November 17, 2017 marked the 28th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when Czech citizens rose up against communism and succeeded in toppling the regime, foretelling the coming dissolution of the USSR. This date is no coincidence, as it echoes a previous moment in history, when the Nazis responded to students’ protests by closing all Czech universities, killing 9 students and imprisoning 1200 in concentration camps.
On the national holiday, the Kralovecs and I joined the throngs at Wenceslas Square in Prague to remember and celebrate the arrival of freedom and democracy to their country. A large stage with a giant screen broadcast live music and political speeches. When we first arrived, yards away a news crew interviewed one candidate for the presidency, surrounding him with bright camera lights and microphones.
Booths lined the street, some displaying candles in red glass jars, and ribbons in Czech red white and blue, others offering political information. One encouraged passers by to sign a petition calling a stop to the hunger strike of a man protesting the current president running again for office. People feel that his life is more important than the foolishness of the current president.
The self sacrifice is reminiscent of a student’s martyrdom in 1969. Jan Palach set himself on fire at Wenceslas Square after the Soviet Union invaded his native Czechoslovakia to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s government. The actions of people who sacrifice themselves in order to awaken awareness and resistance against oppression are as disturbing as they are inspiring. Why should this have to happen in order for people to wake up and resist?
We headed to Narodni Trida, the place where the protestors and police clashed on the fateful day. Entering a building where an exhibit of enlarged photos of the revolution hung in the lobby, I noticed a father explaining one photo to his small son.
The photos told the story of the revolutionaries, who were students for the most part. They carried signs calling for freedom. One showed students with raised and open hands. A banner read “Our hands are empty!” indicating their lack of weapons. Apparently the wording for “We have sticks in our hands” is very similar to their statement, and the authorities later lied in the press, reporting that the students were inciting violence. In fact, it was a peaceful demonstration and many students handed or threw flowers to the police in riot gear, who responded with violence.
Outside the building a sea of glowing red candles and flowers surrounded the edifice. Citizens young and old approached the flickering monument to add their own candle or flowers. Small children crouched at the edges, observing the firelight while they braved the cold night.
A marching band made its way up the middle of the street along the trolley tracks and stopped beneath a balcony to accompany a singer whose voice silenced the crowd. She sang a rendition of a song performed from the same balcony during the protest, and I could see that many people were moved to tears by her words. Even though I don’t speak Czech, I too felt a stirring and energy that seemed synergistic with the crowd’s mood.
I had many questions for Jiri and Marketa about what they recall from that day in 1989. They explained that their role was a small one, handing out pamphlets and showing up for the protests. The people of Prague were mostly open to the ideas of change and democracy, but the citizens in rural areas were more closed to the revolutionary ideas and less willing to risk protesting Communism. Well known actors took up the cause to travel in groups from village to village to impart the message of freedom and facilitate change. It makes me think of what evil can do in the face of no action at all, and it was the many risks that people took, large and small, that brought about tremendous change.
We drove home watching the television broadcast of the Memory of the Nation Awards broadcast from an elegant theater on the Square and streamed on Jiri’s smartphone. A dear friend of the Kralovecs, Father Frantisek Lizna, was one of three recipients. The nation celebrated the Jesuit priest for his service to the country in taking a stance against Communism that landed him in jail, and for a life of service to those in need. I had met him on one of my previous visits, and I recall his kind, open and playful nature. Indeed, jokes and banter peppered his acceptance speech, and he exuded humor and lightness even in this formal environment.
Funny enough, we found out later that we all appeared on the national Czech news prime time that night, as the news cameras caught us unaware in the crowd. I felt extraordinarily blessed to stand witness to the history of this place and to share in the personal memories of my revolutionary friends. As we headed home through the dark and foggy roads to the village of Malejovice, I thought about how the students proclaimed that in unity there is strength, despite the authorities’ attempts to separate the workers from the educated classes in order to tamp down knowledge and resistance. I think of our own country and how coming together may be the only way to survive and thrive as a true democracy.