The University Record, September 5, 2000

Václav Havel: The University of Michigan connections

By Britt Halvorson

The dissident writing of a communist protestor is given a voice by admirers and sympathizers across several oceans, continents and time zones.

An international group of academics, lawyers and dignitaries convene to draft the first democratic constitution for a country about to split into two nations.

A transitional economies specialist, who fled his birth country 30 years ago, travels thousands of miles monthly to serve as adviser to his native country’s president.

These true stories offer a glimpse of the unique ties between the University and the Czech Republic, particularly with the country’s president, Václav Havel.

The power of the written word

An essayist and dramatist, Havel’s liberal, politically critical works were banned by the hard-line communist government of Czechoslovakia through the 1970s and 1980s, but friends, admirers and sympathizers printed his writing in Western Europe and the United States.

In 1983, while Havel was imprisoned for his dissident activities, Ladislav Matejka, professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures, obtained Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” a testimonial he wrote upon the death of Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, from Havel’s Canadian friend and translator Paul Wilson. Matejka had become interested in Havel’s work and realized he and Havel had some mutual friends through which he could acquire Havel’s writing for publication.

Matejka printed both Havel’s work and the monologue of solidarity by Arthur Miller in Cross Currents, a journal focusing on Central European culture that Matejka published with the help of a departmental secretary and an advisory editorial board.

“I tried to keep contacts with Havel with the help of his friends but never met him personally,” Matejka said. “For years in Ann Arbor he was our hero.”

Matejka began to look for Havel’s works to include in subsequent Cross Currents editions. Havel’s letters from prison, translated by George Gibian, who received the letters in Prague from Havel’s wife Olga, were published in 1984.

Matejka carefully formed an indirect link to Havel through mutual contacts. “It was easier for him to contact them than me because of political obstacles,” he added. “I didn’t take any risks. I was grateful for whoever was willing to help.”

An article by Havel’s translator Vera Blackwell on “A Private View”—Havel’s one-act play in which the protagonist is a dissident playwright in trouble with the authorities—also appeared in Cross Currents in 1984.

“People became aware that we were publishing Havel,” Matejka commented, “so I began to get contributions from other people.” Cross Currents received positive reviews and had an international readership.

Havel’s “Anatomy of Reticence,” translated by Erazim Kohak of Boston University, was printed in Cross Currents in 1986. The 1987 edition of Cross Currents featured “The Power of Folly,” introduced by Frantisek Janouch of Sweden.

“Without forming any formal agreement, we became Havel’s promoters in this country,” Matejka said. The essays and literature published in Cross Currents contributed to an ongoing dialogue about the Central European political climate in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1988, the Cross Currents edition included an article by Barbara Day titled “Havel in England.” Matejka wrote a piece about the controversy between Havel and Czech writer Milan Kundera, which appeared in Cross Currents in 1999.

“I felt he became kind of a hope for a change,” Matejka said of Havel’s role in the Czech revolution.

A democratic constitution

In 1989, Havel asked a group of lawyers, who helped the dissenters before the Czech revolution, to assist in drafting a democratic constitution for then-Czechoslovakia. Several well-known American lawyers were involved with the effort. Herman Schwartz, professor of law at American University, had written a brief in favor of Havel when he was prosecuted by the communist regime. Lloyd Cutler, White House Counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton and founding member of the Washington D.C.-based firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, organized the international group that went to Prague.

Eric Stein, the Hessel E. Yntema Professor Emeritus of Law, was among those recruited by Cutler and Schwartz. He joined lawyers and dignitaries from several Western countries who met in Salzburg in the spring of 1990 with the Czech deputy prime minister.

Though the group worked to draft a document, “the constitution that we suggested never went into effect,” Stein said. Despite a general excitement about the prospects of a democratic nation, Slovaks increasingly favored creating an independent state. After parliamentary elections in 1992, political leaders negotiated an agreement whereby Czechoslovakia split into two independent nations, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

Stein, who was born in Czechoslovakia and speaks the Czech language, also consulted on the Czech Republic constitution that went into effect at the end of 1993. In 1997, he wrote a book, Czecho/Slovakia: Ethnic Conflict, Constitutional Fissure, Negotiated Breakup, about his experiences with constitutional reform in the former Czechoslovakia.

The transition to free market

Once a month, Jan Svejnar, executive director of the William Davidson Institute and the Everett E. Berg Professor of Business Administration, meets over lunch with Czech president Vaclav Havel to discuss major economic and strategic issues relating to the Czech Republic. The Czech-born Svejnar, who fled the country’s communist government with his family in 1970, has served as Havel’s economic adviser since 1995.

Svejnar modestly describes how he was chosen to shape the country’s transition from a central to a market economy. In 1990, he wrote a policy document on how to transform the Czechoslovak centrally planned economy to a market-based economy; Czechoslovak policy makers used the piece in the early 1990s. In 1994, Svejnar participated in a televised national debate in the Czech Republic that addressed the major issues facing the country and other Central European nations who were transitioning to democracy. Havel, the Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus, Svejnar and the president of a Czech university were present.

The day after the debate, Havel called Svejnar and asked him to be his economic adviser. Though Svejnar was concerned that he would not be able to travel to the Czech Republic more than a few times a month, Havel was satisfied with a monthly meeting in Prague. Svejnar and Havel have adhered to this agreement since that time. Havel’s term as president runs through 2003; he began a two-term sequence when he was elected president of the new Czech Republic in 1993.

“He is very unusual in that he has been pushing a very high moral and ethical ground in terms of the transition, which is a process that suffers from a lot of problems like corruption,” Svejnar said. “He’s kind of a giant among the leaders in transition economies because of both his past—he was a very leading dissident against the communist regime and an intellectual playwright—and [because] he’s selected this high, moral, ethical approach to the transition.”

Svejnar’s work with the Czech Republic complements his appointment as executive director of the William Davidson Institute, a non-profit organization within the Business School that specializes in advising firms in transition economies. “When we do advisory work for him [Havel], it’s the Institute’s resources—our studies, our data—that we can use for that purpose,” Svejnar said. “The fact that the director of the Institute is his adviser helps the Institute in terms of its visibility and its impact. It has been a very symbiotic relationship.”

Svejnar notes that his work as Havel’s economic adviser has enriched his research and teaching.

“It really has been an experience that has given me much better insight into how policies are formed and what issues are important and how they are handled or mishandled,” he commented. “I personally had considerable impact on the formulation of policies, so one can both benefit and contribute.”

Though Havel has received numerous honorary degrees, Svejnar, who recently spoke with him about the ceremony, said Havel appreciates the degree the U-M will confer because he realizes he has benefited from direct and indirect relationships with the University and its faculty.

A significant time, a significant place

Czech Republic president Václav Havel will be presented with an honorary doctor of laws degree at an 11 a.m. ceremony today (Sept. 5) in Hill Auditorium.

Following the ceremony, he will participate with President Lee C. Bollinger; Jan Svejnar, executive director of the William Davidson Institute and the Everett E. Berg Professor of Business Administration; and Glenda Dickerson, professor of theater and drama and head of the African-American theater minor in the School of Music, in a panel discussion titled “Globalization’s Intellectual Challenge.” Provost Nancy Cantor will open the discussion and Michael D. Kennedy, vice provost for international affairs and director of the International Institute, will moderate.

“I think one of the reasons it’s important to have this symposium is for people to see how a person in his position thinks and how he assesses things,” Svejnar says. “The first decade of the transition is over, so it’s a good time to assess where are we, what some of the issues are. The reason that we’re focusing it on globalization is that it’s a major phenomenon that these [transitional] countries have to cope with as well. It’s not just that they are opening up to an established and well-defined Western-type economy. They are jumping onto a train that is much faster moving.”

The symposium will be less formal than other university events Havel has attended. Usually he has a set speech he presents at honorary degree ceremonies, but Svejnar, who recently spoke with Havel, said he was pleased that the format will allow for questions and answers, and the symposium will allow more give and take. “He likes it very much. It’s going to be very different from the usual approach,” Svejnar said.

Svejnar also noted that universities like the U-M intrigue Havel, since they are well-respected public institutions that compete easily with private colleges. In the Czech Republic, all universities are public.

Havel’s visit also is an opportunity to celebrate the University’s commitment to the Czech Studies Program, which is being launched and will be affiliated with the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and the William Davidson Institute, Svej-

nar explained. The program, one of the first of its kind in the country, emphasizes cross-disciplinary training in such fields as anthropology, economics and history, he said.

Web site features Czech material

In conjunction with Czech President Vaclav Havel’s visit to U-M today, the University Library has created a Web site highlighting some of the Czech material from the Labadie Collection of Social Protest Materials within the Special Collections Library. The site focuses on the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and contains material from the period just after the invasion. Visit the Web at