Communist agreement to dialogue after pre-revolution environmental protests unprecedented, says historian

The protests in Teplice, November 11-13 1989, photo: Archive of Pavel Žáček,

November 17 is the anniversary of the start of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. But what is less well known is that six days earlier it was preceded by what has been described as the “smog revolution”, when hundreds of people – angered by the appalling state of the local environment – took to the streets in the north Bohemian city of Teplice.

Six days before the revolution began in Prague, hundreds of people took to the streets in Teplice in the old industrial heartland of north Bohemia, demanding that the authorities deal with the appalling pollution in the city.

Jana Dvorská was a schoolteacher in Teplice at that time and took part in the demonstrations.

“The sun didn’t shine for a month, or six weeks. The air was pink and purple. There was a terrible stink – whether you smelled a chemical factory or the mines only depended on which way the wind was blowing that day. It was really depressing. It was making people sick and our children were ill more often.”

Remarkably, the initiator of the mass protests was a 16-year-old boy, an apprentice, who printed up home-made flyers urging his fellow citizens to don gas masks and surgical masks and gather on Teplice’s main square. People heeded his call and demonstrated for three days in a row, chanting “let us live” and “we have our children here”.

Eventually, the communist authorities in the city gave in to the pressure and agreed to negotiations. This, says Miroslav Vaněk from the Institute of Contemporary History, was unprecedented.

“The people asked for dialogue with the functionaries from the town of Teplice. The main functionary Antonín Váňa promised them dialogue. It was totally new, because if you asked for dialogue at the central level, if you asked for dialogue in Prague, they used water cannons against you. It wasn’t possible to have a dialogue with the central Communist committee. But in Teplice they did it.”

The local Communist leader ended up answering questions from concerned citizens at Teplice’s ice hockey stadium, on November 20. By then of course the Velvet Revolution was well underway; it was to bring changes that would also lead to a big improvement in the environment of north Bohemia and elsewhere in the country.