Adam Michnik: I would like to begin by looking back 40 years, when the
Václav Havel: I believed then, as I believe today, that there was a way of preventing this threat but the country’s leadership was not even aware of the threat. Of course I do not mean military resistance but some sort of “moral mobilization”.
Our country had experienced something similar once
before, following the  Munich
Agreement. At that time
The fact is that this option was beyond the mental
horizon of our leadership at the time. It consisted of people with a communist
past, who were simply overtaken by events and had trouble keeping up with them.
Perhaps if they had tried to set the tone of events the threat of intervention
would have been smaller but it seems to me that things would not, in any case, have turned out well. Perhaps a Czech Jaruzelski could have come forward and
said we would sort things out on our own? That is one of the possibilities,
although I don’t know any Czech general who would have taken such a decision
And what were your thoughts at the time? Did you expect an invasion?
The whole summer before the invasion I was very tense. On the one hand, it was possible to speak freely and hold meetings, prisoners were being released, in short, we had thousands of possibilities and reasons to feel euphoric, such as we never had before. Yet, on the other hand, most of us sensed we could not be certain that we would get away with it. We were comforting ourselves by thinking it was highly unlikely they would send the tanks in - after all, this was the centre of Europe and the time of détente and nuclear weapons.
And when the tanks did roll in, surprise turned to national resistance that was not military in nature but rather a kind of urban folklore. Our cities were full of protest signs, people were looking out for one another, even thieves in prison declared they would stop thieving.
I spent the first days after the invasion in the city
What information do you have about differences of opinion in the Kremlin on the issue of intervention?
to my sources the Russian Politburo did indeed discuss the issue and the
decision was taken with a majority of just one vote. I even heard that Khrushchov,
who at the time held no political office, ran to the Kremlin and tried to get
in so that he could to talk his comrades out of the idea. He thought it would
harm the global communist movement and that was exactly what happened. If the
intervention had any long-term positive effect it was to open the eyes of the
Western Left. Aggression against
We all know what the so-called normalization represented. What moral and social impact did it have on society?
Society quickly understood what was expected of it. The proposition was: if you support the invasion or at least shut up about it and don’t protest, we will let you live, we will let you build weekend cottages and grow vegetables on your allotments. But only on condition that you will not protest, that you will decorate the facades of your houses with slogans in praise of the communist party and send regular congratulatory telegrams to communist party congresses or raise production levels to mark the occasion. To put it briefly: if you leave the regime in peace, the regime, too, will leave you in peace.
It was a moving and painful time, when spines were being broken, and it was remarkably short. It is only in this context that we can understand Jan Palach and his self-immolation. It was an extreme expression of the tension in a society that was being purged and where people underwent the strangest transformations - someone who only yesterday was considered a Prague Spring supporter would today be a prime “normalizer”, firing people from their jobs. You could see the country’s leadership move backwards one step after another, and sanction concession after concession. However, for several months it was still possible to discuss this publicly and write about it because freedom of the press was restricted only gradually.
when we met in the mountains on the Czech/Polish border, we had no clear vision
of the end of communism. At that time, you wrote your essay “The Power of the
Powerless”, responding to the question of how freedom and dignity can develop
under communist oppression. This essay became a manifesto of democratic
opposition in all the countries of the communist bloc. When we came to
I had also been saying something different for quite a while towards the end of the normalization period. After Charter 77, Western journalists kept telling us: you are just a small group of intellectuals fighting with one another, the workers are not behind you, you are not supported by millions of people and are just banging your heads against a brick wall. And I used to respond that in a totalitarian system we can never tell what is hidden under the surface because it can’t be verified.
We didn’t have opinion polls or free media but we knew something was brewing in the social subconscious. I sensed with greater and greater intensity that sooner or later something would explode, that things could not go on like this for ever, because you could see how everything was bursting at the seams. It was obvious that a random event could provoke great changes. And the whole thing would snowball and turn into an avalanche.
I also used to say that under a totalitarian regime sometimes a single voice - such as Solzhenitsyn’s - can have greater weight than those of millions of voters. And that we cannot predict when this snowball will turn into an avalanche. I didn’t know either and I, too, was surprised that it happened when it did. But of course, it was linked to the general crisis of the system - ecological and social - and also to its cowardly nature. After all, they had every instrument of power at their disposal and they could have instigated some sort of a confrontation to defeat us. But they had no energy left.
You mentioned Solzhenitsyn. He underwent a strange evolution. In the last years of his life he became famous for glorifying the Tsarist regime, demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty and supporting Putin. What happened to Solzhenitsyn?
the only one. In
If I were selfish, I would say: thank God for that because otherwise there would have been no Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Because it’s all about the same thing. And also about whether or not there is room amidst all this for God. Nevertheless, this situation is worrying and I am afraid the European Union does not know enough about it. It puts economic interests above the observance of human rights. Sometimes its actions verge on appeasement. I have recently read three shocking books: by Litvinenko, Annna Politkovskaya and Alexander Yakovlev. Reading them makes your hair stand on end. And this system that Putin has established does not even have a name.
What do you mean it has no name? It is Putinism. But its inventor is not Putin, it is Lukashenko, and Putin has just plagiarized him.
A member of the Russian opposition said recently that Putin can’t stand Lukashenko because he sees him as a caricature of himself.
I have noticed a certain paradox. On the one hand,
walking down the streets of
On the one hand everything is getting better all the time - a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week. But in order to make use of it you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks by fashion house X.
This growth of a global consumer society is accompanied by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value. They are just mediators, consultants, PR agents. It appears that we have a great choice in the supermarket but in fact it is a variety that is false. We are losing centres of social self-management - such as small shops or pubs. All this goes hand in hand with the destruction of the environment.
To me all this is extremely dangerous and I doubt that civilization can come to its senses unless some enormous shake-up or a tsunami takes place. In any case, I feel the need for some kind of an existential revolution. Something has to change in people’s awareness.
This damage can’t be repaired by any technocratic trickery. In today’s world political personalities lose their relevance. Only the short-term really counts. An ideology of growth and a cult of the new reigns both on the right and on the left. It’s like a washing powder that screams : “New!”, yet a day later you get one that’s even newer and you have no idea what the difference is. Ambitious politicians can’t resist this cult of novelty, change, progress and growth. Eventually they become just a reflection of their society. I don’t see many great moral or spiritual authorities in our world today.
But don’t take me for a
total sceptic. I do believe that citizens’ organizations,
associations and initiatives are doing something worthwhile. The
On the one hand, Europe is getting integrated, we
have the Euro and Schengen; on the other hand, there is disintegration: the
Nationalisms are born partly as a means of defence
from the pressure to uniformity exerted by global civilization. When you land at the airport in
The Czech and Slovak case, however, illustrates another thesis. Often a national community has to go through a phase of actual independence before it can appreciate integration. Only then can the self-identifying groups integrate, and without this self-identification phase the process becomes much more difficult. That, at least, is my interpretation of the case of the Czechs and Slovaks.
Obama told the Americans: You have to choose between hope and cynicism. Obviously, this was an election slogan. But when I think about it, it seems to me that politics in post-Communist countries has become so corrupted by cynicism that this slogan could be relevant - it could mean that we are not doomed to cynicism and could try and opt for hope. What do you think?
Over the last 20 years we have witnessed many different attempts to bring about change, to introduce some sort of moral order. All these attempts have failed. Society simply has to mature to something like this. In our country this usually happens in 20-year cycles: 1918, 1938, 1968 and, skipping one year, 1989. The need for change cannot be just something dreamt up by intellectuals, it also has to be desired by society.
One day, when new generations, unspoilt by communism and normalization, have grown up, cynicism will lose its power and its practitioners will be forced out of social life. Herein, I hope, lies the chance for a real change.
I won’t ask you what you think of „lustrations”, as
we have discussed this matter many times before but I can’t avoid the case of
This matter has not been properly resolved in any post-Communist country. Some managed it better, some worse, but none has managed it well. Clearly, something needs to be done about it. We can’t just lock it up and say we’re not interested because, after all, it concerns our past lives.
Following the Velvet Revolution I suggested that a group
of five trustworthy, intelligent people from the dissident movement should be
brought together and given one year to think of a solution. But instead of this, hasty decisions were
taken: first came the law of lustration, then its amendment, and so on. And as
a result, we have an absurd situation when a list of names is read out on TV
with millions of people watching, only to find out nobody knows if the names
belonged to victims or informers. And then people are advised to go to the
archives and check for themselves. But who, out of those millions who watched,
will go and check? It’s an absolutely irresponsible way of dealing with it,
destroying someone’s life but putting everyone into the same bag.
But it does say something about a society that has the need for this sort of thing.
is also linked to the progress of civilization. The media are out to make a
profit. And as we know, “small earthquake in
If a 20-year old read your essay “Power of the Powerless” today, what lessons could he learn? If a young person asked you today how to live, what would your advice be?
The basic imperative:
live in truth”
has its tradition in Czech philosophy but basically has biblical roots - it does not mean just the possession or communication of information. Because information, like a virus, circulates in the air so one person may absorb more and another one less. Truth, however, is a different matter because we guarantee it with our own self. Truth is based on responsibility. And that is an imperative that is valid in every age. Obviously, it takes slightly different forms today. Luckily, you don’t have to hang portraits of a Havel, or a Klaus or a Kaczyński in the shop windows anymore and of course we no longer live under totalitarian pressure -- but that doesn’t mean we’ve won. We still need what I refer to as an “existential revolution” even though it might look different in different places.
But basically, what matters is that you have to stand up for what you believe is the truth.
That is what Anna Politkovskaya did, she guaranteed the truth with her own life.
Her case is typical of a rather specific Putinist space but the same applies to
other places, like
And as you have mentioned “The Power of the Powerless”, may I remind you that you are partly to blame, because when we met on the border in 1978, we agreed to put out a joint Polish-Czech collection of essays. And it was you who asked me to write the first text which ended up as this essay.
So after 30 years I’m supposed to sit down and respond, am I? Thanks Vašek!
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