A Special Library, Devoted to Dissidents - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Special Library, Devoted to Dissidents

A Special Library, Devoted to Dissidents

By Nathan Siegel

Knihovna Vaclava Havla
SourceKnihovna Vaclava Havla


Because this is what presidential libraries should be like.

By Nathan Siegel

I’m having trouble hearing Jáchym Topol, one of the Czech Republic’s most famous writers, over the sound of rock music. Downstairs, DG 307, the “legendary” underground psychedelic band, is preparing for a show. Topol is animatedly describing some of the discussions he’s hosted downstairs on the Ukrainian crisis that attracted hundreds of Prague locals. No, we’re not in that gem of a bar or coffee shop where the city’s interesting people gather. We’re standing in a library.

Granted, it’s not just any library, but the presidential library of Václav Havel, one of the leaders of the Czech anti-communist uprising and the nation’s first leader. Aside from being one of the world’s most celebrated humanitarians and political thinkers, Havel was also a prolific playwright, and he devoured culture of all kinds. The archive — full of Havel’s works, diaries and speeches, as well as other banned writers during communist times (some of which only exist in Havel’s library) — ironically looks pretty corporate: minimalist décor, high white walls and Ikea furniture. And though they’ve been settled in a back alley off the main streets of downtown Prague since August after moving from a previous place — which was “more authentic,” says Topol — boxes are still stacked in offices and artwork still rests on the ground purposelessly.

Since Havel remains a divisive figure, so is the library itself.

The library’s main draw is its programs — an eclectic mix of concerts, lectures and readings from mainly dissidents and activists that don’t get much love, or room to breathe, in their own countries, says Topol. The library and its events are open to the public and — cash-strapped backpackers, rejoice! — free.

Which means that those who pack the library are a unique breed of Praguer (Praguese? Pragsters?). The library brings together a circle of people, many intellectuals from NGOs or academia, who connect with Havel’s worldview of nonconfrontation and humanitarianism, says Masha Volynsky, a freelance reporter based in Prague. Kinda like hippies. The thing is, since Havel remains a divisive figure, so is the library itself. Which may dissuade people who don’t already love Havel to come and check out the space or its events. It may be a weak point that the library doesn’t open up to a broader audience, says Volynsky. “It’s preaching to the choir.”

They weren’t doing much “preaching” before Havel died, in 2011. But since, they’ve become quite visible, Volynsky says. For one, Havel personally asked Topol to oversee the library’s programs after his death. And Topol has taken the opportunity to become a bit more political. He’s invited dissidents from Belarus to China to speak about totalitarianism, hosted debates on Burma and Ukraine, and had contemporary Chinese writers read their books.

Which turns out to be a personal contradiction for Topol: “If there’s anything I hate more than the newspaper business, it’s the literary machinery, the author-reading system,” he told translator Alex Zucker. Still, sitting in his office, he points animatedly to a number of authors on April’s program calendar. “We’ve never had so many in one month!”

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