Rarely do politics and art find such a tempered combination as in Vaclav Havel, the outspoken playwright who inspired revolution in Czechoslovakia and was elected the nation’s first democratic president. Havel was the unlikely hero of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” who maintained a fierce presence in both the political and artistic spheres until his death on December 18, 2011, at the age of 75.
TIME has covered Havel’s political dissidence many times through the years, often in Havel’s own words. Havel’s first mention in TIME came in 1968, in a cover story about Czechoslovakia’s communist regime loosening its grip. He had become a household name after his involvement in the Prague Spring and was banned from the theater.
“These days, Czechoslovakia’s writers specialize in biting satire on Communist bureaucracy. Their work is in the tradition of Kafka and Karel Capek, whose play R.U.R. first introduced the concept of a robot. In The Memorandum, a popular play by Vaclav Havel, the main character gets an important memorandum in an impenetrable official language; in order to get permission to learn the language, he must first write a petition in it.” – (April 5, 1968)
Havel, writing in TIME in 2003, reflected on the non-violent Velvet Revolution in 1989 that had ousted Czechoslovakia’s communist regime:
“No one knows which inconspicuous snowball has the capacity to set off an avalanche, which, to the surprise of all observers, will radically change the political situation. Nov. 17 confirmed my assessment of the situation. The disgust with our conservative communist regime and the desire for change reached such a level that one event was enough to become a snowball that brought down an avalanche with it.” – (Aug 10, 2003)
In a 1990 speech to the U.S. Congress, printed in TIME, Havel reflected on the role of the global community:
“Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed — be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization — will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitely won. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.” – (March 5, 1990)
Havel, in a 1990 Q&A with TIME, expressed optimism for the future of his nation – and the human race as a whole:
“I cherish a certain hope in me, hope as a state of spirit — a state of spirit without which I cannot imagine living or doing something. I can hardly imagine living without hope. As for the future of the world: there is a colorful spectrum of possibilities, from the worst to the best. What will happen, I do not know. Hope forces me to believe that those better alternatives will prevail, and above all it forces me to do something to make them happen.” – (Jan 8, 1990)
On honesty, in his 1990 New Year’s Speech to the Czech people:
“The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension.” – (Jan 26, 2003)
TIME on Havel’s non-partisanship:
“He emphasized the importance of a strong civil society and warned against the excessive power of political parties, what he termed the “dictatorship of partisanship,” an affliction from which his country still suffers. Havel was anti-ideological. He rejected terms like socialism and capitalism, right-wing and left-wing, as misleading oversimplifications.” – (Jan 26, 2003)
TIME on why Havel stepped up to the plate:
“Havel and his fellow intellectuals led Czechoslovakia’s peaceful revolution in part because no one else was prepared to. Purges following the 1968 invasion wiped out all potential reformers within the party, and a continued hard line kept any progressive new party figures from emerging.” – (December 4, 1989)