Velvet at the Film School – discussing the legacy of the Velvet Revolution

FAMU, photo: archive of Radio Prague

Our special programme marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism was recorded on November 9 in front of a live audience at Prague’s celebrated film and TV academy. Radio Prague’s Jan Richter chaired a fascinating and lively discussion about the Velvet Revolution, its legacy and meaning for today. On the panel were: Jiří Stránský: a Czech writer who spent much of the 1950s in communist prisons; Václav Bartuška: a student activist at the time of the revolution and the first person to be given access to the StB (secret police) files – he is now the Czech Republic’s ambassador at large for energy security; Silvie Mitlenerová: a current Charles University Student and a student activist in Democracy Check-Up, a student initiative; Petr Slabý: a film maker and journalist, and a student activist at the time, studying at FAMU; Pavel Jech: the dean of FAMU, who spent the revolution in New York! The panel also answered questions from the audience. Here is a transcript of the discussion (shortened to fit the format of Radio Prague’s broadcasts), which began with Pavel Jech saying a few words about why it was taking place at FAMU:

Pavel Jech: “Why are we here on this anniversary...? Because it was the students – the students of Prague and the students of FAMU – that played a key and critical role in the Velvet Revolution.”

RP: We have two former students here, who took part in the revolution themselves, Petr Slabý and Václav Bartuška:

Václav Bartuška: “Well it was certainly a good time, and it was interesting to see how people suddenly took a real interest in their lives and who runs them and who rules the country. It’s funny to watch the situation today, 20 years later, when we basically have the same disregard for our present politicians – and see them as jerks basically – and at the same time don’t care enough to change anything. That’s rather sad, I would say. But apart from that, I’m quite happy it happened. It was the best time of my life, for sure!”

RP: Mr Stránský, how do you feel about the ‘pathos’ of the revolution today? Do you think that Czechs have grown cynical, perhaps, about the achievements of 1989?

Jiří Stránský: “A little bit, of course – myself also – but I am a really big optimist. I was always sure that I would live to see freedom myself. I must say that sometimes I’m a little bit sad that we had in our hands heaps of possibilities to reach something better than we’ve reached till now. Otherwise I’m content and pleased. I don’t think somebody will put me into prison a third time. My ten years, I think, were enough!”

RP: Petr Slabý, you were a student activist at the time. The student march got blocked by communist police just metres away from the building where we’re sitting now. What are your memories of the time and how do you look at it now?

Petr Slabý: “The people were marching in Prague and even saying some anti-communist things, and they were stopped here in Národní třída [National Avenue], which was quite a shock, because there was a wall of policemen at one moment, and they stopped the crowd. But nothing happened in the first moments. We were waiting what will happen and it was almost two hours. We were just standing and had no chance to escape. And then they slowly started to press the crowd, which was an absolutely horrible situation, and at one moment they did something and there was a chance to escape, but they were beating everybody and that started the whole thing. But still the mystery is how it was organised. It was strange because the manifestation was really official, and so the young people still ask, was it all set up by the secret police, or was it a game of the high politicians and so on.”

RP: Well, there are of course many theories about what really happened in November 1989. There are also many conspiracy theories about the CIA and KGB, and Czechoslovak Communist Party infighting. Mr Bartuška, you were a member of a committee that investigated what happened in Národní třída. So, did you learn what happened?

Václav Bartuška: “I really do believe that it was the falling of the rotten tree. There was no conspiracy, I don’t believe in that. Look, the system really was at the end of the road, socialism was dead, it couldn’t provide basic goods for people. And it collapsed all around Eastern Europe because there was nothing to support it. It was simply gone. It couldn’t provide basic goods – not even toilet paper.”

Silvie Mitlenerová
RP: Silvie Mitlenerová, you were two years old when the communist regime collapsed. When did you first realise that the country had been run in the past by a totalitarian regime?

Silvie Mitlenerová: “I think it must have been some time in the middle of my life, at about ten years of age. I appreciate that my parents informed me about what happened. They always stressed that it was not right and it should not be repeated. This family background also led me to our initiative celebrating and remembering the 20th anniversary.”

RP: That initiative is called Democracy Check-Up and on your website you say you want to look at the anniversary and celebrate it in a different way. What’s the point of the initiative? How do you want to look at it?

Silvie Mitlenerová: “Of course we are happy we have democracy and we can stand on Wenceslas Square and say almost what we like, but we also want to reflect what happened since the Velvet Revolution, and what should be improved and repaired in our country.”

RP: Comparing the Velvet Revolution and the events in other countries in the region, why did it come so late?

Jiří Stránský: “We are such a very queer nation, which knows very well how to fear. We are even afraid to believe in something.”

Petr Slabý
Václav Bartuška: “When Gorbachev announced that the Eastern European countries can do what they want, it took us almost two years to realise that this time the Russians actually weren’t lying, and it’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t do it earlier. But he said it because the Soviet Union was bankrupt itself.”

RP: Would you say it was obvious from the very start that communism in Czechoslovakia was over?

Václav Bartuška: “No, no, it was not. When we began the [students’] strike on the Monday, it was just half a year after Tiananmen in China, and our real belief, or at least that of my schoolmates, was that we will be detained by noon, all of us, because we didn’t expect that all the universities would go on strike with us.

Petr Slabý: “I think you have to remember that ‘perestroika’ started in the Soviet Union in 1985, but it was in the Soviet Union. It was followed by Hungary and Poland, and they started a new way. But as always it was much slower here, because our politicians were afraid to say that perestroika is not good, but they were afraid to say it is good! So they didn’t know what to do with it. So it really came from the people, who started to understand that they have a chance to do something.”

Pavel Jech
RP: Mr Jech, what did it look like from outside? You followed the developments in New York. When did you become certain that communism was over in your country?

Pavel Jech: “Well, it was fairly clear on November 9, when the Berlin Wall fell. When that wall fell, which was the symbol of all communism in Central and Eastern Europe, it became clear that everything else that would follow would be inevitable. But I remember I was a student at Columbia University at the time, and I was studying history with a professor who was very well regarded in his analysis of Eastern and Central European politics, and the whole thesis of the class I was in at the time was that communism will not fall easily, that it will not happen for a very long time!”

[At this point Petr Slabý leaves the discussion for another appointment.]

RP: Historical reality is one thing, but its image twenty years on is quite another. Here is a clip of Prague 17-year-olds, talking about what the Velvet Revolution means to them:

Girl 1: “I was born after the revolution, so I know nothing and it’s nothing for me. Girl 2: “I was born after the revolution, but I know something about the revolution. [Is that because you’ve been actively interested in finding out more about it?] Yes, I think it isn’t history, because the Communist Party still exists. Boy 1: “I think the Communist Party should be forbidden.” Girl 3: “It’s interesting, because we now think it’s something bad, but we don’t know why.” Boy 2: “I think it is good that the Communist Party ended here, but in some places in the world it still remains. [And do you think it is important for people in the Czech Republic, which has this experience of communism, to try to help those other countries?] I think we have to give advice to those countries. I don’t think they should make exactly the same revolution as here, but I think we have to tell them that it is good to live without communism. Girl 4: “I think maybe it’s better to forget, because maybe we can move on.”

Václav Bartuška
RP: That’s a very good question, of course. Should we move on? Silvie Mitlenerová, your initiative seems not to share that opinion.

Silvie Mitlenerová: “Certainly we should move on, and much more quickly than we have until now, but I don’t agree with the girl that we should forget the past. We heard, I think, six or seven young people and almost none of them knows anything about the Velvet Revolution, which happened just 20 years ago. What does that mean? If we forget the time of communism, it can easily come back.”

Jiří Stránský: “No nations should forget their history, because the moment you forget your history, you do your best to repeat the worst things that happened to your fathers and grandfathers.”

Václav Bartuška: “History is always personal. You either remember it or it doesn’t exist. Everything that’s written in the books is dead. There is no way we can pass sensibly what was socialism to this young generation. There is no way. And frankly speaking why should we bother them too much. They have their own screw-ups waiting for them. They will make their own mistakes, but hopefully it will not be under the occupation of a foreign country.”

RP: Have Czechs done enough, coping with their communist legacy? The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has just published a list of communist secret police agents, trained to work abroad. There is good news – that the Czechs are doing a lot compared to other countries in the region. There is also bad news – one of the agents is now deputy interior minister! What does this say about the way that Czechs see the 40 years of communist rule?

Václav Bartuška: “I was probably the first – or among the first – who went into the secret police archives. I got permission from parliament on January 15 1990. I spent almost half a year there, and it’s not pleasant, because you suddenly see the worst side of people, because that’s what fills those pages. So this is obviously one part of our history which nobody is happy to open up. So the secret police archives are still a huge bomb under our foundations, because we have thousands of people who were police informers, and we have thousands more who, sometimes under extreme duress, sometimes willingly, sometimes even stupidly, I would say, were willing to destroy other people’s lives.”

Silvie Mitlenerová: “Well, I think we can’t get into history just thanks to those lists. Of course, it’s great that the archives are being opened, but it can be too simple a line to draw: Did he sign or didn’t he sign? Was he an agent or wasn’t he an agent? We young people just can’t fully understand how it was to be under repression. But I think we should get much more context than just the lists. I appreciate that we can go and look into them, but I think it’s not enough and it’s just a little part of it all.”

Jiří Stránský: “When I listen to you, I suddenly think that schools should be teaching self-respect more than the history of our nation. There comes a moment when you should say: No! This step I can’t go over! And that was the art of communism, that they knew, with the experience of Nazism and other –isms, how to cause fear, how to make people fear. And the moment you fear, you do things you would never do. There is another thing which is even more dangerous – and that’s envy. Now these days I again see politicians causing envy among the nations: that you should envy him. And the moment you envy him, you hate him, of course. And I think the formula of envy and these things is so clear. Why don’t we recognize it? It’s so easy. [Turns to Silvie…] Do you think so?”

Silvie Mitlenerová, Jan Richter, Václav Bartuška
Silvie Mitlenerová: “I’m not ready to answer the question…”

Jiří Stránský: “Ah, that’s right. But you agree with me at least, I hope…”

Silvie Mitlenerová: “Yes, that’s it.”

Jiří Stránský: “I’m just sorry that we are doing such faults in our lives, and we are just breathlessly running somewhere. We don’t even see the birds flying around us and things like that. You know, I’m a writer, so there is always – there should be always – a little bit of poetry around. We forget these things because we are running so fast somewhere – we don’t know where. Otherwise it’s good!”

RP: Mr Bartuška, are we living what you thought 20 years ago we would be living? In other words, was the revolution successful from your point of view?

Václav Bartuška: “I’m definitely sure it was worth it and that we are moving in the right direction. Much more slowly probably than we would want to, but we are. And I think the biggest lesson of November ’89 is that when the public decides to have some say in how their country is run, they can have a profound impact. They can really make things happen and they can decide. We’re becoming a normal, relatively boring, European country, which might be the best thing to happen to us. We’ve been in the news for too long. Let’s just disappear from the news for a few decades. Let’s be something really, really boring, like Switzerland, for example. Why not? That’s a nice aspiration, isn’t it?”

Jiří Stránský: “No, no. I wouldn’t like that. I have two brothers there. I would never be a Swiss!”

Jiří Stránský
RP: Okay, let’s not be free for too long! Miss Mitlenerová, what is the message of November 1989 for you – for yourself and your generation?

Silvie Mitlenerová: “As I watch movies and listen to people who lived and made the November of 1989, I feel it must have been a great time. I’m always amazed how the people could work together and work it out. I have to say I would have liked to have been here myself.”

RP: Now let’s turn to the audience for any questions they might have for our guests:

Question 1: You [Silvie] work and you lead a students’ organization here at Prague University. I wanted to ask you if you have an idea of the interest of students generally. Are they really interested in reflecting a little bit about the past, and, as you said, the important role they should take later on of leading this country?

Silvie Mitlenerová: “We did find out how it is and we are not content with it. In the spring semester of 2009 we started to prepare a students’ declaration for November 17. We invited all the students, and there were only some 30 students who came to participate. I found it terrible. I think there’s a mood among some of them that if something goes too wrong they can always fly to another country and spend their life there. I think still we should start by repairing things here and I think we should take the condition of our democracy seriously.”

Question 2: I think there was a consensus among the panel that despite the progress that’s been made in the country in terms of democratic development, the country could be further down the road. If each of the panelists could respond to this, I’d be interested in their different perspectives. What tangibly has to happen in the next ten or twenty years for the country’s democracy to reach that next level?

Silvie Mitlenerová: “In my opinion, we students have to grow up and take power. I think we can repair it in the period of twenty years or so.”

Václav Bartuška: “I think that democracy in most of the West is a dying form of art. When you go to countries like China or India you understand that there are still countries that struggle for something. We stopped struggling and we just go shopping. And I think the problem for the West will be when we face up to the competitors in the world who don’t have enough and want to have the lifestyle we have. How do we square off?

RP: Mr Stránský?

Jiří Stránský: “Well, don’t ask me! I’m nearly 80! There is a friend of mine who is 96 and he was twelve years in prison. He was my teacher in prison. And he said once, when he was here in Prague: We care about so many things instead of caring about each other. And I think that is what I hope.”

Photo: David Vaughan

You can hear a full, unedited version of the discussion here: