With the news this past weekend that Vaclav Havel, the one-time Czech president, had died, I found myself recalling a scene back in 1989, when I was lucky enough to spend a week in Prague with Havel, the leader of what eventually became known as the “Velvet Revolution” – the smooth, nonviolent, overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s once-brutal communist leadership.
I was on assignment to cover this very distinctive revolt, led not by a traditional political activist but by one who was also a poet and playwright of unique literary achievement, and I had arranged special access to him through a friend, the novelist Arnost Lustig, who was teaching then at American University in Washington, D.C. Once a dedicated communist (his first child, Joseph, also a friend, was named for Stalin), Lustig, a native Czech, had left after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring of 1968, destroying the reform-minded government of Alexander Dubcek for daring to build what was optimistically being called “socialism with a human face.” Knowing he was friendly with Havel, I had called Lustig for an introduction. He did more than that; he gathered up his family and came to Prague with me. For just about any Czech, especially a disillusioned communist, the fall of the brutal Czech state was a moment too delicious to miss.
Prague is a small city, but even by the standards of Old Europe its beauty is overwhelming. The narrow cobblestone streets are gracefully drawn and when you learn that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni there in 1787 – the theater is still a theater – you can imagine the whole place as a kind of 18th century opera set come to life. I had been there before, in the early 1980s, when the communist authorities had a much firmer grasp on the place. Back then, I was doing a story on the Jews who had survived in Prague. Once a thriving community, most of Prague’s Jews had suffered their end at Hitler’s camps and of the few who escaped that fate most had fled from the post-war hostility of the Czech communists. Back in the early ‘80s, the city had a dull grey hue — a crushed spirit makes even the most splendid scenery seem mournful – but in the spirit of ‘89 that was all gone. The beer halls were buzzing and the streets were filled with anticipation, thousands of Czechs milling about Wenceslas Square breaking into song and chanting for revolution.
I spent a considerable amount of time with Havel at the headquarters of the Obcenske (Civic) Forum, around which the forces for change had galvanized. Tucked into the second floor of an unassuming building, the offices had the disheveled look reminiscent, for me, of American campaign war rooms, with coffee cups, newspapers and food littered throughout and a feeling that no one among the dozens of people milling about the room had slept in days. Havel, dressed always, it seemed, in a worn sweater and jeans, fit right in, so much so that a stranger would never have guessed that he was the group’s leader.
When we arrived, he was pleased to see his old friend Lustig, and to meet me. Havel loved Americans. He asked me for news of New York City, a place he admired for its creative chaos – and with his ever-present cigarette in hand smiled wanly and spoke in low tones of the Czech people’s “moment,” the one that he was helping to create. There was a look of vindication in his face. Held under house arrest by the authorities, he had never stopped writing, even when they offered him freedom if he would recant his anti-government statements. Words, he said, matter. Not only to poets and playwrights. They matter – they should matter – to all, and yet in the absurdist language of the communist state, words were like free-floating objects, devoid of meaning or even carrying their opposite meaning. He found it darkly amusing that the authorities let him live “free” in his home while at the same time posting a sign outside that said, “Entrance Forbidden.”
“If an outside observer who knows nothing at all about life in Czechoslovakia were to study only its laws,” he said, “he or she would be utterly incapable of understanding what we are complaining about.” Indeed, more than a decade earlier, Havel had helped form Charter 77, a human rights organization that aimed to make Czechoslovakia live up to the freedom-loving language of its constitution. I asked him whether he might consider leading a post-communist Czechoslovakia, an idea which was already in the air, and he demurred, arguing that the movement was not his to direct; no, he said, looking skyward, the revolutionaries of 1989 were looking to a “metaphysical stage director” and as he spoke he pointed to a picture taken days earlier of a scene from Wenceslas Square where thousands were milling, looking up as if to say, “What now?”
In support of Havel and the reformers, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra had been on strike for months, but during the week I was there, when news finally came that the government had collapsed, the musicians rushed to perform a hastily arranged concert marking the triumph. They chose Beethoven’s Ninth with its rousing last-movement, “Ode to Joy.” Word of the sudden concert was passed around the city and as the time for the performance drew near, I joined Havel in a stroll from the Obcenske Forum offices to the concert hall. We were late (Havel was notorious for being late), but everyone knew that this concert would not start without Havel. Indeed, the audience was sitting quietly in its seats when the doors parted and they noticed him entering. As if on signal, the entire place rose in spontaneous applause, a thunderous standing ovation, and together all pointed their future leader to the place they had all reserved for him, the seat in the presidential box.
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.