After the Velvet, an Existential Revolution?

Adam Michnik: I would like to begin by looking back 40 years, when the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Do you think the invasion could have been prevented if Czechoslovakia had pursued different policies?

Václav Havel:  I believed then, as I believe today, that there was a way of preventing this threat but the country’’s leadership was not even aware of the threat. Of course I do not mean military resistance but some sort of moral mobilization.

Our country had experienced something similar once before, following the [1938] Munich Agreement. At that time Czechoslovakia made it clear that it was ready to defend itself. And in 1968, the proposal to invade Czechoslovakia was apparently carried in the Soviet Politburo by a small minority of votes. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if they had seen our country as one that tends to toe the line but can, if necessary, bang its fist on the table.  But this is just speculation.

The fact is that this option was beyond the mental horizon of our leadership at the time. It consisted of people with a communist past, who were simply overtaken by events and had trouble keeping up with them. Perhaps if they had tried to set the tone of events the threat of intervention would have been smaller but it seems to me that things would not, in any case,  have turned out well. Perhaps a Czech Jaruzelski could have come forward and said we would sort things out on our own? That is one of the possibilities, although I don’t know any Czech general who would have taken such a decision upon himself.

And what were your thoughts at the time? Did you expect an invasion? 

The whole summer before the invasion I was very tense. On the one hand, it was possible to speak freely and hold meetings, prisoners were being released, in short, we had thousands of possibilities and reasons to feel euphoric, such as we never had before.  Yet, on the other hand, most of us sensed we could not be certain that we would get away with it. We were comforting ourselves by thinking it was highly unlikely they would send the tanks in – after all, this was the centre of Europe and the time of détente and nuclear weapons.

And when the tanks did roll in, surprise turned to national resistance that was not military in nature but rather a kind of urban folklore. Our cities were full of protest signs, people were looking out for one another, even thieves in prison declared they would stop thieving.

I spent the first days after the invasion in the city of Liberec and saw how local hippies – who were regarded as a menace – came to the city hall and offered their services to the head of the local council. Their task was to take down street signs as doing such a thing did not befit the police.  The task was completed overnight, and by the next morning all the street signs were stacked up in the corridors of the city hall and the group’’s leader was asking for a new assignment. So it was a wonderful period but I knew it wouldn’t last long. And it did not, and a general apathy and demoralization soon set in. Much sooner than I expected.

What information do you have about differences of opinion in the Kremlin on the issue of intervention?

According to my sources the Russian Politburo did indeed discuss the issue and the decision was taken with a majority of just one vote. I even heard that Khrushchov, who at the time held no political office, ran to the Kremlin and tried to get in so that he could to talk his comrades out of the idea. He thought it would harm the global communist movement and that was exactly what happened. If the intervention had any long-term positive effect it was to open the eyes of the Western Left. Aggression against Czechoslovakia robbed them of their illusions.

We all know what the so-called normalization represented. What moral and social impact did it have on society?

Society quickly understood what was expected of it. The proposition was: if you support the invasion or at least shut up about it and don’t protest, we will let you live, we will let you build weekend cottages and grow vegetables on your allotments. But only on condition that you will not protest, that you will decorate the facades of your houses with slogans in praise of the communist party and send regular congratulatory telegrams to communist party congresses or raise production levels to mark the occasion. To put it briefly: if you leave the regime in peace, the regime, too, will leave you in peace.

It was a moving and painful time, when spines were being broken, and it was remarkably short. It is only in this context that we can understand Jan Palach and his self-immolation. It was an extreme expression of the tension in a society that was being purged and where people underwent the strangest transformations – someone who only yesterday was considered a Prague Spring  supporter would today be a prime normalizer, firing people from their jobs. You could see the country’’s leadership move backwards one step after another, and sanction concession after concession. However, for several months it was still possible to discuss this publicly and write about it because freedom of the press was restricted only gradually.

In 1978, when we met in the mountains on the Czech/Polish border, we had no clear vision of the end of communism. At that time, you wrote your essay The Power of the Powerless, responding to the question of how freedom and dignity can develop under communist oppression. This essay became a manifesto of democratic opposition in all the countries of the communist bloc. When we came to Prague in 1989 and then visited you at your cottage in Hrádeček, you were still sceptical. You laughed at me for basing my predictions of the end of communism on seeing four foreigners playing guitars on Charles Bridge. At that time, everyone thought the way you did and nobody believed the system was cracking and would soon come crashing down. What was it that made the Velvet Revolution happen so soon after our meeting?

I had also been saying something different for quite a while towards the end of the normalization period. After Charter 77, Western journalists kept telling us: you are just a small group of intellectuals fighting with one another, the workers are not behind you, you are not supported by millions of people and are just banging your heads against a brick wall. And I used to respond that in a totalitarian system we can never tell what is hidden under the surface because it can’t be verified.

We didn’’t have opinion polls or free media but we knew something was brewing in the social subconscious. I sensed with greater and greater intensity that sooner or later something would explode, that things could not go on like this for ever, because you could see how everything was bursting at the seams. It was obvious that a random event could provoke great changes. And the whole thing would snowball and turn into an avalanche.

I also used to say that under a totalitarian regime sometimes a single voice – such as Solzhenitsyn’’s – can have greater weight than those of millions of voters. And that we cannot predict when this snowball will turn into an avalanche. I didn’’t know either and I, too, was surprised that it happened when it did. But of course, it was linked to the general crisis of the system – ecological and social – and also to its cowardly nature.  After all, they had every instrument of power at their disposal and they could have instigated some sort of a confrontation to defeat us. But they had no energy left.

You mentioned Solzhenitsyn. He underwent a strange evolution. In the last years of his life he became famous for glorifying the Tsarist regime, demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty and supporting Putin. What happened to Solzhenitsyn?

He isn’’t the only one. In Russia there are plenty of people who used to belong to the democratic opposition and with whom we used to see eye to eye in all matters, who have now undergone a certain evolution as well. You can tell as soon as you raise issues like Chechnya or Georgia. Russian society is plagued by a secret insecurity, a fear of not being taken seriously by the West. The biggest country in the world sees itself as small and that is why it keeps squinting towards neighbouring countries. As if it did not know where it begins and where it ends. And when someone starts playing the nationalist card people see it as a cure (obviously a false one) for all those insecurities.

If I were selfish, I would say: thank God for that because otherwise there would have been no Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.  Because it’’s all about the same thing.  And also about whether or not there is room amidst all this for God.  Nevertheless, this situation is worrying and I am afraid the European Union does not know enough about it. It puts economic interests above the observance of human rights.  Sometimes its actions verge on appeasement. I have recently read three shocking books: by Litvinenko, Annna Politkovskaya and Alexander Yakovlev.  Reading them makes your hair stand on end. And this system that Putin has established does not even have a name.

What do you mean it has no name? It is Putinism. But its inventor is not Putin, it is Lukashenko, and Putin has just plagiarized him.

A member of the Russian opposition said recently that Putin can’t stand Lukashenko because he sees him as a caricature of himself.

I have noticed a certain paradox. On the one hand, walking down the streets of Prague, Olomouc, Brno, Warsaw or Kraków, we can see positive changes: nice houses, improved pavements, great shops, bookshops full of people. On the other hand, all of our countries show signs of a progressive degradation, if not degeneration, of the political class. In fact, it would be difficult to find anywhere in the world politicians who can inspire admiration or are up to the task of leading Europe or the world. On the one hand, we are becoming more and more civilized and instead of dictatorship we have democracy, and on the other hand there is a continual process of deterioration of the political class, followed by a process of deterioration of democratic institutions. How would you explain this contradiction? In Russia pluralism has been eliminated but in Poland or the Czech Republic people still have a choice. Except that sometimes it seems the only a choice is that between Putinism and Berlusconism. How do you see the political, ideological and spiritual landscape of the post-Soviet countries today?

On the one hand everything is getting better all the time – a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week. But in order to make use of it you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks by fashion house X.

This growth of a global consumer society is accompanied by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value. They are just mediators, consultants, PR agents. It appears that we have a great choice in the supermarket but in fact it is a variety that is false. We are losing centres of social self-management – such as small shops or pubs. All this goes hand in hand with the destruction of the environment.

To me all this is extremely dangerous and I doubt that civilization can come to its senses unless some enormous shake-up or a tsunami takes place. In any case, I feel the need for some kind of an existential revolution. Something has to change in people’’s awareness.

This damage can’’t be repaired by any technocratic trickery. In today’’s world political personalities lose their relevance.  Only the short-term really counts.  An ideology of growth and a cult of the new reigns both on the right and on the left. It’’s like a washing powder that screams : New!, yet a day later you get one that’’s even newer and you have no idea what the difference is.  Ambitious politicians can’t resist this cult of novelty, change, progress and growth. Eventually they become just a reflection of their society. I don’’t see many great moral or spiritual authorities in our world today.

But don’’t take me for a total sceptic. I do believe that citizens’ organizations, associations and initiatives are doing something worthwhile. The Czech Republic has thousands of foundations of all kinds, many of them small and local, hardly known to anyone but doing important work in their micro-communities. I believe that a varied civic society is one of the ways of coping with the threatening consequences of civilization.

On the one hand, Europe is getting integrated, we have the Euro and Schengen; on the other hand, there is disintegration: the Basque country, Corsica, Belgium. When Czechoslovakia split up I was very worried. But today everyone tells me that relations between the Czechs and Slovaks have never been as good. Looking back, how do you see it?

Nationalisms are born partly as a means of defence from the pressure to uniformity exerted by global civilization.  When you land at the airport in Tokyo or Moscow you can’’t tell where you are. The smaller the cell with the same number of prisoners the more likely they are to get into a fight.

The Czech and Slovak case, however, illustrates another thesis. Often a national community has to go through a phase of actual independence before it can appreciate integration. Only then can the self-identifying groups integrate, and without this self-identification phase the process becomes much more difficult. That, at least, is my interpretation of the case of the Czechs and Slovaks.

Obama told the Americans: You have to choose between hope and cynicism. Obviously, this was an election slogan. But when I think about it, it seems to me that politics in post-Communist countries has become so corrupted by cynicism that this slogan could be relevant – it could mean that we are not doomed to cynicism and could try and opt for hope. What do you think?

Over the last 20 years we have witnessed many different attempts to bring about change, to introduce some sort of moral order. All these attempts have failed. Society simply has to mature to something like this. In our country this usually happens in 20-year cycles: 1918, 1938, 1968 and, skipping one year, 1989. The need for change cannot be just something dreamt up by intellectuals, it also has to be desired by society.

One day, when new generations, unspoilt by communism and normalization, have grown up, cynicism will lose its power and its practitioners will be forced out of social life. Herein, I hope, lies the chance for a real change.

I won’t ask you what you think of lustrations, as we have discussed this matter many times before but I can’’t avoid the case of Milan Kundera. I read your contribution to the debate and completely agree with your point of view. In all our post-communist countries we have drug warehouses, that is, secret police archives. And we have drug addicts who are supposed to look after them but instead they keep taking the drugs and then get up on the stage to expose yet another informer.  How does this mechanism work: someone discovers a piece of paper that does not bear Kundera’s signature and suddenly the Czech papers say in unison: Kundera is no longer God! He has never been God, just a writer. What does all this mean?

This matter has not been properly resolved in any post-Communist country. Some managed it better, some worse, but none has managed it well. Clearly, something needs to be done about it. We can’t just lock it up and say we’’re not interested because, after all, it concerns our past lives.

Following the Velvet Revolution I suggested that a group of five trustworthy, intelligent people from the dissident movement should be brought together and given one year to think of a solution.  But instead of this, hasty decisions were taken: first came the law of lustration, then its amendment, and so on. And as a result, we have an absurd situation when a list of names is read out on TV with millions of people watching, only to find out nobody knows if the names belonged to victims or informers. And then people are advised to go to the archives and check for themselves. But who, out of those millions who watched, will go and check? It’s an absolutely irresponsible way of dealing with it, destroying someone’s life but putting everyone into the same bag.
But it does say something about a society that has the need for this sort of thing.

This matter is also linked to the progress of civilization. The media are out to make a profit. And as we know, small earthquake in Chile, not many dead, is not news. But if the media can say that XY was an informer or that he got divorced or raped someone, they will do it because it brings them profit. And to some media profit matters more than substance or truth.
If a 20-year old read your essay Power of the Powerless today, what lessons could he learn? If a young person asked you today how to live, what would your advice be?

The basic imperative:

To live in truth

has its tradition in Czech philosophy but basically has biblical roots – it does not mean just the possession or communication of information. Because information, like a virus, circulates in the air so one person may absorb more and another one less. Truth, however, is a different matter because we guarantee it with our own self. Truth is based on responsibility. And that is an imperative that is valid in every age. Obviously, it takes slightly different forms today. Luckily, you don’’t have to hang portraits of a Havel, or a Klaus or a Kaczyński in the shop windows anymore and of course we no longer live under totalitarian pressure — but that doesn’t mean we’ve won. We still need what I refer to as an existential revolution even though it might look different in different places.

But basically, what matters is that you have to stand up for what you believe is the truth.

That is what Anna Politkovskaya did,  she guaranteed the truth with her own life. Her case is typical of a rather specific Putinist space but the same applies to other places, like America.

And as you have mentioned The Power of the Powerless, may I remind you that you are partly to blame, because when we met on the border in 1978, we agreed to put out a joint Polish-Czech collection of essays. And it was you who asked me to write the first text which ended up as this essay.

So after 30 years I’m supposed to sit down and respond, am I? Thanks  Vašek!


Václav Havel (1936) is a Czech playwright and writer living in Prague. During the so-called normalization he was one of the leaders of the Czech dissent and of Charter 77, and co-founder of the Civic Forum. After November 1989 he was president of Czechoslovakia and following the 2002 separation of Czechoslovakia, he served as president of the Czech Republic until 2003. He has written over 20 plays for the theatre and TV, as well as numerous articles and essays. His latest books include: Václav Havel – František Janouch: Correspondence 1978 – 2001, the play Leaving and Please Be Brief – an interview with Karel Hvížďala.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Swiateczna on 15 November 2008.

We are grateful to Adam Michnik for the permission to publish this text in English.