Vaclav Havel: Post-Communism

Source:  The Freedom Collection /
Interviewed April 2010
Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).

Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family. For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary humanities program, but eventually he was able to study drama by correspondence and began publishing articles and plays. In 1968 he was a prominent participant in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization that ended when the Warsaw Pact stationed troops in the country.

In 1976 and 1977 Havel helped lead the effort to produce the human rights manifesto known as Charter 77, which criticized the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its human rights obligations under the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. In April 1979, Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was imprisoned three separate times for his activities.

In 1989, Havel played a leading role in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” which brought an end to the communist political system in Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president of the country that year. He led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy and presided over the country’s accession into NATO. Since leaving office, Havel has committed himself to the promotion of democracy in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Burma. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003.

I think that it became clear very soon that the most important task, at least I perceived it as my most important task, it was to cement our country firmly in the new situation. Modern history teaches us that here, in the center of Europe, in such a place that is an intersection of various flows, movements, influences throughout the centuries, it is a sort of crossroad of spiritual and power flows and the like.

It is hugely important how firmly it is rooted and what the structure, the political structure, the political world order will look like after the fall of the iron curtain, what replaces the previous bipolar division. And specifically, I saw this urgency in that fast and massive expansion of NATO that included our countries, not only our country, but other European countries as well, and in the expansion of the European Union, also including our countries.

In that, I saw a perspective of the alliance, cooperation, partnership, integration, and cementing of the country. And, everything was subordinated to this effort. I also made many visits, no matter how short, to various countries where I was explaining or promoting or suggesting this in some way.

I think, that it is easier and faster to arrange for free elections, to abolish censorship, to establish democratic institutions, to support formation of political parties, the right to assemble, the freedom of speech, those are all things that can be achieved relatively quickly. What cannot be, as it appears, achieved quickly is transformation of mentality. There is certain cultivation of society, or, it is in fact a question of moral revolution.

We all here, who experienced communism, were deformed without even realizing it by the need to constantly cower and take care only of ourselves and the like. It turned out that those who were little kids at that time are also tainted by this since they saw their parents doing it. And that takes a long time and it is a question of maybe two generations before the political culture really transforms in such a way that we will not really worry about calling it, calling it democracy.

It’s been taking longer than we all expected. Moreover, the massive privatization is making it more difficult. Here, everything was completely owned by the state, more than in other countries. Every last barbershop was nationalized and now it has to be quickly given to some private owners without even having specific laws in place in time, etc.

That meant opening the field to many various crooks and mafia. And, this was also interconnected with an immature democratic culture. That is a really difficult thing, more difficult than transforming institutions.

The Vaclav Havel Center