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The ballad of St. Vaclav, patron of that elusive political virtue: Telling the truth

A still from the documentary Citizen Havel, which follows Vaclav Havel from 1992, on the cusp of his election as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, through his return to civilian life in 2003.

I met him only once, but I've never forgotten my private moments with Vaclav Havel, the secular saint who was never canonized for the simple reason he was too damn human to be a saint.

Our brief meeting took place in Ottawa in 1990, when he was on his way to Washington to address a joint session of Congress and didn't have much time. But he was glad to meet someone who could speak Czech, so he wouldn't have to rely on his interpreter. (She was a tiny east Asianwoman he kept tucked under his left shoulder; she was so quick that, as vocal well-wishers talked to him, she would whisper to Havel in Czech, lip-read his answer and reply almost instantaneously in perfect Oxford English.)

From our brief exchange, I recall only two fragments. "I've learned never to be surprised by anything," he shrugged when I asked how it felt for a beleaguered playwright to suddenly find himself a famous president. To my question about the secret of politics, he shot back: "Write your own speeches and express hard truths in a polite way." Then he paused, and added: "Of course, everyone is replaceable."

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I'm not so sure.

Mr. Havel was one of those rare conscience-driven politicians we can't afford to lose. He kept himself removed from the darker tricks of his craft and wasn't impressed by the fumes of fame. He believed that character is destiny and that it was therefore essential to live a principled life, even at the risk of being imprisoned for his beliefs – which he was.

A scruffy man with originally ginger-coloured hair and an orange mustache (one friend joked, "Vaclav looks as if carrot juice is flowing through his veins"), he enjoyed a highly developed sense of the absurd. Mr. Havel's plays were absurdist creations in mundane settings with universal characters. He started writing when he was 13, but his plays were banned after the Soviet invasion that extinguished Alexander Dubcek's counter-revolution in 1968. Czech theatres remained closed to him until his Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Mr. Havel led the peaceful overthrow of the occupying Russians and in the winter of that year assumed Czechoslovakia's presidency. That meant moving into Hradcany Castle, a huge pile of palaces and cathedrals overlooking the Vltava River in Prague. Just eight months earlier, he had been serving a four-year sentence in a Communist prison a few kilometres away.

He had been the spiritual catalyst of the bloodless revolt that swept the Communists out of power, and now he was the country's first democratic president since 1938. Being a playwright, one of the first things he did was make sure everyone wore appropriate costumes. He asked his friend Theodor Pistek (who won an Academy Award for his costumes in the movie Amadeus) to design properly pretentious royal blue parade uniforms – complete with toy sabres – for the castle guards. When they were delivered, Mr. Havel tried one on, and ran into the castle kitchens waving his pretend weapon, yelling, "Let's go scare the cooks!"

He later got fed up with soldiers marching around the castle to regal marching music and had one of his friends compose a jarring melody in seven-eight time that no one could possibly march to, then insisted that it be played for the changing of the guard ceremonies.

Hradcany Castle is so huge that Mr. Havel sometimes resorted to getting around the place on a scooter, and after the first few weeks in office he agreed not to go to work in jeans but continued to receive visitors wearing a polka-dot tie. (His first press secretary was Michael Zantovsky, whose only claim to fame was as the author of the only study in Czech of the films of Woody Allen.)

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As president (he was re-elected in 1990 and 1993), Mr. Havel granted amnesty to 30,000 prisoners, presided over the peaceful withdrawal of Soviet troops, defied public opinion by supporting the reunification of Germany and masterminded the Czech Republic's application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organizatiom.

But his main contributions were his evocative speeches, written by himself on a manual typewriter. Probably the best was his 1990 New Year's message: "For 40 years, on this day, you heard the same thing in different variations from my predecessors: how our country flourishes, how many tons of steel we produced, how happy we all are, how we trusted our government and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not nominate me to this office so that I, too, would lie to you. Our country is not flourishing. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as 72nd in the world."

He went on like that for about 10 minutes, then came his seminal point: "Let us teach both ourselves and others that politics does not have to be the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of intrigues, secret agreements and pragmatic manoeuvrings. But that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is the art of making both ourselves and the world better."

"Man," Mr. Havel once wrote from jail, "is nailed down – like Christ on the cross – to a grid of paradoxes. He balances between the torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out."

Vaclav Havel did both and we were all the better for it.

Peter C. Newman is a journalist and author who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and came to Canada in 1940.

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