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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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.