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December 18, 2011 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Václav Havel, who went from being an imprisoned dissident playwright to becoming the president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, has died at the age of 75. A coauthor of Charter 77, a leader of the bloodless "Velvet Revolution", and the writer of absurdist theater.
posted by kyrademon (104 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
When I first heard of him, it took me several minutes to believe that a modernist playwright could be elected the president of a whole country. If you spend some time in the Czech Republic, it makes a bit more sense.

. For a fascinating man.
posted by Think_Long at 8:14 AM on December 18, 2011


ah well

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posted by infini at 8:15 AM on December 18, 2011


RIP, Sir.
posted by jonmc at 8:15 AM on December 18, 2011


Here's mine that was stuck in the pipeline with some links to previous FPPs

Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's first president after the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, dies at the age of 75 ~ BBC His obituary titles him the Engineer of the Velvet Revolution. His work and his legacy covered previously in 2003 on his retirement as president as well his speech to Cuban exiles in 2002.
posted by infini at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by Iridic at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2011


Wow, we are losing some great ones as this year comes to a close. Hitches, Evora, and Havel in one damn week.

The world is a poorer place for losing each of them.

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posted by spitbull at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


er, HitcheNs
posted by spitbull at 8:19 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by saturday_morning at 8:21 AM on December 18, 2011


Dobie Gray and Harry Morgan, too.
posted by jonmc at 8:22 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I visited Prague in 1990. People were talking about putting Havel on the 100 crown note (replacing some party hack). I still have an Občanské fórum poster somewhere.

(I like this poster too, echoing this photo.)

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posted by benito.strauss at 8:22 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:25 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by hermitosis at 8:25 AM on December 18, 2011


The embodiment of the typewriter against tyranny.

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posted by sonascope at 8:27 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


He wrote some excellent essays describing his life as a subject of State Intelligence Organ interest that will stay with me forever. They built a raised "command and observation post" just outside his summer dacha, so the guy could not just hang out in his living room without direct police observation. He also told the story of his neighbor / spy, who for a short time had a crises of conscience, said no to the State, and tried to befriend him. Excellent writings.

Bye Václav, good job! Thanks for the stories!
posted by Meatbomb at 8:28 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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Also: Massive Zappa fan.
posted by Artw at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


Pulled from the New York Times obit:

After the Soviets sent tanks to suppress the Prague reforms in August 1968, Mr. Havel persisted in the fight for political freedom. In August 1969 he organized a petition of 10 points that repudiated the politics of “normalization” with the Soviet Union. He was accused of subversion, and in 1970 was vilified on state television and banned as a writer.
posted by bukvich at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Philofacts at 8:30 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by R343L at 8:30 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by rtha at 8:30 AM on December 18, 2011


"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate."

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posted by warbaby at 8:32 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by Renoroc at 8:32 AM on December 18, 2011


Post neglects to mention how he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2011


The most important thing is that man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not that man be made to measure for those structures.Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation With Karel Karel Hvížďala
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


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posted by Trurl at 8:34 AM on December 18, 2011


"Everyone understands," wrote Havel, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary and important thing, something that bound everyone together... The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society."
Jailed, banned but never crushed, one underground rock group were instrumental in the fall of Czech communism 20 years ago. Ed Vulliamy tells their incredible story
posted by Len at 8:36 AM on December 18, 2011


Also: Massive Zappa fan.

He was good friends with the folks in Plastic People of the Universe, a heavily Zappa infuenced underground Czech rock band. And the first two American state visitors to the Republic were Frank Zappa and Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. That must have been one interesting plane ride.
posted by jonmc at 8:42 AM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


There's a great pic of Havel & Zappa together here.

Zappa was briefly the Czech "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism", until James Baker essentially told them that they weren't going to get any funding from the U.S. while that was the case. (more details in linked article).



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posted by titus-g at 8:53 AM on December 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


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posted by roll truck roll at 8:53 AM on December 18, 2011


"Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

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posted by Hollow at 8:54 AM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


After leaving office, Havel returned to playwriting one more time, to pen "Leaving" in 2008, which he just finished making into a film early this year.

Leaving is a political satire that sprang from his political experience, and garnered reviews ranging from calling it a masterpiece to leaden.

The English trailer for the film.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:59 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by kkokkodalk at 9:02 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by flyingsquirrel at 9:05 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by ugf at 9:06 AM on December 18, 2011


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"Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed."
posted by stagewhisper at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


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posted by oonh at 9:14 AM on December 18, 2011


I think theatre should always be somewhat suspect.

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posted by adamvasco at 9:15 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by ruelle at 9:21 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by tommasz at 9:27 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by tykky at 9:28 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by khaibit at 9:30 AM on December 18, 2011


Farewell, friend.
posted by hat_eater at 9:30 AM on December 18, 2011


Top man.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:31 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Bwithh at 9:34 AM on December 18, 2011


Half Slovak here, albeit 4th or 5th generation. When I was little Czechoslovakia was always a faraway place to be proud that I came from. I still want to visit there someday.

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posted by book 'em dano at 9:35 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by MissySedai at 9:36 AM on December 18, 2011


The Guardian's obituary is a very good antidote some of the one-dimensional reporting I've seen elsewhere.

I can't find it on the web, but there is a photo of him walking away from the castle after the end of his presidency, back in jeans and warm coat, which seemed to encapsulate a lot about his life.

A sad loss, but a wonderful life.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 9:38 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by EvaDestruction at 9:39 AM on December 18, 2011


Post neglects to mention how he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

He didn't. Obama won the Peace Prize in 2009. Havel was nominated several times, though:
Human rights stayed high on his agenda, as did anxiety about the environment and the pursuit of moral values in the globalising world, and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His sparring partner Klaus eventually replaced him as president in 2003.

"He was a great and well-deserving man and will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace," said Polish dissident leader Lech Walesa. "He certainly deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, but in this world not everything is just. He was above all a theoretician who fought with the word and pen."

He repeatedly irked Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, most recently this month. He also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Havel's nomination.
posted by homunculus at 9:39 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by pernoctalian at 9:53 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by HandfulOfDust at 9:58 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by troika at 10:00 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by The Michael The at 10:01 AM on December 18, 2011


I remember hearing the news when he was elected, and feeling that something was finally going right with the world.

Rest in peace and give 'em hell.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:02 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by vibrotronica at 10:19 AM on December 18, 2011


Heartbroken

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posted by desuetude at 10:44 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by scottymac at 11:06 AM on December 18, 2011


One of my favorite Havel quotations:

"Despite the political distress I face every day, I am still deeply convinced that politics is not essentially a disreputable business, and to the extent that it is, it is only disreputable people who make it so. I would concede that it can, more than other spheres of human activity, tempt one to disreputable practices, and that it therefore places higher demands on people. But it is simply not true that a politician must lie or intrigue. That is utter nonsense spread by people who -- for whatever reason -- wish to discourage others from taking an interest in political affairs."

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posted by naoko at 11:13 AM on December 18, 2011 [17 favorites]


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posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:16 AM on December 18, 2011


Safe journey, sir.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:24 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by mumimor at 11:27 AM on December 18, 2011


Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian tells the story of Havel, Plastic People of the Universe, Zappa, and others.
Children of the revolution
posted by adamvasco at 11:29 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by argonauta at 11:34 AM on December 18, 2011


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An incredible man.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:38 AM on December 18, 2011


He didn't. Obama won the Peace Prize in 2009.

Yes. My point exactly.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:48 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw a black-box production of 'Largo Desolato' in college. It opened my eyes to the power of theater.

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posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:49 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by trip and a half at 11:51 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by idiopath at 11:52 AM on December 18, 2011


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I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few years back at a festival of his works at Columbia. An incredible and enigmatic man.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:57 AM on December 18, 2011


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posted by magstheaxe at 12:22 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by moss at 12:34 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by wuwei at 12:49 PM on December 18, 2011


Yes. My point exactly.

Ah. That went right over my head. Well, then, point taken!
posted by homunculus at 1:07 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by From Bklyn at 1:08 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by hortense at 1:17 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've been visiting Prague roughly one a year for several years now, amazing place. RIP, sir.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:26 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by smoke at 1:28 PM on December 18, 2011


On hearing of his death, I reread his essay The Power of the Powerless (1978). I was surprised to find something eerily relevant to Occupy Wall Street, an account of what a "post-democratic" political organization ought to look like. It's prescient enough that I wonder if it was consciously used as a model by the original OWS organizers. This is a very long excerpt, but because it's a passage that isn't widely known I wanted to quote it in full.

...the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love. I believe in structures that are not aimed at the technical aspect of the execution of power, but at the significance of that execution in structures held together more by a commonly shared feeling of the importance of certain communities than by commonly shared expansionist ambitions directed outward. There can and must be structures that are open, dynamic, and small; beyond a certain point, human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility cannot work. There must be structures that in principle place no limits on the genesis of different structures. Any accumulation of power whatsoever (one of the characteristics of automatism) should be profoundly alien to it. They would be structures not in the sense of organizations or institutions, but like a community. Their authority certainly cannot be based on long-empty traditions, like the tradition of mass political parties, but rather on how, in concrete terms, they enter into a given situation. Rather than a strategic agglomeration of formalized organizations, it is better to have organizations springing up ad hoc, infused with enthusiasm for a particular purpose and disappearing when that purpose has been achieved. The leaders' authority ought to derive from their personalities and be personally tested in their particular surroundings, and not from their position in any nomenklatura. They should enjoy great personal confidence and even great lawmaking powers based on that confidence. This would appear to be the only way out of the classic impotence of traditional democratic organizations, which frequently seem founded more on mistrust than mutual confidence, and more on collective irresponsibility than on responsibility. It is only with the full existential backing of every member of the community that a permanent bulwark against creeping totalitarianism can be established. These structures should naturally arise from below as a consequence of authentic social self-organization; they should derive vital energy from a living dialogue with the genuine needs from which they arise, and when these needs are gone, the structures should also disappear. The principles of their internal organization should be very diverse, with a minimum of external regulation. The decisive criterion of this self-constitution should be the structure's actual significance, and not just a mere abstract norm.

Both political and economic life ought to be founded on the varied and versatile cooperation of such dynamically appearing and disappearing organizations. As far as the economic life of society goes, I believe in the principle of self management, which is probably the only way of achieving what all the theorists of socialism have dreamed about, that is, the genuine (i.e., informal) participation of workers in economic decision making, leading to a feeling of genuine responsibility for their collective work. The principles of control and discipline ought to be abandoned in favor of self-control and self-discipline.

As is perhaps clear from even so general an outline, the systemic consequences of an existential revolution of this type go significantly beyond the framework of classical parliamentary democracy. Having introduced the term "post-totalitarian" for the purposes of this discussion, perhaps I should refer to the notion I have just outlined purely for the moment-as the prospects for a "post-democratic" system. Undoubtedly this notion could be developed further, but I think it would be a foolish undertaking, to say the least, because slowly but surely the whole idea would become alienated, separated from itself. After all, the essence of such a "post-democracy" is also that it can only develop via facti, as a process deriving directly from life, from a new atmosphere and a new spirit (political thought, of course, would play a role here, though not as a director, merely as a guide). It would be presumptuous, however, to try to foresee the structural expressions of this new spirit without that spirit actually being present and without knowing its concrete physiognomy.

I would probably have omitted the entire preceding section as a more suitable subject for private meditation were it not for a certain recurring sensation. It may seem rather presumptuous, and therefore I will present it as a question: Does not this vision of "post-democratic" structures in some ways remind one of the "dissident" groups or some of the independent citizens' initiatives as we already know them from our own surroundings? Do not these small communities, bound together by thousands of shared tribulations, give rise to some of those special humanly meaningful political relationships and ties that we have been talking about? Are not these communities (and they are communities more than organizations) motivated mainly by a common belief in the profound significance of what they are doing since they have no chance of direct, external success joined together by precisely the kind of atmosphere in which the formalized and ritualized ties common in the official structures are supplanted by a living sense of solidarity and fraternity? Do not these "post-democratic" relationships of immediate personal trust and the informal rights of individuals based on them come out of the background of all those commonly shared difficulties? Do not these groups emerge, live, and disappear under pressure from concrete and authentic needs, unburdened by the ballast of hollow traditions? Is not their attempt to create an articulate form of living within the truth and to renew the feeling of higher responsibility in an apathetic society really a sign of some kind of rudimentary moral reconstitution?

In other words, are not these informed, nonbureaucratic, dynamic, and open communities that comprise the "parallel polis" a kind of rudimentary prefiguration, a symbolic model of those more meaningful "post-democratic" political structures that might become the foundation of a better society? I know from thousands of personal experiences how the mere circumstance of having signed Charter 77 has immediately created a deeper and more open relationship and evoked sudden and powerful feelings of genuine community among people who were all but strangers before. This kind of thing happens only rarely, if at all, even among people who have worked together for long periods in some apathetic official structure. It is as though the mere awareness and acceptance of a common task and a shared experience were enough to transform people and the climate of their lives, as though it gave their public work a more human dimension than is. seldom found elsewhere. Perhaps all this is only the consequence of a common threat. Perhaps the moment the threat ends or eases, the mood it helped create will begin to dissipate as well. (The aim of those who threaten us, however, is precisely the opposite. Again and again, one is shocked by the energy they devote to contaminating, in various despicable ways, all the human relationships inside the threatened community.)

Yet even if that were so, it would change nothing in the question I have posed.

We do not know the way out of the miasmus of the world, and it would be an expression of unforgivable pride were we to see the little we do as a fundamental solution, or were we to present ourselves, our community, and our solutions to vital problems as the only thing worth doing.

Even so, I think that given all these preceding thoughts on post-totalitarian conditions, and given the circumstances and the inner constitution of the developing efforts to defend human beings and their identity in such conditions, the questions I have posed are appropriate. If nothing else, they are an invitation to reflect concretely on our own experience and to give some thought to whether certain elements of that experience do not -- without our really being aware of it -- point somewhere further, beyond their apparent limits, and whether right here, in our everyday lives, certain challenges are not already encoded, quietly waiting for the moment when they will be read and grasped.

For the real question is whether the brighter future is really 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?

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:32 PM on December 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


This post should have been written in Ptydepe. I think.

I played Otto Stroll in a production of The Memorandum years ago in college. I still don't know what it was about.
posted by emelenjr at 1:33 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by cazoo at 1:47 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by runincircles at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Bummus at 2:15 PM on December 18, 2011


Wikipedia:

After the Slovaks issued their Declaration of Independence, he resigned as president on 20 July, saying he would not preside over the country's breakup.

However, when the Czech Republic was created, he stood for election as president on 26 January 1993, and won.

posted by ovvl at 2:55 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Vibrissae at 2:56 PM on December 18, 2011


Unsourced anecdote: when he met Frank Zappa, he said: "I love your music, but I also love The Captain." (The Captain=Don Van Vliet).

Forgettable moment: Václav attends a Velvet Underground reunion concert in Prague in 1993, and after the show he solemnly presents a rare old hand-written Czech transcription of VU lyrics to Lou Reed. Lou proceeds to bitterly harangue Václav about the copyright details of the recording of their concert, and a baffled Václav makes a hasty retreat. Stay classy, Lou.
posted by ovvl at 3:23 PM on December 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I spent a few months in Prague earlier this year and absolutely fell in love with Havel. One of the friends I met there sent me a text about Havel's death this morning. I had the privilege of seeing the latest incarnation of The Plastic People of the Universe and met Vratislav Brabenec. The whole story of the Velvet Revolution is amazing. For anyone who's interested there's a great documentary called Power of the Powerless all about that era.

One of my favorite Havel stories is from when his presidency ended. To show his love for the Czech people he put a giant, neon pink heart on Prague castle for a couple weeks. He always signed his name with a heart, too. He was a great man.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 3:45 PM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


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posted by mygothlaundry at 5:11 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:22 PM on December 18, 2011


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When I was living in Prague and studying Czech, I very nearly got the chance to take over an internship a friend of mine had in his office. Still kicking myself over not doing it! Odpočívat v pokoji, pan Prezident.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:47 PM on December 18, 2011


> I saw a black-box production of 'Largo Desolato' in college. It opened my eyes to the power of theater.

That was the first Havel play that I saw, too.
posted by desuetude at 7:57 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by Skeptic at 10:46 PM on December 18, 2011


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posted by daniel_charms at 10:50 PM on December 18, 2011


I tried to post about thus earlier, during the outage. Havel was a very great man. He will be missed!
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posted by WalkingAround at 11:46 AM on December 19, 2011


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