Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, one of the leading anti-Communist dissidents of the 1970s and 1980s, has died at the age of 75, Czech Television announced Sunday.
Havel, a puckish, absurdist playwright turned political activist, spent four and a half years in prison for opposing Czechslovakia’s Communist government before emerging as a leader of the Velvet Revolution that swept it aside in 1989.
He went on to become president of Czechoslovakia, and of the Czech Republic when the country split in two at the end of 1992.
He died Sunday morning peacefully in his sleep in the presence of his wife Dagmar, his spokeswoman Sabina Tancevova told the Czech News Agency.
A deeply serious thinker given to long, rambling statements in presidential speeches and conversation, Havel also had an impish sense of humor, reportedly whizzing through the long corridors of Prague Castle on a scooter after becoming president.
It was his love of rock and roll as much as his moral outrage at the Communist system that brought him to prominence.
He co-wrote the influential Charter 77 anti-Communist declaration in protest at the arrest of a Czechoslovak rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe.
A perennial contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, Havel never won, but remained active in anti-Communist causes from Cuba to China until his death.
He urged Chinese authorities to release the dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose Charter 08 call for greater political freedom in China was inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.
Havel and other Czech dissidents attempted to deliver a letter to the Chinese Embassy in January 2010, before Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, but found the doors closed and no one to receive it.
It was an absurd scene that could have come out of one of the plays he wrote in the 1960s poking fun at the Soviet-backed Communist authorities who ruled his country at the time.
Theater proved a potent weapon against Czechoslovakia’s Communist authorities, who stepped down without a shot being fired in the weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the defeat of the region’s authoritarian Moscow-backed regimes.
Havel was unanimously elected president by the last Communist-run parliament of Czechoslovakia 22 years ago this month, and two months later delivered a speech to a historic joint session of the U.S. Congress.
The trip to Washington as president of his country came less than four months after Havel was last arrested by the Communist authorities, leading him to tell Congress dryly: “It is all very extraordinary indeed.”
His country joined NATO and the European Union under his stewardship, but he lost out on many of the major domestic political battles of his presidency, including his effort to keep Czechoslovakia together.
He resigned as president of Czechslovakia after national politicians agreed to divide it in two, declaring, “I will not be president of a self-liquidating nation.”
He went on to be elected president of the Czech Republic twice before writing one final play, “Leaving,” about a politicians about to hand over power to a successor he despises — widely considered one last dig at his perennial political opponent Vaclav Klaus, his successor as president.