Tuesday, November 17, 2009
November marks the 20th anniversary of the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, which led to the downfall of Communism. We speak with a local resident about her life during this time.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Just last week the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The image of people joyously breaking that concrete wall has become a symbol for the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. But what happened in Berlin was only one in a string of events that changed the face of Europe 20 years ago. On November 17, 1989, the citizens of Czechoslovakia began a series of peaceful protests that became known as the Velvet Revolution. At the end of 10 days of huge demonstrations, the Czech Communist Party gave up power. One person who was a witness to history in Prague, Czechoslovakia is my guest Marketa Hancova. She was a young teacher who joined the protests back in 1989. She is now Dean of Education at Platt College right here in San Diego. And, Marketa, welcome to These Days.
MARKETA HANCOVA (Dean, Platt College): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you remember hearing about the Velvet Revolution? Do you have questions about what it was like to live under Communist rule? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. First of all, Marketa, I want to ask you about that music that we heard at the opening. Who was that?
CAVANAUGH: And what was he singing?
HANCOVA: That was Jaromir Nohavica, one of the singers that is truly, truly beloved in Czechoslovakia. He started singing before the revolution and he was one of the carriers of hope for us because culture was the one weapon we had where we could feel that we are not alone in the operation and in the life we were leading. And, you know, you can express sentimental for whatever you want and you cannot be punished for it. So he sang songs that in metaphor explain how patiently we are waiting for day that we can finally do something about the situation.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, why was this momentous change in Czechoslovakia called the Velvet Revolution?
HANCOVA: It was called Velvet Revolution for the fact that every revolution is usually associated with bloodshed or some, you know, lives are lost, etcetera. And the Velvet Revolution heard not one shot and no blood was lost and it was totally peaceful. And I just want to tell you that 92% of the population of what was then Czechoslovakia participated, which is absolutely unbelievable. And everybody went there just with one weapon and it was patience, and believe that we can achieve what we want just by standing in the cold November days and screaming at the top of our lungs that we have enough and we just will not do under the Communist rule anymore.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Marketa, you were one of the people who were in the streets of Prague.
HANCOVA: Yes, yes.
CAVANAUGH: One of that 92%.
HANCOVA: Yes, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Tell – What events led up to these huge demonstrations? Wasn’t it that the police broke up a student demonstration?
HANCOVA: Yes. Yes, two days, 17th of November, 1999, was Friday, cold November night. I remember it, and it was the very first day of the big demonstration where about 2,000 to 3,000 hundred people came to the street but it had the prologue. The prologue was day before, November 16th. It’s International Day of Students. And there was organized – a demonstration of students to go to celebrate actually the victims of the wars, of students who perished in wars, specifically Jan Opletal, who was murdered by Nazi in 1939. It was 50th anniversary of his death. And when we were all in the cemetery, which is the well known Czech cemetery where lots of well known people are buried, it’s on the hill, on the top of the hill, when we are all there, somebody screamed, let’s also remember Jan Palach. And Jan Palach was our hero. He was person who was erased from the Czech history because he set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Russian invasion. So, of course, the Communist would never mention his name.
CAVANAUGH: Didn’t remind – no.
HANCOVA: No, and whoever would mention the name, you would be in trouble. So somebody spontaneously said let’s go down to Wenceslas Square where he set himself on fire and let’s remember him. And so we would descend down from the hill and because Prague is medieval city, it has very narrow streets and we would go down, and down there was already corridor of army, police and militia. Militia was a armed force out of volunteers from the communist party and we had to go through and they would beat every single person who would go through corridor. So nobody could escape the, you know…
CAVANAUGH: And so, in a sense, these huge demonstrations that followed were in reaction to that. And you wrote a firsthand account of what the atmosphere was like in Prague, in Czechoslovakia, during those protests. Can you read an excerpt of that for us, please…
HANCOVA: Yes. Prague is boiling. The restaurants, pubs, bars are full. There are hundreds of people in the streets, talking, laughing, singing, dancing, signing petitions, playing guitars and, mostly, wildly debating. Everyone is glowing with optimism. Nobody is in a hurry anywhere. This is the place to be. This is what life is about. The atmosphere is charged with joy, happiness, and determination to win. The next day, the crowd is bigger than yesterday. Again, we gather in the main square, braving the cold November day, ready to stand here forever. The speaker, one of our persecuted dissidents, announces that all of the factories are on strike. The crowd breaks into forceful clapping and shouting. I notice how the sky is blue today. The crowd falls quiet. Suddenly, somebody’s big voice shouts, svoboda, freedom. There is a silence for two or three seconds. How many of us have never heard this word publicly? I feel pain in my chest from the surge of emotions. Then we all start mightily shouting ‘svobo-da, svobo-da, free-dom, free-dom.’
CAVANAUGH: That is Marketa Hancova. She was a young teacher who joined the protests back in 1989 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during the Velvet Revolution. We are taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join the conversation. I am right in saying that you were a young teacher back then…
CAVANAUGH: …and you were marching with your students.
HANCOVA: Yes, yes, I was. And, you know, it was such exhilarating times because everybody just left everything what you would be doing and you would just go to the streets and the reason was, as I was describing how we were descending from the hill, there was a rumor that one of the student was killed. Thanks God it was a rumor but thanks God for that rumor because I believe, Maureen, that that day our parents, for the first time, lost the fear and join us, the children who were beat up, in the streets. Because I felt that – I feel that they knew that’s the moment they cannot miss because they’re fighting for us. And, you know, I don’t know if everybody will agree with me but I think the seed of what happened in Eastern Europe was planted by Mikhail Gorbachev who knew that it’s unsustainable and him bringing in glasnost, the openness, actually losing little, little bit the situation, and something was in the air that people kind of felt that this is the moment we need to catch and we need to do something.
CAVANAUGH: I think, you know, people who – This is 20 years ago now. There’s a whole generation of people…
CAVANAUGH: …who are alive who don’t know anything about Eastern Europe or Soviet domination or the Iron Curtain…
CAVANAUGH: …or anything like that. Tell us a little bit, if you would, what was it like living under communist rule in Czechoslovakia?
HANCOVA: Yes. Well, I was born to communism so, as you know, if you are born to something, you know, unusual, you don’t know it.
HANCOVA: So from the very beginning as a child you would not notice anything. You would just notice when somebody had relative or someone in the west and a package would be sent to Czechoslovakia and then your friend would show you something that looked so different that what we had. If somebody came in jeans, we would be totally at awe and that person was a hero. So you would not – you would just wonder. The first blow, you will get when you really realize that somebody is putting a limit to your growth. For example, you would know you cannot read what you want, so censorship was very strict. You could not travel. If you wanted travel, you have to jump through many loops. Your communist cell in the school had to recommend you, you can travel. Then the city communist cell have to recommend you, then the county, then you need to write a letter to ask the bank if they would sell you the hard currency. It was just absolutely impossible to, you know, travel to the west on a travel visa so the censorship, you could not travel. And then you could not study whatever you wanted. Again, if you wanted to go to university, you had to have recommendation from the communists if you can do whatever you want. And, finally, the economy, the economy was stripped from the natural laws of demand from the society. The communists decided that they will be owned, all the production, means that they would be dictating what the society should have.
CAVANAUGH: A couple of people would like to join our conversation. They have a couple of questions for you. Bill is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Bill. Welcome to These Days.
BILL (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. This is really, really a wonderful experience. Normally, we just read in the history book about something and here we’re talking to a living history book. What a privilege it is. I have a question, and I have met you before, Marketa. Your experience growing up in a controlling country, in a communist country, certainly must have affected the way you teach in America where so many of us take our freedom for granted. How do you relate to that?
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the question, Bill.
BILL: Thank you.
HANCOVA: Well, I have to say that I am very passionate teacher and wherever I would be, inner city or however, I don’t mind, I just want in front of many students and that’s what matters. But I have to say that being a foreigner and coming from the communist country to the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful democracy that I hope may help my students to understand better about their responsibility as a citizen because I think that if the story is personal when I speak about it, that I could never vote, and I never have the luxury that actually I have constitutions that protects my happiness. I believe that the students at Platt College, when I’m teaching, now I hope that they understand when I speak to them, I don’t speak to them as a teacher or a dean but I speak as a passionate citizen who want to make sure that they understand that freedom is not guaranteed and democracy is not given. It’s something that we need to constantly take care of and we need to be involved. It’s not politicians, it’s not them, it’s not lawyers who will take care of it, it’s every single of us. And I try to convey to my students that you can be involved in many levels, just when you read newspaper and you know what’s going on, just when you go to community and you try to help in any way, that’s enough to be a good citizen and…
CAVANAUGH: And yet, you say that growing up under this oppressive regime actually gave people a thirst for life. What do you mean by that?
HANCOVA: Well, you know how it is. If something is banned, you will be first one to peek in and see what it’s like. And we had the censorship, was unbelievable. For you Americans here, would not believe it. We could not listen to any rock music. We could not read any books. Anything that would permeated from the west was banned. It was just no-no. And so you want to know what it’s like. So I think that, as I mentioned at the beginning, the culture was for us the biggest outlet of the frustration we lived in. And so we would put up shows in the—we called it—flat theatre. So we would invite people to your apartment, to your flat, and you would rehearse plays that were banned and you would invite just the closest friends. I type thousands of pages on my typewriter of censored books and I would give it to my friends and my friends would give me what they typed up. And we would organize concerts in the apartments and we would treat books that, you know, were exchange that came before 1968 when we had a little bit of period of time that was everything freer. So the thirst for life was incredible. I lived on the border with Hungary and it took me four hours to go on train to Budapest and ever since I was 16, we would go every other weekend to Budapest to see films that you wouldn’t even consider dangerous: “Hair,” “One Flew Over Cuckoo Nest,” (sic) “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Rack,” “Time” and all these films that we could not see, we would just drive there, we would see movie and go back and go in the morning to school. And the rock – all the rock concert I’ve seen, I’ve seen in Budapest because it was just impossible to do in Czechoslovakia.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take you back to the excerpt of your first person account and I want to take you back to the culmination of those ten days of protests. Political dissident Vaclav Havel appears on the balcony of a building and he says the words the Czech people have been waiting to hear. What does he say?
HANCOVA: He said, ladies and gentlemen, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia just forfeited its power. And he invited on the balcony Marta Kubišová, who is our beloved, beloved singer who was banned for 20 years because she was – she did not want to compromise and her political views were not fit for the Communists so they banned her just because she sang about – in metaphor again about freedom. And she stood up on the balcony and she started singing national anthem and, Maureen, that moment was the strongest moment I believe for all of us, the 14 million out of 15 million people who stood along Czechoslovakia and heard the national anthems. I looked left and right, everybody was crying. We don’t hug in Czechoslovakia, and we were hugging. We were just – it was so exhilarating and so joyous, and seeing there Vaclav Havel, who became president and was president 13 years, was the moment of our lives because he was our hero. He was the one who never compromised. He spent five years in jail just to fight as a dissident for the moment that he actually attained with us. And him – Then seeing him there and then having him as president was – is unprecedented because I think that is not the politician who has such high ethics who has so much charisma, and who is so selfless in his mission to help the people and to stay really uncompromised.
CAVANAUGH: You know, hearing you recount this, the culmination of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czechoslovakia, with literally millions upon millions of…
CAVANAUGH: …people in the streets in Prague, Czechoslovakia, wanting change in their government and succeeding, it makes me wonder what, perhaps, you thought just recently when the people of Iran turned out in the streets after they – protesting the results of their election. Did it bring back memories for you…
HANCOVA: Yes. Absolutely did. And I will tell you what happened there even though they did not come to such a happy end as we did. You know, when I was standing there and I’m sure people in Iran felt the same way, you are actually showing the world that, yes, it is possible for a moment to set aside all the differences and understand a common goal and just go to it. So I think that’s unprecedented where you all became one, one soul with one goal and you just go for it and you forget about anything else and this is what life is about, isn’t it? We keep hearing let’s forget about our differences, let’s embrace diversity, let’s sit around roundtable and if we have a problem, let’s try to find a way how to do it, and the best way’s the peaceful way.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Carlos is calling from Linda Vista. Good morning, Carlos, and welcome to These Days.
CARLOS (Caller, Linda Vista): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I would like to ask your guest what her thoughts were on the recent resurgence in communist socialist, you know, ideologies going out there. I saw Michael Moore’s movie, “Capitalism: A Love Affair.” On campus at San Diego State, it seems like all the students are really into, you know, communism, trying to find out what that is. I see a lot of newsletters going around or maybe I hadn’t noticed them before but it seems like there’s tons of them now and they’re talking about, you know, extolling the virtues of communism and socialism. And I just wanted to get your guest’s thoughts on that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Carlos. Anything reminiscent of the kind of communism you knew in Czechoslovakia?
HANCOVA: No. You know, communism and socialism, it’s a beautiful philosophy but it’s utopia, it’s idealistic. You know, when Marx, Lenin and Engels conceived it, they thought it would be wonderful. We have no money, everybody works, we go to store, you take what you want, there is no competition. Well, it doesn’t work. Don’t you see, is near what happened here. We were working under 10, 15 and 5 years plans. The Communists planned how many toilet paper we have to use. So the last two years of the 5 year plan, there is no toilet paper. People bribed the cashiers at the drugstore for toilet paper. It does not work because it wipes out competition. It wipes out the natural laws of economy. And, you know, the communist theory, it speaks about capitalism as something very evil. It’s – they say that only 3% or 5% are rich and everybody else lives in dismal condition, etcetera. Well, we know that’s not true. And the communists knew they need to protect us, as they call it, from the terrible west so we are not disturbed by the terrible pictures so hence comes you cannot travel because you would see that they are very happy living. You cannot read, you cannot see the movies so you see how, you know, what’s going on there. So, no, it has nothing to do with what was going on in Czechoslovakia and other communist countries.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you finally, if I may, and we’re very close to where we have to wrap it up, you must be in contact with people, your relatives and people you knew in Czechoslovakia, how are they celebrating this 20 year anniversary?
HANCOVA: There is a huge celebration for the whole week. I spoke to my mom yesterday and there was big concert with big names. Madeleine Albright was the main speaker and Suzanne Vega was there and, of course, Vaclav Havel, our ex-president and many, many ex-patriots came back and everybody celebrating because everybody understand it was truly phenomenon. And I want to tell you that I think that we truly concluded what we always idolized about America, that we concluded the dream of democracy and freedom and peacefully coming to the set goal.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for talking to us about this.
HANCOVA: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And I think your students are very lucky.
HANCOVA: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Marketa Hancova. She is the Dean of Education at Platt College here in San Diego, and she was a witness to history in Prague, Czechoslovakia 20 years ago. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two here on KPBS-FM.