Czechoslovak President Václav Havel is surrounded Feb. 21, 1990, by U.S. senators and representatives after speaking before a joint meeting of Congress. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Waterville native, is at top center, in glasses, and follows Havel from the House chamber. Czechoslovakia later became the Czech Republic. A conference next week at Colby College in Waterville is set to review the life of Havel and how his writings and leadership are relevant today. Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press file

WATERVILLE — Colby College is expected next week to draw international scholars, diplomats and others for a conference focused on the life and work of Václav Havel, the dissident and acclaimed playwright who went on to become president of the Czech Republic.

The three-day conference, “Havel and Our Crisis,” is scheduled to begin Wednesday and feature traditional, academic roundtable discussions and keynote speeches, and a documentary film screening and marionette performance of Havel’s play “Audience.”

The conference at its inception was to mark the 10th anniversary of Havel’s death at 75 in 2011. But that was last year. Now, since the conference was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has evolved past its original scope and is taking a broader approach.

Conference organizer Milan Babík, a visiting assistant professor of government at Colby, said the mob attack Jan. 6, 2021, on police and the U.S. Capitol set off “warning bells” for him as a dual citizen of the United States and the Czech Republic, convincing him of the conference’s necessity.

When the war in Ukraine broke out in February, Babík said reflecting on the life and leadership of Havel, a “huge defender of human dignity,” only became more relevant.

The conference is to include Havel’s advisers, biographers and friends, and is expected to draw an international audience, including a woman Babík knows who is traveling from Australia.


Organizers hope the conference will generate local interest, too. The program is designed to have broad appeal, and there are no registration requirements, tickets or fees at the door.

“I’m hoping that ordinary people, precisely through the more-accessible, less-academic events like theater or the film screening, will understand these issues,” Babík said. “We are, all of us, citizens. We vote.”

With general elections looming in November, the conference events could prove timely, particularly a roundtable on the ways in which political campaigns corrupt language. Besides, as Babík points out, Havel and other dissidents whose protests preceded the Velvet Revolution of 1989 were workers banding together to promote the “power of the powerless.”

The Colby program, Babík said, is really about “ordinary people.”

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