02/16/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2014

Behind the Velvet Revolution

The fall of Communism in East-Central Europe was as much a series of miscalculations on the part of the authorities as it was a burst of revolutionary organizing from below. In Poland, the Communist Party calculated that it would win in the first semi-free elections on June 4, 1989 and instead it lost nearly every seat that it contested. In East Germany, the Party spokesman made an announcement about new travel regulations on November 9, 1989 and mistakenly told the press that the regulations went into effect "immediately," triggering the breach in the Berlin Wall.

But the miscalculations surrounding the start of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were perhaps the oddest of all. The authorities gave official approval to a commemoration of November 17, International Students' Day. The day marks the anniversary of the Nazi storming of the Czech universities in 1939 and the killing, in particular, of student Jan Opletal. The student march was peaceful. But the police decided to take action against the crowd.

Charter 77 signatory and long-time activist Vaclav Trojan was in the crowd that day. "Nobody expected that on such a day, the police would do a very brutal action," he told me in an interview in Prague last February. "And for me, it's still puzzling why they did it. Well, it was not so horrible. It was dramatic, but it was a kind of artificially created hysteria. As you perhaps know, they arranged to have an agent, a policeman, play the role of somebody who was injured and maybe dead. The information about this provoked the people to do something. I'm not sure whether it would have happened so quickly, and so simply, without this dramatic situation."

The strangest part was the bit of theater involving the staging of the death of the student. After all, the authorities must have been quite familiar with the history surrounding those anniversaries. On October 28, 1939, itself the anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak state, students had protested against the Nazi occupation, and that's when the Nazis had killed Jan Opletal. It was his funeral on November 17 that occasioned the Nazi execution of nine Czech students and professors. Given this history, why did the Communist authorities, 50 years later on November 17, 1989, "kill" another student?

"We were trying to find out about the student Martin Smid that the media reported had died," Trojan remembered. "I went to the student hostels to find out what really happened, but nobody really knew. We were just going from flat to flat. I went to Vaclav Havel's flat, and Vaclav Benda's flat. By chance, when I was in Vaclav Havel's flat close to the Vltava, along with Jan Urban, Ladislav Lis, and others, that was the moment when they decided to create the movement they called Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum). By Sunday, there was some march going to the Vltava, but it was still small. But by Monday it was already happening, the massive demonstrations."

The secret service agent who played the role of the supposedly dead Martin Smid -- Ludvik Zifcak -- tells an elaborate tale of how his actions were designed to trigger a purge within the Communist Party and a crackdown on the opposition similar to Martial Law in Poland in 1981. A parliamentary inquiry into the events of November 17 cast doubts on Zifcak's narrative, while another version of the same events casts Zifcak as a peripheral player in an operation, code-named Wedge, by which reform-minded Communists were looking for ways to coopt key members of the opposition.

Whichever version of this key event is true, the Velvet Revolution wouldn't have proceeded without the network of dissidents who had been patiently preparing for just such an opportunity. Vaclav Trojan was part of this network, providing essential technical support. He worked at the Institute of Computers, which turned out to be a perfect place to survive as a dissident.

"In our Institute there were five of us who signed Charter 77," he said. "Almost all the scientists in the Institute said that if one of us will be kicked out of the Institute, all of us would resign. They were very much afraid about that, and they needed us. So, they didn't kick us out of the institute because they needed to continue the Comecon program, with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, of developing mainframe computers."

But they could also use computers for other purposes. "In the late 1980s we started to help publish some unofficial books and we were developing ways to print and distribute them on computers," he recalled. "But this was just the beginning, and it was happening just at the end of Communism. If Communism hadn't fallen so fast, we could have done a lot with computers at that time. Our publishing effort was getting started when personal computers existed, and it's a very good tool for editing and distributing information."

We also talked about his experience of 1968, the work he did after 1989 on human rights issues, and the campaign he has waged to save the public health system.

The Interview

I want to go back a little bit before 1989. You were working at the Institute of Computers. Was that something you had studied in school?

No, I studied philosophy and sociology. But I was among the group of student activists who, after 1968 and the Soviet invasion, found it practically impossible to get a job in this field. And I didn't want such a job because -- after the Prague spring, after the liberalization, after all the very interesting debates and discussions -- the social sciences were ideologically limited and it was practically impossible to do something interesting. Already, during my studies, I was quite used to mathematical logic, and to computers. So I decided not to continue in social sciences. I found the job at the Institute of Computers, which was very, very interesting and I was very lucky that I was able to work there. The research was at quite a high level, and the institute was not marginal. It was quite a good group of people.

There wasn't much connection to politics. Many scientists and researchers emigrated in 1968, mainly to the United States. The government here needed to create a new group of people, so they practically accepted the people's political limits. As it happened, in research, there were many dissidents. In our Institute there were five of us who signed Charter 77, for instance. Almost all the scientists in the Institute said that if one of us will be kicked out of the Institute, all of us would resign. They were very much afraid about that, and they needed us. So, they didn't kick us out of the institute because they needed to continue the Comecon program, with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, of developing mainframe computers. At that time these were big computers, as big as this room. And they weren't even as powerful as my mobile phone. So they somehow let us do our work and didn't care too much about our political opinions.

I was not allowed to publish anything after 1977. I was not allowed to formally manage a group of people. But informally, I was managing some small research groups. There wasn't a lot of pay, but during the Communist time, it was not so important how much money you got. Our flats were quite cheap, and we still had the possibilities to have some outside jobs. In terms of material conditions, my life was not so bad. Of course there were a lot of police investigations and persecutions. They took me, for instance, at 3 am to the police station for an investigation, and I'd have to spend two days there. But I was never really sentenced to real jail. I just had to endure such idiotic things. I could not travel. They kicked me out of my Ph.D. program. I'm not complaining. These things were not so important. I'm just trying to give you some picture of how it was.

Did your manager or the head of the Institute ever have a conversation with you about your Charter 77 signing?

Yes, they asked me to remove my signature from Charter 77. But the Communist needed us. They needed our professional work. They let us know that we were not beloved by the authorities, but they let us live. There were a few Communists at our institute. I knew the guy who was the chairman of the Communist Party at the Institute, and he was a very good guy. He was a good programmer, a good mathematician, and by the late 1980s, he was already signing some petitions. He helped us very much by covering for us. So I cannot complain. There were many other people who signed Charter 77 who were in much worse situations.

Daniel Kumermann didn't complain much either. He told me that cleaning windows was not such a bad job.

From the point of view of money, it may have been often better to clean windows than to work in the research institute! But it's impossible to compare the situations. They took away my passport; the police even took my driver's license. But I had enough to eat. I survived. But for many people it was much worse. However, for some groups of people it's difficult today -- for instance for Roma people.

Were you able to use your technical knowledge for the opposition movement?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.