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Witness:Vaclav Havel: Moral force at the end of a long staircase

People light candles in tribute to late former Czech President Havel in Prague
People light candles in tribute to late former Czech President Havel in Prague

By David Storey

(Reuters)- To get to Vaclav Havel's airy apartment high in an early 20th century block overlooking the Vltava River in central Prague, which I did several times in the mid-1980s, it meant a long climb.

The elevator was always out, though it was unclear whether that was a result of the state's shabby infrastructure or a characteristically petty act of harassment of a prominent dissident by Prague's invasive and increasingly paranoid Communist authorities.

Foreign reporters didn't make an appointment. You just turned up and hoped he was in.

As your footsteps echoed up the stairwell and approached the door there would be a staccato burst of yapping from a small but ferocious mutt, which was hustled safely away into the kitchen - it had once fiercely bitten a fellow dissident on the ankle. The door would be opened by a compact, rounded man with a moustache, unkempt, a little distracted and apologetic, always polite and always ready to talk.

Although the whole Soviet-led communist structure was to collapse within a few years, its grip was still all-pervasive in Czechoslovakia. A peaceful revolution had been crushed by a Russian invasion in 1968 that killed the spirit of resistance of the vast majority of Czechs and Slovaks. By the 1980s, there were flickerings of public protest, some defiant rock bands, statements by Havel's Charter 77 movement, but all-in-all, things were under control.

For Havel, a world-class playwright whose works were banned and who was restricted, like other dissidents, to manual jobs, those were the years of keeping the faith and toughing it out, sometimes in prison.

It was a time when President Gustav Husak spoke at a Communist party congress of the need to "make our creative artists' production reflect socialist reality faithfully."

In the living room of Havel's apartment, in a building put up by his wealthy grandfather in a more prosperous era, he would sit hunched forward on his couch, his head wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a glass of white wine at hand. He articulated his thoughts in careful English in a quiet, hesitant voice roughened by many packs of cheap cigarettes.

I asked him once why he didn't just leave, as some other noted intellectuals had, and write freely from abroad. "The solution in this human situation does not lie in leaving it," he said. He added with a wry smile: "Fourteen million people can't just go and leave Czechoslovakia empty."

A writer in Czechoslovakia had three choices, he said. To adapt his ideas to the state cultural policy, to publish only in samizdat, or underground texts, or to work on the edges of what was allowed, testing the limits.

"This is very important, working on the periphery of the official scene," he told me, calling it the "grey zone."

"In conditions where no public life exists, everything goes under the surface. You don't know what goes on under the surface. Tomorrow something might happen, a very small but important thing which pushes the whole course of events in a different way," he said.

"In a totalitarian state all things are unpredictable."

Almost no one predicted that, in a few exhilarating months in 1989, Soviet-imposed communist rule that had lain like a dark blanket across eastern Europe for more than 40 years would be swept away and he, Havel, would become president of Czechoslovakia.

Economic and external political pressures were at play, but Havel embodied the moral and intellectual force of humanity that ultimately resisted the tyranny. Although often dispirited by the failure of his countrymen to resist more actively, he was essentially an optimist.

In his most powerful tract, "The Power of the Powerless" in 1978, he concluded: "The real question is whether the 'brighter future' is always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

(Reporting By David Storey)

(David Storey is a Reuters journalist who reported on Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s. He is now an editor for Reuters in Washington)

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