’s unsung heroes are generally impressive figures. But there are very few one might accurately call “cool.” This is an exception. Václav Havel, the founder of the modern-day Czech Republic (also known as Czechia) is undoubtedly cool by any definition of the word. A political dissident under the Soviet-backed regime, he served hard time in Communist prisons rather than bend the knee to their authority. His moral courage acted as a beacon of hope for the entire resistance movement behind the Iron Curtain.

Havel was born in Prague in 1936, to a wealthy and prominent family in then Czechoslovakia, a nation newly independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire made up of the future Czechia and Slovakia. His paternal line was comprised of real estate developers, while his mother was the daughter of a famous diplomat and journalist. As one might imagine, this did not make his life easy after the Czechoslovakian Communist coup d’etat of 1948.

Indeed, the new Communist regime dictated his life path largely on the basis of his class background. He took gymnasium classes while working as an apprentice chemical lab assistant. Due to political and social reasons, none of the post-secondary humanities programs would accept him as a student. He was accepted into a prestigious economics program, but dropped out after two years. He entered into compulsory military service in 1957, and left in 1959.

Being a member of a formerly well-to-do family, most avenues in the arts and academia were closed off to Havel. However, it was his family’s deep roots in the cultural and intellectual community of Czechia that guided his final chapter in life as the leader of the resistance to Soviet and Communist domination over Czechoslovakia, and later the peaceful separation between Czechia and Slovakia.

From Playwright to Presidency

Official avenues into the arts were largely closed off to him, however, Havel was an innovative and enterprising young man. He took work as a stagehand to learn the craft of theater from behind the scenes while he took dramatic arts courses through the mail. He won international acclaim with his first full-length play, The Garden Party, presented as part of a series on the Theater of the Absurd. In 1968, his second play The Memorandum was featured at The Public Theater in New York, which further helped to solidify his reputation on the international scene.

1968 was also the year of the Prague Spring, a time of greater openness within Czechoslovakia, which had always been the Soviet satellite least under the thumb of the Soviet Union. However, at the end of the Prague Spring, tanks from five different Warsaw Pact nations (the Soviet UnionBulgariaEast GermanyPoland and Hungary – Romania and Albania refused to participate) rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting an end to this period of liberalization. Havel’s plays were banned from being performed in the country and he was forbidden from traveling abroad, which meant that he could not see his own work being performed.

It was during the Prague Spring that Havel’s identity began to take on more of the character of political dissident than of artist. He was the voice of Radio Free Czechoslovakia during the early weeks of the Prague Spring. After the suppression of the Spring, he took a job in a brewery to make ends meet. He wrote plays about his experiences during this time that were later called “the Vaněk Plays” after the protagonist, who is essentially a stand-in for Havel.

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