Question: In what European presidential residence can one find a set of chandeliers paid for by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?
Answer: Prague Castle, in the Czech Republic.
When the Czechoslovak people overthrew their Communist government in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, they soon faced a dilemma. How could a nation, with little recent history of independent, democratic government, throw off its ties to an oppressive Communist superstructure without completely disintegrating? And how could it find trustworthy political leaders when all its current politicians were tainted by association with the crumbling, corrupt, paranoid Communist Party?
When presidential elections were held in December of that year, the overwhelming winner was the playwright Vaclav Havel. Havel had no political, bureaucratic, or legislative background. As a young, bourgeois intellectual in Prague in the 1960s, he had started writing anti-establisment plays, acclaimed by the intelligentsia and by Western audiences, but banned by the Communists after the "Prague Spring" uprising of 1968.
In 1977, he helped found a dissident group known as Charter 77 - formed to co-ordinate an anti-government response to the imprisonment of the psychedelic rock group Plastic People of the Universe. (Havel is a well-known fan of rock music, particularly Lou Reed and Frank Zappa. In 1990, as president, he made Zappa an unofficial envoy of Czechoslovak culture, trade and tourism. He also loves the Rolling Stones - hence the gift of the new chandeliers in the Spanish Hall.)
Havel was imprisoned numerous times between 1977 and 1989 for his anti-government actions as a leader of Charter 77. His account of his longest stint, from 1979 to 1984, was related in his book Letters to Olga, a collection of his correspondence to his wife during that period. His persecution and his continued publication of plays and anti-totalitarian essays increased his profile both in Czechoslovakia and around the world; so that, when a power vacuum opened up after the fall of the Communist government, Havel allowed himself to be talked into running for president - spurred on also by the hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square chanting "Havel na hrad" - "Havel to the Castle" - during the rallies of November 1989 - despite never having harboured political ambitions.
As president - first of Czechoslovakia, and then of the Czech Republic, after the country split in two in 1993 - Havel suddenly found himself at the head of a nation whose legislative, judicial, and economic structures had to be rebuilt from the ground up. As has been seen with other former communist states such as Belarus, the Central Asian 'stan' countries and, most significantly, Russia itself, this restructuring is a highly challenging task, requiring both a broad, clear vision, and bold but measured execution. Havel explains the scenario himself in his presidential memoirs, To the Castle and Back (Vintage Canada, 2007, translated by Paul Wilson), now out in paperback:
A country that finds itself at a historical crossroads must have an idea of what it is, of its possibilities, of what it wishes to be, of what role it wants to play, of what it will put its money on, and, on the contrary, what it will try to avoid. This view must be partly the outcome of a very broad and practical discussion that draws on a variety of expert analyses, and it must reach beyond the limits of individual political programs or electoral mandates.
Havel demonstrated this broad approach in accomplishing one of his most difficult tasks, which was to disband the Warsaw Pact. This was the agreement with the Soviet Union and other Communist states upon which all of Czechoslovakia's economic and political activities were dependent from 1948 until 1989. Havel describes how he organized a summit of leaders from his country, Hungary, and Poland, to discuss the disbanding of this agreement and the disentanglement of their relations with the Soviet Union:
[F]rom all three countries, I invited not only the top state officials but also other important people in public life, those who form public opinion, to meet for a day....It was one big improvisation. No rules of procedure were established in advance, no themes were set, there was no set order of speakers, there were no delegation heads, there were no special salons set aside for individual delegations. It was simply to be a very special forum for discussion at which participants would have the chance to introduce themselves to one another and get to know who was a minister, who the leader of a certain party, and who a historian or a reporter.
This description sounds like a perfect nightmare to anyone who has ever helped plan or participate in a conference or summit meeting. It sounds more like a casual meet-and-greet than a setting for serious discussion about the future of Europe. Yet Havel knew that flexibility and improvisation would be the key to the entire process of reshaping his country’s diplomatic relations and image on the global scene. And, in fact, the result today, of a greatly expanded and empowered NATO, with prominent places for the East European former Communist states, is very much the result of Havel's work throughout his presidency.
Ultimately, it was Havel’s ability to transcend – or, rather, his refusal to engage in – traditional party politics (he has left no lasting political movement or party), and his ability to communicate broad, ambitious goals in a clear manner, that enabled him to guide his country through ensuing challenges – including the split of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and remain in office for 13 years (as the president of the Czech Republic after 1993).
Havel's memoirs show the careful course he navigated between these great issues of national identity and the minutiae of running a staff and an office. Extracts from his official presidential journal contain such issues as: "In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it..."; and also, "We need a longer hose for watering...".
A nervous, shy man, Havel was never comfortable with the extravagant trappings of high office. He liked to smoke and drink (despite his generally poor health, exacerbated by his time spent in dank Communist prisons), and often took visiting heads of state to his favourite local pubs. He famously arranged for Bill Clinton to play his tenor saxophone in a Prague jazz club. (His chumminess with Western leaders, including George W. Bush, has earned him some criticism. Noam Chomsky has called him "morally repugnant," which seems about par for the course for a prominent leader of a western capitalist country.)
Havel’s book can be a little hard to engage with, as it is really made up of three different but interspersed forms: extended written answers to questions submitted by a Czech journalist; excerpts from Havel’s official presidential journal from 1993 to 2003, consisting of orders and messages to his staff; and his personal reflections in 2007 during the course of compiling the material for the book. The constant back-and-forth between the three means that there is never much narrative, or even chronological, flow. Nevertheless, To the Castle and Back is a valuable demonstration of the sort of broad but precise thought and action that is necessary when dealing with massive political and societal change - as well as the refreshing, down-to-earth honesty and lack of partisan posturing that is so sorely missed in Canadian politics today.
Gertrude Bell, like Havel, rose to a position of great global importance from unlikely circumstances. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British industrial family, she could have spent her life hosting tea parties in London and on her family's estate near the bleak northern city of Middlesbrough. Spurred, however, by her stepmother, a strong proponent of education for children and particularly girls, Bell chose to stretch her talents and financial advantages to the farthest extreme possible. She was the first woman to take a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford; learned six languages, including Persian to the extent that she published a translation of medieval love poetry; gained fame by spending five consecutive summers climbing the most challenging peaks in the Alps; travelled around the world; taught herself archaeology and cartography; and undertook numerous expeditions throughout the Middle East, assisting at archaeological digs, and introducing herself to the often-warring but highly cultured and principled Arab tribes throughout the Middle East. Her story is told in a fascinating and well-researched recent biography, Daughter of the Desert (Macmillan, 2006), by the British journalist Georgina Howell.
Fearless and steadfast but also refined, Bell dined every night she spent in the desert on crystal and silver in her canvas tent. She was also a skilled rider of both horse and camel, and slept with a loaded gun under her pillow, even when at home in Yorkshire. She led seven expeditions through various parts of Arabia, culminating in an epic four-month trek in 1913 during which she was kept prisoner by the Rashid tribe in the walled desert city of Hayyil for 11 days before political machinations among the tribe's ruling family allowed her to escape.
In her dealings with Arab leaders, she enjoyed a respect that was denied her in her native society. She was naturally quick-witted and sharp-tongued, and had no patience for docility, demureness or patronizing attitudes. She often dismissed the prim, subservient wives she encountered in England as “little women.” She never married because English men tended to be overawed by her intelligence and strong will -- though she did have two serious, and ultimately tragic, affairs: a youthful one with a diplomat who died of pneumonia a year after her parents had refused to allow their marriage; and one in her forties with Dick Doughty-Wylie, a war hero who refused to leave his fragile wife for Gertrude, and was eventually killed leading a charge, unarmed, at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.
Despite the tensions always evident between herself and the British establishment, she was found to be an indispensable tool for British military intelligence in the Middle East during and after World War I. The British, trying to organize an Arab Revolt to draw Turkish and German troops and resources away from the stalemate in the trenches of Europe, found Bell, with her fluent Arabic and deeply personal, intimate knowledge of the Arabic people, culture and politics, was the perfect liaison between the British army and the Arab people. She was stationed variously in Cairo, Basra and Baghdad, and was the first woman to be appointed an officer in the British military intelligence force. To the British, she was Major Bell; to the Arabs in Mesopotamia, she was Al Khatun, "The Queen of the Desert."
After the war, she refused to travel back to England, and stayed on to fight against European disinterest and ignorance for the ideal of Arabic nationhood. Although employed by the British government, she was never simply a colonial administrator fulfilling a duty to her homeland or to the Empire; she was a fervent admirer of Arab culture, and did her utmost to support it, helping to secure funding for the construction and administration of schools, hospitals, libraries and the Baghdad Museum of Archeology - now known as the National Museum of Iraq - which housed many of the artefacts she had unearthed on her archaeological expeditions.
She also arranged with the British government to support the appointment of her personal friend, the Amir Faisal bin Hussein, as king of Iraq in 1921. She stayed on as King Faisal's political advisor and as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq. In this capacity, she oversaw the administration of the Baghdad Museum, and obtained for it thousands of priceless cultural objects (several thousand of which were looted after the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003).
Gertrude Bell died in 1926, probably from a self-inflicted overdose of sleeping pills prompted by her already-failing health at age 57. Howell points out that, after her death, Iraq, which had been founded out of the chaotic Ottoman Empire largely on systems and relationships that she had fostered, remained a relatively peaceful, stable, democratic, constitutional monarchy for another 32 years.
Gertrude Bell published several books, and spent much time writing personal correspondence and journals. Howell has mined much of these resources, so that the book is full of the vibrantly intelligent and emotional voice of Bell herself, recounting her own deeply engaging, inspiring story.
The lives of Vaclav Havel and Gertrude Bell remind us that one does not have to be born into a position of power to gain influence or to commit oneself to a political life early on to achieve great political goals. Both show that it is sometimes only by fearlessly transgressing accepted social codes, and choosing unorthodox courses of action, that true progress can be achieved.
Remnick, David. "Exit Havel: The King leaves the Castle." http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/02/17/030217fa_fact1?currentPage=all
Welch, Matt. "Velvet President: Why Vaclav Havel is our era's George Orwell and more." http://www.reason.com/news/show/28781.html