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  • Confronting the PastJustice or Revenge?
  • Adam Michnik (bio) and Václav Havel (bio)

Michnik: More than two years have passed since the "Velvet Revolution" in that famous year of 1989, when communism in our countries collapsed during the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I can remember meeting you at your residence during my visit to Prague in the summer of 1989. I told you then that you would become president. Tell me, in your opinion, has communism been finally overthrown, or can it still come back? Communist counterrevolution, the restoration of communism—is it possible?

Havel: I think that the overall return of communism—a reversion of history back to the times of Brezhnev or Stalin—is out of the question. The process is irreversible. Local comebacks, though, are still possible. I can imagine that some new version of communist government might return under a slightly altered banner. Here or somewhere else-for example, in one of the republics of the former Soviet Union-the nomenklatura might take up the banner of nationalism and, leaning on the old party hierarchy, try to restore something that would resemble the old system. Such local comebacks are feasible, but the Soviet empire as a whole, in my view, has bid good-bye forever because history cannot be reversed. [End Page 20]

Michnik: What do you think is happening and will happen to all that is called the ancien régime: both its people and its institutions?

Havel: I think this constitutes a great problem for the entire postcommunist world. We are all in this together—those who directly, to a greater or lesser degree, created this regime, those who accepted it in silence, and also all of us who subconsciously became accustomed to it. There remain vast, centralized, and monopolistic state enterprises, filled with administrators and bureaucrats from the previous era. This is one source of the great problems and troubles with which the postcommunist world must struggle. It is not the only problem, but it is one of the most serious.

I refer not only to a struggle with the particular institutions and people related to the old regime or its representatives, but above all, to a struggle with the habits of normal, average citizens. It is true that they hated the totalitarian regime, yet they spent all their lives under that regime and they unintentionally became accustomed to it. They became accustomed to the fact that an omnipotent state stood above them, a state that could do everything, that took care of everything, and that was responsible for everything. They learned to expect a paternal attitude from the state, and it is not possible to get rid of that habit in one day. All the bad habits that were systematically ingrained in people over many years could not disappear all of a sudden. It is a powerful and troublesome heritage, and a source of problems that the postcommunist world must resolve.

Michnik: There are two symbolic names for two different ways of thinking about what our attitude should be toward communists or people of the old regime. One is polemically called in Poland the "policy of the thick line" (polityka grubej kreski). [Former prime minister] Tadeusz Mazowiecki used this term in his first speech. He meant that a thick line should be drawn between the present and the past, and that competence and loyalty toward the new government should be the only criteria for evaluating public officials. He was then accused of wanting, by means of the policy of the thick line, to protect communists, criminals, thieves, and the like.

The other way originated in the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic (CSFR), and is symbolized by the term "lustration" [verification or screening], These are two opposite ways of thinking about those issues. What do you think about the philosophy offered by Mazowiecki and the one offered by the supporters of lustration?

Havel: This presents the next serious problem. One must somehow manage to steer between Scylla and Charybdis. I think that both concepts, in their extreme form, are faulty. The history of our country [End Page 21] shows that every time we took the approach of thinking that we should...


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