The Velvet Revolution – Prague History

It took the Czech people just three weeks, in November and December 1989, to rid themselves of forty years of Communist tyranny, in what has become known as The Velvet Revolution. The hero of the hour (and a hero still) was Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident and signatory of Charter 77. On 1 January 1990, to popular acclaim, Havel was inaugurated as President of the newborn republic after a parliamentary vote in the historical Vaclav Chamber of Prague Castle, where the Bohemian kings had once been crowned.

He was invested in this high office by Alexander Dubaek, instigator of the liberalising movement in the spring of 1968—known as ‘Prague Spring’, and now chairman of the Federal Assembly. With typical modesty, Havel chose to continue living in his old apartment on what is now the Rasinovo Embankment overlooking the Vltava. His office, however, is in Prague Castle.

In June 1990 the Czechs went to the polls in the first free elections since 1946. Twenty-two parties competed for the votes of 11 million Czechs and Slovaks, not all seriously – a ‘Friends of Beer’ Party, for example, proposed an annual ale festival in Plsen! The winners were Civic Forum and its Slovak sister party, Public Against Violence. Utterly discredited were the Communists, whose symbol of two cherries was mercilessly satirised by the other parties (one poster portrayed Stalin wearing a pair of cherry earrings).

Since then, the Czechs have been determined to eradicate every vestige of their Communist past. The names of Marx, Engels, Lenin and the first Soviet-backed president, Klement Gottwald, have been removed from streets and metro stations and replaced by more suitable, homespun heroes like Tomas’ Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia, and Jan Palach, one of the martyrs of 1968.

As Soviet troops began pulling out from military bases like Milovice, hundreds of prominent dissidents and former exiles began returning to their native land: among them the theatre director, Jan Grossman, the film director, Jan Nemec who made his name in the 1960s, and the novelist, Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, now a major film.

Waking up to a Hangover

By the time US President George Bush arrived in Prague to join the celebrations of the first anniversary of the revolution, the Czechs had come down to earth with a bump. Substantial, across-the-board price rises were in the offing. Petrol rationing was being introduced, as the government prepared for the first time to pay the Soviet Union in precious hard currency.

Pessimistic forecasters were predicting a rise in unemployment beyond one million in a workforce of 7.5 million. Hard-pressed industrialists were trying to come to terms with the removal of public subsidies from the newly privatised industries. Pollution, rising crime, tensions between Czechs and Slovaks and the decline in public services were other issues on people’s minds in the winter of 1990-91. The climate of political uncertainty affected the government itself as a tug-of-war developed within Civic Forum between the old dissident Left and new, Right-of-centre politicians like the finance minister, Vaclav Klaus. The outcome of this has been the breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

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