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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Vaclav Havel

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Interviewed April 2010

Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).

Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family. For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary humanities program, but eventually he was able to study drama by correspondence and began publishing articles and plays. In 1968 he was a prominent participant in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization that ended when the Warsaw Pact stationed troops in the country.

In 1976 and 1977 Havel helped lead the effort to produce the human rights manifesto known as Charter 77, which criticized the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its human rights obligations under the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. In April 1979, Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was imprisoned three separate times for his activities.

In 1989, Havel played a leading role in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” which brought an end to the communist political system in Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president of the country that year. He led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy and presided over the country's accession into NATO. Since leaving office, Havel has committed himself to the promotion of democracy in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Burma. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. 

Well, there was, there was a very varied spectrum, spectrum of persecution and injustice. From the most extreme alternative that meant imprisonment. But that was not the only option. That was, that was somewhat the most extreme, extreme sanction. A person could have been imprisoned at any time. Nobody could ever be sure. At the same time, there was a varied spectrum of other ways.

Above all, people who were for example involved in Charter 77 had a hard time finding a job. They were constantly summoned to interrogations. Their children, their relatives were retaliated against. (Inaudible) the children were not accepted to school or, or and the like. Sometimes, this manifested itself in physical violence. A person was beaten up, bashed up and driven blindfolded outside the city limits into the forest. He did not know where he was in the cold or something similar.

Nobody ever knew when a house search would take place. When I was writing something, I had to always take several finished pages somewhere to hide so that I would not store them in my house when a house search was performed since they would be confiscated. So this is how dissidents or the opposition were persecuted. There were several different forms of persecution here and several manifestations of it. Nevertheless, at the same time, somehow, this strengthened these relationships and made solidarity with one another stronger.

I think, I think that a very important thing, which I always repeat when I speak with dissidents from those countries where a certain kind of dictatorship still exists, that a very important thing was the good feeling that we were doing something right, something that should be done, that we were not, we did not have that unpleasant feeling of certain uncleanness, grubbiness with the, resulting from the fact that we compromise or we do not say what we really think, that we bend, we conform to the pressure.

The basic, that sort of freeing feeling, is important and it is more important than the question of when and how this will transform into some noticeable, noticeable success. It could transform tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in ten years or it might never transform. That cannot be calculated, calculated with, even though it is better when it transforms tomorrow.

Well, partly, that patience does pay, that that is probably the basic lesson in our, in our case. Well, of course, I would have done many details probably better having had today’s experience, but, on the other hand, I think that it is good that, as a younger person, I was more courageous, bolder and more energetic than I am today.

When I think of some of my actions mainly after, during the revolution and at the very beginning of my presidency, when I think of some of my actions, I mildly blush. And, on the other hand, I tell myself that it is good that it was the way it was. That, perhaps, I would not be as, as courageous and everything would not have the same effect, had I had the amount of experience I have today. 

The Czech Republic is a democratic country in Central Europe with a population of approximately 10.5 million people.

From 1918 until 1993, the territory now comprising the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which from 1948 to 1989 was part of the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. During this period, the communist government nationalized industry and imposed a highly repressive political system that included the use of secret police and the imprisonment of individuals who challenged the authority of the state.

In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, attempted to relax some of the more oppressive limitations on Czechoslovak citizens by allowing greater freedom of expression and association. This period, which was known as the “Prague Spring,” ended when Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and forced the country to abandon the reforms.

In 1977, a group of dissidents led by playwright Vaclav Havel published a document known as Charter 77, which called attention to abuses of human rights by the Czechoslovak government. The initiative called upon the government to respect its international commitments on human rights as elaborated in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Charter 77 helped draw international attention to conditions within the country.

The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985 began a process of limited reform in the communist bloc. In 1989, Poland held partially free elections that saw the opposition come to power. Hungary’s communist government opened its borders and began a negotiated transition to democracy. And in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest communist rule in what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.” On November 28, 1989, the Communist Party was forced to announce that it would cede power and allow free elections. The new parliament elected former dissident Vaclav Havel as president on December 29, 1989. As president, Havel made his country a leader in defending and supporting human rights around the world. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which later joined the European Union and NATO.

Since its transition to democracy, the Czech Republic has developed stable and democratic systems of governance and a free market economy. Political power has rotated among several strong and competitive political parties, and free and fair elections are held. In 2013, Miloš Zeman was elected president in the first direct presidential election in the country’s history.

In the most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, the Czech Republic earned a rating of “free.” The country earned the highest possible scores in overall freedom, civil liberties, and political rights.

More on this theme from Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel: Intimidating Dissidents Recalls attempts by the Communist government to harrass and intimidate dissidents.