Jan Urban: Only Havel could have unified opposition in 1989

Jan Urban

Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Václav Havel, the former political prisoner who in late 1989 became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president and a symbol of human rights around the world. Among those who worked closely with him before and during the Velvet Revolution, was the journalist and teacher Jan Urban. Indeed, he suggested “forum” and Havel came up with “civic” when a name was sought for the loose opposition group that pushed through the transition to democracy. As is clear in this interview, Urban is also quite critical of Václav Havel’s performance as president, believing he could have achieved far more.

When did you first become aware of Václav Havel, or hear the name of Václav Havel?

“He was one of the names of 1968 and for the young generation he was quite a hero, because of what he did in August ’68 at the Radio in Liberec.

“Later I read his plays and after 1968 learned about his existence in the dissent.”

When did you meet him? And what were your impressions of his personality then?

“I cooperated with Charter 77, under the radar, so to speak, doing some even illegal stuff.

“And when my cover was blown, in 1987, I met him in person.

“It was funny, because his wife Olga hated this unending stream of visitors, so he opened this kind of ‘office’ in the fish restaurant just around the block.

“And that was when we first met.

“He couldn’t care less how many secret policemen were sitting around.”

“It was quite funny, because on one hand he was concentrated and the discussion was quite enriching, but on the other hand he was totally reckless.

“He couldn’t care less how many secret policemen were sitting around.

“We joked that in the fish restaurant even the doorknob had a contract with the secret police.

“But he couldn’t care less.”

How come he was so reckless, or didn’t care?

“You know, after five and a half years in prison you have paid the price of fear and stop being afraid.”

Did you have any sense of how being in prison for so long affected him?

“Once you enter a world like this – and prison is a very specific environment, and secret police oppression can be sometimes quite innovative and psychologically depressing – you never recover.

“It gives you a sense of uniqueness: You are a value-setter.

Václav Havel,  1989 | Photo: Pavel Matějíček,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“You have to be very careful. Sometimes Václav talked about this himself.”

Havel came from a quite elite background. His family were prominent in the First Republic. Was there any evidence in his behaviour, how he dealt with people?

“Not a sign of it at all.

“We always joked that we were very fortunate and thankful to the Communist regime that both of us were pushed to the bottom, socially, and had to earn our living in manual jobs, meeting ‘the lowest’ and finding out that in reality the gold is at the bottom.

“It doesn’t come with education or a prestigious position within the society.

“I liked this side of him very much.”

Was he able to get on with all kinds of people? For example in the dissent you had people from the underground, you had Christians, you had a lot of ex-Communists.

“This was probably the most precious and admirable part of Václav Havel – in the dissent.

“I remember meetings in our apartment.

“Thirty people would be sitting around discussing some issue for three hours and Václav would be sitting there, silent, chain-smoking; after three hours there would be an ashtray full of butts on the floor.

“We called him ‘Little Bear’ – he was really a simple, gentle, friendly personality, and very likable.”

“He would lift his head and talk for three minutes – and every opinion presented in those three hours would be in it.

“You could really carve it in stone and everybody could agree on it.

“I’ve never met anybody like that.

“Unfortunately he lost this ability in politics.”

But before he entered politics he was a kind of natural conciliator, or the kind of person who would bring others together?

“Absolutely. As I said, I’ve never met anyone who would have this kind of capability of putting people’s minds together.

“He always said, We have to add up our IQs, not to divide them.”

I’m still trying to get a sense of his personality, because in some ways he seemed like a quiet man, and modest. But still he was able evidently to inspire people, to lead people.

“First of all, I hate this picture of Václav Havel as something like a semi-godlike figure.

“He was not. He was totally normal. Introspective on one side, extrovert on the other [laughs].

Photo: archive of Czech Radio

“He believed in symbols, in gestures, sometimes too much, as we learnt in his time in politics, as a politician.

“But we called him ‘Little Bear’ – he was really a simple, gentle, friendly personality, and very likable.

“Of course on the other hand he had his demons. But if you knew him, you just had to like him.”

If we go to the late 1980s and the formation [during the 1989 Velvet Revolution] of Civic Forum, I understand you played a role in the naming of Civic Forum?

“The name [laughs] was developed, so to speak, on a sofa in Václav Havel’s flat.

“I proposed ‘forum’, he added ‘civic’ and we had it. Two minutes.”

And obviously it became kind of iconic. How much did Havel shape the direction that Civic Forum took?

“In those rushed, hysterical hours, there was no other personality who could play that role of unifying an extremely fractured opposition to the Communist regime.

“So it seemed absolutely natural that Havel took that role.

“Very quickly we learnt that it just was too much and that, because with Civic Forum we were unable to build any kind of power structure, or controlling structure, it became a solo operation with all the repercussions that came with it.”

What do you know about his dealings at that time with Alexander Dubček, who we know also wanted to be president?

“His biggest mistake was that he did not want to learn politics.”

“It was one of those political, diplomatic hiccups of this mad time.

“Dubček definitely, with the support of a great portion of the population, specifically in Slovakia, dreamt about restoring his fame from 1968, not understanding that it was just too far away.

“And Havel didn’t know well enough how to play that disagreement diplomatically.

“So it ended in quite bitter feeling on Dubček’s side for some time.”

He felt he had been misled?


The changes of course happened at incredible speed. It was just six weeks from the beginning of the revolution to Havel being elected president. Up close, could you see him changing in that period already?

“It happened in the first five, six days after November 17, when he somehow understood the greatness of the task and the problems ahead and decided to forget about Civic Forum and to run for the presidency.

“We had quite a bitter disagreement at that point, because some of us tried to argue that with him leaving the Civic Forum would lose its legitimacy and the revolution, in which we believed at that time, would lose its motor, and that you simply cannot run the country from one place, be it the presidential Castle.

Václav Havel | Photo: Prachatai,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“At that moment he just understood the world like a big theatre stage. He used the phrase, We need to run forward.

“He did not understand, unfortunately until the very end of his political career, the importance of political institutions, Parliament itself.

“And that was the beginning of his not really successful presidency, specifically on domestic issues.”

Sometimes I come across people suggesting that Havel was reluctant to become president of Czechoslovakia. Was that true?

“No way. He wanted it.

“Try to imagine you are sitting in an underground theatre, there are 400 foreign journalists, dozens of television crews, everybody screaming questions, asking for interviews, you get calls from foreign politicians, planeloads of US congressmen are landing in Prague every few days.

“And something happens.

“You lose what saved your lives many times in the dissent: self-control.

“You believe that your ideas, your régisseur ability can change the world.

“And, as I said, you distrust Communist-built institutions and with it you distrust all institutions, not understanding that democracy is nothing without institutions.”

Obviously you’re critical of his handling of the presidency, when he got to Prague Castle. What do you think was his biggest mistake?

“His biggest mistake was that he did not want to learn politics.

“He did not understand that politics is a craft.

“He thought that he would just dream up some scheme and everything will follow.”

On the positive side of the ledger, I guess his international renown must have been a great benefit to this country at the time?

“Absolutely. There are few instances or comparable examples, even in world history, of one man coming to a position of near to absolute respect and fame.

“He put Czechoslovakia back on the map and for that we need to be thankful forever.”

A lot of people in this country aren’t thankful to Havel today. They have this word ‘Havloid’, he is a kind of hate figure for a large part of the population. Why do you think that has come about?

“He was one in the nation of 15 million who wrote an open letter to the secretary general of the Communist Party.”

“The guy was posing very difficult moral questions.

“The guy believed in something, and paid for it with five and a half years of his life.

“He was one in the nation of 15 million who wrote an open letter to the secretary general of the Communist Party saying, C’mon, this is not what we want.

“So if you were a simple coward, you have to hate him. Simply because there is an example of courage you are to unable to show.

“Second, as a president he was just too playful on domestic issues – he did not respect the Parliament, he did not respect political parties, he was a solo player.

“That made him an easy target for any political opponent and any dissatisfied individual in the society.

“There is no deeper reasoning to that.”