Places of the Velvet Revolution 4: Federal Assembly building

Former Federal Assembly building, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

As the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution approaches, we take you to places that are closely associated with the events that led to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. In the fourth episode of our mini-series, we visit the former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly building, where some key political changes took place 30 years ago.

Former Federal Assembly building,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The glass-and-steel building of the former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly is located just off the top of Wenceslas Square, across from the neo-Renaissance National Museum. It was here where some of ground-breaking political decisions took place, sparked by the student demonstration on Národní třída on November 17, 1989.

One of the people involved in the revolutionary events was student leader Václav Bartuška, who currently works as the government’s special commissioner for energy security.

“Our main requirement on the first day of the general strike was to appoint an inquiry committee for the events of November 17.

Václav Bartuška | Photo: Eva Turečková,  Radio Prague International
“We also called for the abolishment of the constitutional article that guaranteed the Communist Party the leading role in our society.

“On November 29, 1989, here in the Federal Assembly, the parliament really voted in favour of our demand.”

As someone who took part in the student demonstrations leading up to the events of November 17, Mr Bartuška already had his own experience with interrogation by the StB, the notorious Communist-era secret police.

“There were several demonstrations taking place since August 1988 and all of them had more or less the same scenario: either we were detained or beaten.

“But I didn’t have a clue at the time that something was about to happen, and neither did any of my colleagues.”

Mr Bartuška was last interrogated by the secret police on November 19, just two days after the brutal crackdown on students on Národní třída.

Only 10 days later, at the age of 22, he was appointed head of a special parliamentary committee to investigate the violent events of November 17, and became the first person to be given access to the secret police files.

Some of the members on the committee were the existing Communist deputies.

“They had to cooperate with us, because we were representatives of the student movement, which had the support of a large part of the society.

“There were mass demonstrations taking place in Prague and all around the country. Nearly a million people showed up at Letná Plain and a general strike took place on November 27.

Former Federal Assembly building,  photo: Jan Langer / Czech Television
“So the Communists had to take us seriously, whether they liked it or not.”

Apart from the abolition of the constitutional article which officially ended the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, other key moments also took place at the Federal Assembly building.

“The dismissal of the federal government and both Czech and Slovak national governments and the election of new parliament leadership and the appointment of Alexander Dubček as the head of the Federal Assembly.

“There was also the co-optation of the new MPs in December 1989 and the preparation of free elections in 1990.”

Mr Bartuška says that although student leaders were present in most of the negotiations, the key role was played by the Civic Forum, headed by Václav Havel.

“I think that what happened in November and December 1989 was a capitulation of the Communist Party. We expected come negotiations to take place, but they basically just left their posts, at least most of them did.”

After the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, in 1995, the Federal Assembly building was symbolically handed to US broadcaster Radio Free Europe. In 2009, it became part of the National Museum.