Vaclav Havel

President of the Czech Republic.,

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. This culminated with the publication of the Charter77 manifesto. His political activities cost him five years in prison. He was a leading figure in the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989. On December 29, 1989, as head of the Civic Forum, he was elected president by the Federal Assembly.

Gets style points for Appoint-ing Frank Zappa as "special ambassador to the West for culture" (appointment killed by the US State Department)

Died Dec18'2011.

Good long profile of Vaclav Havel, the "Velvet President". At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be George Orwell's heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism - even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction... In January, in one of his last official acts as president, he joined seven other European political leaders in signing an open letter supporting Bush's policy toward War On Iraq... "His essays, lectures, and prison letters from the last quarter century are, taken altogether, among the most vivid, sustained, and searching explorations of the moral and political responsibility of the intellectual produced anywhere in Europe," wrote Timothy Garton Ash.

Here, in Havel's earliest essay to be translated into English, you can already find the four main themes that have animated his adult nonfiction writing ever since. One is the responsibility to make the world a better place. Another is that the slightest bit of personal dishonesty warps the soul. ("The minute we begin turning a blind eye to what we don't like in each other's writing, the minute we begin to back away from our own inner norms, to accommodate ourselves to each other, cut deals with each other over poetics, we will in fact set ourselves against each other...until one day we will disappear in a general fog of mutual admiration.") A third theme is that ideology-driven governance is practically doomed to fail. ("It prevents whoever has it in his power to solve the problem of the Prague fa├žades from understanding that he bears responsibility for something and that he can't lie his way out of that responsibility.") Finally, there is his belief in the revolutionary potency of individuals speaking freely and "living in truth."

In April 1975, facing an utterly demoralized country and an understandable case of writer's block, Havel committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later. He simply sat down and, knowing that he'd likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustav Husak, explaining in painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czecho Slovakia. "So far," Havel scolded Husak, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."

Then, in 1976, four members (of the Plastic People) were arrested on charges of "disturbing the peace." The Czech dissident movement, newly roused by Havel's open letter, made the trial an international cause. Havel, who intuitively grasped the symbolism of the case, was in the courtroom every day to witness and document the judicial farce. Just as George Orwell saw picking up a gun to shoot fascists in the Spanish Civil War as "the only conceivable thing to do," Havel understood this assault on freedom as one outrage too far. It was a turning point in his life. "Everyone understood," he wrote later, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."

"If shopkeepers and others suddenly stopped observing the rituals, and instead spoke and acted freely, he predicted (with unnerving accuracy), "The entire pyramid of totalitarian power, deprived of the element that binds it together, would collapse in upon itself, as it were, in a kind of material implosion."

The one Czech politician who consistently challenged Klaus to get economic reform rolling again was none other than Vaclav Havel, the same guy suspected in the early '90s of being a Third Way quasi-socialist without the "stomach" for market policies. For those more interested in facts than in stereotypes, Havel's remarkable December 9, 1997, speech to the Czech Parliament took Klaus to the woodshed for dragging his feet on reforms and advocated specific measures far toothier than the shock therapy slogans Klaus had been mouthing since 1990. According to Havel, reforms had resulted in the appearance of a market rather than the real thing. "I do not share the view held by some of you that the entire transformation started from the wrong foundations, was wrongly devised and wrongly directed," Havel said. "I would rather say that our problem lies in the very opposite: the transformation process stopped halfway, which is possibly the worst thing that could have happened to it.

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