience that might be useful for freedom-fighters today. Communicating those lessons, he once wrote to the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, was a way of repaying a debt to those who helped him in his own time of need.
He found many ways to repay that debt. In 1991, at a moment when he himself might have received the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Velvet Revolution, he campaigned successfully for it to be awarded to Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and remained a steadfast supporter of the Burmese democracy movement. He termed Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus “the disgrace of Europe” and extended moral and practical solidarity to the opposition there. He developed a deep connection with Paya’s Varela Project,which pressed for free elections and other basic rights in Cuba; and he established the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba, recruiting to it ex-presidents, members of parliament and distinguished writers from throughout Latin America and Europe. He co-authored a report applying the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to the totalitarian system in North Korea, And he led the successful international campaign to give the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, launching it with an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao demanding Liu’s release from prison. The letter was delivered on Jan. 6, 2010, the 33rd anniversary of the day Havel himself was arrested for delivering the democracy manifesto Charter 77 to the Prague Castle.
Havel performed these and other acts of solidarity with a distinct selflessness. The Iranian exile Ladan Boroumand recalls how Havel used an occasion when he was being honored at the Library of Congress in 2007 “to give visibility and support to obscure dissidents from around the world, men and women known to no one but the security forces in their respective countries.” Just 10 days ago in Prague, the Havel Library organized a similar forum for dissidents from Syria, Burma, Cuba and the Uyghur region of China.
Increasingly in his later years, Havel was in a constant search for spirituality. He was not religious in a formal way, but he was repelled by “the relativization of moral norms” and believed that all the values he cherished would be lost if modern man could not rediscover “his transcendental anchor.” He called the institutions of democracy “merely technical instruments that enable man to live in dignity, freedom and responsibility. But in and of themselves, they cannot guarantee his dignity, freedom and responsibility. The source of this basic human potential lies elsewhere: in man’s relationship to that which transcends him.” This spiritual dimension, he believed, is also what gives democracy its “universal resonance,” since it is what “connects all cultures and in fact all humanity.”
Havel died as he had lived — acting in solidarity and searching for the spiritual. In his last days, when he was extremely frail, he gathered his strength for two final acts — to meet once again with his good friend the Dalai Lama and to call upon the Russian opposition to unite after the recent elections. He was tended to by a nun, who sat quietly by his bedside during his last weeks.
In his great dissident essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel wrote of the threat that people “living in truth” pose to a system built on lies. He saw the communist system fall, as he expected it would. And in the decades that followed, when others settled for living in the half-truths of everyday politics, Havel found a way to continue living in truth. He is now gone, but he leaves a moral and intellectual legacy that is unsurpassed, and a model of how one can live in truth amid all the messiness and compromises of democratic politics. He was an inspiration and will remain so.