Quite a man! It is hard to appreciate what he had to be like to do what he did. Even though my paternal ethnic roots go back to Bohemia, my actual experience with the Iron Curtain Czechs was limited to about four visits to Prague and one to Bratislava and was mainly my teaching of Czech Scientists at the 10 day schools I taught at in Poland. Those schools on Membrane Biophysics were for scientists from all over the Eastern Block and went on (for me) from 1974 to 1986. I stayed with a Czech family on one of my visits to Prague early on. I remember the neat place to play chess and drink beer in downtown Prague. I remember the prostitutes grabbing your privates and then demanding money for it. Mostly I remember the funk. I can't give it another word. My last visit was on the way to the school in Poland days after Chernobyl. Czechoslovakia and France were the two Nations that denied radioactive fallout had happened. The Geiger counters at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt said otherwise when we got back. Read on and I'll tell a few more stories about the Cold War and the people I encountered behind the infamous "Iron Curtain".
Here's some of what Reuters has to say about the great Czech leader:
Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by Communists and then went on to become Czech president and a symbol of peace and freedom after leading the bloodless "Velvet Revolution," died at age 75 on Sunday.I have never seen his plays and I must try somehow. In 1984 I saw two Polish plays at the Art Theater in Gdynia Poland while teaching at that year's school. My colleague and close friend Barbara's husband ran the theater and stuck his neck out to put on the two plays. He was quickly removed from his post. One of the plays was quite easy to follow even if one did not speak Polish. It was about the UN. The two main characters were the Russian and American Ambassadors to the UN. One a tall blond and the other a stocky dark haired man. Otherwise they were as alike as mirror images. They each had their contingents and were as arrogant as imaginable. It was quite funny.
The former chain smoker, who survived several operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that nearly killed him and left him frail for the rest of his life, died after a long respiratory illness.
He was with his wife Dagmar and a nun who had cared for him at his country home in Hradecek, north of Prague.
"Today Vaclav Havel has left us," his secretary, Sabina Tancevova, said in a statement.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free."
The diminutive playwright who invited the Rolling Stones to medieval Prague castle, took Bill Clinton to a Prague jazz club and was a friend of the Dalai Lama, rose to fame after facing down Prague's communist regime over its abuses.
His dissident plays were banned for two decades and he was thrown into prison several times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto demanding the communist government adhere to international standards for human rights.
Just six months after completing his last jail sentence, he led hundreds of thousands of protesters in Prague's cobblestone streets in a peaceful uprising in November 1989 that ended Soviet-backed rule.
Just over a month later, he was installed as president in Prague castle.
One of the differences among the "Eastern Bloc" countries was travel. Polish scientists could accumulate dollars and travel with them. Few others could, if any. My colleague at the Medical College of Virginia and I wrote a grant to bring an outstanding young Czech Mathematical Biologist over to work with us. We got the grant and happily informed the young man. He wrote a sad letter back telling us that the "government" refused to let him go. We were able to bring a Polish experimenter in his place and she worked in my colleague's renal physiology lab.
We had lots of interesting experiences with these wonderful people. One evening over beer and Vodka we got into living conditions. We asked the Polish scientists what they earned. Then they listed expenses. They did not match. We asked how they lived and they just laughed.
It is one thing to read about life behind the Iron curtain and another to spend time with the people subjected to it. When Solidarity was at its height before marshal law we were there with my colleagues many of whom were leaders in the movement. I have lots of stories about that but that is another diary if you want it.
Havel was a great man. One of a rare breed these days. Most leaders are much more like the two charicatures in the Polish play.