Havel and Our Crisis

Social Sciences4 min. read

A major conference at Colby looks at today’s world through the lens of Czech playwright and statesman Václav Havel

Vaclav Havel
"Havel and Our Crisis," an international conference of scholars and leaders, will convene at Colby beginning Sept. 28. Participants will come together to consider the life, work, and legacy of Czech poet, playwright, and political leader Václav Havel (above).
By Abigail Curtis
September 20, 2022

Last February, when Milan Babík ’01 watched media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it reminded him of his homeland’s not-too-distant past. Though the country had been a democracy between World Wars I and II, it became an Eastern Bloc communist state after a coup d’etat in 1948. 

Life behind the so-called Iron Curtain was marked by restrictions on political and civil freedoms. In early 1968, liberal reforms, including freedom of the press and freedom of speech, were introduced in what became known as the Prague Spring. Czechoslovakians enjoyed a taste of liberty, and one prominent participant in the movement was Václav Havel, a Czech playwright and poet who became a political dissident and, later, the leader of the country. 

But the moment didn’t last. On Aug. 20, 1968, Soviet, Polish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops invaded and occupied the country, quashing the movement. The Prague Spring was finished. Babík’s parents and others of their generation haven’t forgotten the terror of that time, which made the invasion of Ukraine a galvanizing event for Babík as he worked to organize “Havel and Our Crisis,” an international conference of scholars and leaders who will come together at Colby to consider the life, work, and legacy of Havel. 

The conference will be from Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Friday, Sept. 30, and will feature world-famous scholars, award-winning filmmakers, top-level diplomats, as well as Havel’s advisors, biographers, and friends. The keynote address will be given by Michael Žantovský, a Czech diplomat, politician, writer, translator, and current executive director of Václav Havel Library in Prague. 

Nearly all events will be at Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building, with the exception of a play by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater Company, which will be performed at Strider Theater.   

Milan Babik
Milan Babik, visiting assistant professor of government, is organizing a conference about the late poet and political leader Václav Havel. (Photo by Jasper Lowe.)

Babík, a visiting assistant professor of government, believes that it is the largest such event to take place in the U.S., although there were at least two conferences in 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring. One, which he organized, was at Colby, and the other was at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  

Havel is well-worth consideration on his own, according to Babík, who considers him a personal hero. The playwright endured imprisonment and secret-police surveillance under Communism and later served 14 years as president, ultimately coming to embody the “soul of the Czech nation,” according to his 2011 obituary in the New York Times

He risked much to use his voice and his pen to fight for freedom, and he remains strongly relevant today, Babík said. 

“Western liberal democracy is not well,” he said. “Havel was one of the 20th century’s greatest champions of freedom, democracy, human rights, European integration, and transatlantic cooperation. The aim [of the conference] is to take stock of his intellectual, political, and spiritual legacy and to search this legacy for solutions to the burning problems of our time.”

The conference has attracted high-level participants, and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague and was a close personal friend of Havel’s, had been slated to serve as the keynote speaker. She died of cancer in March at age 84.  

“She was another kind of childhood hero and was absolutely essential and critical to establishing strong ties between post-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia and Havel and the United States in the mid-1990s,” Babík said. 

Havel, and how he responded to the seismic events of the second half of the 20th century, can provide a meaningful framework for what is happening now, he said. Although the professor originally had intended the conference to happen in November 2021 to mark the 10th anniversary of Havel’s death, the pandemic and other global crises got in the way. 

Those crises—including the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—made discussing Havel’s legacy feel all the more critical, Babík said. 

“We felt it was really important to revive, to return to some of the ideas that Havel was known for. Responsibility. The notion of freedom as not ‘do whatever you want to do,’ but really responsibility to fellow citizens, protecting certain values. Free speech. Living in truth, as he called it,” he said. “So that was extremely important before this [Russian] act of aggression. But then we saw what happened in Ukraine—the attack just brought things to a whole new level. It gave us even more solid grounds and justification to hold this event.” 

Vaclav Havel
Poet, playwright, and political leader Václav Havel at work in his office.

Babík, suffused with a new sense of urgency, expanded the agenda to incorporate current events. Historian Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University, will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, about Havel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Roundtables earlier that day will bring participants together to discuss the crises of values, language, truth, and kindness. 

Filmmaker James Le Sueur will introduce and participate in a Q&A at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, prior to a screening of his award-winning 2020 documentary, The Art of Dissent, which celebrates the power of artistic engagement in Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. 

Other participants and speakers include Marci Shore, a history professor at Yale University who specializes in eastern European cultural and intellectual history, Czech diplomatic official Jan Havránek, and Czech journalist and cultural critic Daniel Konrád. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, which has toured around the U.S., Poland, and the Czech Republic, also will perform Havel’s 1975 play, Audience, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 1 at Strider Theater. 

Babík would like the conference to engender a sense of critical reflection for participants and the faculty, students, staff, and community members he hopes will attend.  

“I also want everybody to really come to terms with the fact that we are in a moment of deep crisis,” he said. “This is not an easy period, not just for Americans but for Westerners and the Western world.”

Taking the time to reflect on such big issues as the fragility of truth and the corruption of language can help, he said.

“Havel was a playwright. For him, language is the material that he used to craft plays. He’s looking at the corruption of language under dictatorship, frequently in hilarious ways, like making fun of what language was turned into,” Babik said. “We need to figure out how to return to language and discourse a degree of health because it’s been corrupted. And if we don’t do that, we can’t come up with ideas that are going to generate progress out of this crisis.”

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