AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Vaclav Havel, the hero of Czechoslovakia's peaceful revolt against communist rule has died. He was a dissident playwright and champion of human rights who became his country's first democratically elected president. He led Czechoslovakia's transition from communism to democracy and later oversaw its breakup into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In a 2007 NPR interview, Havel talked about how many people came to see him as a larger-than-life figure. Here he is speaking through an interpreter.
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CORNISH: Vaclav Havel speaking through an interpreter.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reported on Havel and the struggle against communist rule in Czechoslovakia. She's on the line from Tuscany.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: Sylvia, before Vaclav Havel became his country's best-known dissident, he was a playwright. Tell us more about his background.
POGGIOLI: Well, he was born to a wealthy middle-class family. During the Stalinist '50s, his bourgeois background earned him treatment as a class enemy and narrowed his educational options. He became interested in drama and his first job was as a theater stagehand. He soon rose to directing and writing plays. His first international success was "The Garden Party." But his career ended abruptly with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that put an end to the Prague Spring.
CORNISH: What role did he play in the resistance to communist rule?
POGGIOLI: Well, he was the founder of the dissident group Charter 77, which called for the respect of human rights under the brutal post-Prague Spring regime. While he became well known abroad as a dissident leader, at home his work circulated only in the underground within the small circle of Czechoslovak dissidents. He was often arrested, imprisoned and harassed by police. But Havel became the outstanding symbol of resistance to the regime. I remember hearing a recording of one his works from that period. It was a collage of radio clips of politicians, speeches, music, cheering crowds and banal sounds of humanity. In it, Havel shows how political rhetoric has deprived words of their meaning. As in all his works, he denounced the absurdities of totalitarian regimes that he said destroy the individual. But he also denounced the apathy of a society which did not rebel against its oppressors. It was Havel who essentially wooed theater into politics. And at the end of 1989, as the Berlin Wall had just fallen, I was there in Prague's famous Laterna Magika Theater with Havel sitting on the stage from where he essentially directed the bloodless and joyful "Velvet Revolution." So, after two decades of torpor, Czechoslovak society finally woke up, poured into the streets to demonstrate. And almost overnight, the most repressive communist regime in the Soviet bloc was swept aside. And the underdogs, that small group of dissident intellectuals led by Havel were elevated from their kitchens to the Prague Castle, which was the seat of the Czechoslovak presidency.
CORNISH: And how did he lead his country after the collapse of communism?
POGGIOLI: You know, he was ever the nonconformist. He was a president often seen in a T-shirt and carrying a backpack. He loved rock and roll, and an early visitor to the castle was Frank Zappa, one of Havel's best friends. But Havel faced many difficulties in reconciling politics and his moral principles in a society that was trying to free itself from the social and psychological mindset of communism. His legislative proposals were often rejected by parliamentary deputies who simply paid lip service to what Havel stood for but didn't share his experience of sacrifices as a dissident. Less than a thousand days after Havel was elected Czechoslovak president, Slovak nationalists defeated his bid for reelection and the Civic Movement, the political party he had inspired, was voted out of parliament. The republics of the federation split into two new countries. Havel was later twice elected president of the new Czech Republic but his popularity waned.
CORNISH: And lastly, Sylvia, how will Vaclav Havel be remembered?
POGGIOLI: Well, his critics accused him of being an amateur whose emphasis on morality in politics alienated public opinion. And some of his fellow dissidents acknowledged that under the totalitarian regime, they had been isolated from the people and said Havel failed to understand that politics is the art of bargaining and compromise. But he refused to be a pessimist and he said he would continue to knock his head against the wall to prove that politics cannot exist without morality.
CORNISH: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, remembering Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the struggle against communist rule in Czechoslovakia. He died today at his home in the Czech Republic. He was 75. Sylvia, thank you for joining us.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Audie.
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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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