Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il deaths trigger synthetic and real mourning

The national mourning following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is so staged as to be laughable. Its purpose was to reinforce the idea that people should cope with the “grief” by staying loyal to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un. This should be fodder for the next edition of Saturday Night Live. Far more convincing is the national mourning for Czech president Vaclav Havel.

Havel, Czechoslovakia’s dissident essayist and playwright also died this past weekend. He had led the human rights movement in the then-Soviet bloc and spent five years behind bars and decades under secret police scrutiny for challenging the Soviet regime. Contrary to Kim Jon Il’s embrace of militarism and nuclear threat, Havel, through his writings and moral authority, was the inspiration behind the bloodless end to 40 years of Communist rule, the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Havel was “the moral voice of his country and his era,’’ said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as reported by Associated Press. “His humanity, humility and decency were an example for us all.’’

Havel’s significance ws driven home to me in May of 1990, just after the Velvet Revolution. He had recently been elected the new republic’s first president after the Communists were forced out. I had the privilege of travelling for a month in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (now the Association of Opinion Journalists). The wall had come down in Berlin, and elections were underway during our visit there. We were in Bucharest for the first Romanian election since the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu. And we were in Prague during the reorganization of government after the election of the first post-Communist president. The lilacs were in bloom across the city and countryside, and people were quite literally dancing in the streets of this charming, old world jewel of a town.

The Prague Spring Music Festival was about to take place. The opening concert was sold out. Hartford Courant editorial page editor Bob Schrepf had made the acquaintance of a couple of members of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra, who agreed to smuggle five of us up to the second balcony – standing room only. Bodies pressed together uncomfortably but no one complained; it must have been 95 degrees at that altitude in the small confines of a box. Satin gowns, which had probably been in storage since the Second World War, added to the pungent odor and intensity of the experience.

There were just two pieces on the program, the Czech national anthem and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, “my country,” in effect, a symphonic national anthem. The conductor was Rafael Kubilik, the aged maestro who had fled the country 40 years before with his wife and two suitcases, vowing never to return until his country was free. Just before Kubelik raised his baton, a ripple of excitement. Vaclav Havel appeared in the presidential box. The audience roared, and the music soared. Rose petals, from tossed bouquets, were strewn on the stage, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Emotion quite unlike the manufactured tears of the orchestrated crowds in North Korea.

The bloom is off the rose. Vaclav Klaus, a doctrinaire free-boot capitalist, narrow minded nationalist (who is reflexively opposing EU solutions to the current crisis), and singularly unpleasant man who demeaned Havel and his views both privately and publicly, succeeded Havel as president. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the promise of The Velvet Revolution was never as rich as that Prague Spring in 1990. Havel was less effective in office than he was working from the outside. But his death last weekend reminds us of the power a man’s character can have when his persona is imprinted on a people’s movement, when his words and charisma speak to anything being possible. He was a true symbol of the audacity of hope, and the power of language to inspire.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
photo Havel by Associated Press

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