The Magazine

Rebel with a Cause

Vaclav Havel from dissident to president

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A long time ago, I saw some photographs taken at one of the clandestine meetings of Polish and Czech dissidents in the 1980s. Like high school year-book pictures or snapshots of the prom, they had a certain dated charm. There the dissidents all were, looking younger and happier, gleefully toasting the camera with bottles of beer, celebrating the fact that they had, once again, eluded their secret police services, border guards, and informer networks, and managed to hold an international summit in the middle of the wilderness, high up in the Tatra mountains that divide their countries.

The photographs were shown to me as curiosities, evidence of the conspiratorial capabilities of the dissident movements of yore. But as I think back on it, they were more than that: They were probably the only photographs of a generation -- call it "the class of 1968" -- rarely to be found in one place at one time.

We tend to think of the dissident movements in Central Europe as having been distinct, both from one another and from what was happening in the West. And indeed, physically, they were. But they were not so separate as we might suppose. Just as the events of 1968 affected their contemporaries in Paris and Berkeley, so too 1968 affected those who were students at the time all across Central Europe and most notably in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Admittedly, the parameters were different. Young Czechs were not condemning bourgeois democracy but helping to create the Prague spring. Young Poles were not denouncing capitalism but organizing university riots against communism in Warsaw. Still, many of the central European dissidents were the children of Communists and were thus engaged in a recognizable form of generational rebellion. Many were influenced by the ideas of the New Left, and also spoke dreamily of a Third Way between communism and capitalism. In those old Tatra mountain photos, they were all still wearing the international uniform of their age -- blue jeans, sneakers, T-shirts -- and many of them still do.

Just as the baby boomers left their distinctive stamp on American politics, so the class of 1968 left its mark on Central Europe. There were obviously other factors involved in the collapse of communism (the Polish Catholic church, the war in Afghanistan), but the dissidents who came of age in 1968 played an enormous role: They became both the tacticians and the coordinators of the revolutions of 1989. They wrote and distributed the samizdat pamphlets, helped organize the strikes and protests, and kept Western journalists informed. In the wake of the 1989 revolution, many moved from shadow politics into public roles as ministers, legislators, journalists. They had extremely high hopes at the time, and no wonder: They were heroes, leaders, and idealists poised to put their ideals into practice.

Alas, it was not to be. A decade later, the dissidents of the 1968 generation look much less heroic, much more irrelevant. The new order has not been kind to them. Some found they hated the rigors of democratic politics, which required them to submit themselves to the judgment of voters who didn't necessarily perceive them (as they perceived themselves) to be morally superior beings, sanctified by years of underground politics. Others found they hated capitalism, and failed to understand how economic change would affect themselves, their friends, and society. Most dropped out. Some remain drenched in nostalgia. Only a few were successful, politically and intellectually, in the new order. And of those few, only one stands out: Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic.

Looked at in isolation, Havel can seem, if not a failure, then at least a disappointment. He is still the Czech president, but he is ill and has aged badly. He is far less popular than he once was (he had the bad taste to marry a young actress soon after the death of his popular wife). He has been accused of everything from naivete in foreign policy and economics, to surrounding himself with layers of bureaucrats and yes-men, to forgetting his old friends.

He did not prevent the division of the Czechoslovak state. He failed to make his country the promoter of international peace and harmony he had hoped it would be, or even the economic powerhouse others had predicted. Prague has become a tourist mecca, but Poland's economy is more dynamic and Hungary's political scene is more stable.