Where Were You 21 Years Ago Today?

SNP Square, Bratislava, Slovakia, 1989

 

November 17, 1989

November 22, 2010

By: Allan Stevo

Twenty-one years ago today marked the start of the Velvet Revolution. It began on the International Day of Students, November 17, 1989.

In 1939, Jan Opletal, who was a Czech medical school student was killed by the Nazis during a protest against the Nazi occupation of what was then referred to as the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” (present-day Czech Republic). Before the protests in 1939 came to an end, the Nazis had closed Czech universities and sent hundreds of students and professors to concentration camps. The anniversary of these events came to be remembered as the “International Day of Students.”

The name has a distinctively communist ring to it. Calling an event “international” lent credibility and disguised the fact that it was an event mainly celebrated within the Soviet sphere of influence. Two examples of this trend are, the International Day of Women – March 8, or the International Day of Workers – May 1. As World War II raged, communism was seen by some as the antithesis of Nazism. Later totalitarian government was seen more clearly as totalitarian government, no matter what the ideals. This did not stop the communists from pretending that they were very different from the Nazis.

Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian professor who fled from the Nazis very eloquently in his book The Road to Serfdom illustrates how the Nazis and communists were essentially the same – people who opposed individual freedom from government oppression. They both wanted government oppression. They both wanted greater state power in order to benefit themselves and oppress their opponents.

Despite the communist sounding name, the International Day of Students was openly celebrated for nearly five decades by communist and non-communist students alike. And while there are many theories about how the protests of November 17, 1989 started and to whose benefit they took place, in the end, the death knell of the communist government could be heard – the final ringing of the bell for a regime that would not survive the year.

The most widely recognized demonstration of students on November 17, 1989, took place in Prague, approximately 50 years after the death of Jan Opletal and was used to denounce his murder and the actions of the Nazi government that followed. The protest served as an anti-totalitarian event, as well. Czecho-Slovakia, despite having seen more restrictive times, was not a free country in the fall of 1989.

The first night of the Velvet Revolution
The violence was brutal the first night. Prague was not the only city in which this day was commemorated in Czechoslovakia, but Prague was the most notable example. The student demonstration in Prague turned toward the old town and there, police met the peaceful protesters with brutal violence. This police violence was seen across Czechoslovakia through foreign and domestic media.

In response to the violence, anti-violence protests popped up all over Czechoslovakia during the weeks and months ahead. Openly calling for the overthrow of the government was illegal. However, simply calling for an end to violence made it harder to be branded a criminal. Anti-violence was a theme that even staunch communists could rally around.

No one knew it at that moment, but this night would, one day, be recognized as the start of the “Velvet Revolution.” “Velvet Revolution” is how the events of the fall of 1989 are translated from Czech – “Sametová revoluce.” In Slovak it’s referred to as “Nežná revolúcia,” which translates as “Gentle Revolution,” but could also be the “Tender revolution” or the “Soft revolution.”

Despite a level of violence from police that was brutal and uncharacteristic in Slovak or Czech culture, the upcoming weeks would bring largely peaceful demonstrations where protesters spoke openly and the police watched idly. As the weeks passed, the government grew weaker until an autumn gust of wind finally blew it out of the way.

Apologetic statements were made by the government, but the marches continued. The Communist Party changed its leadership, but the marches continued. In fact the movement against the government grew. On November 27, a two hour nationwide general strike took place and demonstrated the weakness of the government. As if protocol ever mattered to the communists, on 29 November, an incomplete federal legislature passed a law that removed the 30 year Communist Party monopoly on political participation in Czechoslovakia.

The pace of the revolution only quickened from there and by the end of the year, a new government was in place, headed partly by reformers and was ready to transition into the future. When compared to the violence that marked the shift in power in some other countries in the region, “gentle” is a fair word to describe the Czechoslovak revolution of the fall of 1989.

17 November – Today
Today, November 17 continues to be an official state holiday in Slovakia commemorating the “Fight for Freedom and Democracy.” On this day in Slovakia, few people work. No one goes to school. Sometimes there is a small ceremony, but not usually. Sometimes someone in Bratislava will put together a concert, billed as “THE” celebration, but that too is not a large event.

Large public commemorations, even today, seem to be something that is most often connected to communists and former communists. It makes sense that a free people would not be so interested in centrally organized celebrations, even if they are centrally organized celebrations in the name of freedom. Of course, some people, honestly, are just happy to have a day off of work. Still, whenever I ask friends and even strangers how the day will be spent, many people seem to have their own way of commemorating November 17. While there are not parades or mass demonstrations that rival those organized by the communists of yesteryear, it still seems that the day is a special day in the hearts of many in former Czechoslovakia.

Tuning into the TV
In Bratislava, the streets are much quieter on 17 November than on a workday. A common habit among people I know is to stay home and tune in to something special on the television. For hours on 17 November, footage taken in the days of the Velvet Revolution is aired. Newscasts from the time, music, newsreels, and speeches are broadcast. Sometimes even unedited, un-narrated footage might be shown on television as the camera silently observes the events of November 1989 – people lighting candles, marching, holding posters, chanting, gathering, getting beaten up by the police, getting sprayed with water cannons.

Chants of “Havel na hrad,” can commonly be heard from such old broadcasts. This chant calls for dissident Vaclav Havel to be made head of the republic – installed in the castle. Chants of “Mame hole ruce,” can be hear – “Our hands our empty” just before protesters march forward into a cordon of police and are brutally beaten down with nightsticks.

The music of the time
There’s a feel to the time, a music of the time, a sound of the time, a disturbance of the time that is recreated, for some, by watching the television. Music, as always, proves an ability to recreate a mood that has long passed.

“Pravda víťazí” is a song from the Slovak band Tublatanka that offers a feel for the changing times of the fall of 1989. For many Slovaks, music of the 1980s remains popular today. This is music that would lead most Americans to reach for the dial if it appeared on the radio. They’re often rock ballads – emotional, maybe a little cheesy.

This is the music that was painstakingly snuck across the border of a communist state, to youth who wanted to hear a bit of the West. This was the music that was recorded by the young, and young-at-heart, in Bratislava off of the television signals from nearby Vienna, just across the Iron Curtain. They were recorded from short wave radio transmitted as Radio Free Europe and Voice of America when the communists weren’t successful at scrambling the signals.

Why a love affair with this music of change, and hope, and freedom would continue to exist today is apparent. It was the music of a great time in the history of the Slovak nation. For an American, some of the rock ballads from the eighties might be nothing more than a fading memory, or nothing more than a chart topper for a few months many years ago when musical tastes were different. That Slovaks still listen to this music is a joke for many visiting Westerners. It’s easy to point and laugh, but it’s more difficult to take time to understand.

For some Slovaks the music of the eighties continues to represent the spirit of the place, of the times – the zeitgeist, the esprit d corps. The music of the eighties represents a movement. It was the music of the revolution. In the West rock had a feel of freedom to it. In Czechoslovakia that realization was so much more pronounced. The government worked hard to suppress Western music. Finding your music of choice could be so much more rebellious than simply going to the record store and buying it. With a history like that, of course, the music of the eighties will continue to be popular in former Czechoslovakia.

Do me a favor and watch and listen to the English version of this song – “Pravda víťazí” and then listen to the Slovak version of this same song – “Pravda víťazí” and tell me if you can feel the energy of the times, the hatred of oppression, the hatred of a greater oppressive force, even a love for freedom. It’s not music that was snuck across the border. It’s rebellious music made in Slovakia.

“Pravda víťazí” is the refrain – Truth Prevails. “Pravda víťazí” is also the name of the song. It’s the Slovak form of the Latin: “veritas vincent” – “truth conquers” – “the truth prevails.” In Czech, which shares many similarities to Slovak, it’s “pravda vitĕzi.”

“Pravda vitĕzi” is the motto of the Czech Republic and has been connected with the Czech government since the founder of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk added it to the flag of the Czechoslovak president. It is a phrase connected to the 14th and 15th century Czech theologian Jan Hus, who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs. It’s a phrase that represents Hus and his beliefs in God against what he saw as a very corrupt church. The Roman Catholic Church wanted him to renounce his beliefs or die. He refused to renounce. Legend says that Hus’s dying words upon the pyre predicted the coming of another reformer a century later who would not be silenced.

Luther pounded his 95 complaints onto the door of the church in Wittenberg one hundred years later, inspired by ideas of Hus’s that continued to circulate in Central Europe. Slovaks may not identify with Hus in as extreme a way as the Czechs do, but many Czechs (and Slovaks) look to the man as a fighter for truth long before truth was popular.

Another prominent sound of the Velvet Revolution is Karel Kryl. Karel Kryl is a different story than Tublatanka and has a different sound. Kryl was a Czech who left for Germany in 1969 just after the Soviets and hardline Czecho-Slovak communists started to crack down on the reforms of 1968. “Socialism with a human face,” or the “Prague Spring” was what these reforms of the spring of ’68 were popularly called. Kryl would come to work for Radio Free Europe while in exile. In 1989, he returned to his homeland.

His music, though it was banned by the communists, was known far and wide in Czechoslovakia. Like any other music, it was brought into the country on records, recorded by tape, and even recorded off short wave radio because the signals were hard to successfully scramble.

The most powerful way that Kryl was passed along however, was by oral tradition. It was sung among friends who couldn’t legally listen to Kryl, but played the guitar amongst themselves when the radio failed them. Last week, a man told me the story of how he and his friends each had notebooks filled with Kryl’s work, copied down in pencil and paper that they would circulate amongst themselves. The fact that the government banned Kryl did not stop his music from being known.

The tunes of Kryl and the sadness that they provoke, a sad love of freedom and hatred of oppression, are enough to evoke emotional responses. That this music is tied to significant political events and part of the story of Czechoslovakia makes the music all the more meaningful and emotional. Kryl was among the underground, forbidden culture that the communists exerted so much energy to try to snuff out. You can listen to Kryl’s “Bratříčku, zavírej vrátka” here, dealing with the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

I received a message from a friend on the night of 17 November 2010, it was a link to a video of Kryl’s “Angel.” “Watch this video,” she wrote me, “and notice the faces of people. We were so sad and depressive. We were really afraid that we would go straight to jail.”

I invite you to take a few moments to listen to Kryl’s “Andel” here and to look at the faces in the audience and to try to discern for yourself what those faces might mean. Those faces are saying something powerful, but I’m not entirely sure what. It’s interesting to see that the entire audience clearly knows the song of a man who’d been exiled from his country 20 years earlier and whose music had been banned.

The Slovaks and the Czechs
How beautiful I find the history of the Slovaks and Czechs – it’s filled with expressions of desires to be left alone, desires for freedom. Many people in Slovakia seem to be willing to yield to a greater power with platitudes as long as they can go home be a free person in the privacy of the home. The home, the dinner table, those are places to speak openly of what it is that bothers you. In public, a stone-face, a blank face, an emotionless face—no matter what inner turmoil afflicts you – is still very much the rule, and especially so with the generations that lived through communism.

It’s not a view of freedom that I can entirely understand, because I know only an activist view of freedom, an American view of freedom. Often, in America, all complaints are made public and dealt with just because an individual “feels like it.” There’s often little more to it than that – I didn’t like it, so I caused a ruckus, and forced a change.

You don’t like a city ordinance, organize people. You don’t like an opinion that you overheard, write a letter-to-the-editor. You don’t like a law, pay off a congressman. That’s American activism – you can change the system. We are so active that we tell ourselves “Be active no matter what, be active even if it looks pointless.” And sometimes, maybe it is pointless.

The activism of Slovaks seems heavily tempered with the realization that activism will have you burnt at the stake (Hus), dead in a suspicious plane crash (Štefánik), pushed from a window (Masaryk, Jr.), ousted from power (Dubček), leading a pretty miserable dissident life (Havel), leading the life of a former government official fallen from grace (Dubček), dead in a suspicious car crash (Langoš), or dead in a suspicious car crash (Dubček). It’s so heavily tempered that that idea of activism doesn’t seem to exist in Slovak culture. Which I, at times, find a blessing. Sometimes I get the feeling here that the proverbial “rest of the world” doesn’t matter. Your own head is where you can be free. Your own home is where you can be free. What happens among others happens in an environment that you have little control over.

The most critical, brutally anti-government, harshly cynical beliefs can come out of the mouth of a Slovak. And do come out of the mouths of Slovaks. These are things that the most outspoken Western cynics would not even be heard mentioning. There is no political correctness here. People will unapologetically speak their minds. They just won’t do it as part of some protest parade. With November 17, 1989 and the days following, having been a possible exception – when Slovaks en masse filled a square in Bratislava and began to jingle their keys in protest.

“The jingling of keys is the sound that so many Slovaks in the year 2009 associate with the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Just a few days here give the visitor the impression that this is a much less violent place than the lands West of here. Much less violent than my south side of Chicago home. In a very non-violent way, the presence of the communist government was, among other ways, protested in 1989 with gathering of people, many thousands of people pulling their keys out of their pockets and jingling them. There were some things that might be dangerous to say aloud in public. To jingle your keys in a call for the fall of your government was a much harder to prove offense. Imagine for a moment, if you will, the glorious sound created by being surrounded in all directions by people gently, and so defiantly so, jingling their keys. This was the last tolling of the bell for the dead. This jingling of keys was the last tolling of the bell for the communist government. “

(Originally published in Contemporary Literary Horizons, Bucharest, Romania, Winter 2009.)

In the autumn of that year, many speeches were given by opponents of the communist regime, but the two biggest stars of the Velvet Revolution were surely Dubček and Havel. Alexander Dubček, was ousted from power by the Soviets invasion of 1968, in a response to his “socialism with a human face” or the “Prague Spring,” as it is often called. He opposed the tyranny of Moscow and believed he saw a different path for Czechoslovakia than the one Moscow presented.

Vaclav Havel, was a political dissident, writer, political prisoner. His family was wealthy before the communists came to power. After they came to power property rights were generally eliminated. Havel’s plays would be banned. He signed the greatly maligned Charter 77. He was in and out of prison for his opposition to the government, the longest period being about four years as a political prisoner. He was opposed to the government when the government appeared untouchable.

That either of the two of them – Dubček or Havel – would stand before crowds in Prague and address demonstrators as the 1980’s came to a close could hardly have been imagined by anyone at any other time during the 1970’s and 1980’s in Czechoslovakia. These men were important symbols. A regime that once seemed invincible was now crumbling before the world’s eyes. And even “the people’s” most despised public enemies (as determined by the communist regime) were again assuming roles of leadership, out in the open, supported by the consent of the cheering crowds that gathered to hear them speak.

The Police were Watching
One friend of mine looked around in Bratislava at a protest rally that November and saw an unusual site a few people away. He saw the ŠTB agent who regularly interviewed him. This was the state security man who would give him a hard time. Who would yell at him and interrogate him and threaten him. Who would play psychological games with him from time to time, because my friend was part of the right circles of potential dissidents.

This state security service agent who made my friend’s life very unpleasant was there in the crowds chanting. Was the agent there because he wanted to be there? Was he there as an agent provocateur for the government, ready to push the peaceful rally into a violent one? Was he there keeping an eye on his ward? Was the past all over? Was he no longer in his job with ŠTB? Would his job continue in a different respect? Would his job continue outside of the government? What would happen to the shadow government that had existed – where Czechoslovak state security operated with their highest authority orders coming from Moscow, not from Prague? Where state security was at all times in a position to blackmail Czechoslovak Communist Party members who got out of line, what was to be done with that shadow government and their agents?

My very honest answer is, to this day, nobody really knows what became of the ŠTB. Nobody really knows what became of the KGB. And by that I mean that there is no publicly conclusive understanding of whether those people who were able to command such a stronghold on Czecho-Slovak society just voluntarily closed up shop and went home. “I don’t want the power and influence anymore, I just want to go home and raise pigs on a little farm out in the country.” Is that what they all said simultaneously?

But if you stood in Bratislava in late 1989, the majestic site that was before you would likely have you thinking of something else.

Imagine all around you, hundreds of thousands of people, some Catholic priests, some atheist communist party members, some criminals, some people who had their family’s land confiscated, some people who hated America and loved to see a more Troskyist regime installed instead of the current communist policies, others who wanted to see anything American brought to power, some who wanted Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face,” some who wanted to be allowed to travel freely, others who wanted to have the right to use their money to start a business, some who just plain hated their bosses and saw an overturn of power as a way to get back at their communist party boss, some who held grudges because they were rejected by the communist party as unfit for membership, there were those people who had been forcibly moved from their homes by the communists, some who would call themselves socialist democrats, there were families of political prisoners in communist prisons, some who were Nazis before the war and still held those beliefs, protesting alongside a 19-year-old neo-Nazi could have been a Jewish man who despised the communists just as much as his neighbor, some protesters were former heads of state security, others were young men who’d served in the army and didn’t fire a bullet when the Russians crossed the border in 1968, others could had served as border guards and fired when a Slovak tried to cross the border in 1989 to leave for the West, standing there in that square could be a Slovak nationalist who wanted a nation of Slovaks, a gypsy who just wanted to be left alone by the government, an ethnic Hungarian who wanted his family’s farmland back from the communists, a Ruthenian who just plane wanted a better life. Imagine this motley group of Slovak citizens, all raising their arms and jingling their keys.

And here I leave this essay, unconcluded, untied, not cohesive or together. Much as the lands of the Czechs and Slovaks found themselves at the close of 1989, united in their displeasure for communism, unsure of where that displeasure might lead them.

Allan Stevo is a writer working on his next book. If you enjoyed this article, you can “like it” on facebook, tweet it on twitter, send it to a few friends with the buttons below, or signup to have these postings mailed to you each week for the next 45 weeks by clicking here.


A few questions I’d like to ask: Where were you 21 years ago?  What were you doing when you first heard about the ruckus starting in Czechoslovakia?  I’d be very interested in hearing any of your memories of that period, or memories that others have shared with you?  If music is important to you, I’d be curious to hear what music reminds you of 1989?


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Comments

  • The irony of “Pravda Víťazí” is that this was the motto of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, however, the point of the song is that yes, the truth prevails, and the communist will be toppled, just like the Nazis were some 40 years prior.

    My dad took me too Prague few days after the onset of the revolution. It was bit risky since nobody knew what will happen, but I am so glad he did! That’s still one of the most vivid memories from my childhood.

  • Lubos,
    I thought about talking a bit about “Pravda Víťazí” being the motto, but figured the article was maybe getting lengthy. I appreciate you pointing this fact out about the motto. It’s sort of Orwellian and sick that “Pravda Víťazí” was a motto used during a time where the truth was so manipulated.

    Your dad is a man of vision! I bet you saw some powerful things take place.

    Thank you for the note, Lubos.

    Allan

  • My God !! The Velvet Revolution !! I believe I was in Czechoslovkia in June 1989 !! My first and only time in my parent’s native country. Me and my parents visited friends and relatives in Prague, Chomutov, and Bratislava. We visited gravesites and the lázne near the mountains (Tátry or Carpathians)?? We drank homemade wine. We ate delicious řížky. We climbed to the tops of castles and saw the monument to citizens who were massacred by the Nazis. We had no idea that there was going to be a major political revolution later that year in November !! We spent three weeks in old Czechoslovakia !!

    When we returned home, I returned to living on my own. Preoccupied by a new life away from my family, I didn’t follow the political events that occurred later that year. Musically, I don’t recall exactly who was playing, but I presume it could have been Madonna, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Cher. I like and still listen to Styx, a band from the late ’70s and Journey among others.

  • Cynthia,
    Very cool!! I often wonder what it would have been like to visit Czechoslovakia before the fall of the Iron Curtain. No amount of movies, books, music can sufficiently recreate the real thing. What a fantastic time that must have been to visit in ’89.

    Journey’s a perfect example of the power ballads that remain popular.

    Thanks Cynthia.

    Allan

  • I do remember that Gorby’s (Russian former prime minister, Mikhail Gorbechev) plan called ‘perestroika’ was implemented in 1989. So I presume this also may have inspired the Czechs and Slovaks to ‘go for it’ and radically change their political and economic system as well.

    I also remember that I was fascinated then by books written by the Russian-American philosopher, Ayn Rand. I was absorbed in reading, “The Fountainhead,” “The Virtue of Selfishness,” “Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal,” “We The Living.” She posited that rationality should be taught as the only way to think and communicate. Her philosophy is called, “Objectivism.” Years later, I find her ideals relevant, but I don’t agree with her dogmatic approach.

    Regarding the Slovaks passive view of freedom; in my experience, I entirely agree. My Slovakian father loved to criticize the system and his job at home, but he would never take action on his words. Based on his example, I used to feel like a victim when things didn’t go my way. I have finally taught myself that I can take action by communicating to people outside my home and that people would actually listen, care, and help me with my cause/problem.

    Allan, tell us about your Slovkian parents ??? Thanks.

  • “Allan, tell us about your Slovkian parents ??? Thanks.”

    Cynthia,
    I have to think more about where I can fit them in. Thanks for the suggestion.
    Allan

  • I do remember that Gorby’s (Russian former prime minister, Mikhail Gorbechev) plan called ‘perestroika’ was implemented in 1989. So I presume this also may have inspired the Czechs and Slovaks to ‘go for it’ and radically change their political and economic system as well.

    I also remember that I was fascinated then by books written by the Russian-American philosopher, Ayn Rand. I was absorbed in reading, “The Fountainhead,” “The Virtue of Selfishness,” “Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal,” “We The Living.” She posited that rationality should be taught as the only way to think and communicate. Her philosophy is called, “Objectivism.” Years later, I find her ideals relevant, but I don’t agree with her dogmatic approach.

    Regarding the Slovaks passive view of freedom; in my experience, I entirely agree. My Slovakian father loved to criticize the system and his job at home, but he would never take action on his words. Based on his example, I used to feel like a victim when things didn’t go my way. I have finally taught myself that I can take action by communicating to people outside my home and that people would actually listen, care, and help me with my cause/problem.

  • Cynthia, I think you’re right. Moscow provided much ‘leadership’ to the region through threats and force. If you didn’t follow their plan, your country might get invaded. Gorbachev definitely sent the signal that Russia was no longer going to invade countries that didn’t submit to the will of the Kremlin.

    I’ve never made it a point to read Ayn Rand, but a few people have told me that it would be beneficial reading. Maybe you’ll convince me to give her a shot.

    You definitely make some great points about the passive view of freedom: “Based on his example, I used to feel like a victim when things didn’t go my way. I have finally taught myself that I can take action by communicating to people outside my home and that people would actually listen, care, and help me with my cause/problem.” I sometimes feel like the role of victim plays an important part in Slovak culture, but I’m not entirely sure how to describe what that role is. That you recognized this tendency in yourself and changed it is fantastic. A lot of people have trouble doing that that. That third paragraph of yours is especially interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    Allan

  • Joel Mader

    Nov 28th, 2010

    Allan,
    I am the blogger for The Slovak Institute and Library at the Benedictine Abbey in Cleveland, Ohio. I live in Richfield a suburb of Cleveland some 20 miles south. I have been copying your entries into the blog as you send them to me. I am a third generation Slovak parents and grandparents were from Devenska Nove Ves. Thanks for your hard work. I am presently writing my second book to be published “Woodhill Road”. The book is about growing up in a Slovak enclave in Cleveland. Should be finished by early April of next year. My first book published by Arcadia Publishing Company (This not a vanity press book.) is called Cleveland School Gardens. Seems off the Slovak subject but I mention how ethnic Slovaks were “green” in America 100 years before it was politically correct. Some years back there was an exhibition in photos of the Velvet Revolution at The Western Reserve Historical Society. It presentation was very well done, highlighting the bravery of the Slovak People!
    Cheers and keep writing,
    Joel Mader

  • […] Revolution.  It’s  probably the Slovak holiday that fascinates me the most and something I wrote about at length a year ago.  November 17, 1989, when you look at it, wasn’t all that special as an isolated day, but some […]

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