Vaclav Havel, Part V: Prison, Torment and Temptation

Immediately after the Charter 77 Declaration was released, Vaclav Havel was arrested. At first he underwent daily interrogations at Ruzyne Prison and was released each night; by January 14, they stopped letting him leave. As I discussed in the previous installment, Charter 77 had painted the regime into a corner by couching its declaration as a celebration of the commitments the regime had made under the Helsinki Accords to respect human rights. The regime couldn’t very well prosecute Havel for agreeing with it, so they officially charged him with smuggling documents out of Czechoslovakia that were published abroad – including, of course, the Charter 77 declaration.

Havel found this first period of imprisonment particularly difficult. He had not yet learned how to deal with daily interrogations, and discovered that by trying to engage his interrogators in conversation he had given them ammunition against himself and other Charter 77 members. You can see Havel discuss how he learned to deal with interrogations here. After several months, Havel mentioned to his interrogators that he planned to resign as spokesperson for Charter 77 (the position was meant to rotate); the regime publicly announced that Havel had renounced his role in the group and released him as proof. Havel was humiliated and disgraced, but he recovered his bearings and began to work with the dissident group (and a second he co-founded – the Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Persecuted or VONS — even more energetically than before).

The Czechoslovak secret police constantly watched and tormented the dissidents. Policemen literally followed Havel everywhere he went at all times – not secretly, but openly, within an arm’s length of him. They demanded identification from anyone he talked to; they walked with him when he walked his dog. The secret police took over the property immediately next to Havel’s house and built a watchtower on it, from which they watched him at all times. They smashed his car windshield, then arrested him for driving with a smashed windshield. They planted listening devices throughout his house and repeatedly raided it, taking any documents they could find. Dissidents were beaten and arrested. Repeatedly they were grabbed off the street; sometimes they were taken for interrogation, sometimes they were driven out into the countryside in the middle of the night and kicked out of the car, to find their own way back. Many dissidents escaped into exile (often with the eager agreement of the regime). Havel and a handful of others refused to budge.

And yet, despite the regime’s best efforts, Charter 77 and VONS survived. Havel and others occasionally managed to slip from the regime’s grasp as they became skilled in subterfuge. They smuggled out documents that were published abroad. Most amazingly, the Czech dissidents actually managed to meet clandestinely with Polish dissidents from Solidarity and KOR, who were living under martial law at home.  They met in the mountainous forests on the border between the two countries.

Secret meeting with Polish dissidents

The Czech regime soon realized that merely tormenting Havel and his circle would not be sufficient to stop them. Still, under the watchful eye of groups like Helsinki Watch, they dared not kill them. Havel knew hard time in prison was inevitable if he did not stop advocating for freedom, and steeled himself for it. In May 1979, as he expected, Havel and others such as Petr Uhl, Jiri Dienstbeir and Vaclav Benda were sentenced to long terms at hard labor in the general prison population.

Havel was put to work welding metal gratings and stripping insulation from wires (which he said “wasn’t too bad, as long as you could get used to the cold and endless filth”) every day, all day long. Work quotas were set impossibly high, and when the prisoners could not fulfill them, they were punished and given reduced rations. Havel and other prisoners were beaten and threatened with execution. He suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia.

Havel was allowed one half-hour visit from his wife Olga every three months, and he and the other prisoners were allowed to write one strictly censored four-page letter home each week. Havel was not officially allowed to write anything else, but his letters home formed the basis of his famous Letters to Olga. (I say officially because of a remarkable story: Havel’s prison guards were supposed to write detailed reports on him for the secret police. One guard hated writing so much that he asked Havel to write the reports on himself instead, which he did).

After enduring these conditions, every day, for three and a half years, the regime approached Havel with a remarkable offer. They told him the following things, each of which was absolutely true:

  • His boyhood friend, now famous Hollywood director Milos Forman, who was living in exile in the United States, had arranged a playwright-in-residency position for him in at a theater in New York City.
  • Havel would be released from his hell of a prison and allowed to move to New York City with Olga, where finally he could see his plays performed at last.
  • He would be, undoubtedly, the toast of the city: the famous dissident artist, at last free.
  • From New York, he could, of course, say whatever he wanted to about the Czech regime and coordinate dissident activities.
  • No one in Czechoslovakia had given much thought to him in the past three years, and all of the former dissidents still in the country had been effectively silenced.
  • If he refused the offer, the next morning he would be back to stripping insulation off wires, unable to communicate with an outside world that had almost completely forgotten him, probably until he was dead, and almost no one would care.

What would you have done? I’d have been out the door and on the plane so fast I’d probably have injured myself.

Havel, however, instantly realized three things: (1) he could never do it, because it would betray those he left behind in prison and Czechoslovakia; (2) if they were making this offer, he was still a problem for them; and (3) he could use this offer as an excuse to get an extra meeting with Olga. He told the regime he needed to discuss it with his wife; he got his extra meeting with Olga and stayed in prison.

Unknown to Havel, stories like his refusal to leave and his tricking the authorities into an extra visit with Olga gradually spread to the general population.  A whole sub-genre of Havel jokes began to be whispered.  Here’s one: Olga wrote to Havel and said she needed to plant potatoes to eat, but couldn’t dig up the yard on her own; what should she do?  Havel wrote back, telling Olga that she must under no circumstances dig up the yard, because that’s where he had buried the secrets documents.  A week later a letter arrived from Olga, saying that a dozen secret service agents had shown up, dug up the entire yard and left in a fury; what should she do?  Havel wrote back: plant the potatoes.

A few months after he refused to leave, suffering from his worst bout of pneumonia (which eventually cost him a lung), Havel was near death. He was sent to a prison hospital, likely to die, and no one in the outside world knew. Havel managed to send a note to Olga because the hospital had more lax censorship standards, letting her know what was happening. Dissidents got word out of Czechoslovakia, and the human rights community, which Havel had helped create, erupted into protest. Helsinki Watch and other groups, coordinated with sympathetic western European governments, demanded Havel’s release. The Czechoslovak regime was embarrassed and terrified Havel would die in their custody; it also recognized a potential public relations coup. It unilaterally granted Havel compassionate release into the care of a non-prison hospital.

Havel later recalled the month he spent in the hospital after his release as among the happiest of life (“just imagine – you scarcely see a woman for four years, and suddenly they plop you down among ten nursing school grads!”). He had been through the fire and emerged, eventually stronger. He would be imprisoned again, but now it began to seem that it was the totalitarian regime’s days that were numbered.

The quote above, and much of the detail of this post, comes from the collection of interviews of Havel in Disturbing the Peace, translated by Paul Wilson, who has a remembrance of Havel in the current edition of The New York Review of Books.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Thanks again for this wonderful series, Mark.

    Although I’ve yet to receive my hard copy of the NYRB, I was happy to learn one can access the Wilson piece online:

    And perhaps some readers would be delighted to learn that Wilson, who also translated the (prison) Letters to Olga (1983/1988), was once a member of the underground band, Plastic People of the Universe (he left the band in 1972).

  2. I had to share this from Wilson’s eloquent remembrance:

    “[Havel’s] vision [was] based on a democratic politics underpinned by a strong civil society and rooted in common decency, morality, and respect for the rule of law and human rights; a politics that sought to transcend racial, cultural, and religious differences by articulating a ‘moral minimum’ that Havel believed existed at the heart of most faiths and cultures and that would provide a basis for agreement and cooperation without sacrificing the unique gifts that each person, each culture, and each ‘sphere of civilization’ could bring to enrich modern life. [….]

    Like many great Czechs before him, Havel insisted on the importance of truth, but with a difference. ‘Truth and love,’ he was fond of saying, ‘must prevail over lies and hatred.’ He was often ridiculed for what seemed like a Hallmark sentiment (‘Why love?’ people asked), but he defended the slogan by referring to one of his greatest insights: truth, by itself, is a malleable concept that depends for its truthfulness on who utters it, to whom it is said, and under what circumstances. As a playwright, Havel turned this insight into a dramatic device: in most of his plays, the main characters constantly lie to one another and to themselves, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful. Truth by itself is not enough: it needs a guarantor, someone to stand behind it. It must be uttered with no thought for gain, that is, in Havel’s words, with a love that seeks nothing for itself and everything for others.

    We are close to religious territory here, and indeed, in the week of leave-taking in Prague, I heard many discussions about Havel’s true beliefs. Was he a Catholic and, if not, was the high mass in St. Vitus’s Cathedral the right way to send him off? Yes, replied some, he had been raised a Catholic and been confirmed as a young man. Sister Veritas said she felt that Havel was “with God” more profoundly than many observant Catholics, but she admitted that he had neither asked for nor received the last rites before he died. One of his last conversations was with the Dalai Lama, whom he considered a spiritual guru. But in the circumstances, such questions seemed inconsequential, even scholastic. Havel was a deeply spiritual man who expressed his spirituality, if that is the right word, almost entirely through his actions in the world.”