'Palach Week' - a prelude to the 1989 fall of communism

'Palach Week', Wenceslas square, January 1989

Most people date the beginning of the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia to November 17th, 1989, when a peaceful student demonstration was brutally broken up by riot police. But cracks in the regime's grip on power began to appear much earlier in that year, when people gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach's self-immolation in January 1969. For seven days starting January 15th, 1989, demonstrators who tried to gather on Wenceslas Square were beaten and sprayed with water cannon. Among them was Ivana Varju, who was a student at Charles University at the time.

'Palach Week',  Wenceslas square,  January 1989
"I knew about it from my brother. I've got an older brother. I can't say he was a dissident, but he took part in all the demonstrations and all the activities which were possible."

So he moved in dissident circles in other words.

"Yes, let's say he was close to dissident circles. So he told me about Palach's Week, and I went along with some of my friends from university."

Were you afraid?

"Well. I wanted to do it. Of course I was a little bit afraid. I'm not a heroine. But I wanted to take part and express my opinion."

Jan Palach
Can you describe the scene for me when you arrived? What happened?

"Well, I must say that the demonstrations were very peaceful. There were no anti-regime slogans or anything like that. But still you could feel that something was happening. We were happy that we could be together and you could feel that there were more people who aren't afraid."

And what was the response of the authorities? How did the police react?

"Well, they just scattered all the people. The worst intervention was on Thursday. I was there. It was really very cruel. We were scattered very brutally, so we ran down Wenceslas Square. I managed to hide somewhere in a passage. The end result was that my brother was accused of assaulting a police officer and he was beaten very badly. He got home the next day because they took them somewhere out of Prague and then they had to stand all night and then they were beaten. And then most of them were accused."

Charged with a crime in other words.

"Yes. My brother was because he defended some pregnant girl, and some policeman started to beat her."

'Palach Week',  Wenceslas square,  January 1989
And did you have the sense during this week that things were about to change, that things could change?

"Yes, I think so. I think it's very individual. When I saw it, I decided there was no sense carrying on in this way. I was very proud when I got into university, but after that week I realised that I don't want to live like that."