Velvet revolutionary

Profile: Vaclav Havel
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The Independent Online

Earlier this year, accompanying Vaclav Havel on a trip to rural northern Bohemia, I slipped into the cramped, unlit Gents at the village pub where we had stopped for a drink with the locals. Two other men were standing at the ancient, less than fragrant urinals, which nonetheless had a charming view from a small window at eye level.

Earlier this year, accompanying Vaclav Havel on a trip to rural northern Bohemia, I slipped into the cramped, unlit Gents at the village pub where we had stopped for a drink with the locals. Two other men were standing at the ancient, less than fragrant urinals, which nonetheless had a charming view from a small window at eye level.

Suddenly the door opened, and the fourth urinal was occupied by the president. Within seconds, one of the men had engaged him in earnest conversation about the local economy. And so, while we all stood there relieving ourselves, eyes firmly directed horizontally forward (as - female readers may like to know - men usually do at urinals), looking through the window at the wooded countryside, Vaclav Havel still had to play the part of president.

It was a scene that could have come out of one of the absurdist plays he used to write before he so unexpectedly became president 10 years ago, after the velvet revolution. It showed that, in spite of all the grandeur of Prague Castle and the stiff protocol, a very Czech informality keeps breaking through. But it also showed how desperately demanding that role of president is. Poor man, never left alone, not even when he goes for a pee!

We laughed about it afterwards, in another country pub, when the day's official duties were over and he had swapped the presidential jacket and tie for a black T-shirt showing Albert Einstein. In moments like this, one rediscovers all the old charm that is often lost behind the wearisome official routine, the endless ceremonies performed by a man who has been very sick.

He's quite a short man, now fairly stout and not obviously handsome, with a double chin, a moustachioed face slightly like a walrus, and thin, dull blond hair. But the charm is in the smile and the unexpectedly deep voice, breaking into a laugh as he produces anecdotes that are both funny and profound, all illustrated with rapid gestures of his small, delicate, ever-moving hands.

I remember him describing how, in his dissident days as a leader of Charter 77 opposition movement, a particular secret policeman used to follow him everywhere, keeping just a few paces away. Then Havel decided to visit a sauna, and the police nark came hurrying up to him: "Mr Havel, I'm sorry to bother you, but I have a heart pacemaker fitted and it's upset by the heat in the sauna. Would you mind waiting until I can call someone to take my place?" Very Czech, very Havel.

He is well aware of the ironies of his current position. I asked him if he personally feels more free now than before 1989. "Of course I don't feel more free," he said. "Even in prison in some ways I felt more free." For he is imprisoned in the role of president, hounded from appointment to appointment by advisers, security men and the media. But, he went on, that doesn't mean that people in the country are not more free than they were 10 years ago. Obviously they are. In fact, he regards his own, personal loss of freedom as a sacrifice he makes for the freedom of others.

A German friend recently sent me a little essay the dissident Havel wrote in 1987, when Gorbachev visited Prague. Havel, taking his dog for a walk, is drawn to join the crowd greeting "Gorby" outside the National Theatre. He describes the "rather small" world leader, looking like "a friendly little ball", and then discovers an unexpected burst of sympathy for him: "I imagined his life. The whole day long he has to see the unpleasant faces of his guards. He must have a full programme, with endless meetings, negotiations, the obligation to talk to innumerable people and to remember who they all are. He has constantly to say something witty but also correct so that the world, which is always waiting for sensations, won't create one - and then people could use it against him.

"There's the necessity of always smiling and fulfilling engagements such as today's, when he would certainly much rather have had a rest. And after such a hard day he can't even have a quiet drink in the evening!" Well, today Gorbachev can relax over a drink, and it's Havel's days that look like that.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of his elevation to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, it seems there is a little outbreak of "Havel revisionism". A new biography has been published here, curiously sub-titled "A political tragedy in six acts". It has been the occasion for some scathing reassessments of the Czech president, in places as different as The Spectator and the London Review of Books. Elsewhere, some profiles suggest that he is a sad, isolated figure, a lame-duck president, still esteemed abroad but no longer at home. Echoes of Gorbachev again.

I have known Havel for more than 15 years and we have become friends, so I cannot deliver a strictly "objective" verdict. (But then, who can?) However, in writing about him, I have always tried to stand back and look critically. In part, this Havel revisionism seems to me a typical reaction against an earlier idealisation. Having put him up on a pedestal as a saint, the West now tears him down as a sinner. Havel himself comments ironically on the "fairy tale" told whenever he receives one of his many honorary doctorates: the story of a simple, good man in the dungeon who reduces Bluebeard's castle to ashes with one word of truth from his goosequill pen.

In fact, Havel's biography up to 1990 does have a certain fairy-tale quality. The millionaire's son, unable to study properly under the communist regime because of his social origins, is compelled at one time to work manually in a brewery. His absurdist plays are promoted in the West by his German publisher and by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. The dissident leader of Charter 77 writes marvellous, penetrating essays about the nature of totalitarian rule and "the power of the powerless". He's imprisoned, and from prison writes his moving Letters to Olga. Then, miraculously, he goes from a spell in prison early in 1989 to directing the velvet revolution from the stage and dressing rooms of the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague. And so to the Castle. No wonder the novelist Milan Kundera, once a critic of Havel's "moral exhibitionism", now describes his life as a work of art.

Yet certainly it was always a misunderstanding to see him simply as a writer cast into politics against his will. From an early age, he was a political animal, both in small groups (which he has a knack of convening and animating) and on the larger stage. His dissident "anti-politics" were not only moral action but also the politics you pursue when ordinary politics are impossible. Some of his writer friends now feel, with benefit of hindsight, that for him politics always came before literature.

Moreover, he has made his fair share of mistakes as president. He himself now acknowledges that he might have helped to shape the political party landscape better in the early 1990s. Perhaps he could have done more to prevent the split of Czechoslovakia into Czech Republic and Slovakia, one of the most painful episodes of his decade. Even his admirers in Slovakia resent the fact that his first trip as president was to Germany rather than to Slovakia. Not all his speeches and interventions have been well-judged, even given the extreme provocation by the country's supremely arrogant, long-time prime minister Vaclav Klaus.

It is also true that he now often seems tired and lacklustre - which is not surprising, considering that he has lost half a lung and come close to death three times in the last three years.

There is no doubt that his popularity has declined at home. Having held for years at 80 per cent or more, it took a nose dive when, soon after the death of his much loved and admired first wife, Olga, he married Dagmar (or "Dasa") Veskrnova, a beautiful actress some 17 years his junior. He says quite simply that she - rather than the doctors - saved his life, and her warm, human support for him is actually touching to see. But the Czech public, in one of its occasional fits of morality, didn't like it; and many Czechs seem to have got bored with his sermons on morality. His rating now hovers about the 50 per cent mark. It is a question how much real influence on domestic Czech affairs he will have in his remaining three years in office.

However, this decline in his popularity may be as much a comment on the Czech public as on Vaclav Havel. Anyway, very few politicians get past the 10-year line unscathed - think of Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher or, for that matter, Charles de Gaulle. But the Havel I have seen already several times this year, and will see again next week when we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the velvet revolution in Prague Castle, is very far from down and out.

He seems to me to have recovered much of his intellectual fizz and zest for life - including political life. I think it entirely possible that even during his remaining years as president, and almost certain that thereafter, the Czech public will rediscover what an asset they have in him.

For the sad truth is that Vaclav Havel makes the Czech Republic look better in the world than it really is: a now small country with a rather corrupt public life, a slightly shaky economy, and a small-minded popular culture of "drink your beer, watch the telly and keep your head down".

It is crucially thanks to Vaclav Havel that the Czech Republic is now one of only three post-communist countries to be a secure democracy, already safely in Nato, and well on track for EU membership early next century. Yet his contribution is much larger than that. For, diminished though his stature may be at home, Havel remains a major figure on the European and world stages. Most of his speeches do not, of course, live up to the standards of the sharp, probing essays of the dissident years. How could they? But they are still always something slightly different and more interesting than an ordinary politician's speeches. And every so often he still comes up with a flash of brilliant insight - not least, into the nature and temptations of political power itself.

He is constantly reminding anyone who will listen of the threats to the natural world, and the moral imperative for politicians to try to put the long-term interests of their countries, Europe and humankind before their own short-term interests, as revealed by the latest opinion poll or focus group. He doesn't merely preach moral leadership; he also practices it.

The best recent example is the Kosovo war, which began just a fortnight after the Czech Republic joined Nato. Most Czechs, and most Czech politicians, decided they didn't support the Nato action: they had joined Nato in order for others to defend them, not for them to be involved, even marginally, in defending others. Perish the thought! Havel felt this was outrageous, and risked a further decline in popularity by saying so. He was outspoken in his support for the action. "I am a Kosovar," he declared. And he was actually the first leader to visit Kosovo after the liberation.

Ten years on, he is one of very few former dissidents still at the top in post-communist Europe. On the wider European scene, too, there are few to compare with him. With all due caveats, he remains one of the great figures of our time.

Vaclav Havel can be seen in 'Magic Lantern', the final programme in the author's television series 'Freedom's Battle', on BBC 2 tomorrow at 8 pm. The author's account of the velvet revolution, 'We The People', has just been reissued by Penguin