30 Let Svobody

by Elizabeth Doney, FCLC ’21

Click here for Elizabeth’s reflections on a weekend trip to Vienna.


Throughout the month of November, the former Eastern bloc countries commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m in Prague this semester, and many of my classes have focused on contemporary Czech political history in advance of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. We read the writing of Václav Havel, visited a photography exhibition from the photojournalist Jan Šibík, and reflected on the current state of this young democracy thirty years on. The Velvet Revolution took place over a period of about ten days, though it was the product of years of dissent throughout the Eastern bloc. Many of the key events took place on and around November 17th, so that day was chosen as the official anniversary.

On the 17th, my friends and I headed to the National Avenue, where a student protest in 1989 was violently suppressed, sparking the Velvet Revolution. The area was dense with booths and people of all ages, and we were given pins for the occasion – red, white, and blue ribbons and buttons that said “30 let svobody,” or “30 years of freedom.” There were Czech musicians playing, lectures from historians, NGOs like Amnesty International passing out pamphlets, and a number of different memorials. At the National Theater there is a memorial to Havel, the playwright and leader of the dissident movement, where people left candles and flowers. Further down the street, there was also a memorial to the students who were killed in the demonstration, which was so completely surrounded by wreaths and candles that it was hard to see the structure itself.

We followed the crowd from the National Avenue a few blocks over to Wenceslas Square, where many of the major demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution took place. There, the City of Prague hosted a concert of many of the bands who were blacklisted under communism, along with a number of younger Czech musicians. Politicians and intellectual leaders, including many former dissidents, spoke about their experiences and the lessons they learned in 1989, and they played a video from the Dalai Lama talking about Havel’s legacy as a leader in nonviolence and human rights. They sang “A Prayer for Marta,” a song strongly associated with the Velvet Revolution, and the Czech national anthem, and at the end the whole crowd jangled their keys, a reference to a tactic used in the 1989 protests to signal the death of the regime. Once the concert ended, there was a light show displayed on the National Theatre which honored Czech history and celebrated the progress made in the past thirty years. 

It was very special for me to be able to witness this moment in Czech history, especially since I’m only here for a short time. The memory of authoritarianism is still very recent for many Czechs, and many locals don’t like to talk about their experiences under communism. During the anniversary weekend, however, people were outwardly emotional in engaging with their history and were willing and eager to share their reflections with us. There is division amongst Czechs regarding the current administration, which has been criticized for corruption and prior attachments to the Soviet secret police, but this commemorative event reflected a unified commitment to human rights and a robust civil society.

On Solo Travel and Stopping to Smell the Roses

by Elizabeth Doney, FCLC ’21


My name is Elizabeth, I’m a junior in the Lincoln Center Honors Program, and this semester I’m studying abroad at Charles University in Prague. It’s been a very busy few months for me, but I’ve been able to make time for a few weekend trips to other parts of Europe. I mostly travel with the friends I’ve made in my program, but a few weekends ago I took a trip by myself for the first time. I decided on Vienna, booked train tickets, and packed homework to keep my mind busy when I wasn’t out in the city. I worried that I’d enjoy the things I saw less because I wouldn’t have anyone to share them with, but I planned to stay very busy in hopes of staving off the loneliness.

Immediately, my well-laid plans started to shift. When I got to my seat on the train and pulled out my laptop, I learned that our academic portal was out of service due to a virus, and I started to get increasingly anxious at the prospect of having to pass a four-hour train ride without any work to keep me occupied. As I went to put my laptop back in my bag, I glanced out the window and saw vivid colors flashing by. The Czech countryside had turned shades of gold and crimson with the fall weather, and I hadn’t even stopped to notice. Mindfulness is not an area of strength for me, but the scene outside the window was so picturesque that I didn’t want to pay attention to anything else. The four hours flew by and, having lost the crutch of my homework, I actually spent time with myself. I gave myself permission to stop thinking about school, fellowships, and internships and instead to reflect on myself and all of the special things I’ve experienced recently while I watched the scenery pass me by. 

Once I arrived in Vienna, I left my backpack at the hotel and challenged myself to lean into the discomfort of being alone. When I went out for dinner, instead of hiding behind it, I kept my phone in my bag and focused on taking in my surroundings. I went to museums and lingered as long as I wanted in front of the art, and I even stopped in a café to write in my journal about my impressions of the city. As I sat on my train back to Prague and reflected on the weekend, I was excited to see all of my friends again, but I was also surprised by how much I’d enjoyed traveling on my own. I’m someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself to be hard at work all the time, but setting aside time to think and breathe was refreshing. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to fit in another solo trip before returning to New York, but I’m trying to remind myself more often to stop and appreciate the moment I’m living.