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Velvet Revolution: 18th anniversary

Video 1: Music and lyrics by Brontosaurs, a Czech folk and tramping band: one of the informal anthems of the pro-democratic demonstrations in 1989. The clip includes not-quite-English subtitles. ;-)

I was just watching a documentary about the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and there were many well-known things in it as well as some new ones.

The dissidents were remembering how hopeless the situation seemed even at the end of 1989 when communism in East Germany started to collapse. However, Czechs didn't seem to care. There was no visible momentum. There seemed to be no plausible mechanism that would lead to the end of the totalitarian system. I have had the same feeling at that time.

Suddenly, the communist suppression of the student demonstration was a gift from the heavens, as a dissident called it. The analogy with the Nazi suppression of Czech students that occurred exactly 50 years earlier, on 11/17/1939, was far too manifest. A sort of phase transition took place. People suddenly threw their fear away and the anti-communist movement started to grow rapidly.

The program was showing some speeches that the prominent velvet revolutionaries made at the end of 1989. For example, for the first time, I saw some comments by Kňažko, a Slovak actor, that he made on the Slovak TV back in 1989, and I was really impressed. On the other hand, Alexander Dubček, the communist leader during the Prague Spring, was a fair guy and a symbol of Czechoslovak sovereignity but I was surprised how deeply he believed in some sort of human communism based on the working class etc. When Dubček was told that he wouldn't become the president, he began to cry. The key Slovak dissident didn't say a nice word about him in the program.

Also, Ladislav Adamec was a tolerable communist but he was clearly a communist anyway. On the other hand, Marián Čalfa, the Czechoslovak prime minister after Adamec, seemed as a completely modern pragmatic politician even though he grew up as the very same career communist politician as others (which was not great symbolically but he was just very talented and did a good job over there).

Finally, Václav Havel was elected the president. The former finance minister Václav Klaus remembered that it was the only plausible choice at that time, as opposed to Alexander Dubček or Valtr Komárek, a guy from the Prognostic Institute that became kind of popular. The question I have never tried to answer in detail was the following: How was it possible that the communist Parliament unanimously elected Havel as the president of Czechoslovakia even though the very same people agreed to put Havel in the prison just a few months earlier. ;-)

The answer was explained by some former activists of the Civic Forum. There has been a peaceful but brutal, non-democratic pressure by the Civic Forum against all those individual communist deputies, forcing them to vote for Havel. It had to resemble the pressure by the global warming movement and others ;-) but yes, indeed, I think that the outcome was a good one. It's good that such events - whose details have been hidden from me - were no longer happening after the first democratic elections in June 1990.

At any rate, the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 was a fascinating era of big changes and big hopes. The path to democracy, freedom, and capitalism was open. I remember we would be discussing how much time Czechoslovakia would need to catch up with the West economically and otherwise. And of course, we would say that it could take a long time, 15 or 20 years. These estimates were essentially exact. For example, look at the GDP. Today, the Czech GDP per capita (PPP) exceeds that of Portugal and is very close to Greece. It is more than 2/3 of France or Italy.

Of course that the natural state of affairs is that the Czech Republic is richer than Italy and similar countries. But 18 years ago, this looked like a dream. Today, it is a realistic result of a 5-year extrapolation into the future. One shouldn't be an alarmist. If communism or a similar tragedy plagues your country for 45 years, it partially screws the lives of two or three generations but it is not a permanent catastrophe for the nation. Within 20 years, most of the negative consequences of that regime can be undone.

And that's the memo.

See also:

15th anniversary,
16th anniversary,
17th anniversary.

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reader Stephanie said...

I just wanted to let you know that while Brontosaurs is a very good band, the melody and the theme were part of an American gospel song long before it was a protest song, and then it was an American civil rights protest song made popular by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the American civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's. Brontosaurs' lyrics are actually very similar to those of the original American protest song, and I believe this is intentional.

Here is a link to a very similar video from America with the president of the time, Johnson using the catch phrase 'we shall overcome' in one of his speeches with the original song over laid.

This is audio of Dr. Martin Luther King talking about singing the song. There is song following the speech reacting to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which is wonderful but not necessary to make my point.

**This comment is in no way meant to minimize the significance of the Velvet Revolution, the importance of the song by Brontosaurus, or anything of that sort. I merely believe that the parallel was intentionally made by Brontosaurs and felt the need to give background information on the song.**