Václav Havel, a man of his time

History knows few politicians who shaped their time. But they did exist, good men like, at random, Pericles, Alexander II or Colbert — and also rotten ones like Napoleon, Lenin or Hitler. But most of those who achieved great fame had greatness thrust upon them, and they grabbed their chance with both hands. Václav Havel was one such man.

At best a half-decent playwright, he became a dissident during and after the 1968 Prague Spring. Dissident movements in all communist countries represented a patchwork quilt of political views, but the critical watershed ran between two groups of dissent: one allowed by the authorities, the other proscribed. The difference wasn’t hard to tell: the former were occasionally slapped on the wrist for the sake of verisimilitude; the latter, killed. Like a gardener, who clips tree branches to make sure they grow in a certain direction, the Soviets and their Eastern European stooges would carefully cultivate the kind of dissent that was consonant with their policy, while mercilessly uprooting the kind that wasn’t. (Incidentally, this watershed has entirely escaped the attention of Western analysts. They aren’t to blame: those who never experienced first-hand the deviousness of communist regimes find it hard to understand them fully or to draw fine distinctions in places where they are critical.)

And they needed a simulacrum of dissent to soften their image in the West, which occasionally took exception to unmitigated brutality and refused to feed the communists, something they were never able to do for themselves. To illustrate the difference between the two types of dissent, compare two uprisings against communist rule: the Hungarian and the Czech. The former was a genuine, which is to say disallowed, popular revolt against communism. Egged on by the CIA and later, in the good tradition of that organisation, betrayed by it, young Hungarians, armed only with old rifles and Molotov cocktails, threw themselves at Soviet tanks, fought to the last bullet and perished to the last man. All their leaders were butchered, many were hanged publicly and left dangling off lampposts. Their dissent hadn’t been allowed.

Nothing of the sort happened in Prague Spring, initiated by those mythical ‘communists with a human face’. It was clear that at the time the Soviets wanted to portray themselves as erstwhile tyrants who were softening enough to merit Nixon’s detente. As tyrants, they did move the tanks in. As partners in detente, they fired no rounds. And the leaders of the uprising lost their jobs but not their lives. Their dissent had been allowed.

The same applied to the Solidarity movement in Poland. After Lech Walesa became the leader of the post-communist state, a book was published, claiming that the sainted Pole, under the codename of Bolek, had been run by the Security Service, a claim supported with confidence by the late president Lech Kaczynski. Shrieks of disbelief were heard all over the West, but I didn’t add my own. Because Walesa’s dissent was allowed, he wasn’t exactly a free agent one way or the other. Whether he did the Security’s bidding wittingly or unwittingly is something for his priest to tackle. From the standpoint of history or political commentary it doesn’t really matter.

Similar revelations have come out in Russia, where many celebrated dissidents, some of whom I knew in my youth, have since been found to have been KGB agents, of influence or otherwise. Their spirits had been broken, and they had done the devil’s work knowing that’s what it was. Many more, like Sakharov, were genuinely good men who, unbeknown to them, were cynically exploited to act as messengers of disinformation, a word the Soviets contributed to most languages.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, so largely did its empire. Shockingly, the events were, and still are, accepted at face value in the West, where the genie of triumphalism burst out of its bottle. But the USSR didn’t bite the dust because of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa — or Václav Havel. It did so because of conscious decisions its leaders had made. Whether the whole process was controlled throughout, and its results were those desired, or the phoney liberalisation got out of hand and the toothpaste could no longer be squeezed back into its tube, we don’t know. But if the end of the process is debatable, the beginning of it is in no doubt whatsoever: the Soviets wanted to loosen the reins the better to advance their objectives.

Subsequent events bear out this unfashionable view. Just as Russia is being run by a KGB elite, fronted by Col. Putin (‘there’s no such thing as ex-KGB,’ he once claimed proudly, ‘this is for life.’), so do most fragments of the Soviet empire have governments made up of communists and ex-security officers, many implicated in things worse than mild misdemeanours.

Václav Havel was a man of the left, an oxymoronic social democrat. As most artists, he wasn’t really fit for statesmanship — energising the masses with bien-pensant rhetoric came more naturally — but accepted the role thrust upon him with alacrity. Partly no doubt it was powerlust, but the desire to do good was also there. A kind man, Havel had much empathy for the human condition, but he never knew how to channel that commendable quality into the conduit of statesmanship. Thus, immediately upon rising to the presidency, he initiated a rather indiscriminate amnesty, letting out not only political prisoners but also thugs who instantly turned Prague into a dangerous place. Nor did he do anything to uproot communists out of positions of power — that required a courage of a different grade from that of a dissident. And nor did he have the strength to prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia or at least to call a referendum on that momentous constitutional change. He also fought tooth and nail his Prime Minister, now President, Václav Klaus, a Thatcherite conservative and eurosceptic. In those arguments Klaus was usually right, which didn’t prevent him from dragging the Czechs into the EU. He too has been shaped by his time.

Though an international star, Václav Havel wasn’t universally loved in his own country (nor is Gorbachev in his). But death changes perspectives, and no doubt many of those who didn’t care much for him when he lived mourn Havel now he is dead. ‘Truth will prevail,’ he often said. I’m not sure it has, in his native land. But at least Václav Havel wanted truth to prevail, and for this he’ll be remembered. RIP.








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