With the passing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, many people around the world have begun to draw a parallel between Charter 08 initiated by him and Charter 77 drafted by, along with others, former Czech dissident and playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel.
Havel spent his early years as both writer and playwright in Prague during the ’60s when Czechoslovakia was still under communist rule, and rose to prominence in the Eastern European art world at a young age after he published a number of critically acclaimed works.
However, the outbreak of the Prague Spring in 1968 turned out to be a watershed in his life, which set him on a path towards becoming a world-renowned dissident and later president of the country in the decades that followed.
After the Prague Spring had been suppressed by the Red Army, the Czech communist authorities began to mount a nationwide persecution campaign against liberal intellectuals and dissidents, including Havel, who had published a series of anti-totalitarian works during the movement.
Throughout the ’70s, Havel was completely banned from the theater by the authorities, and was sent to work in a brewery as a punishment. During that period he was put under heavy surveillance by the secret police, and was, at one point, thrown into jail.
However, even though his life was made miserable by the communist regime, Havel managed to ride out the tough times and stay intact, mainly because he was a very flexible and philosophical person who knew when to keep his head down in order to avoid trouble.
Yet even though Havel was keeping a low profile during the ’70s amid the communist regime’s crackdown on dissent, he never wavered in his devotion to the democratic cause.
Then in 1977, the time had finally come for Havel to translate his democratic ideals into action. It was in that year that he drafted the famous Charter 77 calling on the communist regime to respect human rights.
Meanwhile, he also founded the Civic Forum, which, like the Solidarity in Poland led by Lech Walesa, would later emerge at the forefront of the wave of pro-democracy protests that swept across Eastern Europe in the late ’80s, and which eventually led to the fall of the communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc one after another.
After the so-called Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 toppled the communist regime without any bloodshed, Havel became the first popularly elected president of the country since the end of the Second World War.
When Havel died in 2011, he was granted a state funeral attended by state leaders and dignitaries from around the world.
Unlike many other popularly elected leaders in Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era who had later fallen from grace as a result of corruption or power abuse, Havel remained highly popular and prestigious among his people throughout his life right till his death, not least because he had never been addicted to power even at the height of his political career.
Perhaps it would be hard to make a direct comparison between Vaclav Havel and Liu Xiaobo, because after all, their stories were set against two completely different historical backdrops. However, they did have one thing in common: their lifelong devotion to the cause of freedom has made them literally immortal.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 25
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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