Václav Havel, 20. 1. 1988, Prague, Czech Republic

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Location Prague, Czech Republic
Date 20. 1. 1988
Length 27:48

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Jacques Rupnik: How would you describe the Charter? Is it a human rights organisation, is it a political club?
Václav Havel: Charter 77 was formed at the beginning of 1977 and came into being as a human rights movement. It united people from all walks of life, intellectuals and workers, non-conformist youngsters, writers and former politicians, basically people with different political views who could meet on the basis of a kind of mutual tolerance, respect for one another, and who could agree on the need to demand the observance of human rights, meaning international human rights pacts, Helsinki Accords, etc. However, in the conditions we live in, where there is no free open political life, quite necessarily the ruling power has seen the Charter immediately as some kind of political opposition. Well, twelve years have passed since the formation of the Charter, it exists to this day and nowadays it is the oldest existing human rights movement in the whole of the Soviet bloc. And naturally a lot has changed since then. What has changed above all is that since the Charter is the only kind of alternative entity to what goes on in Czechoslovak society, it inevitably becomes a partner to official politicians, various political parties, peace and ecological movements; it is sought out by journalists, and it has actually taken on a number of functions which in western countries are carried out by dozens of various organisations with professional staff, secretariats and offices, while the Charter is actually made up of people who work as janitors, stokers and so on, because they have mostly lost their jobs, if they were intellectuals, let’s say, and they have to carry out all these diverse roles. That’s where the Charter has seen some changes in its position over the twelve years; however, it still adheres to the main principle that it is a human rights movement and publishes documents which monitor the observance, or rather violation of these rights in different spheres of the life of society.
How important was it that the activity of the Charter was public, that the signatories made their names public?
People from the West sometimes cannot understand immediately and correctly the importance of the Charter as they are used to judging the importance of political movements, parties or organisations by the number of members and voters, and it seems to them that the Charter with its 1 300 signatories is some kind of microscopic body which can have no effect on the political life of this country. I think that things are rather different under a totalitarian regime. Here the number of followers does not matter. Even if there was just a single Chartist, the importance lies more in what is being done than in how many there are. The Charter draws on a kind of quiet presence in the social conscience, on various tacit sympathies, and the ruling power knows this. And it seems to me that it plays a very important role, it is a point of reference, so to speak, even though it’s a sort of extreme stance which cannot be adopted by the general population, at least not at present, but which has its own irreplaceable role, which lives in the society’s consciousness and has an irrefutable importance, which is, however, difficult to measure or chart and certainly cannot be judged by the number of public sympathisers or members or so on.
Could you describe some of the forms of repression that the Charter was subjected to?
During those twelve years the power, or rather the police, must have applied all the available forms of repression. The extreme alternative is imprisonment; many of us have spent various time in prison. People are fired from work, subjected to all kinds of harassment; at one time there were even sort of terrorist attacks on individual Chartists. We often had, and even today sometimes get, so-called guards: at least three policemen are constantly with me, they are in front of the apartment door, sometimes they will not let people in, sometimes they will not let me out, so it is a kind of house arrest. Wherever I go, they go with me, they ask for the identity card of anyone I meet or greet, they restrict my movements. It’s just one of the forms, but there are so many of them. To put it simply, the police effectively exerts an influence over all institutions and organisations in the country. This influence is not legal, there is no such legislation, but any director of an enterprise or office, when visited by the State police and told: “You have to do this or that, fire that person or do that”, will simply obey because he knows that if he doesn’t, he will probably suffer sanctions along the party line or something similar. So the range of persecutions was wide, but something has changed even in this. First, the repressions are now comparatively milder than they were, let’s say, in the early eighties, and secondly, even the police and the ruling power have in a way grown tired. They have somehow got used to the Charter, they simply see it as a kind of necessary evil that exists here, and what they cannot stand is when the Charter goes beyond the habitual way of working to which the power has grown accustomed. When something new is being tried, or new forms of work and so on, then the police always get very nervous and try to retaliate somehow.
What did the Charter 77 experience mean for you personally, the last ten years?
Well, the experience with the Charter and my involvement in it has been important for me in many respects, also as a writer. They were not easy times, sure, I spent four years in prison and so on, it was tough, but I do not regret it. Perhaps it has enriched my experience as a person and I have used it in various ways in my original profession and for my work, which is to write plays or write all kinds of articles and essays.
How important is the Charter 77 for ordinary people, for the Czech society as a whole?
I think that that part of the people, part of the population, which is interested in public affairs, as not everybody is necessarily interested, but the part that is, they mostly follow Czech broadcasts by foreign radio stations and from there they regularly learn about the activities of the Charter. The documents published by the Charter, and there are some four hundred of them so far now, are often read on the radio or commented upon. And people know this, they are aware of it, it exists in their minds. They don’t make their affiliations known much in public, as they feel that to be dangerous. Yet everywhere I go I see that the awareness of the work is widespread and well above anything we expected. With random meetings of ordinary people I meet here and there, I see this again and again and I even find that sometimes they know more than I do because I do not have the time to listen to the radio all the time, do I? So in this respect I think that society, or at least that more important part of society which practically always makes history, knows quite a lot about the Charter.
It has been often suggested that the main difference between the opposition in Czechoslovakia and in Poland is the contact between intellectuals and the workers.
There are naturally great differences between Poland and Czechoslovakia, due to a number of historical factors and so on. Let’s remember for instance that the communist government was so to speak forced onto Poland, Poland has never elected it. Here we had free elections in 1946 where the Communist Party got 37% of the vote. There were a number of reasons for this, and this fact, too, means that the countries are in a slightly different situation. The importance of the church plays a role, too, and so on. And today the main difference is, or until recently has been, that what exists here in society only as a kind of awareness, as some spiritual fact, in Poland this has found public expression in the Solidarity trade union mass movement. Nothing like that has happened in Czechoslovakia. That is not to say that society does not have a similar opinion of government policy as Polish society, only that thanks to a number of different historical conditions and circumstances this has not eventually transformed into a mass movement. That is a great difference. But otherwise I wouldn’t say that the difference may be that intellectuals and workers have joined forces there and not here. The Charter definitely has no ambition to become a kind of intellectuals’ organisation, and it isn’t one; the majority of the signatories are young people, workers from various little towns and villages in Czechoslovakia. And it is natural that the work on writing documents and so on cannot be done by anyone, they may not have the talent or the skills, may not want to do it, so this is done more often by intellectuals, scientists, journalists. But I would definitely not say the Charter is some club of intellectuals or whatever.
There have been recently a number of contacts between Czechoslovak dissidents and Polish dissidents – is this a new development and how important are these new ties?
Well, that is a paradox, but there is not just the Iron Curtain between the East and West, there is probably an even more iron curtain between the individual countries of the East. We have felt the contacts, certain solidarity and similarity in our thinking and similarity of our problems, for a long time and intensely: the Hungarians, Poles, Czechoslovaks, the inhabitants of GDR. Practical contacts, however, are very complicated, but they do exist and have even been growing recently. A small example of late: a few days ago the Charter issued an appeal to all Europeans to show solidarity with Romania, where it’s cold and there is no electricity, and the appeal for the 1st February was for all Europeans to try to live in darkness and without heating for one day, or to limit their standard of living, as an expression of solidarity with suffering Romania. And today I have received a message that this has already been signed by 350 Hungarians, who called a special press conference in Budapest and all joined this appeal of the Charter. Poles as well as Romanians living in exile have also joined in. Basically, such solidarity events do take place. And as regards the Poles, we have been in contact with them for a long time; as early as in 1978 we met Michnik, Kuron, Litynski and other KOR members of the time. We met in the Krkonose Mountains. These are such dramatic meetings on the border, because they have to shake off their police and we have to shake off ours. Recently in August we had another meeting, there were about 30 of us, including Bujak and Kuron and representatives of the Solidarity and the Charter, and we issued a long communiqué. We were there for about 8 hours and shot a video about it. It was complicated as always, we have to walk for hours through nearly primeval forest to some place where the frontier is not guarded, and arranging it is difficult, we cannot use our telephones, they can’t use theirs, but yet it exists. And in samizdat editions we publish each other’s works. Michnik is published and read here, and in turn I know that my articles and books have been published there, and even my plays are staged there in the parallel theatre, the one that’s held in people’s flats. The awareness of the unity and kinship is very strong. The specific events are more complicated but they do exist.
Why in your view was the normalization process in Czechoslovakia more thorough and from the regime’s point of view more successful than the process in Poland?
That is a very complicated question, but generally many different things had an effect. But one rather important thing is that this country was actually invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, which did not happen in Poland, and that in its own way was a very dramatic situation. On the other hand, the process of self-liberation of society, that was not just 1968, it was a process which had existed and developed since the 1950s. And the 1968 Prague Spring was just the final political result of something that had been going on for a long time in spiritual life and so on. The aim of the occupation was not just to change some politburo or change the government but to stop that long process, and that was carried out in such an unusually wide sweeping purge of all structures. I think you won’t find anything comparable in any other country of the Soviet bloc. What happened here was that not only were tens of thousands of pro-reform communists expelled from the party and all the secretaries right down to the lowest-ranking were replaced, that the entire political pyramid of power was completely replaced, but most importantly this was an attempt to somehow completely bring spiritual life to a halt. All the institutes, universities, everything … No other country has so many banned writers and scientists that cannot do their work, and so on. And all of this was done so thoroughly and extensively. And after society’s efforts during that Prague Spring and the dramatic experience of the occupation, society was tired in a way, disillusioned with all the politics, all the ideology, and it seemed as if the people made some kind of an agreement with the government, that they would not take an interest in public affairs and politics, would remain shut-up in their apartments, and if they did so the government wouldn’t bother them too much. And it was this sort of social agreement or compromise that enabled all that so-called normalisation to develop. That was around the first half of the 1970s when society was atomised, frustrated, sceptical, resigned, it had been driven into a sort of stupor, into a state of total apathy and lack of belief in anything. Since then there have been some changes, but that is a separate subject.
You have often described the system as totalitarian. Yet, compared to many other regimes it seems less violent, it very rarely used overt violence, in what sense has it remained totalitarian today?
I personally understand the totalitarian system as being a system based not only on the direct violence of power groups, that is the police, the army and so on. In various third-world countries every so often they have coups, right-wing, left-wing, and they have the character of a dictatorship of some power group which has control over the army and the police and so on, it takes over the rule and will not let anyone else govern until someone else carries out another coup. The totalitarian system is something totally different, it actually pervades all spheres of society’s life in sophisticated, complicated and indirect ways. Normal dictatorships, the classic ones or so-called authoritarian regimes, always encroach on a certain field only, but the totalitarian system must control everything, from economic life, spiritual life, private life, and it has built sophisticated and extensive mechanisms for permeating throughout society and actually forcing it to participate in it, because who is actually keeping the system viable? Well, to a certain degree all of us, aren’t we, it has achieved that there is no longer a ruling group and governed society, but it has managed to spread the principle of totalitarian power throughout the whole of society, affecting the behaviour of every citizen, and that, I think, is the main difference. Much has been written about it, I myself tried some time ago to write about it in various essays and to study where it lies. It’s quite complicated and many people from the West find it difficult to understand. They come to Prague, they don’t see fighting in the streets, or the police chasing people with truncheons, or demonstrations, it is an orderly city, people live their normal lives, go shopping, it’s all a bit shoddier than in the west, fewer goods and so on, but otherwise you don’t notice anything. And the visitors often say: “what do they keep complaining about, what are they moaning about?” They would only find out if they lived here, if they had to participate in life here, not just observe it as tourists, they would need to work somewhere, be in daily exhausting contact with the bureaucracy, where any trifling matter demands enormous energy if one is to achieve something. They would simply have to live here to understand the situation.
There’ve been three major attempts to change the totalitarian system, in 1956, in 1968 and in 1980–1981. They were all very different but all of them have failed. What is left, what is the way out, what is the way, what next?
I think in retrospect it seems that from the Kronstadt Rebellion through the Hungarian Revolution, through Khrushchev’s thaw, through the Prague Spring, through the era of Solidarity, through Gorbachev’s time, all the attempts to change the system by revolution or reform or other ways have a common denominator and that is simply that society needs to breath more freely, it needs a natural plurality, spiritual, political and economic, without which the economy stagnates and fails, and from time to time again there are demands which arise at such critical and extreme moments of history. However different the processes are in the various countries, we can always come to the conclusion that the basic demands are identical and that is some kind of life potential, irrepressible in the long run. How these natural demands of life against the totalitarian power that violates life will promote themselves, we of course don’t know. One of the ways is that under pressure from crisis phenomena and the natural principle of life, the power itself becomes more enlightened, something infiltrates the power. Those are the reform processes controlled from the top, so to speak, for instance Gorbachev’s present political program of reform. Others, however, like Solidarity in Poland, spring up from distinct pressure exerted on the power from below. Maybe any far-reaching and lasting change can happen with a combination of all these factors, the enlightenment of the powerful and at the same time the massive pressure of society and some international influences, what do I know. I am not a futurologist and I do not have a clear vision of it, but it seems to me that some more substantial and lasting change for the better is possible if all this comes together. It can be very dramatic, but I can also imagine it could be without any revolution and as a long process of evolution.
What do you expect from the Gorbachev factor, can it make a difference to the situation here?
Yes, I think that Gorbachev’s policy has brought a certain change even to this country. Not that Gorbachev has installed a pro-reform political leadership, he hasn’t, well, and in fact Jakes, the present general secretary, is in a way more conservative than Husak was, but it is important for Gorbachev that the satellite countries be calm. He has enough problems with Afghanistan, with the economic problems in his own country, with the star wars and whatever else, he does not need another volatile issue. So although he knows who Jakes is, he prefers Jakes and order here to having a more reform-minded leader and unrest with unforeseeable possible results. So it is not a matter of direct political influence. Yet it does exert an influence, it has an effect on society, which realises first of all the extent to which the events in the Soviet Union resemble our events of 1968, then it notices how the government verbally declares its allegiance, declares perestroika and glasnost and democratisation, and in fact does not change anything and does not want to, but gives verbal support, then twists and turns and still tries to explain that the process in 1968 in Czechoslovakia is really different from what is going on today in Russia.
What does the word counterculture mean here? What is the importance of independent culture for Czech society?
After the normalisation, which we have already mentioned, a specific situation arose here, where the majority of the intellectuals, writers and so on were actually banned, many magazines and newspapers were abolished, and the people were somehow banished from cultural public life, and after a certain first stage of fatigue when everyone just wrote for themselves at home and did private research in something, it was obvious that this was no longer enough for them and so they began to distribute the texts somehow, and the first samizdat editions appeared and later also magazines. And in the meantime a new generation of people grew up who were not listed as banned because they were young and before that had had no time for political activism that would put them on the list, whose work though is unacceptable from the point of view of the severe and rigid and narrow-minded criteria of the official cultural policy, that cannot stomach compromise and that in fact start straight away in samizdat, and there are a number of different cultural phenomena which simply spring up solely from some inner need, need for free expression, which do not have a political origin in the sense that they would strive to represent a political opposition and which are not driven to samizdat or to the kind of semi-legal forms because the regime would perceive them as political opposition, but simply because they are too free, because the regime perceives what they do as being in some way threatening simply because it is free, and all this together with the passage of years has created a sort of parallel culture. Today we have parallel video films and video newsreels and we have simply a number of samizdat journals, recently even a newspaper has appeared, not a daily, as that would be impossible under these conditions, but an attempt at a real newspaper. There are various attempts at theatre, there are lots of private seminars, lectures and so on and there is a vast number of books which have come out in samizdat, and will later perhaps be published by Czech exile publishing houses or similar, and all this is a very varied and colourful range of cultural manifestations. There are some strictly political manifestations, various political analyses or program studies and so on among them, but there are a number of items which have nothing to do with politics, which have an inner freedom and which in a more open and freer society would not form any parallel culture or counter culture, but would be part of the normal public culture.
Your plays are banned here, so for whom do you write? When –
That is difficult. My plays have been banned in Czechoslovakia for 19 years. They are performed only abroad and that is a particularly trying situation for a dramatist, not just because he also wants to see the play sometimes on the stage, but there are deeper reasons. Drama is an art form which is created in a concrete place, has to have a home, it is written for a certain cultural and spiritual situation without which it cannot live, it is not something that can be transferred at will. It was very difficult for me to get used to writing a play which is then sent somewhere, performed somewhere, whether in England, Yugoslavia or wherever, and not having any influence over it. I do not know who exactly I am writing it for, for what situation. And so I have gradually got used to the situation and what I do is write as if they were in demand here, as if they were to be performed here straight away. I simply write them as if nothing was the matter, and I just have to hope that they may address other people somewhere else. Here the plays are circulated in samizdat or on tape, cassettes or even video, and people know about them. I find that actors from theatres and so on, they all know my plays, in fact they know more about my work than I do about theirs, which is a paradox; they are publicly active and I have been banned. But the play is really made for the stage and that’s where it also works somehow. And I convince myself again and again that people cannot read plays. And why should they be able to? Plays are not intended to be read, they should be seen on stage. And I find again and again that I actually release into circulation a sort of semi-finished product. It is difficult, but I have got used to it.
The Czechs are always very keen to stress their identification with Central Europe, with European culture as a whole. Why is this identification with Europe so important for them?
I think that the phenomenon of Central Europe, which has become almost fashionable recently and there are countless various conferences and debates on this topic, and there is even a kind of fad, a nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so on, I think that Central Europe does exist as a certain spiritual phenomenon, and there can be concrete evidence for this. And it does not exist as some political phenomenon today. Europe is divided, and the Soviet model of the political system has been forced onto its eastern regions in various forms. However, as some spiritual notion it does exist, you can see it for instance in things like a highly developed sense of imminent danger. Here in Central Europe wars always started or finished here, the armies criss-crossed the region and history always showed which way it was heading here before anywhere else, such as in France, for instance, or other parts of Europe. This has probably instilled in society a heightened sense of danger about to strike; we can see this in various cultural manifestations which always reflect the social consciousness; it can be documented at least from Kafka. So I think it does exist as some spiritual notion, Central Europe, even though people may not be directly aware of it or they may not see themselves as living in the heart of Europe, but indirectly they carry within themselves a feeling, a Central European awareness. And this Central European awareness is actually European awareness, only more concentrated and strangely convoluted. So through this spiritual space of Central Europe it is likely that the local people feel themselves to be Europeans.
Thank you very much.

Václav Havel (1936-2011)

Václav Havel

Playwright, writer, essayist and thinker, human rights advocate, one of the first three spokesmen of Charter 77, a leading figure in the Czechoslovak opposition to totalitarian communist power and a political prisoner.

In November 1989, the leader of social change known as the "Velvet Revolution", then elected twice as President of Czechoslovakia and twice as President of the Czech Republic. A globally respected figure in the defense of human rights and freedoms.

More information about Václav Havel can be found at www.vaclavhavel.cz.