These Slovak Lives: November 17th, 1989

On the twentieth anniversary of former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Whitney Medved interviews two Slovak women who lived through it.

Asking Slovak people point-blank what they think about November 17th, 1989 — the kickoff of the Velvet Revolution — is sort of like asking Americans how they feel about Martin Luther King Day. Some people have impassioned reactions and feel deeply connected to the socio-political implications of the holiday, others are neutral and understand why it’s celebrated but don’t really feel personally invested, and then there are those who aren’t quite sure why they get the day off from work or school.

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For those who find meaning in the date, asking about it is also sort of like opening up floodgates for a dissertation on life under socialism. How does a person express what effect an event had or failed to have without telling you what the environment was like before? How does one pull on a single thread without unraveling the rest of the complicated tapestry?

I spoke with Dr. Maja Vrábelová, who like me believes that history isn’t just a dusty, printed pile of objective facts, but also an experiential archive that must constantly be communicated and handed off to the next generation.

“I’m from a generation which remembers a lot, so I can share my experiences, memories, and stories with my students just to let them know how it was,” she said. “We have to defend our history. Each new generation has to learn this history to be proud of our forefathers and be motivated to be even better. The nation which does not remember its history will never move ahead.”

Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia was not toppled in a day, but a big step was taken on November 17th. In Prague’s Václavské Námestie (Wencelas Square), a peaceful student protest marching toward Narodni Divadlo (National Theater) was met by an armed police blockade. The students pushed forward, empty hands or illuminated candles lifted up as evidence as they shouted, “Máme holé ruce! (We have empty hands!).” The “Velvet” Revolution, dubbed such because of its supposedly non-violent nature, became a little less harmless when many of these students were clubbed and beaten by the law enforcement. The protestors escaped into the theater, where the actors flung open their gates to provide refuge for the students, and then quickly slammed them on the police. The theater became a sort of political sanctuary, and typical evening performances turned instead into dramatic political discussions and rallies, led by figures such as Vaclav Havel.

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Dr. Maja Vrábelová vividly recounts the above events of November 17, 1989, though she was not present in Prague nor an actively protesting student. Even though the Czech capital city was the epicenter of all the socio-political action, the sentiment ran throughout Czechoslovakia, and Vrábelová felt and still feels very connected to the events that took place there in ‘89.

A native of Bratislava, Vrábelová was born in 1952 and refers to her generation as the “Youth of Gottwold.” Her entire life has been laced with political undertones, from the Soviet propaganda which decorated her classroom walls as a child to the conversations she overheard her parents having in hushed tones, intentionally muffled by the sound of running water.

“I became an adult very quickly,” she says.

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On August 21 of 1968 — the year of the “Prague Spring,” another politically and culturally momentous year in Czechoslovak history — a sixteen-year-old Vrábelová watched an invading Russian tank gun down her classmate, Peter Legner in a square in Bratislava while she stood only a few feet away. For Vrábelová, the rolling boil of determination and resolution that manifested itself in the protests of ’89 —and spilled over into the squares of Prague, Bratislava, and other towns and villages throughout Czechoslovakia — had been a long time coming.

It generally took time for things to ripple out from Prague to Bratislava.

“Honestly, during the time of Czechoslovakia, Bratislava was always like a smaller sister who did not need anything new, who was modest and content with the leftovers from her bigger sister,” she said. “Prague was getting everything — new construction and repairs of Old Town, new bridges, big department stores. Also good movies, new books, and so on.”

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As the “big sister,” Prague not only had access to material items first, but the city also paved the way in terms of social activism. It took about three days for news of the uprising in Prague to reach the Slovak capital, and when it did, Bratislava rose too. The Vysoká škola Muzických Umení (University of Musical Art) became the epicenter of political meetings; and just like in Prague, the actors offered asylum to the students, and turned the regularly scheduled evening performances into impassioned political gatherings.

In the two largest cities of Czechoslovakia, the aftermath of the first large-scale protest manifested itself in these repeating theater meetings, and outdoor protests in squares.

But was November 17 so dramatically charged for all Czechoslovak citizens? What about those who lived far away from the hustle and bustle of capital cities, in the towns and villages scattered throughout the mountains, valleys, and countryside?

Pavla Seifertová wasn’t part of any underground insurgency movement. She didn’t aid in circulating samizdat nor convene in the theaters like the Magic Lantern to protest. She was not part of the protest at Václavské Námestie, the following protests in Letna where thousands gathered in spontaneous yet theatrical protest, nor the eventual rallies in Bratislava. The extent of her activism was attending music festivals at which protest was alluded, but in a strictly censor-friendly presentation.

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Seifertová lived hours and hours away from all the action, nestled in the hills of Brezno (now Slovakia), already married with two children, ages seven and ten. She was teaching, leading a more or less ho-hum life regulated by the not-overly oppressive yet looming presence of Communism.

Or perhaps it was suffocating — while trying to dredge up memories Pavla said, “I realize how much I can remember and it’s amazingly frightening.”

Since she had no knowledge of another way of life though, nor anything to compare socialism to, she didn’t know how frightening the limitations placed on her really were. At the time, Seifertová felt the weight of Communism most through the restrictions on movement and travel.

“We were locked in this socialist part of Europe, so nobody could escape from this ‘paradise.’”

Even traveling to other Soviet bloc countries was a hassle. It also made communication with family and friends from the outside virtually impossible. Her sister had immigrated to Sweden, so seeing or even speaking with her was out of the question indefinitely.

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As the 17th approached, Seifertová could at least empathize with the determination of those in the bigger cities. It was contagious. For her, this pronounced break from the status quo seemed to come out of left field, but was no doubt “the signal” that change was brewing. Under socialism, people had become accustomed to accepting life as it was.

“You couldn’t simply choose something, it was given,” she said.

While the exact date of November 17 wasn’t particularly momentous in Brezno, the following days were. After any sort of nationally momentous event, the school becomes an important venue for discussion, digestion, or at least explanation. Therefore, for about a week after the protests started, all-school meetings disrupted regular scheduling. Confused students and teachers watched the The Day After, a fictional American film about a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and tried to discuss what exactly was going to change, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.

Twenty years later, the restrictive life under Communism is at least economically a distant memory — what with Tesco and other “hypermarkets” — and is sometimes even remembered fondly through a pair of rose-colored lenses. Was it really all that bad?

People who experienced the Velvet Revolution, like Vrábelová and Seifertová, are grateful for the gained freedoms of elections, religion, travel, and simply the possibility for a better life for their children. However, they also cite an increase in crime and drug use, more expensive food (“Western prices with Eastern salaries” according to a saying Seifertová has heard) and a general discrepancy between inflated cost of living and still low salaries as residual effects of the fall of the Socialist system.

The current generation of youth have a cursory understanding at best of November 17 and the Velvet Revolution, or even what life was like under socialism. When I ask younger people about it, they frequently reply, “Well, we weren’t alive” or “We were so small.” Yet they have no problem developing a visceral reaction towards the oppression of the Hungarian Empire in the 12th Century.

Maybe twenty years is just far enough away to feel detached, yet not far enough to consider “historical.” Like the awkward growing-out stage of a bad haircut — it’s not quite short but you wouldn’t call it long. The Slovak Republic has only technically been an independent nation for sixteen years, but before this most recent demarcation of territory, Slovakia had a cultural or ethnic identity for centuries. When you’re working with a history that reaches so far back, twenty years must be like the blink of an eye. Maybe the country is still trying to process what exactly November 17th meant, and what role it had in shaping Slovak national identity.


Photos scanned from Z tých dní by Pavla Mikuláška and Občanske fóry by multiple authors.

Whitney Medved is currently living in the hills of Central Slovakia on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant, "teaching some English and hanging out with old people." Word on the street is students refer to her as "the Hurricane."