Havel’s Letter to Husák: still an inspiration 40 years on

Václav Havel, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Forty years ago this week, on 8 April 1975, Václav Havel sent an open letter to Czechoslovakia’s President Gustav Husák. The letter was to become one of the key documents of dissent during the period of “normalization”. It outlined the creeping fear, apathy and humiliation faced by Czechs and Slovaks amid the cultural stagnation in the first years after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. Today times are very different, but the warnings in the letter remain as relevant as ever. Azadeh Mohammadi is a Prague-based student from Iran, who came across the letter in Farsi translation and found many parallels with her own experiences growing up in Iran over three decades after it was written. She decided to find out more and part of that process was a radio discussion that she recorded about the letter’s legacy with Barbara Day and Viera Langerová, who have both studied Havel’s work closely, and Omid Nikfarjam, a Prague-based Iranian journalist and translator. In a few minutes we shall be hearing that discussion, but we’ll start with Azadeh herself, talking to me about what Havel’s Letter to Husák means to her personally.

Azadeh Mohammadi,  photo: archive of Azadeh Mohammadi
“My name is Azadeh Mohammadi. At the moment I study theatre directing at the Drama Faculty in Prague.”

How did you come to be in the Czech Republic – and where are you from?

“I’m from Iran. I was living in Dubai and I was looking for English-speaking schools for acting and that’s why I ended up here.”

Having come here, I think you found a lot of parallels with your own country that you didn’t expect to find.

“I was surprised to see very different conditions from my country, but at the same time very similar experiences – in the history of the countries.”

And what you’re talking about in particular is the experience that Czechoslovakia had of communism, especially in the 1970s and 80s, where you see similarities with the situation in Iran today.

“We didn’t experience the communists, but the Islamic Republic in Iran had an effect on the country and nation in a way that made me think about it. There are some similarities between the experiences of the nations.”

And that brings me to Václav Havel and his Letter to Gustav Husák in 1975. This was a time when Husák had just become president of Czechoslovakia. Havel’s position was becoming increasingly difficult and he was pushed right onto the margins of society as a dissident. When you read the letter you found a lot of points that echoed things that you’d experienced yourself or you felt were very similar in Iran. Can you outline some of these things?

“I would like to tell you about my first impulse when I read the letter. I read it here in the Václav Havel Library and I found the text translated into Farsi, which was so pleasant for me to read. And what was so pleasant again was that when I was reading the letter I was feeling an Iranian wrote it, which had a huge impact on me.”

What were the specific things that made you think of what you had experienced at home?

Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“What was very interesting for me first was the life – how absurdly this nation had lived – the absurdity of the whole situation, which Václav Havel mentioned in his writings. It was just what I had experienced myself ever since I was a child, in the family and then in society and then in my school or anywhere outside.”

And this sense of absurdity – is it to a large extent because of the gap between the world that you’re being told officially you live in and the real world that you actually are living in?

“Simply I couldn’t be what I was, as a person, as an individual in my society. I couldn’t express myself as I was, because I was always feeling there is a danger if I show my real face. This experience happens automatically in your head – that you have to censor yourself when you open the door of your home and you walk into the street.”

Another thing that Havel talks about very eloquently in his Letter to Husák is how people – out of an instinct for self-preservation – play along with the regime. You become far more introverted, you no longer engage with public life.

“It’s funny, but it’s exactly the same – the experience of our life in Iran, because you live in that society physically, but you feel that you are kept outside, as if they have their own party and you are the neighbour who just can hear the sound of people having fun. So to me this is how it works. I can picture it for myself.”

Another thing that Havel talks about is the way that – because of this strange sort of detachment – history seems to stop. Society is no longer moving. It becomes very stagnant and you can’t have a healthy and natural interaction of ideas – and the country cannot interact with its own reflection on its own history.

“Yes, because it turns into a loop – a circle. However you try to improve, you come back to the zero point again. This is another similarity.”

I know that the field that interests you most is culture, because you are involved in theatre. Again Havel in his Letter to Husák warns of the impact of censorship in the arts. Ostensibly it only seems a minor inconvenience if a magazine that was only read by a few thousand people is forced to close down, but he points out that culture is the way that society can look at itself and reflect on itself, see itself in the mirror critically, and then move on. And a second point that Havel makes in the letter is that because of this degree of censorship and self-censorship the kind of culture you get – the kind of plays you get performed or the films that are made in that society – may be well made and quite good, but they’re not actually engaging with reality. They are escapism and if anything they are reinforcing the status quo.

Gustáv Husák,  photo: Czech Television
“Yes. And I would also like to mention something I experienced as a foreigner here. I was watching a commercial film which was made in Czechoslovakia during the communist time and it was showing a grocery shop full of produce. All the products were so beautiful, attractive to your eyes, and it was the exact opposite of the reality.”

This is in the 1970s or 1980s…

“Exactly. And if we go back to Iran, I can give you a few examples. If people were producing works of art or they were talking about some issues in society in the newspapers or magazines, they were shut down after a while. This is what we experienced a lot in our country, unfortunately. So what happens, because the artist wants to survive somehow, he tries to adjust himself or show that he has adapted to the need of the government. So what happens has a direct effect on the quality of the art.”

I’d like to ask you about the radio discussion that you have made and why you chose to make it – as a very interesting reflection on the parallels between Czechoslovakia and Iran.

“Well, it was part of my studies. I wanted to make a radio production and my supervisor, Lída Engelová, who is a very active director in the theatre and also radio, asked me – having already experienced radio drama – what else I would like to experience in the field of radio. And I realized that what I wanted to do was to find common points between myself as a foreigner here and the people of this country. Since I left my country I have felt it strongly – how can I communicate with people? The way that I feel close to people who lived through the communist era here comes from my direct experience, even though I didn’t see what happened in this country in those days. I just heard about it. But because of my experience in my country, I can connect with this matter.”

So you find yourself identifying with people here who are a generation older than yourself.

“Exactly. I have many more things to talk about with them!”

So, Azadeh, let’s listen to the programme that you made, which starts with you introducing your three guests. But before we start, I’d like you to say a bit about the music that you have mixed into this discussion.

“I chose Mohsen Namjoo, who is an Iranian musician. He’s really great. He’s living out of the country right now. And I chose the Czech Karel Kryl who wrote protest songs. He was against the system and even when he got back to the country, he was also criticizing Václav Havel even though they were friends. So that was an interesting thing about him as well!”

The Aesthetics of Banality

A discussion about the freedom of expression in art based on the Letter of Václav Havel to Gustav Husák

by Azadeh Mohammadi

Barbara Day,  photo: David Vaughan
AZADEH: “I have three guests, Barbara Day, who is a founder member of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. She also translates from Czech to English, mainly about history, theatre and art, and leads courses on Czech theatre and Czechoslovak life and culture under the Communist regime. Viera Langerová is a reviewer of cinema and in the Czech Republic is also focused on Asian and Middle Eastern cinema including Iran. Our Iranian guest is Omid Nikfarjam, a journalist & litrary translator at Radio Free Europe.

„Barbara, could you tell us briefly about Václav Havel and the way he was using his thoughts in his artistic work?”

BARBARA DAY: “Havel was clear-sighted from boyhood about the regime; unlike some other Czech intellectuals, he had no illusions. Because he experienced persecution in his own skin, he could see through the lies and hypocrisy and had great sympathy for those similarly suffering discrimination. He knew that the system was absurd, and that was how he presented it in his plays. But he believed it had to be resisted. Straight after the invasion in 1968 he warned against sentimental patriotism, saying: ‘Freedom isn’t something we sit around waiting for, some gift, but our task. We initiate freedom by working and thinking freely; we create it, by providing as something concrete the results of our creation.’

AZADEH: “Why did Václav Havel write this letter to Gustav Husák, back in 1975?”

BARBARA DAY: “Havel wanted to draw attention to how society had changed over the previous eight years, from being open and eager to participate, to being a closed society, everyone only interested in their own private world. And he wanted to do this freely and openly, in accordance with the principle I quoted just now.”

AZADEH: “How did Václav Havel see the effect of censorship on truth?”

BARBARA DAY: “He gave the example of a literary work, in his case naturally he would think of the theatre, a play. The play might be quite good, well-written, well-constructed, audiences would enjoy it. But in this society it would never rise above banality, it would actually present a fraudulent picture of the world - one in which all the deeper levels of meaning had been removed, although the author would pretend to present them. And the reason would be censorship, which takes different forms – it could be the censor or it could be the writer him/herself, i.e. self-censorship, either deliberate, because the writer knows what is acceptable and what is not, or subconscious, because he/she doesn’t even dare to think in any other way. So what he/she writes is just a shallow imitation with no real knowledge or understanding. But Havel goes on to say that some audiences will take it at face value, and this sort of triviality becomes a cult, what he calls ‘the aesthetics of banality’. And this is much more dangerous than works of political propaganda, because it is much more digestible; people are perfectly content to accept lies in this form.”

AZADEH: “Viera, Václav Havel talked about the crisis of human identity in a system that requires a man to be something other than he is. How do you see the situation then compared with nowadays when society has more freedom?”

Viera Langerová,  photo: Jan Sklenář
VIERA LANGEROVÁ: “It is very interesting to read Havel´s letter to Husák today. Paradoxically it looks like the situation in communism was easier, because there was a system we could blame for our moral failures. This doesn’t mean I want to defend the totality we lived in. We know today that to recover morally after the fall of totality is extremely difficult because the ‘paternal’ state decides about everything in your life and will never give you a chance to become ‘adult’ – responsible for everything you perform in your life. As it was possible to blame everything on the inhuman state and its brutal methods, with the state asking only for ‘agreement’ and silence, there wasn´t an urgent need to intimate questions posed to ourselves about the morality of our deeds. The sinner was versatile and omnipresent.

“The clear line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ has disappeared and we have a free choice to look for the sources of our morality. If it is not a religion what is it? Universal humanism which can tell us ‘all people are the same and deserve to live in this and that condition’ but cannot tell you that leaving your family is a sin? If we are all free and have a right to make a choice what is moral and what is not? A pregnant woman can go to abort and kill her child because she is the one who can decide about her body. Does an ambitious man who feels responsibility for his own life and is fully aware that his career demands some sacrifices, know where the lines are between helping the quality of work and reporting on his colleagues? There are thousands of questions dealing with morality we can never cease to ask, facing the immense corruption and moral immunity of state representatives. Communism was like an anesthetic, it made you calm and immobile in an inner but also an outer sense. Its collective character expressed as ‘working masses’ diminished your individuality to a minimum as it was ideologically demanded and enemies were accused of ‘bourgeois individualism’. The challenge for any people leaving the totalitarian way of life is not only how to be resuscitated by the oxygen of freedom and democracy but also to learn to be responsible for his/her newly regained identity as a free and sovereign individual.”

AZADEH: “Havel mentioned that some truths were the momentary needs of the government. What was happening to the artists who were acting outside the framework as defined by the state?”

VIERA LANGEROVÁ: “Of course, to be an artist in a totalitarian state you have to be in an approximate accordance with the ideological role of art. In the last decade of communist Czechoslovakia when I lived, there were certain people writing books, shooting films etc. serving to ideological and political needs of the state. All other strata around the ‘center’ demonstrated degrees of distance from the ideology. The situation was strictly different in 70s after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops when everybody had to declare agreement or disagreement with the ‘brotherly help’ as the invasion was renamed. This was the time of many forced and unforced departures, emigration to the West.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I was very surprised when I was reading the memoires of Miloš Forman, the worldwide known Czech film director, author of the unforgettable Amadeus. He was comparing the Hollywood bosses and their methods to the communists, especially in clear ‘power language’. In communism we didn´t want to hear things like that, but today we have a chance to compare. Here I can quote Forman’s words I like very much, because they illustrate the realistic image of both societies: Freedom is where you can freely say there is no freedom... He is a person who went through the paradoxes of life in all three systems: Nazism, communist and capitalism. The next world wide famous emigrant is Milan Kundera. He in his books was able to convert the feelings, thoughts and memories of Czech and Slovak people to fascinating stories. He, as well as Karel Kryl, a very famous singer whose songs became hits loved by of all generations, was not happy with the post-revolutionary Czechoslovakia. They were able to perceive all the flops of newly installed democracy in the phase of ‘wild capitalism’ in the early 90s. But unfortunately there was no social willingness to listen to the criticism. Kryl has died and Kundera estranged himself from his native country. As I have lived almost 15 years abroad, I can understand the mixed feelings of many people trying to come back after the system has changed. There is a very strong disgust here to anything that comes from outside with other views, other opinions etc. Sometimes it looks like old communist paternalism has survived in many splinters everywhere in institutions, companies etc.”

AZADEH: “Omid what are the similarities between this letter by Havel to Husák and the current situation in Iran? What is the function of censorship in Iran, especially in art?”

OMID NIKFARJAM: “You know, the last 10 years, especially the period after the 2009 disputed election in Iran, is the period that in my opinion much more resembles the situation that Václav Havel wrote about in his letter to Gustav Husák. The shadow of censorship has always been over the heads of the Iranian artists, filmmakers, or writers. But after the 2009 election, the state tried hard and succeeded to a great extent to widen the scope of censorship and, as a result, self-censorship because of the fear it created among people. Not that it was all created out of the blue the day after the election. Since Ahmadinejad came to power, he pushed the society toward this atmosphere, so what happened after the election was only the continuation of what was going on before, albeit more forcefully. What happened? We can sum it up exactly with the expression that Havel uses in his letter: the aesthetics of banality. And this happened most in the Iranian cinema as it has always been the more popular art form to which people have more access. Now the works, in his words, by imitating the real world, just falsify it, give a false picture of reality; they are hackneyed and trivial and just reassure people with lies. I won’t be exaggerating if I say that almost 99 percent of the films produced in Iran now are the kind that Havel had in mind 50 years ago, and as he predicted this kind of film was encouraged in the eight years that Ahmadinejad was in power. They’re shallow and stupid stories that only scratch the surface. They’re not the kind of film like the typical Jafar Panahi or Asghar Farhadi film that most of the time is an effort to go deeper and show a more truthful picture of life in Iran. Maybe that’s why Panahi and Farhadi and other filmmakers like them have been censured and censored inside the country; because they have consciously tried to put a big distance between themselves and the so-called aesthetics of banality that Havel is so critical of.”

AZADEH: “Sometimes because of the limitation, artists have to find other ways to express what they believe in, which might be very creative. How do you see this kind of creativity?”

Omid Nikfarjam,  photo: archive of Omid Nikfarjam
OMID NIKFARJAM: “Well, I don’t believe that limitations and censorship necessarily make artists and writers more creative in a general way. Maybe yes, in the beginning, I give you that. But in the long run, based on what I see in the Iranian art community, it just suffocates the creative people. You know, when the extreme censorship was beginning to take hold in Iran, the artists tried to adapt themselves to the atmosphere and come up with new ways of expressing themselves. Not surprisingly, many artworks tended to use metaphors and symbols as opposed to a more direct way of showing things, because you can say a lot through symbolism without offending the state officials or censors. But after a while, a couple of years, the walls get closer to the artist, his world starts shrinking, he doesn’t know what’s happening outside those walls, or when he sees what’s happening (especially in this age of the internet), he doesn’t get the context and the atmosphere. Because he’s been cut off from the world for too long, he’s missed the events, he’s missed a part of history, just like a prisoner who sees the world through the tiny window in his cell.”

AZADEH: “Can you picture Iranian society in a situation where there will be freedom in our social interactions, speech and arts? How truthful can we be if there is no fear of exile or punishment for what we say?”

OMID NIKFARJAM: “I don’t think it’s going to be that easy, because censorship lives on in our minds, especially in the minds of a people like the Iranians who are usually bound by traditions and customs inside the family and society; there are many kinds of inhibitions on the level of family and society. So I don’t think we’re going to start expressing ourselves with no inhibitions as soon as the censorship agents are removed. You know, I’ve lived outside Iran for years now and I still catch myself self-censoring from time to time, not because someone or something forces me to, but because of the force of habit, because I was born and raised in a society so used to self-censorship, so used to hiding the true emotions, feelings and opinions. Freedom, I think, needs some getting used to, and this takes a long while. We need time to learn the rules of freedom, to learn to respect the freedom of others. To learn that we should want for others what we want for ourselves. However, I – rather optimistically maybe – also think that when democracy and freedom come to our society, there will be a flourishing of creativity, a surge of new works in all areas of art. And I’m saying this because I know of many works of art hidden at homes and drawers, waiting for the right moment to come out.”

AZADEH: “Viera, How do you value the effect of freedom on artistic works since 1989?”

VIERA LANGEROVÁ: “I have to say, I expected more in our society. I think the best today is documentary film. For example a couple of years ago there was a best European documentary by a Czech film director Helena Třeštíková. The situation in feature film is much worse and this is a very interesting crisis of story-telling. It looks like we have lost courage, because we have to map the new reality and this is very difficult. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that freedom of expression comes automatically. We have to learn to be free not only as human beings in the new situation but also to be free from any kind of schemes and stereotypes that do not allow the flow of new ideas or their critical selection.”

AZADEH: “Barbara, what is your suggestion, how should we act in such a society? It had its effect on generations. How should we help with the healing process?”

BARBARA DAY: “I think you’re partly answering it yourself, because in my eyes the priority is education. Omid is right that over a long period of unfreedom, people are psychologically manipulated without even realizing it’s happening. And it’s very difficult to unlearn this. In this country it was more than forty years, so you had teachers who were taught by teachers who had been taught under the communist system. It’s really difficult, I have seen this, but I’ve also seen some very promising initiatives I’ve seen people really starting ideas, being creative, getting students to think. It’s also important to travel, to get contact with the outside world and see that things can be done differently, that there’s more than one way of doing it. But I’m really encouraged. I know there are bad times really often, but when I compare the situation with how it used to be, I really think it’s come a long way in this country.”

AZADEH: “Omid, as an Iranian journalist how do you think we can have more freedom, what should we do to improve the quality of the arts in Iran and sustain this quality?”

OMID NIKFARJAM: “As I said before, it takes time to get used to freedom. And I agree with Barbara on this. It’ll happen through education among other things. I think we should expect a period of trial and error, which may be short or long, but will prepare the artists and writers for what they like to express and what they want to leave out of their works. You know, Iran has been under the rule of censorship for too long, and maybe it will be for some years to come. So many artists don’t even know what freedom will bring with it. And even if they get rid of the outside forces, they are still going to have to fight the inside inhibitions and illusions in their minds. They’re going have to try different forms, ideas and whatnot to get to the right idea that will show what they have in mind. So it’ll be a process of trial and error in my mind.”

AZADEH: “Thanks for being with us in this program.”