The Magazine

Rebel with a Cause

Vaclav Havel from dissident to president

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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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.

Worse, at least a part of Havel's claim to intellectual fame looks, in retrospect, far less certain than it once did. Havel's plays have not stood the test of time. Once, the fact that they seem a bit like a juvenile attempt to out-Kafka Kafka could be politely ignored: Merely to stage one was a political statement. Now, however, with their wooden characters, each one representing a social type -- the Communist Official, the Bourgeois Intellectual, the Dull Conformist, the Rebel -- and their heavy parody of bureaucratic language, they seem tedious. Here are a few lines of dialogue from The Garden Party, written in 1963:

Secretary: You are now at the main entrance B13. You can buy here a general ticket which entitles you to move freely throughout the whole area of the garden and to visit almost all the events organized within the framework of the Liquidation Office Garden Party.

Clerk: There is, for an example, an informal chat with the Head of the Development Department about new liquidation methods, taking place in the area around the Little Pond --

Secretary: An entertaining Quiz programme on the history of the Liquidation Office, taking place in Summerhouse No. 3 --

Clerk: Or the programme of humourous stories from the liquidation practice of Section 5 which have been written down and will be narrated by the Head of Section Five. . . .

Secretary: And in which you yourself can participate, provided you have sent the exact text of your story together with a health certificate and a permit from your Head of Section to the Secretariat of Humour and to the Ideological Regulation Commission at the latest two months before the date of this Garden Party.

And so on, and on.

For these reasons and others, John Keane's recent biography of Havel -- the first substantial book about the Czech president to appear in English -- doesn't try to whitewash any of Havel's flaws. Subtitled "A Political Tragedy in Six Acts," Keane carefully catalogues the man's physical decline and paints a devastating, almost luridly melodramatic portrait of the Czech president. Havel seems, by the end, like a man clinging to power, hungering after lost youth, engaged in a bitter, losing fight against death. Keane even quotes Adam Michnik, the Polish polemicist -- and Havel's friend, a co-member of the class of 1968 -- asking Havel, "What will you do, how will you feel, when the clapping stops and the hissing and heckling begins?"

Answers Keane, "Perhaps the only person suitably qualified to reply, if only he could, was the figure of death on the enchanting medieval clock in Prague's Old Town Square."

Yet those who consider Havel a disappointment at best, a failure at worst, generally miss a few things about him. For one, out of that whole, promising generation of Central European dissident politicians, he was the only one capable of summing up their activity into a piece of coherent political philosophy. He was indeed a mediocre playwright, but his plays were bad because they were too obviously political.

His famous 1979 essay, however, "The Power of the Powerless," isn't hampered by that flaw. Clear and concise in an almost Anglo-Saxon fashion, it is also just about the only political tract written by the 1968 generation that actually had any international influence and merits re-reading. By contrast, the writings of Miklos Haraszti (a Hungarian of comparable glamour) now seem dated: His book, The Velvet Prison, will be relevant only to historians of Hungary. The same is true of Michnik (perhaps the only Pole of comparable fame). Michnik's most celebrated essay -- a tactical argument in favor of reconciling the Polish Church and the "Lay Left" (in order to fight communism) -- doesn't have relevance anymore even in Poland, where the Church and the "Lay Left" (led by Michnik) are again at loggerheads.

But "The Power of the Powerless" sums up the theory of resistance to totalitarianism in a way that is relevant not only to Central Europeans but to anyone living under a regime that tries to control every aspect of its subjects' lives, from work to school to leisure. To fight such a state -- and to live an ethical, moral life -- Havel promoted the notion of "living in truth." This did not necessarily mean going to demonstrations or waving banners. Instead, Havel advocated living one's everyday life as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible.

In a totalitarian society, this was a genuine form of resistance, and by the late 1980s, it was widely practiced across the region. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register with the police the fact that I was staying in a private home. "We don't do that," my friends told me. "We don't believe the police have the right to know who stays with us." I didn't register -- and because thousands of other people didn't either, the law gradually became unenforceable.

On a grander scale, Havel was really talking about the creation of civil society, the founding of small institutions -- musical groups, even, or literary discussion circles -- that could develop an "independent life of society" and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This was practiced, in Prague's famous "independent" philosophy seminars, in the underground presses and samizdat printing networks across the Eastern bloc, in Poland's "Flying University," and, most successfully, in Poland's independent trade unions. The Poles, whose Communist regime was already pretty shabby and easier to resist by the late 1970s, probably appreciated Havel's essay more than anyone. Zbigniew Bujak, at the time a young strike leader, is quoted by Keane as saying that Havel's essay in 1979 "gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits."

Yet what is remarkable about Havel is that, having beautifully described the means of resistance to a Communist regime, he also instantly understood that a different sort of behavior was called for after the regime had collapsed. In 1989, upon being elected president, Havel realized that the most urgent task was not continued dissidence, but the re-creation of the state. This meant, among other things, that Prague's Castle -- literally a castle, and also the offices of the head of state -- had to be transformed from a symbol of oppression to a symbol of pride and of democratically elected authority. Thus he had his offices freshly painted and hung with contemporary art, took down the steel fence around the garden, and acquired a set of BMWs in red, white, and blue (colors of the Czech flag) to use as a presidential cavalcade. He insisted upon bringing back -- at least until the national division -- the prewar name of his country, the Republic of Czechoslovakia. He appeared with foreign leaders and pop stars, yet at the same time started wearing suits, stopped talking about absurdist theater, and started discussing legislation, ministries, and world events.

Not all of Havel's efforts to bring glamour and glory and seriousness of purpose back to the office of the presidency met with approval -- particularly among the generation of 1968. Havel's first wife, Olga, protested that she disliked the "pomposity" of the presidency and would only participate minimally in official life. Some of his oldest friends resigned in disgust from their jobs as Havel's aides, claiming that "the Castle" had become uncomfortably cold and formal; others complained that he no longer came to their bohemian parties, or that when he did, he seemed distant and withdrawn. They would get drunk; he would sit in the corner and silently roll cigarettes.

But while it is true that Havel made many, many mistakes, in this one sense, he was unique among his dissident contemporaries in Prague and elsewhere. Many of them turned out simply to be natural rebels or natural troublemakers. Havel, the son of a well-to-do family, turned out rather to be a natural bourgeois: His primary goal was to pick up the pieces of the prewar Czechoslovak state, to re-create what had been. He is not, and never was, by American or Western European standards a "conservative," but nor was he out to create a new utopian world where the president lived a life no different from an ordinary person.

Some of his declarations were naive: His much-publicized statement, early on, that unlike its Communist predecessor, the new Czechoslovakia would no longer engage in arms dealing particularly angered the Slovaks, in whose territory most of Czechoslovakia's arms factories lay. But given that he was president of a country whose most famous export was Semtex, the explosive of choice for terrorist groups around the world, the effort was commendable. Havel wanted to alter his country's international image and return it to the values upon which he believed his parents' society was founded.

For this reason, I suspect that -- personal flaws notwithstanding -- he will remain the most memorable historical figure of his generation. In fact, Havel's successes (most notably that he has been in office now for more than a decade) suggest how the rest of the 1968 generation across Central Europe and the Soviet Union failed. The dissidents of those days have faded into the woodwork in East Germany, vanished utterly in Russia, and played a dubious role in Poland and Hungary.

Of course, some have gone on to have distinguished political or academic careers. For the most part, however, those who continue to play public roles do so as journalists, the profession to which the irresponsibly critical have always been attracted. Obsessed for so long with the tactics of rebellion, few understood the importance of founding and creating institutions.

But Havel did understand. He told us so in "The Power of the Powerless" all those years ago: The best way to achieve change is not to scream for destruction but quietly to build the world anew.