25 years ago: the velvet revolution
Petr Mucha was a graduate student at the Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1989. Coming from Christian dissent circles, today as a university teacher he shares his experience on the Velvet revolution.
All Europe is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism. How did all the changes start in Prague?
In January 1989 on the twentieth anniversary of Jan Palach´s death – a student who had immolated himself in protest at the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Communist authorities did not, of course, approve any commemoration; nevertheless, several spontaneous events and demonstrations took place during the so-called “Palach´s Week.” Eventually it was quite brutally crushed by the police, yet certain energy and hope sustained.
The severe Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was still successful in suppressing the opposition activities and attempts for change, wasn´t it?
Not quite really, there was Charter 77 and other independent activities, of course, and people like Vaclav Havel. But due to a more severe “normalization” pressure after the violent crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 the opposition couldn´t grow as fast as in Poland or Hungary. There was, however, a certain awakening of religious dissent, in which Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek represented a strong moral authority. In the 1980s the underground church was strengthening, independent from Communist monitoring. I remember diverse secret meetings or illegal theological seminars taking place in our basement. Having been a student back then I remember myself distributing prohibited books tangled up in a sleeping bag or sports gear through the well-organized underground network.
What was the situation like in Czechoslovakia in autumn of 1989 and from where did the crucial impulse come?
The key date was November 17th – the International Students´ Day commemorating student murders by the Nazis in 1939. Unlike the anti-Communist Jan Palach, this anti-Nazi remembrance organized by students was allowed by the authorities. Students in my country, by the way, often represent an initiation force in democratization processes.
So, the official programme of this meeting soon turned into a mass political protest. The crowd then marched to Prague city centre and the number of participants grew to tens of thousands. I was in the front part of the crowd carrying a Czechoslovak flag from my school when the march was stopped by the police cordon at Narodni Street. Students sat on the ground and started singing the “We shall overcome” protest-song which later became the anthem of the Velvet revolution. Instead of dismissing the demonstration, the police surrounded a leading part of the crowd and started beating us. Everybody had to run through the gauntlet while being beaten by the police.
There had been several police attacks before. Why did this particular demonstration became the start of the Velvet revolution events?
The catalyst for such a mass opposition was born out of the fact that the police response to this peaceful student event was more brutal than on the previous demonstrations. I remember some of my classmates being picked up from the crowd and beaten unconscious by the anti-terrorist police commando before our very eyes.
That marked the beginning of the end, I guess?
Exactly, no society wants their youth being beaten by police, thus this event eventually united us all in protest against the regime. Our student strike was immediately supported by the dissidents and the artists who often represent the voice of society´s conscience. I remember it was extremely important for us that well-known actors joined us in our campaigns in the regions or just dropped by the university during the occupation strike. We were occupying the university buildings day and night and it was not clear how things would go. Army intervention, as in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, was still possible. In the following days, however, the foundation of the Civic Forum opposition platform by Vaclav Havel, a general strike and also support from Cardinal Tomasek made the process of change irreversible. The revolution In Czechoslovakia was speedy – at the end of December 1989 Vaclav Havel was elected President. Actually, there is a very apt saying that what took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary and 10 weeks in East Germany, was done in 10 days in Czechoslovakia.
These were really fascinating weeks - such a birth of civil society and an atmosphere of deep mutual solidarity. People were close to each other and it was a great experience for many of us, comparable to a spiritual experience in a certain sense…
You mentioned the Christian dimension several times. Was it somehow important?
Well, this is actually quite a paradox. Our country is known as one of the most secular countries in Europe and, indeed, people do not participate in church life very much. The crucial week of changes, however, started with a very religious occasion – the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia in Rome. For most people it was impossible to travel to the West during Communism; however, when Pope John Paul II set a date for canonization for November 1989, the Czechoslovak authorities decided to pretend freedom of travel and let the pilgrims go to Italy. It was an unprecedented event. I myself was asked to be a guide on one of the coaches. Can you imagine a student in his early twenties, without a real knowledge of languages, being responsible for a group of 50 pilgrims travelling across Europe? It was an exciting time… For a long time there had been a prophecy that the Czech lands would be free when Agnes of Bohemia is proclaimed a saint. Although there had been attempts since the 14th century, it never happened until November 12th, 1989. And here we are: five days after the canonization the Velvet revolution started on November 17! You can imagine how this narrative was soon adopted by the secular Czechoslovakia. There was really no way to ignore it. God has a great sense of humour, doesn´t he?
What were the expectations of the Velvet Revolution and how do you see it today?
In 1989 the expectations were, of course, enormous. There was a lot of idealism that changes would take place soon. To transform a post-Communist society into a democratic society, however, proved to be a more difficult task than just creating democratic institutions. The gradual transformation of the totalitarian mind into a free one is even more important. It is something that takes more time than a generation… Vaclav Havel made it clear right from the beginning – what we need is not only a political transformation, but the moral one as well. Though it is not always an easy process I am happy to be part of this journey.
The Interview was conducted by Johanna Touzel