“Tidy yourself up! We might be Czechs, but we don’t have to let the rest of the world know.” This is apparently one of the lingeringly popular jokes from The Good Soldier Švejk, one of the resounding classics of Czech literature. The fact that I don’t find it any funnier than you will tell you what you need to know about my embarrassingly sparse connection to Czech literature (if the fact that I had to Google it didn’t tip you off). With that serving as a pre-emptive appology, let me tell you as best as I can why Václav Havel was important (without any more Googling, I promise).
At the end of World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill sold my people out to Stalin at Yalta, and the big ‘ol Iron Curtain fell on us. And while it was a light-sneeze version of the Stalinist/Totalitarian sort of thing that they’re, for example, still living up in North Korea to this day, it was still a very different lifestyle from ordinary poverty. There’s an extremely real paranoia that exists, because even if you’ve never gone before the officials on charges that were made against you buy anonymous spies, you know that it happens all the time. Also, this: you can join “The Communist Party” or not. YOUR CHOICE. If you don’t join, the government and others in positions of power won’t trust you. You’ll be denied perks, career advancement, and safety. If you do join, you’ll loose the respect and trust of all your friends. Unless they’re all Party members too. But those are the people with sticks up their ass, right? You either sacrifice your integrity or you sacrifice your prosperity and comfort.
Remember too that Communism is a failed system. And however incompletely it got a hold of then-Czechoslovakia, it was enough that it did a lot of damage. Poverty sucks, but it sucks even more when the accepted way of getting around it is a system of “who you know” and official and unofficial bribes. (Here’s the cool part: those systems existed both outside and inside the party.) The only blessing in all of this is that the totalitarianism was incomplete. They left, to the contrast with say the miserable North Korean dictatorship, enough breathing room for dissidents to function.
And that’s what the people with integrity did. Through the 50s, the 60s (1968 brought a big crackdown from the Russians that put even more of a damper on things), the 70s, and the 80s, they did whatever they could to resist the system. They refused to participate in the dumb rules the Bolsheviks tried to force on the population. They published essays in underground newspapers. They started subversive rock bands (this’d be a great place for a link, but I said I was writing this without Google, remember? … You can look up the Plastic People of the Universe as well as I can). Whenever possible, they staged protests.
Václav Havel was a pivotal figure in this movement, in these protests. But he was also a symbol of the fact that, unlike so many other protests, this one was led by artists. I started with a joke from Švejk, which I haven’t read. I’ve also not read a lot of Havel. It’d be silly of me to blame that on anything but my enduring laziness — I can read Czech well enough to be able to get through it if I really wanted to, and in any case there are English translations around — but another thing is that his writing is in some sense a version of that you-had-to-be-there joke. It’s absurdism I suppose in the vein of Kafka and Beckett, with lots and lots of inspiration from the insanity, the paranoia, and the maddening dumbness of living under totalitarianism, and infused with that ultra-dry, uniquely Czech humor.
So anyway, in 1989 we had the Velvet Revolution, named in part because for once nobody died and in part for the Velvet Underground, of whom Havel and others in the movement were fans (factoid: Lou Reed interviewed Havel during his presidency). And through some unknown combination of pure charisma, actual leadership, and no doubt the usual back-channel maneuvers, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia (which promptly split into the Czech and Slovak republics, so please stop calling it that).
He became shades of something like a Desmond Tutu or the Dali Lama there for awhile — a world figure who could make things happen just with his calm presence. And he led the Czechs through an extremely tumultuous transition, avoiding barbaric reprisals against members of the previous regime, backsliding into comfortable habits, and economic collapse. The latter is particularly remarkable when compared to some of the surrounding countries around that time (and less remarkable when you see how well the Czech Republic was able to brand itself as an inexpensive and effulgent tourist destination (Also worth pointing out here is the distinction in European governments between the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the more powerful of the two positions. The President is, to some degree, an honorary position, and leads mostly by persuasion. It’s about halfway between the US President and the Queen of England.))
The point is that he was equal parts a symbol, a great writer, and a great leader. He surely deserved — though never received — the Nobel Peace Prize. And the world is diminished by his absence. The poet and playwright turned dissident turned world leader. Not something you’ll see again to soon, I fear.
Cross-posted at THL, home of things better than you’ll generally find here