The Tenacity of Hope
In the fall of 1989, the streets of Prague were filled with song. A wildly enthusiastic crowd gathered to see a singer take the stage. Back in the 1960s, she had been Czechoslovakia’s best-loved popular singer, but her career had been cut short in the crackdown following the Prague Spring of 1968. Many artists suffered the same fate. The Prague Spring was the name given to a movement which called for “socialism with a human face,” but which had been ruthlessly suppressed by the Soviet military. All the artists who had supported it were oppressed; their works were banned and they suffered many years as involuntary laborers.
Two decades later, they were protesting again. One of the artists most frequently oppressed was the playwright, Václav Havel. The authorities kept him under constant surveillance, regularly searching his home, and placing him under house arrest. He was always prepared to go to jail. Wherever he went, he carried a razor, a toothbrush and toothpaste. In the summer of 1979, he was arrested for the third time and sent to prison. Later, he was transferred to a labor camp. All of his writings were banned.
There was one reason and one reason alone why the authorities were after Havel: he spoke the truth. While others were frightened into silence, he continued to speak out and expose the lies the regime was built on, to reveal the fact that the “emperor had no clothes.”
Havel was able to survive such treatment for 20 years because of the persistence of his beliefs and the strength of his hope. The communist regime was powerless in the face of his tenacity. Many were inspired by his example, and the regime was finally swept away by the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The people found in Václav Havel the embodiment of their hopes, and elected him their President that same year.
In April 1992, Havel gave a speech in Japan. The message mirrored his words during the years of his oppression.
“It seems to me” he said, “that the world of politics should be humanized and spiritualized [by genuine intellectuals, philosophers, and poets]… Politicians should be more committed emotionally not only to their political fate but to that of the world… Instead of being involved in factional quarrels over power, they should listen more to the voice of their unique, individual conscience, the way poets do.”
It was words such as these that had led to Havel’s arrest and imprisonment. But they also led to his making history, and to his being elected the first “amateur president” with the overwhelming support of the Czech people.
The day after his speech, I met him at the State Guesthouse in Tokyo and told him that I was fully in agreement with his remarks. It was so refreshing to meet this so called “amateur politician” always mindful of the needs of the people. The American economist John Kenneth Galbraith had encouraged me to meet Havel, the man he regarded as Eastern Europe’s wisest statesman. I was struck by Havel’s shy and modest smile. He spoke with great care and consideration, deliberating over each word he used.
“I wrote this speech based on my own personal philosophy of humanism, of love and kindness toward all humanity,” he told me. “I wanted to talk about what intellectuals should do for the sake of society and our planet.”
Havel went on to explain his concept of “anti-political politics”: “This is politics from the bottom up: not mechanical politics but human politics, politics that finds its roots not in ideology but in the hearts of real people.”
Havel was imprisoned for four years. He was deprived of the right to read or write what he wished. He was forced to labor in various prison camps—cleaning and welding tin, cutting thick metal sheets, working in the prison laundry and doing electrical repairs in the bitter cold.
Although he was persecuted and defamed in his own land, he received many literary prizes overseas. The “prisoner” was awarded honorary doctorates by universities in Canada and France.
The Czech authorities could not ignore him. Although they didn’t relish criticism from abroad, neither did they wish to free their prisoner so easily. So they offered him a deal: if he submitted a written request for a pardon it would be granted to him. In other words, instead of just granting him the pardon and releasing him, the authorities wanted him to bow down and humble himself before them. He refused.
Havel never stopped believing in the power of hope. He writes that hope is “an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart… It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The voice of a single individual, powerless as he or she may seem, crying out the truth, rings louder than the voices of thousands who persist in lies. Havel’s hope came from his belief in that truth. And the quiet, bloodless revolution, the Velvet Revolution, that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989, was testimony to his beliefs. It was a revolution that spread from heart to heart, blossoming as it touched the lives of hundreds of thousands—it was truly the force of “the human spirit unleashed.”
Many interpreted the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 as a victory of American-style capitalism over Eastern European socialism. Essentially, though, it was a revolution in a way of life. It was a revolution of people who had wrung all fear from their hearts as they rose up in protest against an oppressive society.
Havel has said that to argue the respective merits of capitalism or socialism is outdated. The questions to argue now are what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is humane and inhumane…
Hope bloomed that night in the fall of 1989 in the Prague streets as the popular singer stood in front of a cheering crowd. Overcome by emotion, she could not make a sound. Then a young girl approached and handed her a bouquet of flowers, one for each year of her lost career. The singer finally managed to say “Thank you,” in a voice choked with emotion. Then she began to sing. Never again would she be silenced.
©2011 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.