Memoirs of a revolutionary

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Papers, TV and radio stations in the Czech Republic and other former communist countries are full of accounts by people who did something important during the time the wall between east and west crumbled and finally fell. Let me share with you my own memories of November 1989, when I, as a secondary school student, added fuel to the flames of the revolution.

I remember exactly what I did on the night of Friday, November 17, 1989 – I was on a date. I was 16 years old, and was in my third year at a grammar school in Brno. On that night, I got together with a girl I had fallen in love with at elementary school. I have no idea how we got together after three of four years of being apart, or how that date actually ended. But I do know that we haven’t seen each other since.

Over the following weekend, I vaguely remember seeing TV footage from the incident on Národní Street in Prague, and arguing with my parents about what it meant, and what was going happen then.

On Monday, though, things started happening even in Brno. The gymnasium, or grammar school I went to was then in Koněvova Street, named after the Soviet general who liberated the city in 1945, while today, it’s back to its original name – Vídeňská because it leads to the Austrian capital.

When I arrived at school that morning, my fellow students were already gathering in the main hall, discussing the happenings in Prague. After an hour or so, somebody from the city’s central committee of the Socialist Youth Union arrived. The union was a communist umbrella youth organization and some of the organizers of the Prague march were in fact high up the union’s ladder.

The person looked like a typical communist functionary, however, and was trying to argue that we, the students, did not have enough information about what happened. Only the Communist Party paper, Rudé Právo, brought authentic reports.

We laughed at him and eventually dispersed into our classrooms. There the debates continued with some of the teachers, while other professors strictly insisted on teaching classes as usual, depending I guess on their loyalty to the regime, or perhaps on their fear that they would lose their jobs if it all came to nothing.

Monday, November 20, also saw the first demonstration on Brno’s Náměstí Svobody, or Freedom Square. My schoolmates and I went to most of the rallies throughout the week, and it seemed pretty obvious that there was no going back.

This gave me and a friend of mine from school an idea – to export the revolution to the Moravian countryside. On the morning of Saturday, November 25, we went to the Brno headquarters of the Civic Forum, which was an organization established around the country in support of the revolution.

We explained what we wanted to do, and some guy gave us a stash of various leaflets, declarations, lists of demands, and other documents, and said: “the pub, church and shop”, indicating the strategic locations where they should be posted.

We had no specific idea about where we’d be going. Armed with all the documents, we went to the Brno central bus station to see where the first bus out would head – and it turned out to be the town of Vyškov, some 30 km north of Brno, and – as we failed to realize – the seat of the country’s largest military academy.

People on the bus were nice and interested. We handed out some leaflets, and eventually arrived in Vyškov. It was cold, snowing and the streets were deserted. We began to execute our mission, sticking the leaflets on all kinds of tack boards and shop windows.

As we went about our business on the town square, the enemy finally offered some resistance. A man drove up in his Škoda, and driving around the square, shouted at us to get lost, stop disturbing the peace and so on. He also inquired if we had nothing better to do, to which we sincerely replied that we indeed did not.

I still remember that he was wearing a Russian fur hat of the kind communist leaders always wore, probably to honour Czechoslovakia’s communist leader, Klement Gottwald, who wore one of those during the coup in 1948.

Freezing cold, we then went to the only café that was open on that day. For security reasons, we took off our tricolour badges, which identified us as revolutionaries, and walked in. The café was full – at each table, a military academy student was sitting with his parents who came to visit.

When we finished our cup of tea, we donned our badges again, and gave each party a handful of the subversive documents before leaving the premises quickly, and eventually getting back home.

My memories of the following days and weeks are blurred and I don’t recall much, except when Václav Havel was elected president, and his New Year’s address. But that’s a different story.