Václav Havel has just received a major honour, with the unveiling of a bronze bust of the late dissident turned president at Columbia University in New York. Speaking at the ceremony, Havel’s friend Madeleine Albright said he would have been alarmed at some aspects of today’s world – but would not have succumbed to despair.
The event was part of the weeklong Rehearsal for Truth festival dedicated to Havel and organised by the Václav Havel Library Foundation in the US.
The main speaker at the packed ceremony was Madeleine Albright, who was US secretary of state at the same time Havel was president of the Czech Republic and knew him well.
The Prague-born political veteran told the mainly student audience that Havel would have been concerned by much that was happening in the world, if he were still alive.
“Clearly he would have been frustrated by the world’s inability to stop the slaughter in Syria. And he would have been deeply troubled by the response of his own country, and many of its neighbours in Europe, to the refugee crisis.
“He would have been alarmed by the rise of authoritarian nationalism, and by the turn of some Central European countries, including Hungary, Poland and even the Czech Republic, towards illiberal democracy.
“He would have been worried about European unity has been undermined by forces that are both external and internal.
“And I’m sure he would have been disturbed by an American president who openly scorns democratic values and the rule of law.
“So he would have felt frustrations, to be sure. But I’m equally certain that Václav Havel would not have allowed those frustrations to harden into despair. And neither should we.”
Though the forces of liberal democracy have taken something a battering in recent years, the leader of the Velvet Revolution would have felt his side were still in the fight, suggested Albright.
“Because throughout his life he bore witness to the rationalisations we often employ to avoid meeting our responsibilities, whether civic or moral.
“Like Nelson Mandela, he forgave his jailers and was charitable towards those who fell short in the test of courage.
“But he also assured us over and over again that we could do better.
“Whether he was reminding his own countrymen of their best traditions, or rousing the slumbering conscience of the world, he never wavered in his commitment to personal liberty, respect for human rights and the defence of liberal democracy.
“The best way for us to honour his legacy would be to renew our commitment to these principles.”
Madeleine Albright concluded her well-received address with the words of “a great man”.
“I quote: I’m not the optimist, because I’m not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I’m not sure ends badly. Instead I’m a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning and that liberty is always worth the trouble.
“As usual, Václav Havel said it just right. And Columbia University has made a most wise and fitting decision by choosing to honour him and the values for which he stood.
“I know that Václav Havel was proud of his connection to this great university, just as I am, and I know he would be absolutely thrilled by this gesture.
“So thank you all very much for your attention and for the opportunity to participate in this event. And as the Czechs would say, Pravda vítězí, Truth prevails.”
The bronze bust of Havel is the last in a short series produced by the Czech sculptor Marie Šeborová, who made her first visit to the US for the dedication ceremony.
“Unfortunately I never met Václav Havel personally. Of course I know him very well from TV, the press, etcetera. I used many, many pictures, so it’s a little bit of a composition from all the pictures which I had.”
But from the later part of his life?
“Yes. Approximately when he was 60, we can say.”
Alongside hundreds of Columbia students, Thursday’s event was attended by numerous well-known faces, including former US ambassador to Prague Andrew Schapiro, musician Michael Kocáb, who served under Havel in a spell in politics in the early 1990s, former Miss World Taťána Kuchařová and prominent members of New York’s Czech community, including jazz guitarist Rudy Linka.
Also there was Martin Palouš, who, like Havel, was an early signatory of Charter 77 and is today director of the Václav Havel Initiative for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University.
“Certainly it’s a positive thing for us because, I would say, Václav Havel’s legacy is important for our capabilities to understand the world.
“And the fact that this link exists with Columbia University makes a lot of sense and it’s an opportunity for us.”
Would you say that he’s appreciated more abroad, especially here in the US, than at home today?
“Actually one can say that. But I don’t think it’s the full truth.
“Because if you ask, for instance, Michael Žantovský, the director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague, he would tell you about a lot of young people coming to the events at the Library.
“So I think that Václav Havel’s legacy is alive in the Czech Republic too. Maybe in some sort of underground life – not being transformed into a visible political trend, I would say.
“But it is there and I think the future is still in front of the Václav Havel supporters and people inspired by his legacy.”
The installation of the new bust of Havel at Columbia was the initiative of economist Jan Švejnar, who is director of the Center on Global Economic Governance at Columbia, and the Václav Havel Library Foundation, sister organisation of the Czech-based Václav Havel Library.
Professor Švejnar agreed that it was a rare honour for any politician, let alone a non-American one, to have their bust installed at the institution where he teaches.
“I think it’s important to stress that Columbia University, together with Harvard University are the two oldest and in some sense the two pillars of higher education, historically, in the United States.
“Columbia is one of the leading universities in terms of quality and achievement and visibility.
“And the number of busts here is limited. Mostly it is American important politicians and policy makers – there is Thomas Jefferson’s bust, there is Alexander Hamilton.
“To have Václav Havel’s bust here is indeed, I think, an achievement, a recognition of the importance of Václav Havel’s ideas and the role that he and the Czech Republic played after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.”
You took part in the unveiling here inside this grand library building at Columbia. But that isn’t the final destination of the bust?
“Yes. Most likely the plan is that the bust would be at the front of a new building that’s being constructed, at the new campus of Columbia.
“It will be a building for international and global studies and events, and all of the centre’s institutes and schools will be located there.
“And the bust should be the one that you find at the entrance – which I think will be extremely fitting.”
You knew Václav Havel. He seemed like quite a modest man. How do you think he would view getting this honour?
“On the other hand, he was a person who of course looked at many things that happened to him and the world during the second half of the 20th century with a certain view of how absurd things could be.
“So I think he would also view, at least among friends, as absurd that he actually is now forever going to be ensconced at the forefront of world learning.
“I think it’s very much deserved, but I think he was a modest man and would see this as yet another unexpected development in his life and the world.”
Also there were quite a few connections between Havel and Columbia. Could you tell us a little about those please?
“Yes, indeed. I was his economic advisor from 1993 until 2003.
“During the time when he was still president he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan, where I was then a professor.
“Lee Bollinger, the current president of Columbia, was then the University of Michigan.
“So that’s where the two of them got to know each other. Lee Bollinger then actually travelled to Prague when Václav Havel finished his term as president and invited him and Mrs. Havel to come and spend an extended period of time at Columbia, which they did.
“Václav Havel wrote part of his last play Odcházení, Leaving, here and had a series of lectures and discussions and so on.
“So yes indeed – his stay here was very meaningful for him. He liked Columbia very much and people at Columbia reciprocated that feeling of mutual friendship and liking.”
I got the impression from the outside that Havel enjoyed that stay in New York. I suppose he must have been kind of anonymous when he walked the streets?
“He enjoyed New York tremendously, already from the first time that he was here and every time after that.
“He liked to go jazz clubs and smaller restaurants and bars and so on.
“So he enjoyed the intellectual life at Columbia, which is very rich, but also the life in New York, where indeed once you go into a jazz cellar or something you are just one of the many.
“And he enjoyed being an incognito person.”
When you interact with young Americans today, do you have a sense that they know much about Havel, or that they’re interested much in Havel?
“Obviously some know him, some don’t. Very many of them – I would say all of them – who get to be familiar with or know his ideas and his history are enthusiastic about it.
“A number of them select research topics that relate to Havel’s ideas.
“So in a way he is very actual and very current in terms of how the students look at things and the solutions they are searching for.”
During her talk Madeleine Albright speculated a little about how Havel might view today’s world and today’s politics. How do you think he would see the state of affairs today?
“I think he would be alarmed. I think he would say, These are the challenges that I was alerting us to; I was saying we cannot be passive, that democracy is something that one cannot take for granted, you really have to work on getting it.
“And I think he would be at the forefront nowadays of trying to find solutions and overcome the anti-democratic or illiberal democratic tendencies.”
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