The revolution that lives on.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- I was out at the Kolbenova flea market in the east of Prague doing some filming and talking to some of the people there, hearing some stories.
I eventually stumbled upon a film producer and a theater director who carted some of their old stuff out to the market to sell. They drove a golden van and told me that they had been set up at the market since 3 am. I told them a little about what I do; the film producer said that she was currently working on a German movie being shot in Prague. I was on the lookout for some good stories, and asked if they knew of any. They looked at me and stated that it was the 17th of November. I didn’t get the significance. “It’s the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Do you know what the Velvet Revolution was?” one of asked with a big smile, as though talking to a dumb child.
“Yes, I know what the Velvet Revolution was but just didn’t know the date …” I responded sheepishly.
“A lot of things are going to be going on downtown. You should go.”
The theater director gave me her card and invited me to her theater. Apparently, they open up the theaters on this day. I got the impression that people go in and party in them. Actors where one of the first groups to go on strike in the lead up to the revolution.
As I was on my way downtown I got a message from someone that I’d been trying to meet with for a couple of weeks. I’m trying to put together a couple of short documentaries in Prague and the person that just emailed is an essential part of one of them. She suggested we meet at a downtown cafe.
My way there took me directly through the festivities for the anniversary. Theater groups and musicians were performing. The street was packed with people waving Czech flags, holding flowers and candles.
The Velvet Revolution was one of the most ideal and well run revolutions in history. No shots were fired. Nobody was killed. The people of Czechoslovakia simply shut down the country and the government was forced to disintegrate. After 41 years of communist rule, the people here had enough. So in 1989, a week after the Berlin Wall came down, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Bratislava. The police beat them. The country said fuck that. A half million people came out to demonstrate, 75% of the workers went on strike. The communists got out while they still could. A month and a half later Czechoslovakia had their first democratic election.
There is something from this revolution that still lives on today. Anniversaries for it often turn into protests against the current government, which the demonstrators accuse of betraying the cause. If the president is bold enough to make an appearance he gets pelted with eggs, tomatoes, and sandwiches.
“When we first had democracy we thought that democracy meant that there wasn’t any rules,” a Czech friend once told me.
Although the people here may disagree with me, it is my impression that the Czech Republic is one of the least law-ed countries in the world — it really makes the “Land of the Free” seem like a detention center (which isn’t saying much). If you want to do something and it doesn’t really hurt anyone the government doesn’t get in your way — and the population ensures this. This is a country that can topple successive governments — kick presidents and prime ministers out of office — and keep on going, business as usual. Each November 17th they remind themselves that they need to keep on it, fueled by this deeply instilled insecurity that if they don’t they will lose what they gained in ’89.