Apart but united: Festival of Freedom finds novel ways for Czechs to celebrate Velvet Revolution anniversary

November 17 is a national Czech holiday, marking the beginning of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – a series of mass peaceful protests, sparked by a brutal crackdown on university students in demonstrating in Prague, that in just ten days’ time would bring an end to over forty years of communist rule.

In years past, many tens of thousands would gather at sites of historic significance to mark the anniversary – in Wenceslas Square, from where the dissident playwright Václav Havel and future president addressed a hopeful nation; on Národní Avenue, where a cordon of riot police brutally beat the protesting university students.

Due to the coronavirus situation, much of this year’s commemorations and celebrations, under the banner of the Festival of Freedom, will be streamed online, including speeches and concerts from Prague’s Wenceslas Square and grand Municipal House. People can also light candles on Národní Avenue, indirectly, via volunteers.

Wenceslas Square,  November 17,  2019,  photo: Martina Schneibergová

“Last year we celebrated thirty years of our freedom together on Wenceslas Square. More than 130,000 of us gathered there, and together we celebrated one of the most important days of our modern history,” Festival of Freedom notes on its website.

“This year, the coronavirus epidemic affected all our lives and preparations for the celebrations. At times, it seemed that this year we would have to do without a concert. But in difficult times, it is even more important to remember the values ​​that we fought for and that we live in a free state.”

From 4:30pm to 21:30pm, the festival is streaming the Concert for the Future, which includes appearances by the legendary experimental rock band Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest and prosecution in large part led Václav Havel to co-found Charter 77 – the longest enduring human rights movement behind the Iron Curtain. (Other performers include Ondřej Gregor Brzobohatý, Jiří Schmitzer, Tomáš Klus and Ewa Farna, the Ivan Hlas Trio, Klára Vytisková and Albert Černý, Michal Horák, and Megaphone).

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

“We also will bring you speeches and greetings from Czech and European personalities from various areas of public life directly from Wenceslas Square to your screens,” the Festival of Freedom writes. Modest ceremonies will also take place in front of other historically significant sites – including at the Hlávkova dormitory, and in Žitná and Albertov streets. From 3pm to 8pm, small processions of artists, activist and students carrying lanterns and wearing fanciful costumes will also take place in Prague – which all can safely watch from their windows. People are also encouraged to commemorate the famous “ringing of keys” by protesters during the Velvet Revolution.

“You can also join the celebrations by symbolically lighting a candle, for example in a window or in a memorable place in your city. We will light candles for you in the evening as a symbol of solidarity and unity – and of the fact that surely we will all meet at Wenceslas Square again next year.”

Among the events being held in capital for the November 17 holiday (officially, Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day) are the annual awards ceremony at the National Theatre of Post Bellum, a group that seeks out and records witnesses’ memories and personal experiences of historical events from throughout the 20th century.

The ceremony, which will be broadcast live (on Czech Television and Czech Radio’s Plus station beginning at 8pm) honours heroes of the nation who suffered under the Nazi and Communist regimes – not least among them student martyrs Jan Opletal and Jan Palach, who died decades apart.

“During the gala evening, we will appreciate a nurse from Terezín, two political prisoners, a rescuer of children from the Slovak Death Valley and a woman who secretly kept lists of murdered Jews so that the victims of Nazism could be identified after the war,” Post Belum writes.

Opletal, Palach and the students who sparked the Velvet Revolution

Jan Opletal

In fact, November 17 – now also celebrated worldwide as International Students’ Day – originally commemorated the closing in 1939 of Czech universities by the Nazi governor of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, the subsequent execution of alleged anti-fascist ring leaders, and the internment of 1,200 students in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

That tragic chain of events before the outbreak of the Second World War was also sparked by mass protests, following the death of a medical student named Jan Opletal, who died a fortnight after having been shot at an anti-Nazi demonstration on October 28, the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s founding.

And so, even in the tumultuous year of 1989 – eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall – university students were granted permission to stage a procession on November 17, ostensibly to commemorate the death of Opletal.

The officially sanctioned demonstration began that morning thirty-one years with a ceremony at Charles University, led by the Socialist Youth Union. It was to follow with a march along the same route as Opletal’s funeral procession, ending at the national cemetery at Vyšehrad. But the students’ march did not break up there. Instead, they headed for the centre of Prague, defying police instructions, their numbers swelling to some 15,000.

Jan Palach

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová, a long-time activist and one of the student leaders who organised the November 17 demonstration, had thought it would be a dress rehearsal for the main event – the next ‘Palach Week’, as it had come to be known,

In January 1989, a large anti-regime demonstration had been held on the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach – another student martyr – who in 1969 set himself on fire in a desperate attempt to rouse the demoralised Czechoslovak nation in the face of Soviet occupation.

“When Václav Havel was jailed during Palach Week in January 1989 that was also a strong impulse because we saw how merciless the regime was; that just for putting a flower on the spot where Jan Palach burned himself in 1969, some of our friends went to prison. I think that in part led to the radicalisation of the student movement.

“We were going not only for Jan Palach week, but also on August 21, the anniversary of the Russian invasion in 1968; on October 28, the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic; and we thought November 17 would be something like a prelude to the next Jan Palach week, like practising for something that would come in two months’ time.”

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová,  photo: Eva Turečková

Two days after the November 17 “massacre”, Václav Havel and fellow opposition activists, intellectuals and artists founded the Civic Forum, a group that Havel called “an association open to all who wanted democracy in Czechoslovakia”. Until then, the Charter 77 dissidents and student leaders had kept a strategic distance, MacDonagh-Pajerová says.

A new expression of the nation’s gratitude to its martyred youth will be installed this November 17, when a bronze sculpture honouring Jan Palach, on a 30-metre high column, will be unveiled atop Wenceslas Square, the site where he set himself alight. Called the “Flame”, it is envisioned as a beacon of hope. Last summer, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion, the National Museum also opened a memorial and museum at the Palach family home in Central Bohemia, meant to be a place for quiet reflection on sacrifices in the name of freedom.

For a full listing of Festival of Freedom events, including speakers and performers appearing in the Concert for the Future, see https://festivalsvobody.cz/program/ (in Czech)