Conversion & Revolution

The Velvet Revolution, the 1989 revolt that ended the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, was one of the great events of the postwar era. The Czech and Slovak generation that fomented it lived through an eventful half-century that took on the dimensions of high drama.

The first act of the drama could be said to have begun with the 1948 installation of a Stalinist regime in Prague. It would end in the mid-1960s, during the brief but rich moment of cultural and democratic renewal known as the Prague Spring. The second act might begin in 1968, with Soviet tanks putting a violent end to the Prague Spring, and show the dreary era of “Normalization,” when a Soviet puppet regime sought to undo the progress of the previous decade.

A happy final act could be traced from 1976 to 1989. The year 1976 saw the publication of Charter 77, an open letter that denounced the Communist regime’s human-rights abuses. (Many of the letter’s signatories were exiled, imprisoned, or lost their jobs.) Things looked bleak but, in a stunning reversal, the hopes of a people scarred by Stalinism and Normalization eventually prevailed in November 1989, when a series of peaceful protests led to the ouster of the Communist regime. To paraphrase one of the chief revolutionaries, the writer-turned-president Václav Havel: Truth and love triumphed over lies and hatred.

The Velvet Revolution was the product of art and culture, not only politics. Legend has it that its name was derived from The Velvet Underground & Nico, the 1967 New York rock album secretly distributed behind the Iron Curtain. The arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe, a homegrown rock group, was one of the inciting incidents for Charter 77. Václav Havel made his name as a playwright and essayist before entering electoral politics. Renowned philosopher Jan Patočka was the designated spokesman for the Charter 77 signatories, and something like their older, sage-like conscience.

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