The late Czech president, Václav Havel, who died five years ago, would have turned 80 on Wednesday, October 5. Celebrations of his life and legacy are taking place at home and abroad. In this special program on Radio Prague we recall the heady days of the Velvet Revolution that swept the dissident playwright from jail to Prague Castle.
In the autumn of 1989 Václav Havel was once again doing time in jail. It was just days to go to his fifty-third birthday and his friends came up with a plan that was to raise his spirits – they plotted to get the Communist daily Rudé Právo wish Havel Happy Birthday. Petr Rýgr, from his circle of dissident friends, recalls how he went to the hated newspapers’ headquarters to ask them to print birthday greetings in the social affairs section of the daily –under a false name.
“We wanted to cheer Václav Havel up–even though I wasn’t absolutely certain that birthday greetings from the Communist Party daily was the best way to do that. And we also wanted to play a trick on the Communists. Of course, I was nervous. I wasn’t at all sure I would get away with it. But certain things you have to do if you want to keep your self-respect. And Václav Havel was doing time in jail over his part in the Palach week protests–so this was our way of saying “thank you”.
The name used in the ad was Ferdinand Vaněk, the lead character from Havel’s play Audience. His friends thanked him for his demanding work and wished him good health and much success in his profession. Rýgr says he had no experience in taking out ads and nearly missed paying the 460 crowns for the ad on time. Despite his fears, the communist censors, clearly not acquainted with plays by dissident playwrights, missed the give-away name Ferdinand Vaněk and failed to recognize the proffered picture of the real Václav Havel which appeared in the paper’s social section on the day of his birthday – October 5th. Rýgr says they all waited with bated breath to see if their trick would work.
“For forty years now my predecessors in office told you the same thing. That our country is flourishing. I do not think you elected me to this post so that I should feed you the same lies. Our country is not flourishing.”
“On the day –it was a Saturday – I bought a copy of Rude Pravo and flicked through it nervously to see if the ad was there. And there it was. That same evening the story was on Radio Free Europe and it caused an uproar. Later friends who had emigrated to Australia told me it was in all the papers there as well. We certainly did not expect such a huge response.”
Havel’s friends were delighted with the outcome of their practical joke. Former dissident, journalist Petruska Šustrová says that, although they did not realize it at the time, the incident was a harbinger of the monumental changes to come.
“Of course, I rushed out immediately to buy a copy of Rude Právo, which I had not done throughout the years of the communist “normalization” period. We were so excited about it, because this precisely reflected the sense of humour that we dissidents shared and that kept us above water. But the very fact that the Communist Party daily unwittingly helped us to play this joke was absolutely brilliant. Later we realized that this was a sign of monumental changes about to take place–but at the time we just enjoyed the joke.”
Whether or not Vaclav Havel felt the change of atmosphere in his cell in Ruzyně jailhouse is not clear, but a few weeks later he was released and took center-stage in the tumultuous events that ended 40 years of communist rule in the country. On November 29, of 1989 the Communist Parliament bowed to public pressure and Vaclav Havel was elected president. His first New Year’s address to the nation was different from all the others.
“For forty years now my predecessors in office told you the same thing. That our country is flourishing, how many millions of tons of steel we have produced, how we are all happy, trust in our government and what wonderful prospects are opening up to us. I do not think you elected me to this post so that I should feed you the same lies. Our country is not flourishing.”
As Czechoslovak and later Czech president Havel remained true to himself, refusing to be bound by protocol and never afraid to voice an unpopular stand. As a respected playwright and dissident, he easily established new relations with the outer world, gaining the country international respect and establishing it as a moral authority ever-ready to defend human rights in other parts of the world. In 1992 he resigned from office over the pending split of Czechoslovakia only to be re-elected as president of the Czech Republic. Although, due to failed expectations, the number of his critics increased during his second term in office, Havel had an unshakable trust in his ideals and the slogan “truth and love will prevail over evil”. Havel left politics when his second term as Czech president ended in February, 2003. Václav Klaus, one of his greatest political adversaries, was elected his successor in the post.
Václav Havel died on December 18th of 2011, following a period of illness and relative solitude and what close friends later described as growing disappointment with the way Czech society was straying from his ideals. At the time, it seemed that he was more respected abroad than at home, though his death appeared to briefly jolt the nation into awareness of what it had lost. Here are the sentiments of some Czechs who gathered on Wenceslas Square when news of Havel’s death broke.
“I think he was a very, very important person for our nation. I think he was the moral leader of this nation, and without him it will not be as it was before. We have lost our moral symbol. And I think that Czechs did not appreciate him the way they should have, because he was really a great person, a great man, a great philosopher also, and the Czech people were just angry about some of his mistakes. He might have made mistakes, but I think the most important thing is his philosophy and moral values.”
“I think that with him a really important person died, and not only for the Czech Republic but also for Europe as a whole. I think he is really an inspiration for other people.”
“Václav Havel was certainly the only modern president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic who directed the nation in the right direction, in my opinion, which was towards humanity, democracy, deep philosophy, and less of the kind of materialistic stuff.”
Tributes to Havel continue to be made abroad – Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio declared September 28th Vaclav Havel Day in New York and held a celebration to mark the occasion. Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs Penny Abeywarden told Czech Television Havel had left his mark on the city.
“Vaclav Havel had a beautiful relationship with NYC, many of his plays were produced here, he had his residence in New York and he’s given a lot to NYC, and when Mayor de Blasio chooses to proclaim a day dedicated to someone it is really about –who do we share values with.”
“Dear fellow citizens...I omitted to tell you that truth and love will not prevail on their own – they need your help.”
Havel’s bust got a place among the world’s greats in the US Congress, a Vaclav Havel bench stands in his memory at Georgetown University and other locations in the world and a tapestry depicting a flying man by Czech artist Petr Sís which reflects on the extraordinary contributions Václav Havel made to the Czech nation and the world at large is now on a world tour and will be permanently installed in the European Parliament building in Strasbourg next March.
Today, on what would have been Havel’s 80 th birthday, celebrations of his life and legacy are taking place around the country – exhibitions, concerts, theatre performances and a festival in Brno called “There was not enough of Havel”. A gathering in his memory on Prague’s Wenceslas Square will resound with a song written in his honour by Zdeněk Svěrák, Jaroslav Uhlíř and David Koller, using the late president’s familiar greeting Milí spoluobčané - Dear fellow citizens...I omitted to tell you that truth and love will not prevail on their own – they need your help.
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