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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The Velvet Revolution: From the Peripheries to the Center - and Vice Versa

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Ilana Hartikainen

Even after the communist regimes had tumbled down in three of Czechoslovakia’s neighbors, the Velvet Revolution still came as a surprise. How could a government that was so entrenched, so hardline, collapse in such a short time? But that was exactly what happened just thirty years ago: on the morning of 17 November1989, there was nothing out of the ordinary for the grand majority of communist Czechoslovakia’s citizens. Eleven days later, on 28 November 1989, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Československá, KSČ) announced that it would give up its complete control over the state, thereby ending one-party rule.

The major changes to the country’s political and economic systems — from single party control to a liberal democracy, from a state-controlled economy to a more free-market, capitalist system — also came with major societal changes. And in tracking who moved from the societal peripheries to the centre and vice versa, we can also see how some of the Czech Republic’s major political cleavages arose.

After forty years of single-party rule, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that many of those who already built up political connections and political capital were able to maintain them. When it came to the country’s political elites, many simply switched loyalties from the KSČ to one of the new (or newly relevant) parties within the new democratic system. In cases like these, the previous centre remained at the centre of political authority. On the symbolic side of the political realm, though, the center of public respect moved a full 180 degrees. While those who had held local or regional political power in the previous system often managed to maintain their positions, many of the most celebrated politicians and public figures of the new era became those who had resisted the communist regime.

The most prominent example of this, of course, is former Czechoslovak and later Czech president Václav Havel. During the state-socialist era, the government had demonized Havel in the media and jailed him numerous times for his anti-regime activities and writings. He still managed to gain prominence despite these attempts at repression, with critical pieces like his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978 and then published abroad in English in 1985, earning him worldwide acclaim. On 29 December 1989, Havel became the new president of Czechoslovakia. While the new constitution did not grant the president much in the way of executive power, Havel brought substantial moral weight to the position after his decades of resistance. When Havel and his many fellow dissidents came to occupy the upper echelon of the country’s intelligentsia, the formerly repressed enjoyed their newfound freedom and societal respect. No longer were they jailed or maligned, living on society’s outer fringes; instead, their statements were taken seriously.

The Czechoslovak dissident community was small even in relation to the other former members of the Warsaw Pact, so this shift only affected very few people. The symbolic turn, however, had a much wider effect. Broadly speaking, those who had resisted the regime became the new centre, and those who had supported it or benefitted from it were pushed to the margins. There are many sides to this story. A strict lustration policy, for example, meant that anyone who had been in the employment of the secret police (Státní bezpečnost, StB) was barred from holding most positions of public trust, including high-ranking positions in civil service, government ministries, the army, and state owned enterprises like the national bank or Czech Railways. And less officially but almost every bit as significantly, an anti-communist mood overtook the country, coming from politicians, the media, and even pop culture.

In the political sphere, this meant that the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) was relegated to the sidelines, with the centre-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) even formalizing a rule never to form a coalition with KSČM. While this did keep the Communists out of government, they nonetheless enjoyed considerable success; they maintained a position as the third most popular party throughout the country, rarely dipping below 10 percent of the vote in any election at the local, region, or national level. While a sizeable percentage of their support began to come from protest voters, anticommunism created a toxic climate for voters who supported KSČM for ideological or practical reasons.

Constant messaging from the media and other political parties painted the KSČM as nostalgic dinosaurs or otherwise pushed them to the edges of society. For many, though, the end of state socialism was not a straightforwardly positive development. The aftermath of 1989 brought material losses in addition to a reorientation of social hierarchies for some industrial and agricultural workers who had depended on the security the regime provided in the form of guaranteed jobs, housing, and comfortable pension schemes.[1] During the Velvet Revolution, for example, students from Prague — the capital, which had always been the country’s centre — went to talk to mine workers in the Ústí nad Labem region in an effort to convince them to join the planned general strike. The miners did not meet the students with enthusiasm. “If we were slacking off like you are, we’d soon die of hunger and cold,” one miner replied when the students asked for the miners’ opinion.[2]

There is no way of knowing now whether the miner in question actually felt that way, or if he was merely worried about speaking a different, anti-regime opinion on camera. But after the state ended its control of the economy, that once prosperous mining region is now the poorest in the country. Or, from another sector of the socialist economy, take the example of the women who had worked on a collective farm in the Stalinist 1950s and then looked back on the period fondly, as the only time when they could travel abroad as a reward for work well done — something that was no longer possible for them. “Who could afford it?” one woman remarked.[3]

Although they are not often given much airtime in Czech society today, acknowledging rather than marginalizing the voices of those who weren’t striking and then celebrating in the streets in late November 1989 challenges reductive narratives of the Velvet Revolution. Engaging with these more nuanced accounts doesn’t take away from the celebration of those who were — or the cause that they were fighting for. After all, regime change in Czechoslovakia ushered in a society that is freer and more prosperous for more of the citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The rights to speak, travel, protest and overall live more freely must always be appreciated — and acknowledging the multi-dimensionality of this historical episode doesn’t detract from its importance.

[1] Petr Matëjù (1996) Winners and losers in the post‐communist transformation: The czech republic in comparative perspective, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 9:3, 371-390, DOI: 10.1080/13511610.1996.9968495

[2] Velvet Revolution [Něžná revoluce] [Documentary]. Directed by Jiří STŘECHA and Petr SLAVÍK. Czechoslovakia: Krátký film, 1989.

Ilana Hartikainen is a member of the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague and a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Helsinki. She is a co-creator of the educational resource Socialism Realised: Life in Czechoslovakia, 1948-1989

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