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Class Notes: From Charlottesville to Prague—The Vaclav Havel Library and the FEI Aspen Institute
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By KimOanh Nguyen-Lam, FEIAA Vice President (P382)

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Prague for the first time. Among the many must-see points of interest that I had identified prior to the trip was the library of Vaclav Havel, a former Czech president who passed away in 2011. Although I had heard of Havel as a key figure in bringing down communism in Central Europe, precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall, I hadn’t read any of his writings until I signed up for the Aspen Institute, where I joined the LDS Cohort 382, in October 2012. The thick binder for the FEI’s Aspen Executive Seminar included Havel’s July 4, 1994 speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he was awarded the Philadelphia Medal of Freedom. This sparked my interest in learning more about the Czech writer, playwright, and dissident who wrote The Power of the Powerless

Havel was described as a shy yet resilient and unfailingly polite man who doggedly articulated the power of the powerless through his many plays and essays, which resulted in him having to spend five years in and out of communist prisons. He also endured living two decades under close surveillance by the secret police suppression of his writings by the government. Many believe that Havel’s eloquent dissections of communist rule helped average citizens question their own roles in assenting to the regime. His plays also empowered people to take collective action, leading to mass demonstrations in the Prague streets in 1989 that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall. Subsequently, Havel’s own role as the behind-the-scenes chief negotiator led to a peaceful transfer of power that ended more than 40 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, which the world hailed as the Velvet Revolution. He served 14 years as president (including 10 years as the Czech Republic’s first president), wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song, and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.

When I arrived at the Vaclav Havel Library, I was very surprised to see it located on a small and narrow street in a nondescript neighborhood away from the Prague city center and the famous old town square. Its austere inside space matched the bleak outside, with one understated and sparsely furnished living room serving as a stage for infrequently held small conferences and talks. Another small and narrow space in the back held a collection of Havel’s writings with two TV monitors showing information on his life’s major events and time line. Havel’s most memorable quotes and photos of Havel with world leaders were displayed on three walls. There was no one inside the library except my husband and myself and a staff member who served as both receptionist and secretary. 

Having been to several grand U.S. presidential libraries, I felt somewhat saddened and troubled at this desolate place. It seemed that Havel’s significant contributions to the free world is barely remembered and recognized in the present. The librarian commented that most young Czech people today take their freedom for granted and few remember the time when people could be persecuted and jailed for expressing their thoughts and ideas. Nevertheless, I later realized that for a man whose spoken and written words moved people to action that sparked a peaceful revolution, a brick-and-mortar institution is not needed in the 21st century. His words live on in various discussions, forums, blogs, exchanges, quotes, and engagements in person and online. In fact, there is an active and splendid online Vaclav Havel Library Foundation (https://www.vhlf.org/), whose mission is “to honor, preserve, and build upon the legacy of playwright, dissident, and former President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.”

This online library foundation coordinated with the Prague-based Vaclav Havel Library to organize and provide access to documents highlighting Havel’s accomplishments and activities in North America. The website also coordinates forums and debates on not only Havel’s contributions to the democratic transition in Central Europe but also his impact on a much larger transition of the global community from the 20th to the 21st century. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Prague-born Czech-American, said in one of her many public speeches on Havel that the best way to honor Havel’s life and legacy is to renew our commitment to personal liberty and liberal democracy, to “see something, say something, and do something.” She urged us to take action in order “to not allow the peddlers of hate to shape our future.”

As I read through all quotes displayed on the library walls, I came across one that we spent a good chunk of time discussing it in our FEI Aspen Executive Seminar. It was part of President Havel’s New Year’s address to the nation in 1990 that is still resonant and relevant to me today: 

“You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems—human, economic, ecological, social, or political.”

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