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.