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Vaclav Havel: The Dissident in Power

The life of Vaclav Havel, who is stepping down as president of the Czech Republic, could serve as inspiration for one of Havel's own absurdist plays. Born in 1936 into one of the wealthiest Czech families, Havel was one of the people persecuted because of their "wrong class origins" after the Communist takeover of 1948.

Havel defied his misfortune by establishing himself during the 1960s as one of Europe's leading playwrights, only to become a pariah again after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the "Prague Spring" reform movement in 1968. But he returned to lead his country's tiny dissident community. Famous around the world for both his writings and his struggle against communism, he endured ceaseless harassment, including imprisonment for five years at the beginning of the 1980s. In fact, he was just released from another term in prison when the "Velvet Revolution" of November 1989 catapulted him into the presidency.

It is impossible to separate Havel the playwright from Havel the dissident or Havel the political leader. His earliest plays were political, ridiculing the wooden locutions of communist rhetoric. Even during the liberal Prague Spring, Havel remained a dissenter, never accepting the idea of "socialism with a human face," arguing instead that real democracy was the only alternative to communism. Later, as a dissident, Havel continued writing and became a politician of sorts as the unofficial leader of the anti-communist opposition. Later still, he became the leader of that opposition at its moment of triumph.

A dissident as president is bound to be unorthodox. Havel continued writing, changing his genre from plays and essays to speeches, most of which are, in fact, philosophical writings. Indeed, he regularly put forth ideas- on the dangers of globalization, on the need for global responsibility, on his vision of Europe as a federation of states and regions- before other political leaders dared to do so.