Few others deserve the description bohemian more than Václav Havel (1936-2011). Not only was this former dissident from Czechoslovakia born in Prague, traditional capital of the region Bohemia, he also knew how to live life. Labeled by political opponents as an uncontrolable drunkard, cherished by friends who say Havel just loved drinking and women. This bohemian lifestyle did not stop him from being one of the major forces to end the Warsaw Pact, as well as becoming and remaining the Czech president for 13 years.
Václav Havel was more or less born to hate the Communist regime that took control over his country shortly after the end of World War II. Before Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite state in 1948, his family owned a lot of land and Havel was only 12 years old when this family asset was seized by the central government. By then nobody could predict that this kid would be one of the three key persons, next to Lech Wałęsa in Poland and the Russian Mikhail Gorbatchov, to break the notorious Warsaw Pact and lead his country to freedom.
In the 1960’s Havel showed he had a great talent for writing. With satiric humor he challenged the Communist regime and his essays inspired other dissidents all over Eastern Europe. Like many writers he was a big fan of drinking and this inspired the Communists to publish a propaganda piece in their party newspaper Rudé Právo (Red Truth) in 1970, in which they portrayed Havel as a useless drunk. National radio and television did the same and from that moment all works of the writer were officially forbidden. This propaganda campaign however made Havel instantly a celebrity and even brought his works to a wider audience.
Still, the Czech dissident needed a new source of income and therefor took a job in a beer brewery in Trutnov. The beer he was working on, called Krakonoš, still exists and is made by the same old recipe and the same traditional technology.
In 1977 Havel and some like-minded friends started an opposition movement named Charta 77. At their meetings the alcohol would flow like the Vltava River under the Charles Bridge. Again this was ammunition for the Communists, who said that Havel and his merry men were spending all the donations from Western Europe meant to help imprisoned dissidents or their families, on alcohol. Havel himself was locked up multiple times between 1977 and 1989, the longest time for four years between 1979 and 1983.
Despite his times in prison and his drunken escapades Havel could always count on his wife Olga Splíchalová, who unlike her extravagant husband was known as a very sober and down to earth person; the perfect counterweight. The Czech political analyst Jiří Pehe explained: “Havel was a bohemian and did wild things and there were many other women, but he always went back. She (Splíchalová, MB) was a tough moral lady. She treated him like a boy, in a sense, and he liked that, he needed that corrective.” Havel himself described his wife a bit more poetic: “You can’t get her drunk on a bun.”
After Czechoslovakia broke free from the Warsaw Pact, it was clear that Havel should be the new president. One of his first acts as such was to throw a “Festival of Democracy” in the courtyards of the Prague Castle. The former revolutionary invited street artists to entertainment, as he feasted on many fine Czech pilsners. In his early days he also loved to sneak out of the castle when possible to have beers in the local pub and it took some time before he accepted his new role in a golden cage.
But even as a president Havel never lost his playful character. When he found 3 secret rooms in the castle, designed and equipped for KGB communication within the Warsaw Pact, he seized this opportunity to wish Gorbachov a happy new year. At some point the Czech national hero decided that the chandeliers in the Spanish Hall were outdated. Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richard provided Havel with modern lights that came with a remote control. For weeks the president drove his staff crazy playing with this new toy.
After a term of 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic (Slovakia seperated in 1993) Havel finally left his castle in 2003. But not without a bang. According to Michael Žantovský, his spokesman at the time and author of Havel’s biography, the president had 5 or 6 goodbye parties. One of those was an unofficial “underground farewell”, where everyone got extremely drunk.
In 2011 the World lost one of his most important and colorful political figures of the 20th century. And maybe just as important: a real bohemian, in every sense of the word. Mister Václav Havel, may you rest in peace, na zdravi!