Thirty years ago the Velvet Revolution brought a playwright to power. Václav Havel continued (figuratively) to ‘stride the boards’ on a new stage. He was in a new real-life role: as his country’s anti-Communist pro-democracy President.

10 November 2019 By Paul Martin

It was mid-1990, just a few months since  Václav Havel had become the President of newly-liberated non-Communist Czechoslovakia.  I was the reporter for a BBC film about how far things had changed for those who had sparked the astonishingly effective dismantling of their hardline rulers.

A lady in a dressing-gown opened the door. “Can I help you?” she enquired.

It became obvious that instant that, despite holding the highest position in the land, Havel did not have any security to guard his apartment.

Had we been kidnappers instead of journalists we could easily have seized Mrs Olga Havel and held her hostage. Or if her husband had been at home, one shudders to think.

“Sorry, my husband is at The Castle. You can find him there,” Mrs Havel said to us. “Good luck.”

President though he now was, Havel was determined to remain true to the values he espoused as a dissident playwright, at least in spirit.

He was playing out in real life his very own Theatre of the Absurd. He had originally became famous  – and spent four years in jail – for subversively writing and staging daring and wickedly witty depictions of a country under a Stalinist jackboot.

One of his essays, portentiously, was called The Power of the Powerless (1978).

We did get to talk to President Havel later at The Castle – we just popped in without an appointment and he came down the corridor to greet us.  

I had first seen him in action six months before, as he and his colleagues clustered, inside a Prague theatre.

It was from there that his Civic Forum and a strike committee prepared protests and actions that developed fast into a revolution against their Communist masters.  

Thirty years ago, against all expectations, they succeeded – with almost no bloodshed.

When Havel and colleagues called for a general strike, no-one had expected that almost every worker in the whole capital city of Prague would lay down tools. 

There was one exception.  I visited a factory where the machines were still clinking and clunking continuously.  It was manufacturing a treasured national product: beer. 

“We all support the strike,” the Pilsner workers told me. “And we want to see this government collapse.”  But, they added, “stopping these machines will make the beer we’re brewing go bad – and that would be very very unpatriotic.  No-one would forgive us for that.”

Clearly, in any revolution, some things are sacrosanct.

Havel – who was known to be especially fond of beer (and cigarettes) – would probably have agreed.

Vaclav Havel and Pavel Landovsky in Havel’s play Audience. Photo: Robert Day
Havel acting in his last play, which he had written and performed after he retired as the Czech president.
Note the five bottles of beer on the table.

Days later, the plotters in the theatre had inspired a mass movement that had taken over a massive square. There on a balcony stood two great figures –  Havel and, alongside, the country’s former leader Alexander Dubcek.

I had caught just a glimpse of Dubcek a few months earlier.  He had been missing from any form of public life since 1968 – when he had led the so-called Prague Spring. 

For a few heady months Dubcek had tried to reform hardline Soviet-style Communism and had called it ‘Socialism with a Human Face’.  

Soviet tanks had then rolled in and crushed the Czechoslovak reformers.  Dubcek was demoted from the country’s leader to a low-level forestry official.

In early 1989 I had managed to find his home deep in a Slovakian forest. At the door his wife had pleaded with me to leave.

“Please don’t say a word to him. The authorities will be watching us right now,” she told me, “and Alexander – there he is in the corner – will get locked up.” 

Deprived of a scoop interview, I slunk away downhearted.

Now, in late November 1989, Dubcek was standing there next to  Havel – who’d sent him a car. It had brought him out of obscurity to become part of a revolution that, in a sense, he’d set in motion 21 years before. 

Yet when Dubcek spoke and called for ‘democratic socialism’, Havel showed his mettle. 

“I think democratic socialism is not what we need now,” he told the huge crowd while glancing almost dismissively at Dubcek. “We need democratic capitalism.”  The huge throng roared approval.

During the so-called Velvet Revolution thirty years ago, only one person died – and that was just from a heart attack, due to the excitement.  The much-vaunted and much-feared Communist Party apparatus, and its secret police, the StB, simply crumbled.  

By 29 December 1989 the playwright had been installed as President, and the Velvet Revolution was compete.

On my return in mid-1990 to make a film for the BBC, called Wiping the Slate Clean, we met some of the people, young and not-so-young, who had been in that little theatre.

Havel

Besides the students and their enchanting strike committee spokesperson Monika Pajerova, a number of intellectuals emerged from the shadows.  Like Dubcek and like Havel several had been demoted in 1968, as a punishment for their involvement in the failed Prague Spring.

But, we now discovered, they had handled their 21 years of humiliation astonishingly well.

A middle-aged academic Ivana Myšková impressed me the most.  In 1968 the Communists had demoted her from a university lecturer to a cleaner, and every day she scrubbed out the university’s toilets.

“It must have been so depressing for you,” I remarked. 

“No, she said, “I was happy.” 

“Happy!?” I exclaimed incredulously.  “Yes happy,” she said. “Because the Communists had pushed me down to the lowest level they could – but I was still me.  They had not broken me.”  

The attitude and the fortitude of this academic, together with the subsequent overthrow of a seemingly all-powerful repressive system, taught me a great life lesson: how determination to overcome adversity can remove even the greatest obstacles.

national museum
A Communist red star emblazoned on a building in Prague to mark the 1989 Velvet Revolution

Pages: 1 2