UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Peace and Democracy in Crisis: Václav Havel European Dialogues

18 October 2022, 5:30 pm–9:00 pm

Václav Havel European Dialogues event poster with a photo of Vaclav Havel

Mír a demokracie v krizi: Dialogy Václava Havla

This event is free.

Event Information

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Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre
Wilkins Main Building
Gower Street

Welcome: Přemysl Pela (Czech Centre)

Opening Remarks: Michael Žantovský (Václav Havel Library)

Session I: From Normalization to Loss of Norms: Václav Havel and the Forms of Democratic Backsliding

The decades following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 were dubbed the period of ‘Normalization’: a chilling term intended to designate a return to the efficient social controls that had been the norm across the Soviet Bloc prior to the democratizing and liberalizing movement that culminated in the Prague Spring in mid-1968. ‘Normalization’, in fact, was not normal at all. Rather it shut down social, political, and economic activities that showed any independence or strayed too far from strict Party line. The decade leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 does not yet have a commonly accepted label, but surely one of the prime political characteristics—almost uniformly across the globe—has been the loss of political norms and the rise of a politics of impudence, where nothing matters beyond the accumulation of power and resources for elite social groups. Havel’s contrast between living in truth and politics of normalisation informs authoritarian and democratic regimes and destructive ‘new normalities’ are typical of the Brexit, Trump and Putin with his disinformation wars preceding the aggressive war against Ukraine. This panel will discuss similarities and differences in these related social dynamics—imposition of restrictive norms, and the elimination of all social and political norms—and how Havel’s writings help us to think through these questions.


Jiří Pehe (NYU/Prague)

Magda Leichtová (Oxford)

Lenka Buštíková (Oxford)


Jiří Přibáň (Cardiff)


Session II: Totalitarianism, Pre-, Post-, and Neo-? George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and Václav Havel

In his most famous political essay, titled ‘The Power of the Powerless’, Havel described the ‘Normalization’-era Czechoslovakia in which he found himself as ‘post-totalitarian’—a phrase that may surprise many readers today who are familiar with the neo-Stalinist practices of the regime Havel wrote to oppose. Havel’s point, however, was that Normalization entailed a form of authoritarian control in which even those in power no longer believed in the aims they claimed to pursue, but simply went through the motions in automatized, mechanical fashion. Orwell and Arendt’s groundbreaking analyses of earlier, ‘classical’ forms of totalitarianism, composed in the 1940s and 1950s in the shadow or aftermath of Nazi and Stalinist abominations, focused on the manipulation of belief and the manufacture of misguided ‘faith’. Havel, on the other hand, explores the transformation of totalitarianism into a system beyond belief which operates on the basis of empty public rituals and ideological lies traded for the minimum of private autonomy and comfort. This panel will bring these three thinkers into dialogue to reflect on the varieties of totalitarian experience, and what they might tell us about our current socio-political situation.


Tim Beasley-Murray (UCL)

Jean Seaton (Orwell Foundation)

Uta Staiger (UCL)


Peter Zusi (UCL)


This symposium is co-organised by the Czech Centre London, Cardiff University, Václav Havel Library, UCL SSEES Study of Central Europe Seminar Series and UCL FRINGE Centre.

Image credit: Czech Centre London

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