Ten den. 17. listopad 1989, by Michal Beck, Matouš Hartman, Alžběta Ambrožová, Anna Palánová and Aleš Palán (ed), Kalich, 279 pp, CZK370, ISBN: 978-8070172759
I remember that on that day –November 17th, 1989 – I was not there. By “there” I mean at the violently dispersed student demonstration that took place in Prague on that unseasonally cold Friday and that inadvertently kicked off the so-called Velvet Revolution. Why was I absent? After all, I was in a prime position to be there. As a Prague native, I lived at the epicentre of events, close to where it all took off: my family rented in a co-op tenement in the Nusle neighbourhood, barely five minutes away from the Albertov university quarter where the crowds gathered at around 4pm on that afternoon; and about seven minutes away on foot from the Vyšehrad citadel where the marchers headed after dusk, waving flags and holding lit candles, to lay flowers on the grave of the Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha (1810-1836) – before turning back to march along the riverside toward Wenceslaus Square (colloquially Václavák) in the city centre. Being so close to it all, how did I stay unaware of what was afoot?
The answer is both simple and complicated. Unlike others of my generation, I had not arrived at a clear, compelling understanding of how things really were as opposed to how they were meant to be. With no connections to the rather exceptional and not very numerous people living in light of such an understanding, I had no inkling of what was about to unfold (not to mention with what consequences). There is some evidence that this was a common predicament, even among people who did end up joining the November 17th march (for a surprising variety of reasons). Based on the recollections of some participants gathered in the new book Ten den (That Day), opinions of what was really going on that day differed widely and ranged from firm belief in the imminent demise of the communist regime to vaguer intimations of “something in the air”, all the way to little expectation of change and none of the regime’s downfall (“no one expected anything”). Not even the speeches with which the (then still legal) demonstration opened had an unambiguous effect on the listeners: while some felt they were witnessing something entirely unprecedented or were astounded by the “completely free atmosphere”, others heard only “yet another meaningless protest” where “nothing essential was being said”. For some it was the cold that made the biggest impression.
Any revolution is bound to reveal the sacred topography of the city in which it takes place, and so it proved with this one: Wenceslaus Square has always been the civic heart of the city – the meeting place for both crowds and individuals – with the Hradčany Castle ceremonially representing the head of the body politic (“Havel to the Castle!”). But what of the Vyšehrad citadel? It seems it had been chosen as an ersatz destination where students would “safely” disperse and the demonstration would end with a whimper rather than a bang: the communist authorities were bent on keeping any protesters away from the highly politically charged Václavák. (“We are at the wrong castle!” shouted a few at Vyšehrad.) Except that things did not go according to plan. In Ten den, not a few participants recall the moments at Vyšehrad as an unexpectedly mythic, mystical or magical experience (it was dark by then and people’s faces, as can be seen from photographs, were lit up by the flaming candles). From that point on, many felt the overall atmosphere and emotional dynamic had changed: there could be no question of splitting up, going home alone. Václav Holanec recalls: “Since then, I have asked myself many times, why did we go to Mácha’s grave? Who came up with that idea?” From Vyšehrad on, protesters’ testimonies overwhelmingly stress the euphoria, interconnectedness, unity and spontaneity of the massive crowd, the palpable energy flowing through the river of people streaming along the actual river. (There were also a few in whom the “uncontrollable force of the mass” set off feelings of panic, or who were uncomfortable with what they felt as coercive herd emotions.) From a literary, mythmaking perspective of someone like me who spent many happy hours running around the citadel as a child, it is tempting to think: it must have been the visit to the grave of arguably the greatest Czech Romantic poet that (unbeknown to the marchers, by some mechanism as yet unknown to history or science) helped set into motion this particularly unstoppable spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings – to be expressed in a loud voice in public this time, not just recollected in tranquillity.
When does a revolution begin? It is only possible to tell in retrospect, once it has ended and notes from various sides have been sifted, compared and weighed. While it is still going on, one tends to identify its beginning with the moment one arrived: it could have begun at Albertov, at Mácha’s grave in Vyšehrad, at National Avenue on the way to Václavák, but also much sooner or somewhat later … At least two kinds of arrival are required for anything historic to take place: enough people of all ages, classes and persuasions have to be willing to assemble and, if need be, to put themselves at bodily risk to express the truth of their feelings and beliefs in public; but even more importantly, people need to arrive in a spiritual way – to reach the kind of understanding that commits one not just to a picture of reality but also to acting on it, however uncertain it may be in detail.
The protesters on November 17th never reached the Václavák. They were kettled and later brutally dispersed by police on National Avenue not far from the National Theatre. After it was over, it appeared that it was this particular event that brought about the “arrival” of a great diversity of people – both among the absent majority of Czechs and among those present, such as the then sixteen-year-old Lucie Srbková who recalls: “Until then I did not care for politics in any substantial way; but on that evening I decided which side I was going to be on” (Ten den).
Unlike many, I still remember I was not there that day, and that is why my point of departure for commemorating the Velvet Revolution is Ten Den, this excellent new collection of eyewitness accounts. The testimonies gathered by a team of authors under the editorial direction of Aleš Palán are presented in a manner reminiscent of Svetlana Alexievich’s writings. Individual accounts given in response to a quiz as well as in interviews, supplemented by diary entries and letters and accompanied by photographs and references to original video material are all summed up, compared and contrasted in the book so as to create a synthetic portrait of the day that marked the beginning of the end of forty years of Czechoslovak communism. Combining this portrait with recollections sent to me by various friends, I use it as a bridge symbolically stretching from the decisive Friday, November 17th, to the following Monday, November 20th – which was when even I finally arrived at a decision, if not a very resolute or informed one, about which side I wanted to be on.
Why did I not arrive sooner? In Ten den, Jan Vondráček recalls how in 1987 he had a premonition that some political “turn” was imminent when from the windows of the military barracks near the Hradčany Castle (where he attended training in lieu of the military service compulsory for male university students) he spotted the convoy of black limousines bringing Gorbachev in from the airport. As it happens, I too remember the very same arrival of the perestroika man in Prague on April 9th, 1987. Our primary school class happened to be chosen, with many others, to provide a suitable welcome for the Soviet leader. We were issued with small paper flags and lined up on the grass verge along the road leading from the airport. We stood directly opposite Vondráček’s barracks. And waited for a good two hours until the black limousines swiftly passed us without so much as slowing down – we did not even get a glimpse of Gorbachev’s famous forehead inside the limousine. There were certainly no premonitions of change for me then; rather, just the same old Potemkin village of being forced to put on a show of seemingly enthusiastic welcome for people and events one did not believe in.
And yet of the two of us, Vondráček must have had the better sense of where things were headed. The Human Rights Day demonstration organised by the dissident Charter 77 at the Old Town Square on December 10th, 1987 can be said to have marked a turning point in the overall stagnation of the 1980s. In retrospect, it can be seen as the beginning of a two-year cycle of illegal protests taking place around the anniversaries of significant dates in Czech history: January 16th, when the Charles University student Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation; August 21st, when the Soviet-led armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968; October 28th, when an independent Czechoslovakia came into being in 1918. To which were added one-off events, such as the May 1988 funeral of Pavel Wonka, a mistreated political prisoner who died in prison while on hunger strike.
I took part in none of those protests. “But don’t you remember the water cannon?” I am asked by my younger sister who, sometime in 1989, got caught up in a demonstration on her way from a music school overlooking the top of the Václavák. And that reminds me of accidentally bumping into a friend who was coming from there, soaked to the skin, one cold day in January. It would be tempting to ascribe my political ignorance to my age (I was born in January 1973) but it would also be misleading. Children grew up fast in the communist system, where avoidance of politically motivated trouble depended on understanding, from very early on, how to conform and how to signal conformity. “Don’t do anything stupid” and “You mustn’t say this anywhere” were two frequent warnings that accompanied all sorts of activities and information at home. So my own knowing-yet-not-knowing was at least partly down to a more or less unquestioning acceptance of my family’s survival strategy: staying in the grey zone, turning a blind eye, sticking to one’s allotment (of which more later).
Of course I should have known better in the spring of 1988 at the latest. Becoming the class “notice-board manager” in secondary school, I unintentionally tested the validity of Havel’s famous account, in The Power of the Powerless, of the communist greengrocer and his complicity. No creativity, just conformity was called for in making up the obligatory displays. The notice-board manager inherited a folder containing the appropriate materials for every month of the year, to be posted at appropriate times. The displays could vary somewhat from year to year but they were always predictable as the inevitable markers of the ideological and historical milestones of communism, a kind of communist version of the liturgical year: January – the anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin; February – the anniversary of the Victorious February when the Czechoslovak communists “won” in 1948; March – International Women’s Day; April – Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and so on. In my folder, however, March happened to be missing and so on a whim I produced my own “poster”. Having wrapped the entire notice-board in light green paper, I put up an innocuous cliché “Green Light for the Youth” as the header and covered the rest of the panel with headlines cut out from the main communist daily – only cleverly spliced and reshuffled to produce humorous nonsense. But even this piece of innocent fun, with no political intent behind it, proved too much. Soon after, my all too green notice-board attracted attention as something outside the grey zone. The display had to be dismantled and I was promptly relieved of my notice-board duties. Yet the most remarkable thing about the affair was how quietly it was done and how insignificant the reprimand. What better sign could I have received of power unsure of its hold on power? And yet it would be another year and a half before greengrocers were free to clear out the political banners from their shop windows …
I remember being asked by my father as late as August of 1989 whether there were any signs of an inchoate revolt among the youth to whom I had given the green light (I was sixteen and about to start sixth form). I shrugged my shoulders and said no. My father, like many others in the “silent majority”, used to listen avidly to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcasts; perhaps his expectations had been raised by something he had heard there. We were spending the summer in a small cabin in the countryside, with all four of us sleeping in the one room. The deep voices of the broadcasters were disrupted by whistles and crackles from the regime’s electronic jamming, heard against the constant background hum of the nearby grain silo (it was harvest time) and the buzzing of the ubiquitous gnats. Spending the hot days of August at the cabin (or with my sister at a summer camp in the north) also meant not being there – in Prague, on the Václavák – around the August 21st anniversary of the 1968 occupation when protests would take place. We were the embodiment of the (pejoratively labelled) “gardeners” – those unwilling to get involved, who would rather withdraw to their allotments and then listen in from a safe distance so as not to get caught up in the politics of the time.
Tending an allotment was a common activity in communist times: there was a limited variety of foodstuffs available in the shops and growing your own fruit and vegetables (and informally trading your own surplus harvests with others) was a way of supplementing the family diet. Food represented a considerable part of the household expenditure for most, and although prices were centrally regulated and key food items (bread, beer) heavily subsidised, in my family the price of food was a constant preoccupation. I remember the sentence “But will bread be any cheaper?” as a dismissive refrain running through my childhood, though I no longer recall who said it or in what context. The meaning was clear: only things that result in bread being cheaper were worth getting excited about.
So it is doubly significant when I come across the following literary recollections of the wonders of cheap bread in two different Czech memoirs. “Entry to the outdoor pool costs one crown twenty which means I still have eighty hellers left, which means four slices of bread with mustard. It is so great here. There are pools of various depths and sizes, and also a kiosk where I buy those slices of bread,” enthuses Zdeněk Drozda (born in 1942) in his memoir Kosí hnízdo (posthumously published in 2016) when recalling his 1950s outings to the outdoor baths then situated on the Vltava river in Prague, halfway between the rocky hill topped by the Vyšehrad citadel and the Plavecká Street which the November 1989 marchers took to the riverside. As if responding to Drozda’s account, the Czech writer Patrik Ouředník (who emigrated to France in 1984) adds his own recollection of outings to the main Prague funfair in the second half of the 1960s, recorded in his memoir Rok čtyřiadvacet. Progymnasma 1965–89 (1995): “I remember that the cheapest food available was a slice of bread with mustard for twenty hellers but how much was the candy floss, that I can no longer recall.”
Drozda’s and Ouředník’s words awaken in me, I realise with something close to amazement, a childhood memory of my own. I remember how in the mid-1980s, during our stays at the summer camp in the foothills of the Krkonoše mountains, we would, on the hottest days of August, march en masse to an outdoor pool in a village called Kalná (“Murky”). There was a kiosk there, too, where the cheapest treat you could buy (and we did) was a slice of bread with mustard for twenty hellers. When I relate this to a friend, on a hot August day in Prague this past summer, he immediately bristles: “But it’s just not true there was no inflation over that period – that’s just communist propaganda.” To which I respond, slightly confused: “But that’s not what I’m telling you. Does it not strike you as remarkable that you, as a ten-year-old in the 1980s, would share the same peculiar treat – a slice of bread with mustard for twenty hellers – with a ten-year-old in the 1950s as well as a ten-year-old in the 1960s? Does it not strike you as bizarre that all three of you would be so taken up with this memory as to feel the need to write it down some thirty (or more) years later?” Is it possible that a slice of bread with mustard for twenty hellers represents – thanks to the communist policy of keeping the price of bread down – the Czech equivalent of Proust’s madeleine?
But as soon as I say this I realise I cannot be certain the three of us shared the same treat. Because even in those days there was not just one kind of mustard but (literally) two: the yellow and the whole-grained. My own treat was bread with the yellow; but what if the two boys preferred the darker and crunchier whole-grained one? To which my friend responds with a smile: “This reminds me. I remember when your husband [a Canadian expat] first arrived in Prague in 1990. He told me one of the things that struck him was how much shelf space was taken up in supermarkets by, of all things, just the two kinds of mustard …”
The slogans held up on banners and shouted out by the November 1989 protesters were political rather than economic, with the possible exception of calling the communists out as thieves. No one demanded “More brands of mustard! We want the Dijon!” But it is arguable that if they had, they would have better captured the driving motivation of most who joined the Velvet Revolution; for the great majority were less interested in the ideals of freedom and democracy or in Havel’s “life of truth” than in the consumerist choices associated with capitalist markets and their promise of greater personal wealth. It should therefore come as no surprise that in recent polls conducted in the Czech Republic, around a third of Czech citizens (primarily those with low education and socio-economic status) hold that life was better before November 1989 than it is now.
How did I turn from a “gardener” into a hesitant participant in politics? I remember arriving at school as usual on the morning of Monday, November 20th, in my not-so-blessed ignorance and encountering classmates who were there long before I arrived: a few of them had even taken part in the Friday demonstration. Over the weekend, in student residences, at private parties and in pubs, they hooked up with others and decided to do something. Unlike them I was “not really the truly revolutionary type”, as a good friend put it speaking of herself. “The only thing I recall from our school strike is the following picture, really” she writes: “[a classmate of ours] happily stretched in a sleeping bag in front of the school entrance, the snowflakes drifting in the air and old women bringing that poor brave lad a bábovka cake and other goodies … and then I have this fleeting vision of the crowded and stuffy school gym, and the speeches made by more and less courageous teachers […] and I recall my astonishment on thinking ‘Oh, I see, so that’s how a revolution is made.’” I too remember not really getting it outside the school gates and subsequently being herded with others into the school gym, to be enlightened by those supposedly in the know.
In retrospect the Velvet Revolution looks less like a revolution (no one died, after all) and more like a surprisingly fast and smooth transfer of power from the communist apparatchiks to the representatives of the newly formed Civic Forum movement led by Václav Havel. (Suspiciously fast and smooth, according to some – the conspiracy theories have not gone away to this day.) When the regime started to crumble in Prague on November 17th, the Berlin Wall had already fallen a week earlier (November 9th); and Czechoslovakia was already seen as dragging its heels in the reforms under way elsewhere in Eastern Europe under the banner of glasnost and perestroika – indeed, we were lagging behind not just East Germany, Poland and Hungary but also Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. When the Velvet Revolution finished, a mere six weeks later (December 29th), the erstwhile dissident Václav Havel was elected president by the Chamber of Deputies, and everything changed forever. It was the end of communism – or at least it seemed so then.
And yet this retrospective foreshortening of the changeover is belied by my own memories as well as those of others. I clearly remember feeling that little could be taken for granted in the first week running from Monday 20th to Monday 27th. There seemed to be a huge amount of uncertainty about what was going on both out in the streets and behind the curtains. No one had died but what set things in motion over the weekend was precisely a rumour of a student having been killed by police – which was broadcast on Radio Free Europe as early as November 18th, before it could be properly verified (it turned out to be false). There was another false rumour making the rounds on Monday and Tuesday, of the massing of tanks on their way to Prague. It gained some purchase (and had to be explicitly denied by Havel) only because it resonated with the 1968 memories of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation; indeed my father’s parents witnessed the arrival of the Nazi occupation army in Prague in 1939. Like many other teenagers in 1989, I saw my parents as too cautious, if not cowardly. Yet it did take some mental effort to refuse to acknowledge the emotional force and validity of their recollections. While learning from history is all well and good, what lessons should one draw from the history lessons of others? Might it not be better sometimes to turn a blind eye? If the current protesters in Hong Kong constantly remembered the lesson of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, how would they ever find the courage to keep their protests up?
Another major source of uncertainty in that first week had to do with communication. The revolution started with student and theatre strikes in Prague, announced on the November 18th-19th weekend. But no one could be certain these strikes would garner wider support in Prague, let alone in the regions; and without such support the general strike announced for the week after could not succeed. If you want to get people behind you, you need to be able to keep a great number of them au fait – but time and space worked differently in 1989, long before the arrival of the internet, email, mobile phones, Facebook and social media. I grew up in a home without a phone line and had to use coins in public phone booths that were sparse on the ground. All state-approved media were under strict control; all broadcasts were heavily censored. In order to know what was really going on you had to be there; or you had to know or meet someone who knew and would tell you; or you had to get your information second-hand, by listening to illegal broadcasts from abroad or getting access to the samizdat. It took until the end of the first week of the Velvet Revolution before the “battle“ for the Czechoslovak television was won and the main TV channel (there were just two then) showed both uncensored recordings of what happened on the preceding Friday and took to broadcasting live what was going on in the streets. The main sources of information were therefore various leaflets and posters, mostly fading carbon copies typed up on typewriters or cyclostyled and distributed by students.
Alam Rezner Purnama recalls in Ten den how, shocked by the police violence on November 17th, he got together with friends and began to type up a protest petition on a typewriter owned by the parents of one of his friends. “But as soon as his mother arrived, she took the typewriter away, saying the authorities could identify it by the type because it had been used before, in 1968. She was afraid that if the matter got investigated, it would lead the police straight to their house.” That kind of paranoia might have seemed laughable to some even then but I for one recognise it all too well. My family too owned an old-fashioned clunky beast of a mechanical typewriter which was kept hidden away in a back cupboard – until I got to use it as a university freshman in 1991 to type up my first essays. Had it also been used in 1968? It had never occurred to me to ask.
This is how the likes of us “made history”. For me and most of my classmates – regardless of who they were: in my secondary school, children of prominent communists sat in the same class with children of prominent dissidents – our contribution to the events of 1989 consisted of signing petitions, distributing posters and leaflets across the city, handing them out at railway and bus stations to people arriving from outside Prague, and taking part in the steadily growing demonstrations which culminated in two mass gatherings on the Letná plain in Prague on the weekend of November 25th-26th. Older students, who unlike us were adults, faced a harder task: travelling to the regions and spreading the news among the workers.
Czechoslovakia was not a large country but in many ways Prague and the regions were (and still are) worlds apart. The degree of separation can be felt in many recollections by people “out there” who often heard the “news from Prague “at second or third remove. Uncertain how to take it, they sometimes (though not always) preferred to keep their distance. A friend of mine recalls how, as an emissary of Charles University, she returned home to Chomutov (a city about two hours northwest of Prague) and tried to convince the headmaster of her previous secondary school to join the strike. She was met with a resolute refusal accompanied by the retort: “If we go on strike, there will be no bread rolls in the morning!” For some, the dramas in the faraway capital seemed so obscure that other, more age-appropriate concerns took precedence over revolutionary matters. Two friends of mine, both my age but male – one from a town in South Bohemia, the other from a Moravian village – email me their (amusingly similar) accounts: “we just didn’t get it, our main worries were ‘love, sex and tendernesses’ (as all ex-readers of the Bravo magazine will surely understand)”; and “I’d just started ballroom dancing lessons and faced serious issues of a wholly different kind.”
For the truly peripheral regions, the physical distance added massively to the difficulty of getting local people on board. Another friend tells how he, as a member of the strike committee at the Czech Technical University in Prague, was assigned with two others to spread the news in the northeast of the Czech Republic. In his case this meant skipping the compulsory military training (which, if the revolution had not worked out, would have probably meant facing a court-martial for desertion), and then driving a borrowed Trabant from Prague all the way to Jeseník, the centre of a mountainous region close to the Polish border, on mostly slippery, snow-covered roads. The journey, which would take no more than four hours today, took them the best part of ten hours: partly because when going up the steeper hills, they had to push the car, while going down those same hills their “Trabi” kept skidding so much that they ended up in a ditch and had to wait for a lorry to pull them out. When, the day after the epic road trip, they arrived in the local factory, they were met by the hostile factory manager, his two deputies and a member of the People’s Militia (an official paramilitary group acting as Communist Party enforcers). Against the defenders of the status quo, they faced another uphill struggle just to be allowed to speak directly to the workers.
The next thing I remember is how quickly the revolutionary excitement waned, soon after the general strike on November 27th. There is only so much leafleting you can get excited about, so much speechifying you can take in, so many slogans you can shout before it all starts to feel mechanical, inauthentic, clichéd. The longer I took part in various “revolutionary” activities, the more I felt like an insignificant extra in somebody else’s production of “the Revolution”. My progress through the week from November 20th to November 27th reflects the gradual victory of individual psychology over political engagement. First, there was the authentic switch from onlooker to a participant, followed by an exhilarating awareness of how the general climate of uncertainty and apprehension gave way to hope and excitement; until mass euphoria became routine, after which surrendering to the emotional sway of the massing crowds began to feel forced and pointless. In the space of a week I went from using my piano lessons as a cover for “agitating”; to being arrogantly contemptuous of my domesticated mother for choosing to clean windows when she should be “making history” at Letná; to finally using politics as a cover for seeing my boyfriend. At that point, being sixteen-going-on-seventeen and dating a slightly older man became the more dangerous revolutionary activity and parent-upsetting secret.
So what really goes on while history is in the making? Unless one is the éminence grise orchestrating it behind the scenes, one never knows for sure and faces a diversity of sometimes competing narratives and their symbolic embodiments. November 17th could be seen as a way of returning all the way back to 1918 and resetting the clock on Czechoslovak independence (“Masaryk!” shouted some protesters, referring to the first Czechoslovak president); or it could be a way of drawing inspiration from a previous November 17th, in 1939, when Jan Opletal (the student whose death is commemorated on International Students’ Day) was shot by the Nazis (“You are our Gestapo!” shouted protesters at the Communist police); or it could be understood as a way of returning to the “Victorious February” of 1948 and finally undoing the communist putsch (“Abolish the Communist Party!”, “End one-party rule!”). But for others the emphasis might have been on going back to the Prague Spring (“Dubček!”) and proving that Jan Palach’s self-immolation in January 1969 had not been in vain (“A plaque for Palach!”, “Russians go home!”). The Helsinki process and Charter 77 (“Long live the Charter!”, “Havel to the Castle!”) seemed to be very much at the centre of the story which, last but not least, included also a number of ecological issues (“We don’t want dead forests!”). Or one could fall for some kind of conspiracy of Communists and secret service operatives attempting their own controlled putsch when things got out of hand – or maybe they didn’t?
Whatever the overarching political story or myth, it seems the real revolution for people like me who inevitably play the role of extras consists rather in breaking out of one’s private, family or class bubble as well as breaking through the constraints of one’s unthinking, habitual responses. Reading Ten den, it seems the November 17th demonstration felt special to many of its participants because the crowds were not only much more numerous than the limited dissident circles but also much more diverse. This was probably due, in the first instance, to the event being permitted by the authorities, co-organised by the officially sponsored Socialist Youth Association. The people present ranged all the way from experienced protesters dressed in sturdy boots and padded coats in anticipation of police violence to inexperienced first-timers (girls dressed up for partying or ballroom dancing); from long-term dissidents to cautious Socialist Youth functionaries and curious one-timers. Beside young students there were also older working and unemployed adults, pregnant women, families with children as young as nine and even some elderly. The barriers between the dissidents and the “normal people” seemed about to dissolve (“Strength in unity!”). For me as an introvert, such “revolutionary” breakthrough meant not just having one’s eyes opened but also feeling, even if only temporarily, part of a much bigger crowd, suddenly able to strike up conversations with passersby in the street. In a moment of uncharacteristic abandon I even joined a complete stranger in jumping on and off various trams and sticking up posters calling for the general strike on the backs of the drivers’ cabins.
If revolutions can be made, can they also be unmade? For an answer to this one must start again. I come from Nusle, the once working class, now somewhat gentrified quarter of Prague, which in the 1980s was notorious for its rundown housing and relatively numerous Roma population. It was therefore dubbed, with slight hyperbole, the Prague Bronx. The moniker may have originated with a television screening of Daniel Petrie’s 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx which I remember watching on late-night television in 1985 while still in primary. In the eyes of the communist ideologues the film must have castigated the evils of imperialist capitalism presumably absent in the communist system, otherwise it would not have passed the censors. (“I had thought pictures of the poverty-stricken parts of Bronx were malicious photographic studio forgeries [by the communists] until I stepped into those neighbourhoods myself,” wrote the well-known Czech biologist Stanislav Komárek, who emigrated to Austria in 1983.)
The cubicles in the school changing rooms were lined with metal grilling, and so resembled cages. The morning after the screening of Fort Apache, a few boys in my class, inspired by a well-known scene in the film, climbed the walls, banged them with their fists and shouted: “Let the brothers go!” The same slogan could be heard, according to eyewitness accounts, during the human rights demonstration in 1987: there, no longer a mere childish joke, it was intended as a call for the release of political prisoners. It must have persisted throughout 1988 and into 1989 – it is listed in an archived police record as one of the slogans heard during the August 21st, 1989 protests at Wenceslaus Square, besides shouts of “Freedom!” and “Long live Havel!”. Today, however, those same words are no longer likely to be used to commemorate the events of 1989. They have been appropriated by Czech neo-Nazis who shout them during their marches. So the past is always vulnerable to reinterpretation. Not just by parading right-wingers but rather by what thirty years of freedom have revealed about the beliefs and attitudes common in the Czech population. Its resurgent nationalism feeds off the persistent casual racism toward the Roma (and other non-white ethnicities). This is what the gentrification of Nusle meant in the first place: the dispersal of a significant proportion of the local Roma who are now concentrated in run-down ghettoes especially in the north and northwest of Bohemia.
But the undoing of the revolution also has to do with the shallowness of most Czechs’ belief in human rights, especially when it comes to recognising and defending the rights of non-white nationalities, non-Christian religions, and people of minority sexual orientations and genders. The original Charter 77 appeal – the repeated refrain of the 1987-1989 protests – has not taken root outside of the newly vilified circles of human rights defenders and non-profit organisations advocating for refugees and asylum seekers. Perhaps even the November 17th protesters’ shouts of “You are not Czechs!” (directed at the Communist police) and “Czechs, come with us!” (directed to bystanders) already carried within them, however unintentionally, the seeds of the currently resurgent Czech jingoism.
So when does a revolution end? Once again, it is impossible to tell other than in retrospect. No doubt one would like to identify the end with the moment one says to oneself: this must end now – it cannot go on like this, therefore it must be over. In that sense, the revolution “ended” for some on the night it began. In Ten den, Miroslav Vosátka, then twenty seven years old, recalls thinking “This is the end of communism” already on the evening of November 17th. (The opposite reaction – the fear of a tightening of communist oppression – was at least as common among the protesters.) Today Vosátka hastens to add: “How prophetic and how naive at the same time!”
And indeed, given what we know now, thirty years later, the idea that history could ever be over (or that the mass feeling of unity is always a strength) seems laughable. The unreformed Communist Party has not yet been voted out of the Czech parliament once and, though holding a reduced number of seats, represents a significant part of the swing vote, with the ruling coalition government heavily dependent on its support. The current Czech president takes every opportunity to curry favour with Putin and Xi Jinping; the current prime minister is an oligarch with a record as a communist secret service collaborator. The state of Czech forests is as dire as it was thirty years ago, though for different reasons. There is widespread unwillingness to acknowledge the human rights of some. And, last but not least, many well-off Czechs who benefited from the country’s liberalisation in 1989 – including some Charles University academics – seem not just willing but eager to overlook human rights abuses in China and engage in dubious tradeoffs with the Chinese government as long as they get their piece of the Panda. (“We do not want China!” shouted the November 17th protesters at the police cordons, referencing the recent Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4th, 1989.) The revolution that might have started, depending on your political persuasion, in 1918, 1939, 1969, 1977 or 1989 is clearly not over yet. No wonder then that a new mass demonstration against governmental corruption is just now being organised by the Million Moments for Democracy movement, to take place at Letná again, on the eve of November 17th.
I belong among those who, in spite of many reservations, wish to commemorate and celebrate November 1989 as a hugely positive development – a literal and figurative opening up of a variety of worlds, be they composed of people, landscapes, languages or literature(s). Whenever I catch a whiff of nostalgia for the good old days of communism, I feel like asking: But don’t you remember? What’s wrong with your memory? – though I also understand the temptation to misremember. My personal stake in the Velvet Revolution runs much deeper, however. The man I ended up marrying arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1990 as an expat from the “hostile West”. If it had not been for all this, I tell my teenage daughters, I would not have met this particular immigrant and where would you be then? So this is one of the history lessons I pass on to my daughters: “Your existence is due, among other things, to the Iron Curtain coming down. Just you remember how lucky you are.”
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree and, most recently, the novels City of Bohane and Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. She is currently at work on a translation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).