1989 + 10 = ?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 28, 1999
On the morning of November 17, 1989, tens of thousands of people-- almost all of them students-- packed into Vinohrady Cemetery in the eastern part of the city of Prague. Somewhat to their surprise, the authorities had granted permission for a brief ceremony in memory of Jan Opletal, a Czech student killed by the Nazis alomst 50 years before.
Most of those present could not see or hear the ceremony that was taking place by the young martyr's grave. But most of these present at Vinohrady that morning were not there only to remember past events but also to make sure that Czechoslovakia, too, was caught up in the tide of change that was sweeping over Central and Eastern Europe:
Just that spring, Poland had held free elections and had installed a Solidarity government. In neighboring Hungary, too, members of the opposition were now in control. And just days before, the Berlin Wall-- the seemingly most-impenetrable barrier between East and West-- had fallen. Now, many hoped, it was Czechoslovakia's turn.
As soon as the ceremony at the graveside was over, some of the demonstrators began chanting slogans against the Communist government of President Gustav Husak. Others began to sing "We Shall Overcome". The cry that filled the air most often that day was "Svoboda! Freedom!"
The crowd moved on, beyond the cemetery, then out of the Old Town, past the historic Charles Bridge, and along the embankment of the Vlatava River. It took a left turn at the National Theatre onto Narodni Trida (National Avenue), toward Wenceslas Square-- the very center of Prague, where so many important events in the country's history had taken place. In Wenceslas Square, invading Warsaw Pact troops had crushed the Prague Spring reform movement and its hopes of "socialism with a human face" 21 years before.
But before the students could reach the square, riot police were waiting for them. The government had also mobilized a special anti-terrorist squadron called the Red Berets. Those in the front line of the march tried to hand bunches of flowers to the police. Others placed lighted candles on the ground, then held up their arms and announced, "We have bare hands. We are not armed."
Quickly, however, the security forces made their move. One brigade was dispatched to the end of Narodni Trida, preventing the escape of any marchers who might try to flee. Waving their weapons, the Red Beretsd marched directly into the line of protesters. Row after row of unarmed civilians fell to the ground. As each row fell, the police trampled right over them and moved straight ahead, ready to pummel the next row of victims. Then the police fired tear gas canisters to clear any stragglers from the area. Within minutes, not a single soul remained standing on Narodni Trida, and soon Prague's hospitals would be filled with the hundreds who had been injured.
Those were the events in the streets of Prague, ten years ago this month...
If you stroll down Narodni Trida today, it is hard to imagine that it was ever the scene of such violence. In an arcade near where the students first met police intransigence and where the "Massacre of November 17" (as it came to be known) took place, there is today a very modest monument. A plaque showing raised, bare, unarmed hands is marked, very simply "17.11.1989". People still come here to light candles and to lay flowers and to think and meditate and, perhaps, to say a silent prayer.
Other than that, there would be no reason to believe that this avenue held any important place in the history of the Czech lands. At one end is the National Theater, a complex of several theaters, actually, offering a continual assortment of cultural events. Among these theaters is the Magic Lantern (or, Lanterna Magika) which served as the headquarters of the Civic Forum opposition group in the days of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Across the street from the National Theater is the Cafe Slavia, one of the city's most popular gathering places (whose sense of historical importance far outshines the quality of the food served there, alas). At the other end, about a half mile away, is the entrance to Wenceslas Square, where the students were heading that day in November. In between today, there are scores of shops and stores, restaurants and clubs-- businesses of all kinds. Today, Narodni Trida is the kind of commercial avenue you might find in any major city.
Near door to the monument to the revolution, Elizabeth and I visited an exhibit at the Rock Cafe of photographs and videos from those heroic days ten years ago. As I studied the photographs on the walls, I was almost instantly struck (and deeply moved) by just how young the revolutionaries of 1989 truly were. They were almost all students, as I have said, plunged into action by the force of police brutality, but then so quick to take up the reins of history-- by manning telephones, hanging up leaflets, distributing broadsides-- and, most importantly, by filling the streets and refusing to be afraid any longer. The Velvet Revolution was largely a student rebellion-- or started that way, at least-- and that is something often forgotten now, just ten years later, as the Czech Republic takes its place in the ranks of "business as usual".
And as we left the Rock Cafe and its moving exhibit on the revolution of 1989, and turned right back toward Wenceslas Square, the first thing to catch my eye as we emerged back into the light of day was a large sign for-- Little Caesar's Pizza! And I wondered then, and wonder now, if a revolution hadn't been stolen... Didn't the students of November risk their lives for something more than mediocre pizza, and the mass influx of foreign corporations?
Everything the guidebooks say about Prague is true. It is beyond a doubt the most beautiful city I've ever seen, absolutely enchanting, and it's easy to get overloaded with all the history and architecture and culture that greets you at every bend. Public squares on the outskirts of town (where we stayed) would be centerpieces in American cities; "architecturally insignificant" churches and public buildigns (by their standards) would rival the most esteemed structures in any American city.
Prague is also a very pleasant city to visit-- with plenty of (very reasonable) restaurants and every possible service to make one's visit hospitable (including foreign currency exchange booths on nearly every streetcorner). It also boasts (by my own count) at least six McDonald's (one of which extended over nearly an entire block, it seemed)-- and (no word of a lie) the largest Dunkin' Donuts in the world (right at the end of Wenceslas Square, and which we visited, several times [if truth be told]).
And it occured to me as we strolled the (cold) streets of Prague, and I kept saying it to Elizabeth over and over again (I am something of a broken record sometimes) that all of this commerical enterprise (or at least a good 90% of it)-- has only been the product of the past ten years. Before 1989, there was only the same state socialist grayness, with few shops and long lines to buy the little that was available. Now, if the language was the same (and it almost is, just about everyone speaks English or German, which given the state of my Czech was a godsend), it would be very difficult to distinguish a shopping area in Prague from one in (say) Boston, or Cologne, or Montreal.
What an amazingly creative and productive engine unleashed, untrammeled capitalism is! What a powerful force the market is in transforming the face of human society. Such potential to remake the world...
But, in the experience of those states that overthrew Communism in 1989 or shortly thereafter, the deeper question still is: What use has been made of this potential? What fruits has it yielded besides Little Ceaser's and MacDonald's and the largest Dunkin' Donuts in the world?
Certainly, one would have to be in total denial to believe that the advent of uncontrolled capitalism has brought with it paradise on earth to Central and Eastern Europe.
The transition to a free market has been difficult, to say the least. The rough estimate of the economic situation in these lands is that, very generally speaking, one-third of the people are better off, one-third have it about the same, and that one-third have a substantially lower standard of living than they did under socialism. Certainly, there is more on the shelves to buy than there was ten years ago, but many people have no money to do any more than eek out a life of the barest necessities. The redistribution of wealth has been markedly uneven as well, with the gap between rich and poor widening faster all the time (sound familiar?), and with the overwhelming majority of the wealth becomming more and more concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite (sound familiar?). To add insult to injury, many of the "elite" under the new capitalism in Eastern Europe are the very same apparartchiks and party hacks who were in control under the old system as well.
According to a recent article in the Economist magazine (hardly a left-wing propaganda sheet): "The ex-communist world is in some ways a caricature of the vicious capitalism the old communist prooagandists [always] warned the masses about."
Money, for many, is the new master. Corruption is rife. The courts, police, and customs agencies have not yet gained the full confidence of the people. Organized crime, with little seeming oppositition from the forces of state security, has swept across the region. Under Communism, unemployment was nearly non-existant (though many people were paid for doing next to nothing). Today, it is at around 10% in most parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Everyone was guaranteed a low-rent apartment, albeit often of the most spartan sort. Today, there are homeless people on the streets of Prague for the first time ever, and a two-bedroom apartment in the center of the city can cost up to $2000 per month. In almost every ex-Communist country, the state of health care has plunged. In Russia, for instance, the average male dies at 58 (seven years younger than in 1990), and the population has been declining at about a million people a year. (Things are not that desparate in the Czech Republic, though recently the country's Minister of Health was sacked due to wholescale disatisfcation with the state of health care there, too.)
As you might imagine, this disparity between the hopes of 1989 and today's oftentimes harsh reality has bred a huge amount of cynicism. People you talk to in Prague are more than willing to voice their complaints with you. The driver who met us at the airport kept refering to the events of 1989 quite pointedly as the "so-called Velvet Revolution". There had been too much velvet and not enough revolution, he felt. As a result, the same old crowd was still really in control, and most people had to scramble (as they always had) to make ends meet.
But what of the man in the Castle? "Havel Na Hrad!" the revolutionaries of 1989 shouted-- "Havel to the Castle!". And breathtakingly, by the end of the year they had their wish, and the mild-mannered, intellectual dissident playwright had become his nation's President.
Where does President Havel (called by one writer "the world's most popular statesman"-- I'd have to say that he's second to Nelson Mandela in that respect if the truth were told) stand in the midst of all of all of this difficult transition?
As you might imagine, it is difficult to remain on top of the opinion polls after ten long, difficult, tumultous years in office. Havel may still be extremely popular beyond the borders of the Czech lands, and there is, I think, even within his country, a deep respect for everthing he stood for and for all that he withstood in the role he played in wearing away the Communist system and eventually toppling it. But he has made many enemies at home, both inside and outside the government, and is seen by most Czechs (I think) as tired, aloof, and unwell (though in the couple of glimpses we had of him, his health seemed pretty good). Most Czechs would agree, I think, that he has stuck around just a little too long. Most are also deeply concerned about who might follow him in the President's office at Prague Castle. The political scene is very divided and there doesn't seem to be any obvious successor who enjoys even a fraction of the support that Havel does (or at least, did). In a recent opinion poll, asking Czechs which party they would support in the next elections, the largest single preference went to the (largely unreformed) Communist Party-- just over 20%. The overwhelming majority of Czechs-- perhaps 80%-- don't want the Communists to come back. But beyond that, they're totally divided as to what they do want. So, politically, the country seems to hover in a time of transition, perhaps even stagnation.
But in the meantime, the economic engine continues to move ahead full throttle. After a couple of years of recession, the economy is picking up again, and promises steady growth for the years ahead. The Czech Republic (along with Poland and Hungary) recently joined NATO. Soon, they will take the final steps toward full acceptance into the European Community.
In those heady days right after the Velvet Revolution, some of us made the mistake of seeing Havel as a political revolutionary in a more traditional sense, armed and equipped to bring into being, fully developed, right from the top of his head and through the force of his own being, a new and just, humane and compassionate society-- a glowing beacon to all of us in lands far and wide.
But Havel was not a revolutionary who sought to replace one failed Utiopia with another one. Rather, he led the battle to dismantle totalitarianism not to impose his own system, but so that the currents of history could once again flow, and the Czech and Slovak peoples would be free to decide their own future. As to what form that future might take, there was a wide array of possibilities...
Now, ten years after the revolution, there is a functioning (if sometimes sputtering) political system; the economy is growing again, albeit unevenly for most people; and Europe moves toward unification with the Czech nation a full participant in the historic process. Not a bad record of accomplishment, all told... Yet, a sense of "something missing" remains... And leave it to the beleaguered Havel (still the most prophetic sounding of political leaders) to identify that "something":
"We have had to deal with the pernicious legacy which the previous periods left behind in our souls and to confront all the bad things which had lain dormant in us, and which the newly aquired freedom brought to bear."
In the tumult that followed the collapse of Communism, market forces swept in to fill the void-- to present a new vision of material prosperity in place of the discredited visions of the gray Communist "utopia". But market forces are nt enough for nurturing the human spirit, or for building a civil society, Havel believed. "The meaning of life is found in something more than the accumulation of consumer goods," he once said. We have to look deeper, Havel says. We need "to undertake a renewed and profound self-reflection... to look for ways of generating, or resurrecting, a sense of responsibility for [ourselves]." And where do we look first in this process of self-reflection? From where will this new consciousness arise? From within-- and without:
"It is not that there is no base to start from," Havel says. "Somewhere deep in the heart of all the major religious systems of the centemporary world lies, hidden or enthralled, the same primary inspiration. All we need is to comprehend and embrace it."
From our faith, Havel believes-- from our shared faith, and from our diversity of faiths, united as one in our care for one another and our care for our planet earth, a new sense of virtue and a new vision of civil society can arise. A vision best captured, perhaps, in the words of the great Indian poet Rabindranarh Tagore:.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
where knowledge is free;
where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
where words come out of the depth of truth;
where tireless striving stretches its arms toward excellence;
where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
where the mind is led forward... into ever-widening thought and action--
into that heaven of freedom, O God, may our nations awake!
Communism in Central and Eastern Europe is gone, and only fools would not say "Good riddance" to it But the "blessed day of freedom" has not yet arrived-- there, or here in our own land, for that matter. There, as here, those of us who stand outside the inner circles of power are usually too frenetic, too worried, too harried, too acquisitive to involve ourselves in the life of our society to the extent we will need to be to transform the face of the world, and to transform our consciousness of who we are as citizens-- of a nation and of a world.
But the heroic miracle of 1989 all across Central and Eastern Europe still presents to us a vision of the remarkable nature of history, and of how, indeed, "everything can change on a new year's day". In 1989, in less than a year, almost half a century of political history had been reversed. In one nation after another, a system that had seemed so powerful disappeared almost overnight. Once-powerful leaders had been disgraced, arrested, and (in the case of Romania's Ceausescu) executed. A nation's historical villains were now transformed into its saints. Former political prisoners became presidents, prime ministers, and leaders of the state. A seemingly durable concrete wall and a seemingly impenetrable iron curtain that had once separated East from West was pulled to the ground.
And when the dust from the falled barriers of Communism had settled, the world was changed.
Changed. But not yet just.
Changed. But not yet equitable.
Changed. But not yet completely free.
But "everything can change on a new year's day"... and a new year, a new decade, always brings new hope... May the hope which the history we will write in the new century that is before us transform us all into sweet, gentle, robust, velvet revolutionaries of the human spirit.