The vegetable plot

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This week’s Friday funny is brought to you, as ever, by author and journalist Eugene Byrne. The joke focuses on the Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel, a man who went to prison on a number of occasions for his political activities.

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The joke

It was 1980 and the Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel was serving a spell in prison for having offended the country’s Communist authorities yet again.
One day, he got a letter from his wife Olga. It read: “Václav, I need to plant some vegetables in the garden, but with you in prison, I have nobody to help me dig the ground, and you are going to be in prison for another two years or more.”
He immediately wrote back: “Olga! For goodness’ sake don’t plant anything in the garden! I buried some very important documents there!”
Two days later, she wrote back: “Václav, six plain-clothes men from the secret police arrived and dug the whole garden looking, though they don’t seem to have found anything. What should I do?”
Václav wrote back: “Now you can plant the vegetables.”

The truth

Václav Havel (born 1936) served a number of prison sentences under his country’s Communist regime for his political activities. His persecution began following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and he was a key dissident until the fall of Communism in his country’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1989. As president of Czechoslovakia (and the Czech republic following the break with Slovakia in 1993) he was a figure of international stature, playing a key role in the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact and the admission of east European countries into NATO.

There’s no truth to the joke at all, apart from the fact that Havel and his wife wrote to one another frequently while he was in prison. Olga Havlová (1933–96) was a prominent dissident in her own right. The joke circulated in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s and neatly satirises the paranoia of the Communist state and its StB secret police force in the face of the activities of Havel and his comrades in organisations like Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted.

As in most other Eastern European countries in the decade or two before the fall of communism, Czechoslovakia had a very rich culture of dissident humour. The Czechs seem to have been particularly fond of gags about the stupidity of communist policemen (“Why do policemen always walk in threes? The first can read, the second can write, and the third one has to watch the two dangerous intellectuals.”)

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The joke about digging the garden was probably a Czech adaptation of other versions from elsewhere. There are American versions, for instance, in which the inmate is a poor farm boy whose elderly mother writes to say she can’t dig the garden, and he writes back saying that’s where he buried the loot from the bank job. The result is the same, because of course the cops are reading the prison mail, but they find they’ve been outwitted.