The Velvet Way

In the early nineties, a few years after the collapse of Communism, and the disintegration of the Iron Curtain which divided Europe, I was walking through a charming town in the old Czech lands of Bohemia in the then Czechoslovakia. Climbing the steep hill out of the town centre into the suburbs, I noticed an exceptionally large and flamboyant house in its own landscaped grounds. It was totally out of character with the traditional and vernacular architecture of central European towns.

In the early nineties, a few years after the collapse of Communism, and the disintegration of the Iron Curtain which divided Europe, I was walking through a charming town in the old Czech lands of Bohemia in the then Czechoslovakia. Climbing the steep hill out of the town centre into the suburbs, I noticed an exceptionally large and flamboyant house in its own landscaped grounds. It was totally out of character with the traditional and vernacular architecture of central European towns.

Without my asking any questions, my Czech host interpreted my glance. “That”, he said, “is the house built by the former Mayor who still lives there”.

The former Mayor had been a petty party hack on whom the system relied for local implementation. He distributed favours, identified those might demur, rewarded himself with the spoils of power and was loathed and feared.

I was surprised that he still lived in his mansion, but my host said “that was how we did it”, meaning the velvet way which ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution.

It was a philosophy propounded by Vaclav Havel, who died just before Christmas. Described in his obituaries (and indeed his eulogies) as a ‘playwright, a dissident and first President of the democracy of Czechoslovakia’, he would not agree that he was a philosopher. His was the moral, the practical, and the truthful approach. It did not include revenge and retribution, because these in themselves led to reaction and consequences and bitterness. So the discredited Mayor was allowed to live in his ostentatious house for his lifetime, though he lived in isolation and without the respect of the community which he once dominated.

I first became aware of Vaclav Havel when I randomly bought a paperback entitled ‘Living in Truth’ in an English book shop in 1987. The blurb told me that he was his country’s most important playwright; that he had been censored and banned; that his manuscripts had been confiscated by the secret police and he used to hide them in a tree to save them; that ultimately some of his work was secreted out of Czechoslovakia into ‘the West’ where it was first translated and published in The Netherlands; and that his works were so feared by the authorities they identified him as a subversive, imprisoned him, and denied him facilities for writing.

This I learned from a paperback of 315 pages, which included six of his collected essays, along with sixteen testimonies from fellow writers and all for the sum of three pounds ninety six pence sterling! It remains one of my most treasured books, to be dipped into at any time.

The first of Havel’s six essays is in the form of a long open ‘Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’. He was the hardliner who replaced Alexander Dubcek, who, while still a Communist, was a practical reformer who facilitated the peaceful, spontaneous and widely publicly supported Prague Spring of 1968. That peace had been brutally shattered by Russian tanks and much bloodshed, just as the peaceful campaign for reform in Hungary in 1956 had been similarly suppressed. Dubcek was jailed for several years.

For those of us who live in democracies, it is usual to think of Communism in the context of the deprivation of human freedom; freedom in our choice of politics; in the work we do; in our right to travel; our right to express our thoughts and views, to free speech; to the choice of the locale in which we make our homes; to the most basic of our human rights. And it is all of the foregoing, but Havel identified a much more destructive factor – the control of the human psyche, the destruction of the human spirit.

While, in his letter to Husak, he states the obvious – that all that people want to do is to stay alive, whatever the circumstances, the Communist State imposes such tyrannies that people have to live a lie, because they live in fear. Speaking the truth, dissenting against something that is intrinsically wrong, could bring State-imposed death, or imprisonment, or removal from family.

So ‘for fear of losing his job, a schoolteacher teaches things that he does not believe; fearing for his future, a pupil repeats them after him; for fear of not being allowed to continue his studies, the young man joins the Youth League and participates in whatever of its activities are necessary; fear that under the monstrous system of political credits, his son or daughter will not acquire the necessary total of points for enrolment at a school leads the father to take on all manner of responsibilities and ‘voluntarily’ to do everything required’.

He pointed out that this fear permeates all areas of work and society; scientists and artists ‘give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept’. And he writes that: ‘In the effort to save themselves, many even report others for doing to them what they themselves have been doing to the people they report’ since ‘everyone has something to lose and so everyone has reason to be afraid’.

Living in fear meant living in untruth, and so ‘Living in Truth’ became the aspiration of Charter 77, the cultural/political movement which Havel founded and the subject of the underground theatre where he produced his plays.

The movement, which also had as its objective the upheaval of Communism in Czechoslovakia by peaceful means, was in no way saccharin in its presentation.

It persisted in its pursuit of truth, and many of its members served long years in prison for that pursuit. But when Communism in Eastern and Central Europe imploded, and when the time came for Czechoslovakia to claim its freedom, it was achieved without the loss of a single life in the Velvet Revolution.

I have never again returned to that town in Bohemia, and do not know if the Communist Mayor still lives in a house which became a metaphor for corrupt and dark times in Europe, when living in truth became a threat to live itself.