Václav Havel, the Czech dissident playwright and human rights advocate who helped peacefully lead his nation out of communist control, died today at 75.
Over more than a decade in office as president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, and throughout his years as a writer banned for opposing his country’s Soviet-backed government, Havel was an inspirational figure beloved for bringing the values of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s to bear on the politics of his time.
Václav Havel was born to a wealthy Prague family in 1936. Branded a class enemy and denied a formal education by the communist government in the 1950s, he developed an abiding opposition to totalitarian oppression and the apathy that enabled it.
After the democratic stirrings of the Prague Spring were crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968, Havel’s plays were banned along with all other voices of dissent. His work continued to circulate secretly, and in 1977 he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, one of the seminal works of the growing underground dissident movement. His 1978 essay “Power and the Powerless” advocated that ordinary people stop conforming to Soviet sloganeering and start “living in truth.”
Havel’s frequent police detainments and more than four years in jail only increased his stature as a hero of the underground. When hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks finally marched in the streets in 1989, he played a vital role in the negotiations that led to the end of communist rule. Not a single shot was fired, and the smooth transition was dubbed the Velvet Revolution.
Havel spent more than 14 years in office before stepping down in 2003, maintaining an uneasy balance between his mainstream political role and his roots as a counterculture intellectual. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times and received the Olof Palme Prize as well as the Presidential Medal of Honor. He was also known for flying down the corridors of Prague Castle on a red scooter, and hosted Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed as presidential guests.
In 2008, Havel returned to the theater, writing a new play called Leaving about a leader’s difficult transition out of office. He died this morning at his weekend house in the Northern Czech Republic.