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Vaclav Havel, a writer who was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution that delivered Czechoslovakia from Soviet rule, has died at the age of 75.
The New York Times reports that Havel’s assistant Sabina Tancevova confirmed the playwright had died at his home in northern Bohemia. A longtime smoker who underwent surgery for lung cancer 15 years ago, Havel suffered from respiratory illness.
A man who came to define his country’s national identity and lead it as president, Havel was a longtime thorn in the side of Communist powers that sought to keep Czechoslovakia part of the USSR, controlled by a one-party system. He wrote open letters to leaders, plays and bullet-pointed petitions that argued for human rights and a democratic society, and spent five years in prison for the crime of subversion.
In 1988 and 1989, Havel’s participation in rallies against his country’s one-party system resulted in the writer becoming in many ways the leader of a movement calling for a more democratic political system.
The Velvet Revolution arose out of a police crackdown of a student demonstration in Prague in November of 1989. The crackdown served only to swell the ranks of protesters, and Havel brought dissidents to meet in Prague theater the Magic Lantern, forming the Civic Forum, a body that would orchestrate a series of actions and work strikes that would bring the current government to its knees.
The Times quotes historian Timothy Garton Ash:
“It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man. In almost all the Forum’s major decisions and statements, he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement.”
By the end of December of the same year, Communist President Gustav Husak had resigned and appointed a new government. Havel was chosen as the country’s president and later the president of the Czech Republic, after the country split in 1993.
Havel’s efforts to align his country with the free societies of the West as a reluctant politician resulted in both political change and a larger profile. President Bill Clinton compared him to Ghandi. President Obama asked Havel for advice at the beginning of his own presidency, according to the Times. Havel’s advice? Too much hope can be a dangerous thing when you’re facing giant challenges.
Sometimes called naive and too idealistic by his detractors, Havel wasn’t afraid to go against the national sentiment. A longtime advocate for human rights, he fought for fair treatment of Gypsies or Roma people, even though a majority of Czechs seemed disinterested in doing so.