His Excellency Václav Ravel
President of the Czech Republic.
The narrower the age, it has been said, the greater the great men. Our age is hardly narrow - on so many fronts, its complexity and turmoil confound and bewilder: Today's events erase memories of yesterday's, and reputations are made, and fade, as quickly. Yet great figures transcend the whirl of events and remain in memory: A student standing against tanks in Tiananmen Square; an elderly man emerging from a virtual lifetime of incarceration to lead his country peacefully to the end of apartheid; and a writer whose courage and integrity brought him, inexorably, from dissident to president.
Václav Ravel was born in Prague in 1936, the son of Václav and Bozena Ravel. As a young man he worked as a laboratory technician, studied economics, and served in the army. Drawn to the theatre in 1959, he metamorphosed rapidly from stagehand to assistant, to artistic director, to literary manager, to Resident Playwright in Prague's Theatre on the Balustrade. From 1956 onwards he wrote for various literary and theatrical periodicals and saw his first plays produced, including The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965) and The Increased Djfficulty of Concentration (1968). His plays and other writings contributed significantly to the reawakening of Czechoslovak society, which culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968.
After the Prague Spring was suppressed by armies of the Warsaw Pact, Václav Havel emerged as a leading opponent of the repression that followed.
In consequence, his literary works were banned. In 1975, in an open letter to the President, he warned of the antagonisms building within Czechoslovak society. Within two years he had become a leader of the human rights movement, Charter 77. The sources of the regime's anxieties over Václav Ravel ranged from his principled unwillingness to submit, to - no doubt - his appreciation of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Between 1978 and 1989, he endured repeated periods of house arrest and imprisonment, the longest of which ran for nearly five years ending in 1983. On his release he resumed the struggle, expressing a characteristically broad perspective by observing,
I AM CONVINCED THAT WHAT IS CALLED 'DISSENT' IN THE SOVIET BLOC IS A SPECIFIC MODERN EXPERIENCE, THE EXPERIENCE OF LIFE AT THE VERY RAMPARTS OF DEHUMANIZED POWER.
In 1989 he was again arrested, sentenced, imprisoned and released, but, by the end of the year, he had emerged as the leading figure of Civic Forum an organization encompassing all the groups and individuals seeking fundamental political change. In November he was elected, as Civic Forum's candidate, President of Czechoslovakia. He was re-elected President in 1990, and, in 1993, became President of the Czech Republic following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, a development to which he was opposed, but of which he has written and spoken with understanding.
Of all the figures assuming leadership in central Europe with the fall of Communism, none has been more arresting - few, indeed, more arrested - than Václav Havel. He occupies an exceptional place in the history of our time, having challenged a totalitarian system, uniquely and nonviolently, on the level of ideas. He confronted pressure with a free spirit, dishonesty with the truth, evil with an articulation of the good. He lived under, fought with and triumphed over moral corruption, describing the situation as on in which
SYSTEM, IDEOLOGY, AND APPARAT HAVE DEPRIVED US - RULERS AS WELL AS THE RULED - OF OUR CONSCIENCE, OF OUR COMMON SENSE AND NATURAL SPEECH AND THEREBY, OF OUR ACTUAL HUMANITY.
Withal, he emerged unbowed and uncorrupted by this extraordinary experience. In office he retains a moral compass which points beyond his homeland. While acknowledging that the way of moral politics is neither simple nor easy, he has written,
THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO STRIVE FOR DECENCY, REASON, RESPONSIBILITY, SINCERITY, CIVILITY AND TOLERANCE: AND THAT IS DECENTLY, REASONABLY, RESPONSIBLY, SINCERELY, CIVILLY, AND TOLERANTLY. I'M AWARE THAT IN EVERYDAY POLITICS THIS IS NOT
EXACTLY A PRACTICAL WAY OF GOING ABOUT IT.
He also observes that he has experienced enough to be persuaded there are no alternatives.
Among public figures of our era, he is uniquely reflective. He represents the triumph of ideas over ideology, of reason over violence, of discourse over coercion. Today we acknowledge and honour a writer and dissident, a thinker and public man: One who brought eloquence and clarity to the struggle against one regime, and insight and wisdom to the condition of many others. A genuine hero of our time, his claims on our attention and respect encompass the wit an imaginative intelligence of his writing, the rich and luminous quality of his thought, the courage and resolution of the dissident, the wisdom of the philosopher statesman.
Mr. Chancellor, I am honoured to ask, in the name of the Senate of the University of Manitoba, that you confer on Václav Havel the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
-citation delivered by William F. Neville, Associate Professor, Head, Department of Political Studies, Faculty of Arts