November 17 -the Velvet Revolution

Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 03:08 pm
Sigh, I can't believe it's already been 17 years ago. On November 17 1989 we were slaughtering a pig in my backyard. My father has returned from prison just a few days before, which was a response to changing situation around us (fall of the Berlin Wall, Solidarnosc in Polish parliament..) and mounting pressures from Amnesty International and International Helsinki Federation.
Yet there were no immediate signs that this day would be different much from any other. I was 12 1/2, and it was freezing outside. I did my best at hiding away from the murder scene, though had to help around in the kitchen. Then the phone rang. My sister, who was studying in Prague, gave us the reports from the streets - 17th November is an anniversary of a student protest against fascism from 1939 (I think...) that turned violent. Students commorated it yearly since. But this year, the peaceful march strayed from the government-approved path and was snowballing people, demanding outrageous things like the end of monopoly of one party,or freedom of speech... Students in other town responded immediately. People spilt into streets, counting millions the next day. Standing on the main square the next day, a stranger lifted me up to see the sea of crowds with lighters, ringing their keys, listening to speeches, songs, etc... The most magical moment ever.

I also have some bitter feelings though. My father, who had all the time in the world for me before then, was suddently whisked to Prague, became a minister in the transition government, and I knew nothing will ever be the same. No writers meetings at our house or at decrepit horse farm, or whichever hastily chosen secret location in a wonderful atmosphere, no game of hide and seek, ultimate trip of adventure and pride when housechecking squad would come and i'd hide forbidden videos and books in dirty laundry, my bed, my schoolbag... All gone, and I barely started to understand what was going on... Not fair I tell you. If you ask me, it really could have waited another 5 or so years, so that I can take part in it fully. But oh well, it still was a bloody magical time. Havel to the Castle! Power is in Unity! Truth will win!


Students giving flowers to the police


Vaclav Havel at roundtable talks with Miloslav Adamec, the prime minister of communist Czechoslovakia - arriving at an agreement to form a transitioning government and hold presidential election, which Havel ultimately won.


Millions at the Prague's Wenceslas square. People making a corridor for an ambulance.
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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 04:13 pm
That's an incredible piece of history you've witnessed first hand, dagmar.
I wish I could have been there when the Berlin wall was opened. Must
have been equally moving.

How did the people around you - in your neighborhood - react? Weren't
they sceptical if this is really the final chapter of their suffering under
the communist regime?
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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 04:25 pm
Not really. It was really unprecedented, especially in Slovakia that had no history of dissent or, godforbid, protests. And I was 12 1/2, mind you... so my reference to 'normal' population (which my family, being one of the handful of dissident families was not) was my classmates, teachers... it was quite educational. Two of my teachers I remember in particular. For they would discuss with us for hours why they were ordinary rank communist party members, what were the original ideas behind communism, how did it go wrong and where it perhaps didn't... I felt adult for the first time in my life, discussing 'important' things, being taken seriously.

There are a few paradoxical anecdotes though. Even those that did not welcome the revolution got on board quickly, for it was obvious that the regime is about to fall. I was at one of the mass gatherings with my mother few days into in (around Nov. 20)... and who don't we see ringing his keys and shouting the slogans? Why, it was Sargeant Kostka, who has been in charge of house checks in my house for the last few years. I asked him to confiscate my math and physics textbook once, but he refused. It was weird, my mother turns red and sputters to this day when she remembers...He told her: "We were only doing our job...". Well, i suppose they were. Though we all have choices as to what we do....
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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 04:35 pm
The weirdest part about that all was that my father, who worked all my life either as a manual worker or the last clerk in an urban planning office (after he was kicked out of the Party in 1969 following A. Dubcek and the rest), was suddenly addressing these millions of people from the podium, in prague, brno, bratislava, on TV and all.... it was very strange and funny to me. Here is Alexander Dubcek (leader of Prague Spring 1968 movement) and my dad, who worked with Dubcek prior to 1969. Dad is the one with the flowers.

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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 06:30 pm

(Please continue, dag. Very interesting to read a first hand account.)
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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 06:53 pm
Yes, please tell more, dag.

I didn't know you were in the middle of that historical time.
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Reply Fri 17 Nov, 2006 09:26 pm
A fabulous read. I had an inkling of something like this but I don't think I realized full extent. Definitely interested in reading more.
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Reply Mon 20 Nov, 2006 01:54 am
I do hope there's more, dag!
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Reply Wed 22 Nov, 2006 11:26 am
ooh, oh, thanks guys. i will post more. i have to write something for my dad's 75th birthday (December 1st) - that will be read at his birthday party (big shebang with many many people there...). intimidating. what do i say about him in a few sentences? i think i will approach it through smells. because, when i was passing a construction site and smelled fresh cement, i thought of my dad. how he was digging a hole in the backyard every day out of pure frustration (his best friend being in jail with no charges, no trial in sight... 15 months). it was a big project, for it turned into a wine cellar. i got to help a lot, so it was fun for me. so cement = my dad.
then whenever i smell fresh cut wood or fire, i also think of him. he's been chopping wood for our fireplace in the backyard or behind the cottage in the mountains where we spent every winter, every summer vacation, ever since i remember. ... then there is autumn air, which always brings me back to grape picking in the state wineyards with the family of the same best friend after he was released. it was a yearly ritual.. and wine making - the sweet and sour smell and taste of grapes, fermenting... aaaanyway. that's the idea, now i have to somehow glue it together and make it presentable. sigh.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 12:00 am
I guess I didn't write anything more, did I. It's here again, time to get nostalgic. The current government is not organizing any commemorative event, because the Velvet revolution "did not bring any changes for the better" according to them. Makes me want to grow claws and have at them.

Having seen Lives of Others and with November 17 hanging over like a heavy cloud- a sentimental reminder of the long gone times, of the good and bad in human nature, of personal quests and puzzles, I thought of another tangled episode that had to do with those times and my father.

On November 17, we were killing a pig, as I said in the first post. Our family friend Vilo was there. He was my father's student in the 50s or 60s, and since then our families were very close. My father helped him to build a cottage in the mountains, and we spent every summer and every winter there ever since I can remember. Vilo and his wife had two daughters, we were also two daughters. It was great.

Vilo was whisked into political activities along with my dad immediately. On the very same day they met up with the Catholic underground (the only dissent to speak of in SLovakia, outside the handful of 'civic' dissenters like my dad. There was also 'ecological' dissent, but they had their own agenda) and with local actors and students and established the Public Against Violence, civic movement that was to lead Slovakia through the transition from communism to democracy.
Vilo is from a small town from under the mountains. When he returned there, he helped establish the local Public Against Violence chapter, lead discussions, etc. etc. Everybody expected he will run for a political office. After all, he was just a high school teacher. He could easily become the mayor, member of the parliament, whichever. He did not.

Some years later, when the Secret Police archives became available to historians, our other family friend was researching them for his book. He called my father and asked to meet with him to give him some unsettling news. Vilo has been a secret agent for all these years. Now surely that doesn't mean anything, my father opined, anybody can be listed as agent... even many of the dissidents were without ever cooperating. No. This wasn't the case. There were thousands of pages of evidence. He had a walkie-talkie-like thing through which he radioed news about my dad to whoever was on his case.
Many years later I remembered I found it once in the closet at the mountain cottage. We kids were responsible for some chores - dishes and cleaning and I found it when I was putting things away. He was in the room. He told me it's for the forest patrol - he did volunteer around the forest both with cleanups and in whatever emergencies, so I didn't think anything of it.
I also remember how he used to decline to go cross country skiing with us. His knee always hurt. Not after 1989 it didn't.

I do remember he warned my dad a few times about police approaching him, asking questions. I know they threatened him that his daughters will not be able to get into school, his wife won't be able to find job...the usual blackmailing. But we never knew that he broke down and got on board.

When my father's historian friend left my dad with all the evidence, there were a few months of lengthy letter exchanges between him and Vilo. I don't know what exactly they discussed, I never asked and my dad was quiet about it. All of his writer friends from Czech dissident circles knew and were shaking their heads at my dad. "Why don't you go public with it? He deserves that everybody knew! How can you talk to that scum of the Earth!" But my dad didn't. We respected it.
It was very sad and strange to see him for the first time after that.

The "Evilest Uncle Vili" as we used to call him - because he made funny faces to scare us and make us giggle till we dropped- was suddenly so hard to look at. His daughter was graduating in Prague from psychology. My sister and I went to the ceremony, but declined to go to the dinner. The daughters and the mother couldn't understand (they never had the slightest idea about his being an agent), but he sure did. It was this ugly dark heavy understanding that made us feel ugly and desperate.

We got over it. So did my dad. They still pick grapes and make 400 liters of wine every fall and spend summers and winters at the cottage. His family still doesn't know. My father's friends still shake their heads.

But Vilo was a man who 'lustrated' himself (lustration was the policy of background checks after the Revolution for people who were running for offices or appointed to higher posisitions etc.) He remained a high school teacher. He was a man broken twice. He did it for his daughters. Cowardice? I don't know. There are thousands of broken men left behind. They still have to deal with that burden today.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 12:19 am
This seems so real: hearing first hand recollections from someone who was there. I had the same reaction to the memories of the Young Pioneers. I don't know if you were lucky to have been there or not, that's for you to decide, Dag. We are lucky to have you.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 01:03 am
Thanks, Rog. Of course I was lucky, I am counting my blessings daily. I realize the exceptionality of those times, of my family's situation prior to and after 1989, but most of all I appreciate the wonderfulness of my parents. I had a truly truly happy childhood, full of fun and adventure and of their devotion. I was in the center of this here Revolution, but that is none of my doing. It just happened to me that way.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 02:05 am

"We live in a contaminated moral environment.
We have fallen morally ill because we became used to saying
one thing and thinking another.

"We have learned not to believe in anything,
to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves."

Havel magnetised mass rallies that brought an end to Communist rule (Picture: CTK)

~ It was a strange time for me personally, the Revolution days. Only one year before, I was pulling Havel out of thorn bushes at 5 in the morning. He was singing and generally thrashing about merrily. We were filming a homemade movie Fronda at an old horse farm (converted gigantic water mill) in the middle of nowhere in Czech republic. It was ideal. The countryside was so gorgeous, I got to ride and tend to horses all day, and play in this movie - that combined pretty much all of my major interests at the time. I only had two lines in the movie. It was about Cardinal Mazarin and the uprising against him intervowen with current story of these writer friends of my father. Ludvik Vaculik was the mailman, Milan Simecka played Mazarin. Havel was some sort of a revolutionary and Lenka Prochazkova was his lover. I was a little girl who said :"What is tha man holding in his hand?" It was a severed head, after an execution of Karel Pecka (I forget who he played). I still remember the Fronda song, sang to the melody of Internationala (in Czech of course). Somebody composed it for the movie:

Fronda is a company of city beggars
That rose up from their knees
And it's rolling in a march of terror
Slingshots trained at the mark
She heard the whispers of the Czech muse
And is lining up from all sides
Comrades let's button up our blouses
Mazarin will be whistled out

And another song to a merry lil tune was

We don't have eyes
We don't have ears
We're loyally old
Blind and deaf
We don't have demands
We pay taxes
Gratefully shaking the generous hands

In any case, it was a grand summer. There was a lot of drinking and eating, lot of quiet discussions. Even Dominik Tatarka came - this was his last summer. The best author Slovakia ever had didn't live to witness the Revolution. I remember the feeling of reverence I had when these people - banned authors, playwrights, actors and actresses, former politicians (of the Prague Springue era), historians and other inconvenient to the regime people - sat together to talk quietly for hours on end. I didn't understand much of it, especially when they started about politics, but there were lots of talks about Truth, living in Truth, about History - big (official) and Small (personal) and how they often clash, about goodness in people.
Once we thought police was coming - an unknown car was entering the mill compound. It was very exciting, because Havel and the camera guy climbed up the ladder to the hay stacks above the stables to hide the camera, footage, and themselves... My job was to quickly remove the ladder once they were up and hide it. I always got these jobs - hiding things. I guess as a kid there was not much they could do to me yet. But...have you ever tried to hide a 10 meters long ladder? I was a small kid always and was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, armes stretched above my head balancing the heavy thing. It turned out to be just another friend of theirs... but believe me, it was bloody exciting nonetheless.

Now Havel was speaking on a tribune addressing the millions of people amassed on Wenceslas Square and in front of the TV sets, telling them (a much simplified) thesis of his about Truth and Love and how they always win over Lies and Hate. I could not wrap my twelve year old head around that. Dubcek, the former President of Czechoslovakia from 1968, was standing next to him. Why, just a month ago he came to my house, brought a bouquet of red roses for my mother (my father was in detention for three months). We still have those roses. Why the heck are all these people claiming them? I felt excited, proud, angry and jealous all at the same time. Is this it? No more horse farms? No more picnics? No more house gatherings and theatre plays? Where is justice in this world? I knew this was much bigger justice in the making, but I felt very hurt personally. Perhaps not immediately, in the first few days, but very soon after my dad was in the circle of new politics and I never got to see anyone again and if I did, they were busy and tired and not at all pensive and charming the way they used to be. It was a very confusing time. I think I only really came to terms with it - sorted out my feelings from my thoughts- in my later twenties and I still cannot chase that jealousy away quite yet.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 02:44 pm
There is vey little talk of the 17 November in the Slovak media today. Not much is happening at all. Perhaps it's a good sign, moving on and whatnot, but still. Considering the current government it cannot be a good sign of anything. Sigh.
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Reply Fri 16 Nov, 2007 04:04 pm
What do the people on the streets think, dagmar?

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall was just a few days ago,
and it seems (from what I read) that many East-Germans are very nostalgic
about their former communistic arrangements , and did not necessarily appreciate being part of a free Germany.

It's mind-boggling to me that they could even think that way, but
apparently not all was bad for them.
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Reply Sat 17 Nov, 2007 12:52 am
Well, they elected this current government so I bet great many of them (especially the older people who, thrown into market competition could not swim) are nostalgic.
It was easy. Sure, you had to forsake your soul, but that doesn't matter to many people so much. State took care of everything, you knew where to go, what's exactly expected of you, what to say, what to think, what you'll get in return. The state was a big fat nanny that you could buy with favors and false praise... Nasty...but easy.
Now, living is hard, you have to fend for yourself, you cannot be sure you'll always get a handout, you don't know who wants to hear what, and the worst thing - merit matters. Not if your cousin's wife has a friend at the Ministry... Not pleasant at all. That combined with first inflation, then high unemployment (it was over 16% at one point in time), joining EU where we are the poor relatives that nobody likes, dealing with immigration... all scary stuff. People miss their grey dull sense of security.

There were many good jokes and sayings about communism. I remember few off the top of my head:

"If you don't steal from the state, you're stealing from your family"

"Chetyre chudesa socjalizma (four mysteries of socialism):

There is 100% employment rate yet nobody works
Nobody works, yet five year plans are fulfilled at 150%
Five year plans are fulfilled at 150% yet nothing is produced
Nothing is produced yet everybody has everything"

-- which about sums up how the system worked - it was a pretend system. "We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us"
The grey zone economy was thriving - people developed an entirely separate under the table market of smuggled goods distributed on clientelistic and familial basis..... aaaanyway, although it was ridiculous and it ultimately broke the bank, it worked temporarily. What the nostalgic people don't often understand today is that the money ran out. No more to steal by the officials for their villas and parties.... which is par of the reason why they went so easily. Even a pretend state needs real money.
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Reply Sun 18 Nov, 2007 12:08 pm
So...there was a commemoration of Nov. 17 after all. It was lead by the opposition and activists that organized around one blog.
They denounced the current government's policies as well as the Prime Minister Robert Fico's decision to pass the anniversary by with just a statement.
"It is extremely rude [of Fico] to pretend that those millions that were freezing on the squares and streets 18 years ago did so for nothing," one of the main activists, Martin Dinus (who also runs the blog) said.

The protesters then laid a wreath on the "grave of the common sense" in front of the Office of the Government. Laughing
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Reply Sun 18 Nov, 2007 12:55 pm
What you have described above about people being taken care of, i.e.
the communistic regime also took over the thinking part, is probably
the main reason, east Germans have such a hard time adjusting to in
the west where their financial welfare is dependent on their work ethics
and they're responsible for their own lives now.

Unemployment is extremely high among former eastern Germans, and
I think partially due to their laissez faire attitude towards work.

Well good, even a small commemoration is better than not having
acknowledged such an important day in history at all.
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Reply Mon 19 Nov, 2007 12:32 am

Just to say I'm continuing to find this information & your insights a fascinating read!
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