The New Year in Prague

Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson

Dear Fellow Citizens,

There was a time when each New Year the president could deliver the same speech as he had the year before and no one would know the difference. Fortunately, that time is past. Time and history have come back into our lives. The gloomy skies of boredom and stultifying inaction have cleared, and we can only marvel at the vast range of possibilities a truly free political climate can offer, and at how it continues to astonish us, in both the good and the bad sense of the word.

Let me first talk about the unpleasant surprises the last year has brought us. In the first place, the heritage of the past few decades has proven worse than we could possibly have anticipated in the joyous atmosphere of those first few weeks of freedom. Each day brings new problems, and each day we realize how interrelated they are, how long they will take to solve, and how difficult it is to establish the proper order in which to deal with them.

We knew that the house we had inherited was not in order: the plaster was cracking and falling off, the roof looked as though it might leak, and we had doubts about other parts of it as well. After a year of careful inspection, we are shocked to discover that all the pipes are rusting, the beams are rotten, the wiring is in terrible shape, and the reconstruction we had planned for and looked forward to will take longer and cost far more than we first thought. What a year ago appeared to be a rundown house is in fact a ruin. This is not a pleasant discovery, and not surprisingly it has made us all feel disappointed and out of sorts.

Many of you are asking why we have settled so few accounts with the past, why we have failed to rehabilitate all its victims, right all the wrongs, and justly punish all the guilty ones. Many of you are asking why the “aristocracy” of the former regime, who grew rich at the society’s expense, are still the aristocracy and why they have been able to find their feet so quickly in the new conditions. Many of you are surprised that the broad transformation of our economy is still only being talked about, and that you cannot see any changes for the better in your everyday lives. People are anxious because all that planned reforms have brought so far are higher prices and the threat of a loss of social security and jobs. We are all upset by the serious increase in crime. Our hopes for a better future are increasingly mixed with a feeling of the opposite kind: fear of the future.

In this atmosphere of general impatience, anxiety, disappointment, and doubt, elements of spitefulness, suspicion, mistrust, and mutual recrimination are creeping into public life. Surprisingly, freedom has opened the door to many of our negative qualities and has revealed the depth of …

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