The Czech Spirit of Rebellion

Velvet Revolution: 20 years later

News | Christian Cummins | December 2009 / January 2010

History has made the fall of communism in Europe over the autumn and winter of 1989 seem inevitable. But that’s not how it felt to the courageous Czechoslovak students, who, just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, took advantage of an officially-sanctioned International Student Day to push for democratic reform in the capital Prague. The march of the Nov. 17 was met on the central thoroughfare Narodni by truncheon-wielding state security officers who injured 600 of the protestors.

It was a day that the visionary Vaclav Havel would say "set history in motion."

Such heavy-handed tactics were, of course, suicidal for the regime in the heightened atmosphere of liberty that was spreading through the Autumn of 1989 and the history books are still debating who ordered the police brutality. What is clear is that the march was a vital turning point in the end of totalitarianism in Central Europe, as popular disgust at the bloodshed galvanized support for the pro-democracy movement. The communist regime resigned en masse after 12 days of ever-larger protests and civil disobedience.

That’s why I was in Prague among the throngs of current students and 1989 veterans tramping along the wet-leaf strewn pavements. We were headed towards Albertov, part of the campus of Charles University and the original gathering point of the protestors, for a re-enactment of the Nov. 17 march 20 years on. Organized by a group called Opona, which means "curtain" in Czech, they had originally planned only a big party to mark the anniversary, chairman Marek Vocel told me, but realised they needed something more meaningful to reconnect a new generation with the ideals of 1989.

As I headed to Albertov, I chatted with an old acquaintance – the Czech artist David Czerny, a perennial enfant terrible, who was on the frontline of the protest movement 20 years ago. He described the feeling of being trapped on Narodni and how he and his friends climbed onto a roof of a nearby building, and then escaped by leaping from ledge to ledge.

"We knew how brutal the police were," he said, "We knew what would happen if they caught us."

Czerny escaped that night, and went on to famously paint a tank pink. Within six weeks of that bloody November night he would see dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became the leader and then President of a new free country. What followed was a honeymoon of idealism, a love-affair with liberty, which many have called a golden era of hope.

Monika Loderova, now a 42-year-old teacher at the Goethe Institute, remembers how people were kind and gentle with each other, "in a way I have never seen before or since." Czerny recalls those early days with a fond laugh, describing them as the "longest party on Earth."

There was a party atmosphere once again as I arrived at the campus, and I soon lost Czerny in the mêlée. People were drinking beer and mulled wine from the wooden stalls and my attention was immediately caught by two young men dressed in the uniform of the Czechoslovak security forces. They stood at attention, stern expressions pasted onto their beardless faces as they baited the crowd. But instead of swinging their truncheons at the crowd they were juggling with them. I wondered at the questionable taste of the stunt.

"We used to fear these people," he replied, surprised at the question. "Our revenge is to make them ridiculous." In front of the juggling young men, there were two huge solemn-looking figures of angels. They were at least four meters high and between them they carried a bunch of keys inscribed with the date "17.11.89".

As we set off on a circuitous route towards Narodni, it all felt strangely contemporary: Banners recalling 1989 were far outnumbered by those complaining about 2009. It was the spirit of rebellion that was being celebrated perhaps, more than history. Indeed all great parties come to an end eventually, and the very best often leave a nasty hang-over: 20 years after the Velvet Revolutions, 88% of Czechs say they are not satisfied with the current political situation.

Despite the artistic glamour of the Velvet Revolution, the 89ers often complain that Czech society soon became just as superficial and venal as any other European country. Worryingly, only three-fifths of Czechs now believe that life is now better than it was before the revolution that toppled the Communist regime 20 years ago. Vratislav Brabenec of the Plastic People of the Universe, a subversive Czech band much loved by Havel, told the British daily The Guardian that "I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping, shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism, socialism."

Havel, despite naming Frank Zappa as a cultural adviser, saw his romantic appeal fade by the day as he hammered out Realpolitik in Prague Castle – a daily chore that the former political prisoner famously described as 100 times worse than a day in prison.

His successor Vaclav Klaus, a center-right populist former Finance Minister who kept a photo of Margaret Thatcher on his desk, is as divisive as politicians come. It was at him that much of the critical energy was directed, often depicted as a Russian stooge by protestors furious at his perceived cozying-up to the Kremlin. A girl with blue hair had a banner depicting Klaus as a puppet of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"We want Havel back!" she shouted.

The contemporary themes of the protests, which also included the environmental and armament issues, seemed fitting. After all it was the right to engage in healthy self-criticism that the protestors of 1989 were fighting for.

But too much disillusionment may be dangerous. As in the former East Germany, there has been a recent trend of looking back on the socialist era with rose-tinted glasses, as an era of more fairness and more substance. This nostalgia is even prevalent among those who never knew the communist system at first hand.

There was a touching moment when, after a two-hour winding route, the march was at Narodni, flailing truncheons alongside a series of free concerts. Earlier the street had been a poignant place of remembrance; the autumn morning gloom lit by candles and bunches of flowers laid by at a monument marking the site of the bloody clash.

Now, in the evening, the street had been turned into a traffic-free party zone. The singer on stage warbled: "We are no longer afraid." As the alcohol flowed and the police looked on benevolently, many with their hands in their pockets, as they were photographed by the crowd.

But along with the heady celebrations here were sober reminders that repression is confined neither by date nor geography, as Chinese journalist Kao Ju and Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov gave speeches about the ongoing oppression in their countries, echoing a warning from Vaclav Havel this weekend that the battle against totalitarianism was not, and perhaps never could be, won and that "new, much more sophisticated ways of controlling society are being born."

Other articles from this issue

  • Film Noir In Sound

    Karas’ haunting zither was the soul of The Third Man
    On The Town | Camilo C. Antonio
  • Small Dragons

    The second in the series ‘Notes from Nature’ that considers the wilder side of Vienna. This month: the bearded vulture
    Columns | R S Hughes
  • Plague 2009

    In the shadow of the Wiener Pestsäule, could we be inviting another global pandemic?
    On The Town | Gretchen Gatzke
  • Clowning Around at Dschungel

    John Cage’s music meets Evgeny Sitochin’s direction in a new MQ children’s comedy
    On The Town | Peter Quince
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review December 2009 / January 2010