Vaclav Havel is small, frail and as usual he’s wearing a badly-fitting suit and an open white shirt. You feel he would be smoking, but he isn’t allowed to now.
Ex-president, dissident, playwright, citizen activist and hero of his country, he’s here to welcome us as personal guests, and this is the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a series of peaceful, talk-filled events that put an end to over forty years of Communism. As he speaks haltingly, in a voice from which he seems to be trying, raspingly, to expel emotion, I find I cannot believe I am here in this converted church.
I’m waiting for the performances, to be sure. What I’m no longer waiting for is the coming of freedom in Prague. Uz je to tady, the programme notes tell me – “It’s here.”
I was in Prague when I was very young, in 1966, when I could feel the first stirrings of opposition to Communism. I came back in the horrible winter of 1968, with one of the friends by my side, when there were still tanks on the streets. And I returned during the long death of the 1970s, and again, at the fag end of neo-Stalinism, in 1984 when the country seemed to have shut itself down in an eternal winter.
Alas, I wasn’t here in 1989, but I look on the images of crowds projected on the wall before me, and feel that I might have been, so familiar has the city become to me.
Prague is a way now I measure what’s going on in Europe. I cannot imagine a free Europe without freedom here. And what people feel here matters deeply to me – as much or more than how people in London, Paris or Berlin think about the world.
Earlier we sat in a packed lecture hall the arts faculty of Prague University decorated with photographs from 1998, listening to students and guests from all over Europe. Tom Stoppard was here to warn us about what he saw as a society of non-responsiveness in Britain, sleepwalking its way to authoritarianism. “Corruption is like prostitution,” the Polish dissident-turned-newspaperman Adam Mechanic told us in a brilliant speech. “It will always be there.”
Nonetheless, he tells us, we must strive to push the store up the rock, acting as if things might be better. And I realize, suddenly, that this is what he and Havel did. Without reason to hope for better things, they went on hoping. And they triumphed.
Speeches warn about the rise of the Far Right throughout Eastern Europe. A Russian denounces the ‘Chekist autocracy’ of Putin’s regime.
However, the young Czechs are more worried about the apathy and petty politics that appear to be indissolubly linked to democracy in Prague.
“Don’t expect us to do what you didn’t manage to do,” a speaker cautions us, alluding to the low lever of students, more preoccupied with making money. “There’s no reason why we should be more successful.”
As the performances, begin, however, the mornings concerns seem far away. I am glad to see that the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the Eurosceptic who became a hero to Tories by holding up ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, is barracked by a well-dressed women behind me. I am haunted by the potential sense of anti-climax. Will Prague rise to this occasion?
The singers are friends of the ex-President, who once hired Frank Zappa as a cultural emissary and whose taste is notoriously eclectic.
Suzanne Vega goes first, followed by a nice message from Gorby. But then Lou Reed comes on, incongruously but adeptly re-rendering the Velvet Underground classic Waiting For The Man. After the simplest homage to Havel from the French philosopher Andre Glucksmann, more messages from Mick Jagger and the ubiquitous Bono, Joan Baez sings.
After one verse of We Shall Overcome, I realize that my friends, myself, most of the well-heeled sophisticates, are dabbing at their eyes. Arias sung in Czech from the soprano Renee Fleming (Czech great-grandparents) lead into a duet with Lou Reed, A Perfect Day. And by now everyone is truly overcome.
As is usually the case, democracy may not be in the best shape on earth, but its fate depends on all of us, and what we choose to do or not. This is the farewell message of Vaclav Havel to his guests. I join the crowd milling around Havel, reflecting that something is indeed here.