Václav Havel Collection at the Museum of Czech Literature
The Václav Havel Collection at the Museum of Czech Literature contains letters of the dramatist, poet and president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel (1936–2011) to his wife Olga, written from prison between 1979 and 1983. Havel’s unique prison correspondence documents the life of this significant artist and philosopher, as well as the life of his wife before 1989.
Strahovské nádvoří 1, 118 38 Praha 1 - Hradčany, Czech Republic
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Name of collection
- Havel Václav
Provenance and cultural activities
Václav Havel (1936–2011) was a Czech writer, dramatist, philosopher, dissident, politician, and important figure of the Czechoslovak alternative and counter-culture before 1989. He played an active role in the democratization and renewal of culture during the era of reforms, known as the Prague Spring. The Prague Spring ended with the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968. Václav Havel actively opposed the invasion and the resulting hardline Communist policies. As a result, his work was banned in Czechoslovakia. He moved from Prague to the countryside, where he continued his activities against the Communist regime, including hosting concerts of banned music. In 1975 he created the samizdat edition Expedice (Expedition) which issued a total of 232 volumes of “banned literature”. In 1976, Havel supported persecuted artists connected with the band The Plastic People of the Universe. Later, he co-founded Charter 77 and was one of its first spokespersons. Havel co-founded The Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) and became its spokesman. Between 1977 and 1989 he was imprisoned several times for his beliefs, his longest prison term lasting from 1979 to 1983. This period is reflected in Havel’s letters to his wife, later published as “Dopisy Olze” (“Letters to Olga”).
In prison, Václav Havel, as well as other prisoners, could not have any paper or notebook. Only one (censored) four-page letter to family was allowed once a week. Prisoners could write only about family and personal matters, and it was strictly forbidden to describe the life in the prison or to use humor and irony. As Havel remembered later, writing these letters was the greatest joy for him. Usually, he carefully thought over the text of his future letter for the whole week and then, on Saturdays, he wrote his ideas down. Already in prison he began to design his letters to Olga as a future book and he tried to develop in them more general reflections about human identity or responsibility. Thus, instructions to Olga describing how the future book should look like can be found in his letters. However, some of Havel’s letters were never delivered to Olga.
Letters, edited by Havel’s friend, literary critic and editor Jan Lopatka (1940–1993), was first issued in samizdat edition Expedice in 1983. Besides letters, some of which were shortened or left out (144 of the 165 letters were published), the book also contained information about Havel’s arrest and trial, the text of his defense, an afterword by Jiří Dientsbier and Jan Lopatka’s editorial note. In the same year the letters were also issued by samizdat edition Petlice and in 1985 they were published in exile by the Sixty-Eight-Publishers publishing house run by Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová in Toronto. “Letters to Olga” quickly became famous in the Czechoslovak dissent circles and were often read and discussed. After 1989, “Letters to Olga” was printed several times in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic (1990, 1992, and 1999). The letters have been translated into dozens of languages and become the subject of many scientific analyses. Originals of the letters, specifically the 161 letters from the years 1979 to 1983 and the 11 letters written in 1989, were donated to the Museum of Czech Literature by Václav Havel in 1998.
In 2003, when Václav Havel’s last presidential term ended, a collection of private papers that were collected by the Office of the President of the Republic during Václav Havel’s presidency from 1990–2003 were given to the Museum of Czech Literature under the condition that the materials would be organised and make accessible for the public. It contained both materials from the period before 1989 as well as from the period 1990–2003. There were both printed materials concerning Havel’s activities and interests as well as his own manuscripts. There were also manuscripts of some of Havel’s texts from the 1970s and 1980s. After Havel’s death in 2011, according to the agreement, these organised materials were given to the Václav Havel Library, which continues to gather, digitize, and make written materials, photographs, sound recordings and other materials linked to Václav Havel accessible. However, “Letters to Olga” remains stored in the Museum of Czech Literature.
Description of content
The Václav Havel Collection at the Museum of Czech Literature contains Václav Havel’s letters to his wife Olga written from prison between 1979 and 1989, namely 161 letters from 1979 to 1983 and 11 letters from 1989. Havel’s letters are not a testimony of the imprisonment itself (the letters were censored), but they testify to Václav Havel being an imprisoned intellectual. They contain reflections that should make sense of his imprisonment. Václav Havel, in his letters, wrote about life, responsibility, human identity and integrity in dictatorship, writing, theater, faith, hope, home, or his relationship to society. The “Letters to Olga” thus reflect Havel’s existential experience, and encourage their readers to reflect.
- manuscripts (ego-documents, diaries, notes, letters, drafts, etc.): 100-499
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Praha, Prague, Czech Republic
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Author(s) of this page
- Kůželová, Michaela
Havel, Václav. 1988. Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982. London: Faber and Faber.
Havel, Václav. 1999. Dopisy Olze. Praha: Torst.
Keane, John. 2000. Václav Havel: a political tragedy in six acts. New York: Basic Books.
Suk, Jiří. 2013. Politika jako absurdní drama: Václav Havel v letech 1975-1989. Praha: Paseka.
PNP. 2017. Výroční zpráva 2016." Accessed October 17. http://www.pamatniknarodnihopisemnictvi.cz/content/fck/files/VyrocniZpravaPNP2016.pdf.
Havel, Václav, and Jan Hron, ed. 2015. Perzekuce Václava Havla: dopisy a dokumenty z let 1968-1989. Praha: Knihovna Václava Havla, 2015.
Putna, Martin C. 2011. Václav Havel: duchovní portrét v rámu české kultury 20. století. Praha: Knihovna Václava Havla.
Pontuso, James F. 2004. Václav Havel: civic responsibility in the postmodern age. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Kotyk, Petr, interview by Kůželová, Michaela, May 24, 2018. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection