Václav Havel 1936 – 2011 – Dissident to the end

With evening falling and word of Václav Havel’s death already spread throughout the city, a line was forming in front of Prague’s Memorial of the student demonstrations of November 17th. Although the memorial itself is under cover people stood waiting outside under the winter’s first snow flurries to pay tribute to a man whose legacy is very hard to gauge in his native land.

More tributes and larger crowds later formed at the statue of St. Wenceslas, the locus of the mass demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution that made Havel an international name. But as I walked home past numerous restaurants and pubs I noticed that about half of them left their televisions tuned in to the usual sports – in this case volleyball – while the rest switched to the news running non-stop coverage showing documentary footage of Havel and the events he is most closely associated with.

At the restaurant on my corner the waiters and customers alike stared silently at the screen, hardly noticing when I came in the door (not that that’s unusual). What their feelings were I couldn’t really guess, though. These weren’t people who will be carrying lighted candles on  Wenceslas Square. They looked sad, but also uncomfortable and a little blank (also not unusual).

It was a truism that he was revered far more abroad than he was in the Czech Republic. The only question to be sorted out was how much this had to do with a Czech lack of reverence and how much it specifically had to do with Havel himself and his turn as president. It was almost certainly a combination of the two.

I used to regularly pass by Havel’s office in the center of Prague and the simple plaque with his name on it was rarely left unscathed from someone adding a vulgar four-letter description to his name. It was depressing, and I don’t doubt that after a week or two of mourning, if not sooner, politicians and others will weigh in with their criticisms and attempts to chip away at his legacy.

What impresses me most about him was how active he was up to the very end, in spite of how frail he had become. On the occasion of the visit of Russian President (and soon-to-be Prime Minister again) Dmitry Medvedev with a fawning Czech President Václav Klaus at his side, Havel published a scathing commentary on Putin’s Russia in Russian magazine Novaya gazeta.

A few days later, together with the visiting Dalai Lama, Havel signed an appeal to support dissidents around the world. Less than a week later, the number of high-profile voices willing to speak out for those dissidents decreased by one. Adding to their ranks seems like it should be second nature, but it doesn’t work out that way.

It would be easy to assume that Havel’s own experiences of oppression are what led to his unwavering devotion to fellow dissidents when so many other world “leaders” turned a blind eye, but that discounts the fact that he faced up to oppression in the first place when so many others avoided it with similar excuses.

One of those dissidents, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre Nikolai Khalezhin, wrote in an obituary on the Charter 97 website that in preparing a manifesto supporting Belarusian artists last week they sent a copy for Havel to sign not expecting a response because of his ill health. Instead, they received a reply that Havel had signed the manifesto and word that he was sorry he couldn’t do more for Belarus. He died the next day.

Photo from Havel memorial by Michal Louč

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Categories: Literary History


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