Literature of Oppression and Freedom: Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky Essay
Literature of Oppression and Freedom: Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky
Often times throughout world history, and particularly the history of freedom movements, the cliche that life imitates art, and that art imitates life shows its face strongly. Two of the leaders of the dissent movement in the Soviet Union and its bloc countries/satellites just as easily could be merely characters in a play as well as characters within the world. The ironic thing is that their power derives from the same source: literary hero. Icons are created and understood things whether their figure is symbolic, archetypal or actual.
In the cases of Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky their work was accomplished through these literary means. Their books, their histories, and their experiences are shared ones, perhaps only overshadowed by their joint successes. Vaclav Havel began his personal movement through a certain default. His history found itself at a crossroads when his educational pursuits were thwarted at the end of compulsory levels. His family’s identification with intellectuals was more than enough for the Soviet machine to attempt to discourage, by force of rule, further attempts at intelligentsia pursuit.
Havel thus was placed into the position of many young idealists: when denied something, the object becomes much more desirable. This method of subjugation tends to be the downfall of many systems. It is seen often in Western countries that many talented individuals left to their own devices fail to achieve their full potential. My understanding is that if they were forcibly detained from their talents, they would begin to fight by human nature, and unlock more than they were ever able to, or motivated to, accomplish. With Havel, as with others, his power was unleashed subconsciously from his earliest days.
Military service to the country, again a rigid compulsory reality, and allowance into an Economics program did not manage to reign in the young Czech. He discarded these and pursued quickly his passion – one shared by his family. Humanitarian values and improvement seemed to run strongly in the Havel household, and Vaclav was no different and no stranger to this. Following work as a stagehand, he managed to land himself in studies of Drama at Faculty of Theatre of the Academy of Musical Arts, completing his academics there by correspondence.
The failure of the Czech government to discover and end Havel’s studies would ultimately undermine their authority over the playwright, and over those who followed his later writing. By 1966, Havel had his first international successes, and brought himself his first attention on the world political stage . It was during this period that one of his most influential works was written and produced: 1963’s The Garden Party. Havel was not hiding his civic tendencies and participated in what he hoped was a revival of the cultures of his home country.
He took parts and positions in various movements, chief among them the Club of Independent Writers and the Club of Engaged Non Partisans. This did not cause him overwhelming trouble yet, even when he took a job with the non Marxist monthly paper Tvar in 1965. But the rulers did begin to take notice. In 1968, he, and many others of similar mind would pay for their ‘treason’ in the cultural revolution and its subsequent Prague Spring. Only 7 years later Havel began his transition from cultural icon to political figure by sending a series of open letters to the political bureaus.
One of his most important early ones was a missive to then President Husak, a demonstration of his growing awareness of the plight of Czechoslovakian society. This writing directly resulted in the 1977 Charter, which for the first time openly criticized the standards of life in the state. As spokesman, he began the voice of referendum, and it was his previous popularity as author that provided the groundwork for his ability to draw followers. Unfortunately for him, chief among his followers were the censors and police. But his political life was well underway.
Anatoly ‘Natan’ Sharansky, born in Ukraine of the Soviet Union followed a different path to his political life. It is amazing and worthwhile, however, to explore the similarities of life in yet a separate Soviet bloc land. For all intents and purposes, the two could have grown up together. This common bond, as it would turn out, would provide a common ‘enemy’ of sorts for them – an enemy of freedom and expression. Also ironic is the apparent ‘lapse’ of judgment on the part of the government that allowed Sharansky’s influence to foment, and then to spread.
When dissident Andrei Sakharov was held under state control, it was Sharansky that was allowed to be his English interpreter. Such close work with the alleged revolutionary inspired the already impressionable Anatoly to develop his own ideas regarding the freedom of man behind the iron curtain. This time period saw him help found, and then act as spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. As with Havel in Czechoslovakia, 1977 would be the time of divergence from active young man to active international freedom fighter, in a cultural way.
At the same time that the Charter was criticizing life under communism, Sharansky was first arrested for treason to the state of the Soviet Union. This initial interrogation and incarceration was based upon his supposed spying activities for the United States, charges that were later proven false, as was the case for many others. Upon conviction, Sharansky was sent to the gulags of Eastern Russia, where he would remain until 1986. When he was finally released, one of the first political prisoners to be, he finally realized one of his personal dreams: emigration to Israel where he could recover his Jewish heritage.
When he arrived and was greeted with a hero’s welcome, he exchanged his Soviet name ‘Anatoly’ for the Hebrew ‘Natan’, by which he has since been known . Havel, too, would have to escape from behind bars, figuratively speaking. After the 1977 charter, he would find himself unable to publish any of his works which were gaining attention and influence. He was now a de facto politician and had to be stopped. The Czech government attempted to do so by imprisoning him three separate times, placing him behind bars for over 5 years.
At the time of his incarceration, he had become the co-founder of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, a committee that he could not have foreseen he would need the personal care of. By the second half of the 1980s, as with Sharansky, Havel would finally begin to realize freedoms. Dialogue with the communist governments and the Soviet Union was finally beginning to open up, and Havel took the opportunity to coauthor a petition of “A Few Sentences”. This would eventually be signed by 10,000 Czechoslovaks.
Despite a setback in 1989 in which a freedom movement was crushed, Havel came to his political pinnacle by gaining the presidency of the new Czechoslovakia. Havel and Sharansky have both been immortalized through their writings. We have their collected works and also now their important histories and memoirs and can study their dissent to compare their achievements and experiences. Theirs is the story of many others, and shows the power of literature, composition and political texts to connect oppressed peoples. Havel’s plays, and especially The Garden Party, and Sharansky’s memoir Fear No Evil are powerful representations of this ideal.
The Garden Party could not have been better for uniting and informing the masses. As such, it is quite surprising that the play did not simply ‘go away’, so to speak; that it got into the hands of the public was a serious misstep on the part of the communist government. The play is absolutely a stunning satirical work. It uses humor to attack its target in a sideways fashion, which ultimately is a more successful frontal attack than pure rhetoric, anyway. Its characters are simple and believable, if not highly stereotypical, and work their wonders in different ways.
If no other character is remembered after reading The Garden Party for the first time, it is Hugo that sticks in the mind. All at once he is quaint, separated from outer consciousness, and independent. Where he begins as an inner focused chess player in the home – so inner focused that he plays both sides – he grows into his own brutal oppressor. This is great work. We wonder at his childlike manner in playing against himself at the game, only to be shocked when he plays against himself through bureaucratic oppression later on.
Most amazing of all is the ease with which he takes both sides in both undertakings. It is a comment at once on deception, and also of childlike qualities of leadership as opposed to mature development. Unfortunately, government cannot be run in this manner with its failure to police itself. Beyond its characters, The Garden Party relies upon dramatic tools to get its message across. These tools help connect the play to its audience, which must be remembered were the oppressed citizens of the Eastern Empire.
In particular the writing in of a theme – paranoia – underscores the feelings of the time. It becomes obvious that even supporters of the system are discomfited by their work. Even as they work for the bureaucracy, they are always aware that they are being watched for their loyalty. They do not know who their enemies may be at any time. By way of example, Huge becomes his own enemy – a position that he never becomes truly aware of. Life becomes for him the prevention of danger to his position, the ultimate revelation of paranoia.
His ongoing chess metaphor becomes the way of expressing this feeling. Rather than allowing himself to be open to abuse, he ‘checkmates’ his way out of trouble, squashing perceived opponents – squashing freedoms and liberties and ideals – before they can get to him. Sharansky in his life developed similar tactics. He, like many other civil liberties prisoners, had to create methods of dealing with harsh realities. Unlike Havel’s characters in many of his plays, of which The Garden Party’s Hugo remains the archetype and easiest to digest, Sharansky understood and faced his danger openly.
His methods of using humor to disengage a situation, though, were the same. Both Havel and Sharansky understood and expressed within their lives, their lifeworks, and the awareness that even in their oppressive modes, humans are humans. Even interrogators can be reached through their own humanity. For all of the things we in the West think we know about the KGB, who were in charge of depriving Sharansky his freedom, we see through Fear No Evil that the secret police still were made up of humans. They were humans that could still be swayed, tempered or delayed through a humorous play.
We can almost hear ‘checkmate’ come from Sharansky’s mouth at times, bringing Hugo right into his cell with him. The connections become obvious. We see the power of dissidence through language, whether spoken, read, written or performed. In this way, we see now the connections between Sharansky and Havel. BIBLIOGRAPHY Havel, Vaclav. The Garden Party and Other Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1993. Sharansky, Natan. Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph Over a Police State. New York: Random House, 1998. .