November 17: The Velvet Revolution

Velvet Revolution

In Slovakia, the 17th of November commemorates the Velvet Revolution, the protests that eventually brought down the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. This year, 2014, celebrates 25 years.

In a very brief nutshell, after WWII it was stipulated in the constitution of Czechoslovakia that the Communist Party had to be the leading party in the government. Funny thing is, they still had elections. Everything was set up formally, with screens and ballot boxes. There was, however, only one option to vote. When my mother in law went to vote behind the screen, the officiator said, “Lady, where are you going?”

For 40 years the Communist Party governed with varying degrees of severity. In 1988 was the first mass demonstration in Bratislava against the Communist Regime since 1969 in Czechoslovakia called the Candle Demonstration.

On Nov. 16, 1989, encouraged by the success of Poland, Hungry, and East Germany, students in Bratislava organized a peaceful demonstration to commemorate Jan Opletal, a Czech student killed by the Nazis, and sent a delegation to the Slovak Minister of Education to discuss their issues. Though viewed as problematic by the Party, it ended peacefully.

On Nov. 17, students in Prague gathered to commemorate the death of students by the Nazis, and while they had permission to gather they did not disperse afterwards as ordered, but began to march towards the centre of the city about 15,000 strong. The police blocked off all the exits and began to beat them.

Velvet Revolution

An agent of the secret police had been among the students demonstrating and at one point went unconscious from the tension. Another student thought he was dead, and the rumour spread like wildfire, giving a greater sense of urgency and crisis to the movement. Although a few days later it was shown on television what had happened, the revolution had already gained momentum.

By the next day, plans were underway for a general strike on Nov. 27 and more people were joining the daily demonstrations, culminating on Nov. 26th in Prague with 800,00 people

Velvet Revolution
Demonstrations in Prague.

On Nov. 27, there was a successful nation wide general strike for two hours, proving the strength of the opposition. Two days later, the clause in the constitution referring to the leading role of the Communist Party was deleted, and on Dec. 10 the first non-communist government was sworn in.

My husband was 13 at the time, old enough to remember but too young to take part. He remembers waking up on a Saturday morning (the 18th?) and there was truly a feeling in the air that something was changing. The media had not yet acknowledged that anything had happened on the 17th so all news had travelled by word of mouth and dissident radio.

Even though it has been 25 years, there are still effects of Communism present today, besides atrocious buildings. One example is the huge mess of public buildings on private land. For example, the land that my daughter’s school is on doesn’t belong to the school, the town, or the state. During Communism, schools, apartment buildings, farms, and other buildings were built on ‘common’ land. After Communism that land was returned to the original owners but…there was a building on it. Today, my daughter’s school does not have a proper playground because no one has the money or resources to sort it all out, and the owners don’t want a playground built on their land.

Velvet Revolution, Bratislava
Demonstrations in Bratislava

Another effect of Communism today is the temperament of the Slovak people, or I should say, I speculate as to whether it is an effect of Communism. During the regime, you never knew where a stranger stood in the political sphere. Was he a rat and would he report your activities to the secret police? Was he working with the underground church? The scarcity of materials also caused people to look after their own. My husband said his family got oranges at Christmas because his uncle worked distributing fruit and vegetables. A store would get a special product, like oranges, put it under the counter, call friends and family that oranges had come in, and then tell customers that there were none. As a young child, one of my husband’s chores was to go to the store at 8 am to stand in line for the bread that came at noon.

Today, Slovaks generally tend to be cold towards strangers, but once they get to know you they will turn over any boulder to help you. I’ve been amazed more than once at the trouble a friend of a friend will go to help me. Is this an unconscious continuance of survival mechanisms from Communism?

Here is a video of the revolution (gentle revolution in Slovak) with Slovak photos and video coverage (most coverage is from Prague). The quality is unfortunately poor but still has value. The song that plays was one of the anthems of the revolution, everyone in the squares sang in solidarity.

Refrain: We promised each other love
We promised each other to speak only the truth
We promised each other to hold on
We promised each other a new day.