Huffpost WorldPost
John Feffer Headshot

Taking the Velvet Revolution to the People

Posted: Updated:
Print

There is often more support for radical change in the city than in the countryside. The Green movement in Iran in 2009 had tremendous support in Tehran but considerably less in the countryside. The Bulgarian opposition was convinced that it would win in the first democratic elections in 1990 elections but failed to take into account the resistance to radical change in the villages. Even in 1917, as John Reed describes in the last chapter of Ten Days That Shook the World, the Bolsheviks couldn't count on victory without convincing the peasants to find common cause with industrial workers in the cities.

The Velvet Revolution began in the cities of Czechoslovakia, primarily Prague and Bratislava. It was started by students and sustained by longtime dissidents from organizations like Charter 77. What made the revolution irreversible, however, were the efforts of mainly young people to spread the message of the revolution beyond the cities. In the first legislative elections in June 1990, the Civic Forum founded by Vaclav Havel and others captured nearly 50 percent of the vote while the Czech Communist Party won only a little more than 13 percent.

Michaela Novotna was one of the young people to go to the countryside. She and her boyfriend Vasek were medical students in 1989 when the revolution broke out. They, along with most of their fellow students, took an immediate break from school.

"We didn't study," she told me over coffee in Prague in February. "Not for several months. We didn't go to school. We were helping out: publishing papers, going to the country, visiting friends, trying to influence them. At the beginning there was lack of information coming out of Prague, and people didn't know what was going on. We spent a lot of time traveling to places that we knew. I went to northern Bohemia where I grew up, and I talked to people there."

"We were well accepted, mostly," she continued. "But sometimes it was a disappointment, even with people you thought would be happy to see us coming. You could see how scared they were, and they didn't want to help. Some of the teachers from my high school, whom I would never have thought would say such a thing, tried to stop us. They said, 'Wait, this is not the end, you'll regret it and you'll get kicked out of school.' But mostly we were warmly accepted."

Many of the students eventually added direct service to their role as disseminators of information about the revolution. Michaela Novotna added, "After a couple months, because some people started to say that the students weren't doing anything, weren't studying, we went to help out in hospitals. I remember working in children's oncology in a children's hospital. So that they couldn't say that we were just having fun."

We also talked about her present profession of psychiatry, the current political scene in the Czech Republic, and what it's been like to raise children who have had no direct experience of the Communist past. In 1990, when we met, Michaela accompanied me to a demonstration in Wencesclas Square and translated the speeches for me. A description of that demonstration follows the interview.

The Interview

A week after the Berlin Wall fell, the Velvet Revolution began here. Do you remember what you were doing at that time?

I remember that really well. I was at the first demonstration. I remember having a discussion with the students who organized the very first march through Prague that ended up in Narodni Trida. Of course I have very vivid memories of that because it was very scary. We were beaten up, and I was almost choked by my scarf. I was wearing this really long scarf. And it got pulled in different directions when people were being pushed in different directions. Luckily Vasek was there with me and helped me get out. We left that place through a narrow street where there were police dogs.

I remember calling home telling my parents, "Don't worry, I'm safe, nothing happened." My parents had their family over from Moravia. And they were saying, "What do you mean nothing happened. What's happening?"

I remember the people standing in the windows along Narodni Trida waving at us in support. It was very quick. Everything happened boom, boom, boom.

Were you able to concentrate on your studies?

We didn't study. Not for several months. We didn't go to school. We were helping out: publishing papers, going to the country, visiting friends, trying to influence them. At the beginning there was lack of information coming out of Prague, and people didn't know what was going on. We spent a lot of time traveling to places that we knew. I went to northern Bohemia where I grew up, and I talked to people there.

Did you go to northern Bohemia and just see your friends or did you go there and stand in the middle of the town square and just start talking?

Both. We started where I went to elementary school, then the town where I went to high school. We contacted the people we still knew. We organized meetings with people at school and in town. They were eager to meet with us, because they all sensed that this new momentum was coming from the students in Prague. We were well accepted, mostly. But sometimes it was a disappointment, even with people you thought would be happy to see us coming. You could see how scared they were, and they didn't want to help. Some of the teachers from my high school, whom I would never have thought would say such a thing, tried to stop us. They said, "Wait, this is not the end, you'll regret it and you'll get kicked out of school." But mostly we were warmly accepted. It was a fun time. I really enjoyed it!

Did you go to these places on your own initiative, or did you meet as a group of students and decide which parts of the country to visit?

Both. We would meet as a group of students in the huge hall along with people from other faculties. And we would say, "We know this place, we know some people there, so we'll go there."

Also, after a couple months, because some people started to say that the students weren't doing anything, weren't studying, we went to help out in hospitals. I remember working in children's oncology in a children's hospital. So that they couldn't say that we were just having fun.

At what point did everyone say it's time to go back to school?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.