Michael Žantovský visited AAU to talk about his dear friend, the late Czech president Václav Havel, on Thursday, November 16. His visit offered a glimpse into the life and legacy of the former president through his intimate storytelling, revealing the personal sides of two remarkable men.

As former Czech press secretary, Žantovský proved relatable and quick with jokes. Žantovský’s visit to AAU reminded attendees of the impact the dissidents and Havel have on what is now the Czech Republic through conviction, resilience, and a commitment to truth. 

Photo by: AAU Flickr

Havel was born in Prague in 1936. He was a Czech poet, playwright, and political dissident who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. While Havel is an impressive man, Michael Žantovský should also be understood in his own right. 

Žantovský is a Czech polymath; he worked as a translator, publicist, playwright, correspondent for Reuters, and psychiatric researcher studying the theory of motivation and sexual behavior. Most notably, he was one of the founding members and spokespersons for the Civic Forum, the organization that coordinated the overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Later, he became the press secretary and advisor to Václav Havel during his presidency. 

Žantovský described himself in high school as a “child out of hell,” relaying a sentiment shared by many college students, the feeling that it wasn’t until college that he began to learn anything useful or interesting. Žantovský’s first year at Charles University was cut short when tanks moved into Prague. 

Žantovský fled to Canada with his family in August 1968 but soon regretted the move and, at 19, went alone back to Soviet-occupied Prague against his family’s wishes. Quick with a joke, Žantovský shared his “tired and emotional” arrival back in Prague—thanks to the free and “very good Champagne” on the flight home. Holding in a chuckle, he recounted how grateful he was to have been allowed to “go home and sleep it off” before his interview to be let into the country. 

 “We went down into the streets, we ran at the tanks, screamed at soldiers,” said Žantovský, recalling him and his classmates pushing back against the occupation.

More than a week of protests went on following the Soviet tank invasion in ‘68, until an agreement was signed, allowing the Soviets temporary occupation of Prague, at which point Žantovský and his classmates were sent to a sister university in the Netherlands. There, Žantovský recounts staying in the red-light district because of the Dutch housing crisis. 

“They cooked for us, we were well taken care of by the ladies of the night,” said Žantovský with a smile, reflecting on this unexpected time in his life.

It wasn’t until long after Žantovský graduated from university that the Soviet forces left. During this time, Žantovský began working in a mental institution, where he met Václav Havel at an intellectual party hosted there. 

Contrary to how mental asylums were used by the Soviets as a form of imprisonment, asylums in Czechia became exactly that: asylums, according to Žantovský. Young men avoiding the military and people in need of asylum came to be admitted to these institutions for safety, and they became a place for free thought. 

Photo by: AAU Flickr

After their first meeting, Žantovský and Havel quickly became close friends. He talked about how Havel hated growing up rich. Young Havel yearned to play in the dirt with the other children instead of being forced home with his nanny to learn French. “Which he never did,” Žantovský remarked fondly. 

He told the story of Václav’s first time riding a bike and being pursued by a teacher on a motorcycle when he couldn’t figure out how to stop. When asked why he felt compelled to write about Václav Havel, Žantovský spoke about the blow it was when Havel passed and the debt he felt he owed him. 

“What results can we not see?” remarked Žantovský, referring to the institutions he helped install that we now take for granted, such as foreign policy and EU and NATO memberships. Most importantly, Žantovský saw Havel’s ability to change people’s perspectives. 

“It is relatively easy to change politics, much harder to change the economy, but hardest to change the mindset of people,” said Žantovský.

He pointed to Havel’s ability to lead by example without dictating or instructing, noting that it was Havel’s ability to seem powerless that drew people to him. When asked about advice for young leaders, Žantovský mirrored this idea.

Photo by: AAU Flickr

 “You don’t become leaders by studying or getting a degree; you become a leader by doing, believing, and doing things you believe in and living with the consequences. If you are consistent enough, people will follow you,” said Žantovský.

Žantovský put a lot of emphasis on the importance of doing what you believe in and not giving up the hope that, when you live in your truth, there is the possibility that society will change. It’s important to stay up-to-date with the facts and rely on sources that have been proven reliable.

“It is very hard to fact-check and realize when you’re being played… Knowing a person is a major part of making information reliable,” said Žantovský, arguing that people should be transparent about who they are on social media and what they stand for, for example. 

“Stay suspicious” and “live in your truth,” said Žantovský, an inspired model to live by.