Havel has wings
By Heikki Aittokoski
Everybody reacts to the announcement of a death in his or her own fashion.
When I heard on Sunday of the passing of Václav Havel, I raced to the wardrobe.
No problem, everything under control. I store my old keepsakes in the bottom of the wardrobe, and I wanted to dig out an essay I had written in my final year at school.
It took me the best part of half an hour to unearth it, but there it was: The Prague Spring of 1968 - A Tale of Human Socialism.
I remember well why this upper secondary school student in the winter of 1989 picked the Prague Spring as a subject for an essay.
The whole set-up pissed me off something rotten: how could the world act in such an unfair manner?
In 1968, little Czechoslovakia had tried to loosen the grip of the giant Soviet Union, and Moscow had replied by sending tanks in to crush the dreams of liberalisation.
Because I was something of a swot, I gorged myself on anything and everything I could get from the shelves of the Espoo City Library (no Google and Wikipedia around in those days, of course).
I got my hands on half a dozen books on Czechoslovakia, in English and in Swedish.
Only now does it come home to me why there wasn't anything to be had on the subject in Finnish.
The usual suspect of "the diminutive size of our language-area" doesn't wash as an explanation.
The Finland of that era lived in a grey world of half-truths.
The subject of the essay had me gripped so tightly that I transcended the normal bounds of swottiness and took things to a whole new level: I had to get to Prague to have a look for myself.
I travelled to the Czech capital in February 1989 as part of a group.
The trip itself would actually be worth an article of its own, as the group in question consisted of dozens of owners of Zetor tractors - and me.
The farmers and tractor-owners had got the trip as a freebie along with their bright shiny new Zetor, and, well, how should I put this: they were not primarily interested in cultural sightseeing.
Still, the essay turned out rather well.
I was in the groove.
I chatted with young Czechs of my own age and I realised that they were far from contented. There had even been demonstrations in the January before I went.
Now as I read the text with hindsight, it displays a rich vein of childlike idealism, which is of course a good thing.
"Something is clearly wrong in a country where demonstrations have to be put down with baton-charges. The contradiction is plain to see when the state leadership signs a Europe-wide human rights accord, but at the same time hands down prison sentences to writers."
I admired Václav Havel.
In February 1989, I naturally could not know that in the space of nine months he would be greeting hundreds of thousands of cheering Czechs as a celebrated hero, jingling keys - one of the symbols of the Velvet Revolution - on the balcony of a building on Wenceslas Square.
I still admire Havel. Havel has wings.
November 1989 was a pivotal experience for an entire generation.
With the passing of Václav Havel, we lost something important, something quite intangible and hard to pin down: the embodiment of undefiled memory, a whiff of the adrenaline-rush of freedom, a childish belief that the world could soon be complete, and soon will be.
Much more important that what is gone, however, is what Havel left behind.
Millions or billions of people still have to live under oppression in states ruled by tyrants. The set-up continues to make the blood boil: how can a world operate so unfairly?
Havel was no angel. He was a human being.
Furthermore, after the Velvet Revolution he was elected President, in other words as a political leader, and no political leader on earth is without conflicts and contradictions.
But before the revolution took hold, Havel offered an example to us of how a person can live under dictatorship.
And his example will last a lot longer than any dictator.
In October 1978, whilst free between his multiple stays in prison as a dissident, Václav Havel wrote a hugely-influential essay on post-totalitariansm entitled Power of the Powerless.
The text runs to dozens of pages and it is heavy going, but the message in the words is as clear as a bell.
In Power of the Powerless, Havel sliced and diced and served up on a plate the oppressive Communist regime of Czechoslovakia.
"Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing."
When the regime was based on a falsehood, when it was of itself a lie, the power of the powerless lay in truth.
One had to straighten one's back and live the truth, even though there was a heavy price to be paid for this choice.
Czechoslovakia in 1978 was living through the worst of the "Brezhnev stagnation".
Only the mad kicked against the pricks; only the mad - and people like Havel.
He ends the essay thus:
"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?"
Dreams fly far and wide, and nothing can stop them.
And that is why Václav Havel has wings.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 20.12.2011
The writer is head of the Helsingin Sanomat foreign desk.
HEIKKI AITTOKOSKI / Helsingin Sanomat