When the nations of Eastern Europe slipped the handcuffs of the Soviet Union in 1989, each did so in a different way. The case of Czechoslovakia seemed the most romantic. It was a "Velvet Revolution" hatched in Prague's Magic Lantern Theater under the direction of a dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel.
Reality was a bit more complicated. The romantic story of the Czechs' and Slovaks' rising for freedom, which made them sound like a nation of poets, masked the fact that their government had been one of the most repressive in the Eastern Bloc, ever since the Soviets had crushed the Prague Spring of 1968 and installed a puppet regime.
The fairy tale also glossed over the ethnic tensions within the country, which erupted quickly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Within three years the Czechs and Slovaks began to go their separate ways.
But the romantic story of the revolution has held because of the reality of Vaclav Havel, a leader who fit the romantic image. He was Bohemian, both literally and in the sense of being a nonconformist, a shy man of letters who became a reluctant politician. But he nevertheless embodied tremendous moral authority and tenacity. When Havel died this week, it was as if the moving spirit of the Velvet Revolution had passed with him.
You can get some sense of the strength of his writing by reading "The Power of the Powerless," his most famous essay. He explains why a grocer in what he terms a "post-totalitarian" society would place a sign in his shop window with the slogan "Workers of the World, unite!" The meanings of that act in 1978 in Czechoslovakia are not what you would imagine, and as Havel dissects them, he exposes the lies and inhumanity, the deadening conformity and repression of the regime and how nothing is as it seems on the surface. There are echoes of Orwell and the banality of evil here. It's powerful stuff, even in translation. We can only imagine how it might resonate in Czech.
But resonate it did. Havel was imprisoned for years for his dissident writings and his co-founding of the Charter 77 movement. But when the opportunity arose in 1989 for his nation to seize its freedom, Havel rallied his country to define and grasp it.
Some called him naive in his idealism, and he told interviewers that he had become a character in a fairy tale whom he did not recognize as himself. But revolutions must have their dreamers and orators, and Havel turned out to be that man. That part of the Velvet Revolution is no romance.
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