My modest contribution to the revolution was a quip. Arriving in Prague on Day Seven (November 23), when the pace of change was already breathtaking, I met Václav Havel in the back room of his favored basement pub. I said: “In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!” Grasping my hands, and fixing me with his winning smile, he immediately summoned over a video-camera team from the samizdat Video-journál, who just happened to be waiting in the corner. I was politely compelled to repeat my quip to camera, over a glass of beer, and then Havel gave his reaction: “It would be fabulous if it could be so….” Revolution, he said, is too exhausting.
The camera team dashed off to copy the tape, so that it could be shown on television sets in public places. Havel subsequently used the conceit in several interviews. And because he used it, it had a fantastic career. It was repeated in the Czechoslovak papers. An opposition spokesman recalled it in a television broadcast just before the general strike—on Day Eleven. It was on the front page of the Polish opposition daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. It popped up in the Western press. And when I finally had to leave Prague on Day Nineteen, with the revolution by no means over, people were still saying, “You see, with us—ten days!” Such is the magic of round numbers.
I tell this story not just from author’s vanity, but also because it illustrates several qualities of the most delightful of all this year’s Central European revolutions: the speed, the improvisation, the merriness, and the absolutely central role of Václav Havel, who was at once director, playwright, stage manager, and leading actor in this, his greatest play. I was only one of many—indeed of millions—to feed him some lines.
Next morning I got a complimentary theater ticket. A ticket to the Magic Lantern theater, whose subterannean stage, auditorium, foyers, and dressing rooms had become the headquarters of the main opposition coalition in the Czech lands, the Civic Forum, and thus, in effect, the headquarters of the revolution. The ticket changed. At first it was just a small note with the words “Please let in and out” written in purple ink, signed by Václav Havel’s brother, Ivan, and authenticated by the play-wright’s rubber stamp. This shows a beaming pussycat with the word “Smile!” across his chest. Then it was a green card worn around the neck, with my name typed as “Timothy Gordon Ash,” and the smiling cat again. Then it was a xeroxed and initialed paper slip saying “Civic Forum Building,” this time with two smiling cats (one red, one black) and a beaming green frog. I have it before me as I write. Beneath the frog it says “très bien.”
In any case, the tickets worked wonders. For nearly two weeks I, as an historian, was privileged to watch history being made inside the Magic Lantern. For most of that time, I was the only foreigner to sit in on the hectic deliberations of what most people called simply “the Forum.” But before I describe what I saw, we must briefly recall—or reconstruct—the beginning of the revolution.
Students started it. Small groups of them had been active for at least a year before. They edited faculty magazines. They organized discussion clubs. They worked on the borderline between official and unofficial life. Many had contacts with the opposition, all read samizdat. Some say they had a conspiratorial group called “The Ribbon”—the Czech “White Rose,” as it were. But they also worked through the official youth organization, the SSM. It was through the SSM that they got permission to hold a demonstration in Prague on November 17, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Opletal, a Czech student murdered by the Nazis. This began as officially scheduled in Prague’s second district, with speeches and tributes at the cemetery.
But the numbers grew, and the chants turned increasingly against the present dictators in the castle. The demonstrators decided—perhaps some had planned all along—to march to Wenceslas Square, the stage for all the historic moments of Czech history, whether in 1918, 1948, or 1968. Down the hill they wound, along the embankment of the River Vltava, and then, turning right at the National Theater, up Národní Street into Wenceslas Square. Here they were met by riot police, with white helmets, shields, and truncheons, and by special antiterrorist squads, in red berets. Large numbers of demonstrators were cut off and surrounded, both along Národní and in the square. They went on chanting “freedom” and singing the Czech version of “We Shall Overcome.” Those in the front line tried to hand flowers to the police. They placed lighted candles on the ground and raised their arms, chanting, “We have bare hands.” But the police, and especially the red berets, beat men, women, and children with their truncheons.
This was the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight. During the night from Friday to Saturday—with reports of one dead and many certainly in hospital—some students determined to go on strike. On Saturday morning they managed to spread the word to most of the Charles University, and to several other institutions of higher learning, which immediately entered the occupation strike. (Patient research will be needed to reconstruct the precise details of this crucial moment.) On Saturday afternoon they were joined by actors, already politicized by earlier petitions in defense of Václav Havel, and drawn in directly by the very active students from the drama and film academies. They met in the Realistic Theater. Students described the “massacre,” as it was now called. The theater people responded with a declaration of support. This not only brought the theaters out on strike—that is, turned their auditoriums into political debating chambers—but also, and, as far as I could establish, for the first time, made the proposal for a general strike on Monday, November 27, between noon and 2 PM. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
On Sunday morning the students of the film and drama academies came out with an appropriately dramatic declaration. Entitled “Don’t Wait—Act!” it began by saying that 1989 in Czechoslovakia might sadly be proclaimed the “year of the truncheon.” “That truncheon,” it continued, “on Friday, November 17 spilled the blood of students.” And then, after appealing “especially to European states in the year of the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution,” they went on to list demands which ranged from the legal registration of the underground monthly Lidové Noviny to removing the leading role of the Communist party from the constitution, but also crucially repeated the call for a general strike. (Incidentally, within a few days the students had all their proclamations neatly stored in personal computers, and many of the flysheets on the streets were actually computer printouts.)
It was only at ten o’clock on Sunday evening (Day Three), after the students and actors had taken the lead, proclaiming both their own and the general strike, that the previously existing opposition groups, led by Charter 77, met in another Prague theater. The effective convener of this meeting was Václav Havel, who had hurried back from his farmhouse in Northern Bohemia when he heard the news of the “massacre.” The meeting included not only the very diverse opposition groups, such as the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS), the Movement for Civic Freedoms, and Obroda (Rebirth), the club of excommunicated Communists, but also individual members of the previously puppet People’s and Socialist parties. The latter was represented by its general secretary, one Jan Skoda, who was once a schoolmate and close friend of Havel’s, but who had carefully avoided him throughout the long, dark years of so-called normalization.
This miscellaneous late-night gathering agreed to establish an Obcanské Forum, a Civic Forum, “as a spokesman on behalf of that part of the Czechoslovak public which is increasingly critical of the existing Czechoslovak leadership and which in recent days has been profoundly shaken by the brutal massacre of peacefully demonstrating students.” It made four demands: the immediate resignation of the Communist leaders responsible for preparing the Warsaw Pact intervention in 1968 and the subsequent devastation of the country’s life, starting with the President Gustav Husák and the Party leader Milo Jake; the immediate resignation of the Federal interior minister, Frantiek Kincl, and the Prague first secretary, Miroslav Stepán, held responsible for violent repression of peaceful demonstrations; the establishment of a special commission to investigate these police actions; and the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience. The Civic Forum, it added, supports “with all its authority” the call for a general strike. From this time forward, the Forum assumed the leadership of the revolution in the Czech lands.
Over the weekend there had been tens of thousands of people, mainly young people, milling around Wenceslas Square, waving flags and chanting slogans. Students had taken over the equestrian statue of the good king, at the top of his square, covering its base with improvised posters, photographs, and candles. But the popular breakthrough came on Monday afternoon. For now the square was not merely teeming; it was packed. Dense masses chanted “freedom,” “resignation,” and, most strikingly, a phrase that might be translated as “now’s the time” or “this is it.” And neither the white helmets nor the red berets moved in.
As in East Germany, when the authorities woke up to what was happening, it was already too late. In East Central Europe today, with Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the kind of violence that would be needed to crush such masses of people just does not appear to be an available option. (But the then prime minister, Ladislav Adamec, went out of his way to emphasize that martial law would not be declared, thus implying that the option had been considered.)
On Tuesday, Day Five, the demonstration—at 4 PM, after working hours—was still bigger. And the publishing house of the Socialist party, under Jan Skoda, made available its balcony, perfectly located halfway down the square. From here the veteran Catholic opposition activist, Radim Palou, a dynamic banned priest, Václav Malý, and then Havel addressed the vast crowd, repeating the Forum’s demands. Next morning the first edition of the Communist party daily, Rudé Právo, had a headline referring to a demonstration of “200,000” in the square. The second edition said “100,000.” Someone made a collage of the two editions, xeroxed it, and stuck it up on shop windows next to the photographs of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the mimeographed or computer-printed flysheets, and the carefully typed declarations that this or that shop would join in the general strike, declarations signed by all the employees and often authenticated with a seal or rubber stamp.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Days Six and Seven, there were yet larger demonstrations, while first talks were held between Prime Minister Adamec and a Forum delegation, which, however, at the prime minister’s earnest request, was not led by Václav Havel. The prime minister, Havel told me, sent word through an aide that he did not yet want to “play his trump card.” At the same time, however, Havel had direct communication with Adamec through a self-constituted group of mediators, calling itself “the bridge.” “The bridge” had two struts: Michal Horácek, a journalist on a youth paper, and Michael Kocáb, a rock singer.
The revolution was thus well under way, indeed rocking around the clock. And its headquarters was just a hundred yards from the bottom of Wenceslas Square, in the theater called the Magic Lantern.
Through the heavy metal-and-glass doors, past the second line of volunteer guards, you plunge down a broad flight of stairs into a curving, 1950s-style, mirror-lined foyer. People dart around importantly, or sit in little groups on benches, eating improvised canapés and discussing the future of the nation. Down another flight of stairs there is the actual theater. The set—for Dürrenmatt’s Minotaurus—is like a funnel, with a hole at the back of the stage just big enough for a small monster to come through. Here, instead of the Magic Lantern’s special combination of drama, music, pantomime, and audiovisuals, they hold the daily press conference: the speakers emerging from the hole instead of Dürrenmatt’s monster. Journalists instead of tourists are let in for the performance.
At one end of the foyer there is a room with a glass wall on which it says, in several languages, “smoking room.” There is another guard at the door. Some are allowed in. Others are not. Flash your magic ticket. In. Familiar bearded faces, old friends from the underground, sit around on rickety chairs, in a crisis meeting. At one end, a television mounted high on the wall shows an operetta, without the sound. The room smells of cigarette smoke, sweat, damp coats, and revolution. I remember the same smell, precisely, in Poland in the autumn of 1980.
This, you think, is the real headquarters. But after a few hours you discover a black door at the other end of the foyer. Through the door you plunge down a metal stairway into a narrow, desperately overheated corridor, as if in the bowels of an ocean liner. Here, in dressing rooms ten and eleven, is the very heart, the epicenter, of the revolution. For here sits Václav Havel, with his “private secretary” and the few key activists from the Forum who are thrashing out the texts of the latest communiqué, programmatic statement, or negotiating position.
In front of the dressing room door stands a wiry, bearded man in a combat jacket, with his thinning hair knotted at the back, hippie fashion. This is John Bok, a friend of Havel’s now in charge of the personal bodyguard, composed mainly of students. During the war, John Bok’s father was a Czech pilot in the Royal Air Force, and the spirit lives. Don’t try to mix it with John Bok. He and Havel’s other personal security chief, Stanislav Milota, a former cameraman married to a famous actress, are highly visible characters throughout the performance, surrounding Havel as he dashes around in clouds of nervous flurry, John Bok barking into his walkie-talkie, Milota forever saying “SHUSH, SHUSH!” in a stage whisper somewhat louder than the original interruption. In every hectic move, they confirm the playwright’s unique status.
A political scientist would be hard pressed to find terms to describe the Forum’s structure of decision making, let alone the hierarchy of authority within it. Yet the structure and hierarchy certainly exist, like a chemist’s instant crystals. The “four-day-old baby,” as Havel calls it, is, at first glance, rather like a club. Individual membership is acquired by personal recommendation. You could draw a tree diagram starting from the founding meeting in the appropriately named Players’ Club theater: X introduced Y, who introduced Z. Most of those present have been active in opposition before, the biggest single group being signatories of Charter 77. Twenty years ago they were journalists, academics, politicians, lawyers, but now they come here from their jobs as stokers, window cleaners, clerks, or, at best, banned writers. Sometimes they have to leave a meeting to go and stoke up their boilers. A few of them come straight from prison, from which they have been released under the pressure of popular protest. Politically, they range from the neo-Trotskyist Petr Uhl to the deeply conservative Catholic Václav Benda.
In addition, there are representatives of significant groups. There are The Students, brightly dressed, radical, and politely deferred to by their elders. For, after all, they started it. Occasionally there are The Actors—although we are all actors now. Then there are The Workers, mainly represented by Petr Miller, an athletic and decisive technician from Prague’s huge CKD heavy machinery conglomerate. All intellectual voices are stilled when The Worker rises to speak. Sometimes there are The Slovaks—demonstratively honored guests. And then there are those whom I christened The Prognostics, that is, members of the Institute for Forecasting (Prognostický Ustav) of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, one of the very few genuinely independent institutes in the whole country’s official academic life.
The Prognostics are, in fact, economists. Their particular mystique comes from knowing, or believing they know, or, at least, being believed to know, what to do about the economy—a subject clearly high in the minds of the people on the streets, and one on which most of the philosophers, poets, actors, historians, assembled here have slightly less expertise than the ordinary worker on the Vysocany tram. The Prognostics are not, of course, unanimous. Dr. Václav Klaus, a silver-gray-haired man with glinting metal spectacles, as arrogant as he is clever, favors the solutions of Milton Friedman. His more modest colleague, Dr. Tomá Jezek, by contrast, is a disciple (and translator) of Friedrich von Hayek. But you get the general drift.
All these tendencies and groups are represented in the full meetings of the Forum, which move, as the numbers grow from tens to hundreds, out of the smoking room into the main auditorium. This “plenum”—like Solidarity in Poland, the Forum finds itself inadvertently adopting the Communist terminology of the last forty years—then appoints a series of “commissions.” By the time I arrive there are, so far as I can gather, four: Organizational, Technical, Informational, and Conceptional—the last “to handle the political science aspect,” as one Forum spokesperson-interpreter rather quaintly puts it. By the time I leave there seem to be about ten, each with its “in tray”—a white cardboard box lying on the foyer floor. For example, in addition to “Conceptional” there is also “Programmatic” and “Strategic.”
As well as voting people onto these commissions, the plenum also sometimes selects ad hoc “crisis staffs,” and the groups or individuals to speak on television, negotiate with the government, or whatever. I say “voting,” but what actually happens is that the chairman chooses some names, and then others propose other names—or themselves. There is no vote. The lists are, so to speak, open, and therefore long. Thus “for the Conceptional commission I propose Ivan Klíma,” says Havel, adding: “Ivan, you don’t want to write any more novels, do you?” Generally the principle of selection is crudely representative: there must be The Student, The Worker, The Prognostic, etc. Sometimes this produces marvelous comments to a Western ear.
“Shouldn’t we have a liberal?” says someone, in discussing the Conceptional. “But we’ve already got two Catholics!” comes the reply. Thus Catholic means liberal—which here actually means conservative.
To watch all this was to watch politics in a primary, spontaneous, I almost said “pure” form. All men (and women) may be political animals, but some are more political than others. It was fascinating to see people responding instantly to the scent that wafted down into the Magic Lantern as the days went by. The scent of power. Some who had never before been politically active suddenly sat up, edged their way on stage, proposed themselves for a television slot; and you could already see them in a government minister’s chair. Others, long active in the democratic opposition, remain seated in the audience. Not for them the real politics of power.
Like Solidarity, the Forum was racked from the very outset by a conflict between the political imperative of rapid, decisive, united action, and the moral imperative of internal democracy. Should they start as they intended to go on, that is, democratically? Or did the conditions of struggle with a still totalitarian power demand that they should say, to adapt Brecht, We who fight for democracy cannot ourselves be democratic?
On the face of it, the Forum was, after all, hardly democratic. Who chose them? They themselves did. Yet already on the second day of their existence they wrote, in a letter addressed to Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, that the Civic Forum “feels capable of acting as a spokesman for the Czechoslovak public.” By what right? Why, by right of acclamation. For the people were going on the streets every day and chanting, “Long live the Forum!” In Prague at least, the people—the demos—were obviously, unmistakably behind them. In this original sense, the Forum was profoundly, elementally democratic. The demos spoke, in demos, and declared the Forum to be its mouthpiece.
If one had to describe Havel’s leadership, Max Weber’s often misused term “charismatic” would for once be apt. It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man. In almost all the Forum’s major decisions and statements he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement. In this sense, as in Solidarity, many decisions were not made democratically. Yet a less authoritarian personality than Havel it would be hard to imagine. (The contrast with Lech Walesa is striking.) And the meetings of the plenum were almost absurdly democratic. The avuncular Radim Palou was an exemplary chairman. Everyone had his or her say. Important issues were decided by vote. At one point, an assembly of perhaps two hundred people was editing the latest Forum communiqué, line by line.
So all this—the plenums, the commissions, the ad hoc groups, Havel, John Bok, the Minotaurus set, the smoking room, the dressing rooms, the hasty conversations in the corridors, the heat, the smoke, the laughter, and the exhaustion—made up that unique political thing, “the Magic Lantern.” The story of the revolution, in the days I witnessed it, is that of the interaction of “the Magic Lantern” with three other compound forces, or theaters. These may be called, with similar poetic license, “the people,” “the powers that be,” and “the world.”
For those in the Magic Lantern, “the people” meant first of all Prague. In a sense, all of Prague became a Magic Lantern. It was not just the great crowds on Wenceslas Square. It was the improvised posters all over the city, the strike committees in the factories, the Civic Forum committees that were founded in hospitals, schools, and offices. It was the packed theaters every evening, debating with the guest speakers on stage: a Forum spokesman, or perhaps an exiled writer, back for the first time in years. It was the crowds standing in front of the television sets in shop or office windows at all hours of the day and night, watching the Videojournál tape of the events of November 17 played over and over again. It was ordinary people on the streets. As you walked down to the Old Town you overheard snippets of excited conversation: “free elections!” “human face!” and (darkly) “demagogic tendencies!” At six o’clock in the morning on Wenceslas Square you saw a queue of hundreds of people waiting patiently in the freezing mist. They were waiting to buy a copy of the Socialist party newspaper, Svobodné Slovo (The Free Word), which was the first to carry accurate reports of the demonstrations and Forum statements. Lining up for the free word.
Outside Prague, the situation was very different from place to place, with much more fear and nastiness in, for example, the industrial district around Ostrava. And then of course there was Slovakia, a different nation. To reach out to this wider audience the crucial medium was television and, to a lesser extent, radio. As in all this year’s Central European revolutions/transformations the battle for access to television and radio was one of the two or three most important political issues. Here, the battle was comically visible on screen, with direct transmission of a demonstration suddenly interrupted by some inane light music, and then the picture wrenched back again—as if by some invisible hand—to the demonstration. “Live transmission!” they chanted on Wenceslas Square, “live transmission!” Once it had access to television and radio, a good deal of the Forum’s energy was devoted to discussing what to say there.
The second compound force was “the powers that be.” This term from the King James Bible was repeatedly used by Rita Klimová, a former professor of economics (sacked for political reasons), who translated into English for the speakers at the Forum press conferences with magnificent aplomb. At first hearing it may sound quaint, but it is actually a very good term, for one of the recurrent problems in describing Communist systems (or should I say, former Communist systems) is precisely to find an appropriate collective noun for the people and institutions who actually wielded power. To say “the government,” for example, would be wrong, since in such systems the government did not really govern: the Party did, or some mixture of the Party, the police, the army, and the Soviet Union. All these elements were in play here, and well embraced by the biblical term “the powers that be.”
At the beginning, the Forum negotiated with the federal prime minister, who was also, of course, a Politburo member. They did this, in the first place, because he was the only senior power holder who would talk to them. But, making a virtue of necessity, they said: we are talking to the government of our country because we want a proper government, responsible to a proper parliament, not the rule of one party. As well as the federal prime minister they also negotiated with the Czech prime minister, for in Czechoslovakia’s elaborate federal structure, the Czech lands and Slovakia each have their own governments. Only then did they start talking to Party leaders as such.
Behind everything there was the benign presence of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union: the Soviet embassy in Prague receiving a Forum delegation with demonstrative courtesy. Gorbachev himself making it clear during the War-saw Pact post-Malta briefing in Moscow that Party leader Urbánek and Prime Minister Adamec should implement fundamental reforms, the demonstrative renunciation of the invasion in 1968. Others will have to assess how far (and how) Gorbachev deliberately pushed the changes in Czechoslovakia, and to what extent this was affected by his personal timetable of East-West relations, leading up to the Malta summit. Just as in 1980 the very worst place from which to assess the Soviet intention to invade was the Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw (a point never entirely grasped by television and radio interviewers), so in 1989 the worst place from which to assess the Soviet intention to do the opposite of invading was the Forum headquarters in Prague. Yet, of course, in a larger historical frame, the Soviet attitude was fundamental.
At this point the “powers that be” shade into the third force, or theater, called “the world.” As I recounted in these pages just a year ago,* the first protesters in Prague on the national anniversaries last year chanted at the riot police, “The world sees you.” Yet in the autumn of 1988 it was, in fact, very doubtful if the world did see them. On the whole, the world considered that life was elsewhere. But now there was absolutely no doubt that the world saw them. It saw them through the eyes of the television cameras and the thousands of foreign journalists who flocked into the Magic Lantern for the daily performance. They were a sight in themselves: television crews and photographers behaving like minotaurs, journalists shouting each other down and demanding to know why the revolution could not keep to their deadlines.
Yet a few of the questions were good, and the journalists served two useful functions. First, they concentrated minds. When there was a Forum plenum at, say, 5 PM, the knowledge that their spokesmen would have to field the hardest questions at 7:30 PM made for a much sharper discussion. Even so, Forum policy on crucial issues—the future of the Warsaw Pact, for example, or that of socialism itself—was sometimes made up on the wing, in impromptu answers to Western journalists’ questions. Secondly, the “eyes of the world” offered protection. Particularly in the days before the Malta summit, the Czechoslovak authorities must have been left in little doubt that there were certain things that they could no longer do, or could only do at an immense price in both Western and Soviet disapproval. Beating children, for example. Both externally and internally, the crucial medium was television. In Europe at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions.
Day Eight (Friday, November 24). In the morning, a plenum in the smoking room. Appointing people to the commissions. The agenda for this afternoon’s demonstration. The proposed slogans, someone says, are “objectivity, truth, productivity, freedom.” It is no surprise that two out of four have to do with truth. But “productivity” is interesting. From several conversations outside I gather that the “Polish example” is widely seen here as a negative one. If economic misery were to be the price for political emancipation, many people might not want to pay it. So the Forum places a premium on economic credibility. Demos only after working hours. The lunchtime general strike on Monday as a one-time necessity.
In the early afternoon comes Dubcek. He looks as if he has stepped straight out of a black-and-white photograph from 1968. The face is older, more lined, of course, but he has the same gray coat and paisley scarf, the same tentative, touching smile, the same functionary’s hat. Everything contributes to the feeling that we have just stepped out of a time warp, the clocks that stopped in 1969 starting again in 1989. Protected by Havel’s bodyguards—lead on, John Bok—we emerge from the belly of the Lantern, Dubcek and Havel side by side, and scuttle through covered shopping arcades and tortuous back passages to reach the balcony of the Socialist Party publishing house and Svobodné Slovo: the balcony of the free word. Along the arcades people simply gape. They can’t believe it. Dubcek! It is as if the ghost of Winston Churchill were to be seen striding down the Burlington Arcade.
But when he steps out onto the balcony in the frosty evening air, illuminated by television spotlights, the crowds give such a roar as I have never heard. “DUBCEK! DUBCEK!” echoes off the tall houses up and down the long, narrow square. Many people mourn his ambiguous role after the Soviet invasion, and his failure to use the magic of his name to support the democratic opposition. He has changed little with the times. His speech still contains those wooden, prefabricated newspeak phrases, the langue de bois. (At one point he refers to “confrontationist extremist tendencies.”) He still believes in socialism—that is, reformed communism—with a human face. The true leader of this movement, in Prague at least, is Havel, not Dubcek. But for the moment none of this matters.
For the moment all that matters is that the legendary hero is really standing here, addressing a huge crowd on Wenceslas Square, while the emergency session of the Central Committee has, we are told, been removed to a distant suburb. “Dubcek to the castle!” roars the crowd—that is, Dubcek for president. The old man must believe he will wake up in a moment and find he is dreaming. For the man who supplanted him and now sits in the castle, Gustav Husák, it is the nightmare come true.
After Dubcek comes Havel. “Dubcek-Havel” they chant, the name of ‘68 and the name of ‘89. (People point out with delight that 89 is 68 turned upside down.) Then Václav Malý, the banned padre, reads a message from the man he calls “the third great symbol” of this movement, the ninety-year-old Frantiek Cardinal Tomáek. “The Catholic Church stands entirely on the side of the people in their present struggle,” says the message. “I thank all those who are fighting for the good of us all and I trust completely the Civic Forum which has become a spokesman for the nation.” “Long live Tomáek,” they cry, but I notice that when Malý later strikes up the old Czech Wenceslas hymn, much of the crowd either do not know the words or are reluctant to sing them. A striking contrast with Poland.
At the end of the demonstration, after more speakers, including a football player, a theater director, and the obligatory Student and Worker, the people down in the square make the most extraordinary spontaneous gesture. They all take their keys out of their pockets and shake them, three hundred thousand key rings, producing a sound like massed Chinese bells.
7:30 PM. The press conference. Havel and Dubcek together on stage. They are just starting to field questions about their different ideas of socialism when someone brings the news—from television—that the whole politburo and Central Committee secretariat has resigned. The theater erupts in applause. Havel leaps to his feet, makes the V for Victory sign, and embraces Dubcek. Someone brings them champagne. Havel raises his glass and says “to a free Czechoslovakia!”
Then, rather absurdly, we settle down again to discuss “What is socialism?” Havel says the word has lost all meaning in “the Czech linguistic context” over the last fifteen years, but he is certainly in favor of social justice and a plural economy, with different forms of ownership. The models for a rational social policy are to be found rather in social-democratic than in Communist-ruled countries. The shortest and best answer comes from Václav Malý. I’m also for social justice, he says, but the only way to secure it is through parliamentary democracy.
10 PM. Plenum in the smoking room. Arrangements for the weekend. The need for finance: establish a Treasury commission! An interesting but inconclusive discussion about the way in which Dubcek should or should not be associated with the Forum. Of course his name is magic, domestically and internationally. But he is, you know, still sort of, well…a Communist. On every face you see elation fighting a battle against exhaustion. Everyone is very, very tired. At one point, reading a draft declaration about the general strike, the writer Eva Kanturková says “Democratic Forum” instead of “Civic Forum.” “Oh, sorry, I was thinking of Hungary.”
Civic Forum, Democratic Forum, New Forum—Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany—you can easily lose track; it’s that kind of year. Someone suggests the general strike should be described as an “informal referendum” on the leading role of the Party. Someone else says “symbolic,” not “informal.” Writers debate a fine point of style. Agreement by mutual exhaustion. Meeting over.
After midnight. Back in Havel’s basement pub, with a wall painting of a ship in stormy seas. Beer and becherovka. What do you talk about on the night of such a tremendous victory, when, in just over a week, you have removed the gibbering thugs who have ruined the country for twenty years? In the first instant, on the stage of the Magic Lantern, you may cry, “To a free Czechoslovakia!” But you can’t go on talking like characters in a nineteenth-century play. So you suddenly find yourself talking about cats. Yes, cats. Two cats called “Yin” and “Yang,” whom their owner has not seen for more than a week. Poor things. Victims of the revolution.
So what will happen after the revolution? I ask a beaming Jirí Dienstbier, the star journalist reduced to working as a stoker after signing Charter 77. Quick as ever, he says: Either the counterrevolution or…a Western consumer society. (Just over two weeks later he is appointed Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister. Kindly delete that remark from the record. No, of course you never said that, Mr. Minister. Someone else did. I imagined it. It was a voice from the wall.)
Day Nine (Saturday, November 25). Two Forum statements. One issued after the plenum last night at 11:30 PM (events move so fast they have not only to date but to time the communiqués) describes the general strike as a “symbolic referendum” on the “leading role.” A second, issued at 4:30 AM, expresses dismay at some of the people elected to the new politburo (formally: Presidium) and Central Committee secretariat. The general strike is here described as “an informal, nationwide referendum on whether or not they should go on humiliating us, and whether this country should continue to be ruined by the leaders of one political party, permanently abrogating to itself the leading role.”
The waiter in my hotel sees me reading Svobodné Slovo. “Ah, victoria!” he says, pointing to the blue, white, and red ribbon which he, like so many others, is now wearing in his lapel. Then he leans over and whispers in my ear: “finished communism.” Straightening up, he rubs his shoe across the carpet, as if crushing a beetle. Then he takes my Svobodné Slovo, but not my breakfast order, and disappears into the kitchen.
This morning there is, by happy chance, a festive mass in the cathedral on the castle hill, to celebrate the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia. The actual canonization took place in Rome on November 12, just five days before the revolution started. (An old legend has it, so a Catholic friend informs me, that wonders will occur in Bohemia when Agnes is canonized.) In the freezing cold, a large crowd gathers inside and all around the cathedral, and in front of the Archbishop’s Palace. “Franti Tomáek! Franti Tomáek!” they chant, a wonderfully chummy way to greet a venerable cardinal. An old woman quaveringly sings patriotic hymns, pausing only to take a swig of vodka between verses.
The Church here is nothing like the force that it is in Poland, for Czechoslovakia has historically been bitterly divided between Catholics (associated with the Habsburg counterreformation) and Protestants (from Jan Hus to Masaryk), while both churches were ruthlessly suppressed in the Stalinist period, and again after 1969. Yet Catholic intellectuals and banned priests like Václav Malý play a crucial part in the opposition leadership. Tomáek himself has become ever bolder as he gets ever older. A petition for religious freedom last year got more than half a million signatures, and was a major factor in breaking the political ice. And anyway, who could resist the glorious coincidence of this ceremony and the revolution? So there is a goodly crowd here too, some from the countryside and even from Slovakia. And the mass for the patron saint of Bohemia, the king’s daughter who came down to live among the poor, is a further celebration of national renewal. Angels at work. Oh yes, and the whole service is broadcast live on television: so far as I can establish, the first time that has ever happened here.
At 2 PM, in freezing snow, there is the biggest demonstration of all: over half a million people, in the park before the Letná football stadium, just behind the place where the giant statue of Stalin once stood. With the banners and flags and upturned faces vivid against the white snow, it looks like a painting by L.S. Lowry. Whole sections of the crowd jump up and down together, to keep warm. The essential fact is that they are there, at the Forum’s invitation. In a sense, that is all that matters. But of course there is a program.
Havel reiterates the Forum’s dissatisfaction with some of the new leaders, and especially with the survival in office of the deeply unpopular Prague Party secretary, Miroslav Stepán. “Shame, shame!” cry the crowd. And then he says that the only person in power who had responded to the wishes of the people is the prime minister, Ladislav Adamec. “Adamec! Adamec!” roar the crowd, and one trembles for a moment at the ease with which they can be swayed. This is of course a quite deliberate (but high-risk) tactic, worked out in the dressing rooms of the Magic Lantern: to build up the prime minister’s position as a negotiating partner by showing the authorities that he can enjoy popular support. In fact, this is precisely what Adamec asked Havel to do for him a few days ago. Dubcek, who, rather to some people’s surprise, has not yet returned to Bratislava, repeats the same support for Adamec. He also says, rather nicely, that he is pleased about the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia—Anezka—and that, although he will speak in Slovak, what matters is not how you speak but what you say.
Petr Miller, The Worker, repeats the strike call, stressing once again that it must not damage the national economy. Ballads are sung, including President Masaryk’s favorite song; and students and actors talk. “I speak in the name of Jesus Christ,” says one actor, modestly, “and call upon you to stamp out the devil.” Roars of applause. Then, in the extraordinary way these crowds have of talking back, they given an almost instant response: “The devil is in the castle, the devil is in the castle!” (If you stand in the crowd you see how one man can start a chant which, being taken up by those around him, becomes the voice of half a million.)
7:30 PM. The press conference. Repeating the Forum positions about the compromised leaders, the general strike and so forth. Tomorrow a delegation will meet with Prime Minister Adamec. The agenda is to include the legalization of independent groups, the release of political prisoners, arrangements for further talks, oh yes, and an end to the leading role of the Party. Foreign journalists keep asking about things they cannot possibly know, such as the power balance inside the Party or the relations between the Soviet and Czechoslovak leadership. Jirí Dienstbier gives a good answer to the last question. Of course we feel the Soviet leadership should have some sense of responsibility for the 1968 invasion, he says, but we are certainly not asking for any more international “assistance.”
Television is now clearly opening up to report the revolution. Beside the live broadcast of the mass it shows an interview with Havel: down with the leading role, he says, up with free elections. And the crowds outside grasp that as the essential point: “Free elections,” they chant. As in Poland, in Hungary, in East Germany….
Day Ten (Sunday, November 26). 11 AM. A delegation led by Prime Minister Adamec, and formally described as representing the government and National Front (uniting the Communist with the formerly puppet parties), meets with a Forum delegation led by Havel. “We don’t know each other,” says the prime minister, extending his hand across the table. “I’m Havel,” says Havel. Just in case you didn’t guess. It’s a short getting-to-know-you session, but they agree to meet again on Tuesday. The prime minister promises the release of political prisoners (several of whom do indeed appear in the Magic Lantern in the course of the day), and also to come to this afternoon’s rally.
2 PM at the Letná stadium again. Adamec arrives before the Forum leaders, and stands around stamping his feet in the cold. How do you feel? someone asks him. “Very nice,” he says, “I think this was necessary,” as the crowd roars, “Dubcek! Dubcek!” I notice his aide trying to suppress a broad grin. Havel delivers a brief speech, describing the Forum as a bridge from totalitarianism to democracy, and saying that it must exist until free elections. Then they give Adamec his chance. But he blows it, talking about the need for discipline, for no more strikes, for economic rather than political change. You feel he is talking as much to the emergency Central Committee meeting that will take place this evening as to the people in front of him. And they feel it too. They boo and jeer.
The crowd again displays an extraordinary capacity to converse with the speakers in rhythmic chant. “Make way for the ambulance,” they cry, or “Turn up the volume.” When a long list of political prisoners is read out they chant, “Stepán to prison.” “Perhaps we should give him a spade,” says Václav Malý from the platform. “He’d steal it!” comes the almost instantaneous response, half a million speaking as one. And then “Here it comes!” Sure enough, there is a spade held aloft at the front of the crowd. “Stepán. Stepán,” they cry as in a funeral chant, and once again they ring their keys, as for the last rites. (Next morning we have the news that Stepán, along with other discredited members of the leadership, has resigned at the emergency meeting of the Central Committee.)
6 PM. An important plenum at the Magic Lantern. Havel poses the “fundamental question” of the future of the Forum. He personally doesn’t want to be a “chief,” he says, or a professional politician. He wants to be a writer. Václav Malý says much the same thing, except that he wants to be—he is—a priest. Yet it is clear to everyone that Havel must carry on at least until the elections—and “in the elections,” Dienstbier jokes. “I don’t give you any chance!”
Someone else reports telephone calls complaining about undemocratic methods. Here is the familiar conflict between politics and morality, between the requirements of unity and democracy. The students insist on the need for unity, continuity, and Havel’s leadership. But other voices are raised in favor of immediately founding political parties. A social democratic party will announce itself within the next few days. The Forum, everyone agrees, must not be a centralized, partylike organization. What is it then? How do you describe a civic crusade for national renewal?
Inevitably, the discussion swings abruptly between the great and small issues—from what to say to Adamec on Tuesday to what to say to the press in an hour’s time, from socialism vs. liberalism to whether to go by car or by bus. In the midst of it, Václav Klaus, the glinting economist, suddenly starts to read an amazing document. It is called “What We Want” and subtitled “Programmatic Principles of the Civic Forum.” It proposes a new Czechoslovakia with the rule of law guaranteed by an independent judiciary, free elections at all levels, a market economy, social justice, respect for the environment, and independent academic and cultural life. A normal country in the center of Europe. Three typewritten pages, prepared by the members of one of the commissions in a short weekend. First I saw them sitting up on the stage of the Magic Lantern, then sweating away in the dressing room. My friend Petr Pithart, a lawyer, historian, and author of one of the best books about 1968, who was reduced to doing menial work after signing Charter 77, just dropped in to the Magic Lantern to make a modest suggestion. Within minutes he was asked to work on the commission, writing the blueprint for a new Czechoslovakia.
When Klaus finishes reading there is a discussion. Václav Benda, a conservative Catholic and one of the original political brains of the Charter, says that although he helped to edit the text he doesn’t agree with parts of it: the passage saying that Czechoslovakia will “respect its international legal obligations” (by implication, including the Warsaw Pact) and another saying the state should guarantee a social minimum for all. This is a tricky moment, for if the plenum plunges into a serious political discussion, then the deep differences that have been covered by the broad yet minimalist platform, first of Charter 77, now of the Forum, will surface with a vengeance. Fortunately the moment is saved by Petr Miller, who rises to his feet and says that although he has no higher education he can understand it all, finds it good, and thinks we should just adopt it. In effect: you intellectuals, stop blathering! Sighs of relief all around. A quick vote. Adopted with just three abstentions. Thank heaven for The Worker.
Of course the program contains passages of fudge: for example, on the Warsaw Pact issue, on the role of the state, and on the ownership question. On the last point, it talks of “real competition” coming about “on the basis of the parallel existence, with equal rights, of different types of ownership and the progressive opening of our economy to the world.” This is a compromise formula, bearing in mind the sensibilities of the revisionists, social democrats, and even Trotskyists who are part of the Forum rainbow coalition, and who still believe in various forms of social(ist) ownership. In effect it says: let the best form win! But privately the economists have no doubt which kind of ownership will actually win out.
Yet the truly remarkable thing is not the differences about the program, but the degree of instant consensus. In 1968, even in 1977, it was almost unthinkable that there would be so much common ground. This is a Czech phenomenon. But it is not just a Czech phenomenon, for in different ways it is repeated all over East Central Europe. Take a more or less representative sample of politically aware persons. Stir under pressure for two days. And what do you get? The same fundamental Western, European model: parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, market economy. And if you made the same experiment in Warsaw or Budapest I wager you would get much the same result. This is no Third Way. It is not “socialism with a human face.” It is the idea of “normality” that seems to be sweeping triumphantly across the world.
But that’s enough philosophy. For in the next ten minutes they have to work out what to say to the prime minister—and to the world. At the press conference, they are of course asked about the fudging formulas on the alliances. Dienstbier says: we have to start from the existing situation, but our long-term objective is a Europe without blocs. Spoken like a foreign minister. As for the Soviet Union, this very evening Soviet television is broadcasting a program about the Prague Spring, including an interview with Dubcek. The Dubcek interview has been supplied by the samizdat Videojournál.
Day Eleven (Monday, November 27). The general strike is a success almost before it has begun. Television declares it so. Just before noon, the announcer demonstratively shows himself preparing to join in the strike. Then, from the stroke of noon, they show squares filled with people all around the country, in Prague, in Bratislava, in Brno, in Ostrava, wherever, and excited reporters describe the “fantastic atmosphere.” A subtitle explains that reporting on the strike is the television crews’ contribution to the strike. (Yet for the last twenty years they have been grinding out propaganda junk.)
Petr Miller drives me up to his factory, the large CKD electrotechnical works. Miller drives hair-raisingly fast in his sporty Lada. He enjoys hooting at traffic to let us through, shouting “Civic Forum!” “I’m just a very small figure in the opposition,” he says, gesturing with his hand just a yard above the ground, to show how small. But in fact he is well on the way to being described as the Czech Walesa. On the road we pass an astounding sight: a line of taxis at least one mile long, taxi after taxi after taxi, crawling out up into the hills, wives or girlfriends in the passenger seats. It is the taxi drivers’ strike.
In front of the factory gates, the workers are listening patiently to a long lecture on economics by the head of the Prognostic Institute, Dr. Valtr Komárek. “Komárek! Komárek!” they chant. The meeting ends with the singing of the national anthem at one thirty, so that everyone can be back at work by two. Miller says they will make up the lost work in unpaid overtime. On my way back there is, of course, not a taxi to be found.
4 PM. A celebration demo on Wenceslas Square. The organizers try to give the platform—or rather balcony—to a Communist. “Friends, comrades,” he begins, but that is a terrible mistake. “Boo, boo,” shout the crowd, and: “We’re not comrades.” Free elections and an end to the leading role of the Party are what people want to hear. Václav Klaus, now emerging as an opposition star, reads a statement announcing that the Civic Forum “considers its basic objective to be the definitive opening of our society for the development of political pluralism and for achieving free elections.” The movement is open to everyone who rejects the present system and accepts the Programmatic Principles. There will be no hierarchical structure, but there will be a “coordinating center.” The coordinating center recommends the ending of strike action for the time being. Tomorrow they will submit their demands to the prime minister. If he doesn’t respond adequately, they will call for the resignation of the government—“resignation, resignation!” cries the crowd—and the appointment of a new premier willing to assure the holding of a free election. “Free elections, free elections!”
Then comes the portly, goatee-bearded Dr. Komárek who delivers, very slowly and deliberately, what sounds like a prime minister’s acceptance speech. There must be deeds not words, he says. “That’s it,” chants the crowd. There must be compromise between the new de facto situation and the old de jure one. The kids around me giggle at the professorial Latin, but they too shout, “Komárek, Komárek!” There should be a grand coalition government, a government of experts, men of competence and moral integrity (such as, we understand, Valtr Komárek). Then a girl student reads out, even more slowly and clearly, as if in school dictation, a letter from the students asking the president to replace Adamec with Komárek. “Pan Docent Komárek, Dr. Sc.,” she says, has a program ready. The Forum stands behind him. “We too,” cry the crowd, “we too!”
So to everyone standing on that square it is clear that the Forum—speaking for the people—has just proposed a candidate for prime minister. Go to the Magic Lantern, however, and you soon discover that the Forum didn’t mean to do that at all. In the plenum at 6 PM, in the main auditorium now, there is confusion and consternation. Our position, says Havel, was that we would give Adamee a chance to meet our demands, before calling for his resignation. That was the statement Klaus read. The students jumped the gun. Why? There was a telephone call from the Lantern, say the students. “Disinformation!” someone says. “Provocation!” Or, more likely, just muddle.
In any case, the question now is: What on earth are they to say in the negotiations with Adamec tomorrow? And who should be on the delegation? The Student. The Worker (Petr Miller). Ján Carnogurský, a lawyer and leading Slovak Catholic activist, just released from prison. Václav Malý. Perhaps Komárek? “On whose side?” someone asks. For Komárek is still a Party member. At this point Havel slips away off stage. He has to go and collect the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade awarded weeks before. (Four days ago he had to slip away to collect the Olof Palme Prize.)
7.30 PM. The press conference. Answers are delivered with great assurance to questions the Forum leaders have only just asked themselves, in this same room, a few minutes before. No matter. Make it up as you go along. Petr Miller says the strike committees still exist and will be maintained. Not only will the workers make up the time lost by the strike, they’ll also work two free Saturdays—in the week when Czechoslovakia has free elections. Will there be a Green party? “This country needs all parties to be green,” says Dienstbier. Well done, Jirí. Spoken like a foreign minister again. But now he has to dash. His boilers need stoking.
Day Twelve (Tuesday, November 28). At half past one a government minister, one Marián Calfa, gives the first account of the negotiations between the government/National Front team under Adamec and the Forum delegation under Havel. The meeting started in an “excited” atmosphere, he says. But then it settled down and ended in a “positive” spirit. The prime minister promised, by Sunday, December 3, to propose a new government based on “a broad coalition,” a government of experts. The government will propose to the Federal Assembly that the clauses about the leading role of the Party, the closed, subordinate nature of the National Front, and Marxism-Leninism as the basis of education, should be removed from the constitution. The prime minister also promised that the City Council would provide the Forum with all necessary facilities.
According to people on the Forum side. Adamec actually blew his top on being confronted with the Forum’s demands—a short digest of those raised by the students and the people over the last week. He called them “an ultimatum.” After a break, Petr Miller once again defused the situation with some straight talking.
4 PM. Plenum. Perhaps two hundred people in the auditorium. Havel and other delegation members on stage. The main subject: the Forum’s version of the meeting. As well as the three points accepted by the government, the demand was made that all political prisoners should be released by December 10 (UN Human Rights Day), and there was an expression of satisfaction at the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate the police and security forces’ violence on November 17. The draft, read out by Radim Palou, includes five more points. Of these the most immediately dramatic is the announcement that the Forum leaders are writing to President Husák, calling upon him to resign by December 10. The prime minister has until the end of the year to make clear the way in which his new government will create the legal conditions for free elections, freedom of assembly, association, speech, and press, the end of state control over the churches, etc. In addition, the People’s Militia, the Party’s private army, must be dissolved and all political organizations removed from the workplace (as in Hungary). If not, they will demand the prime minister’s resignation, too.
After the draft is read, Havel says, “Now I leave you to discuss it,” and scuttles off backstage, through the Minotaur’s hole. In the course of a rather confused discussion, Petr Pithart sharply points out that they have not actually said anything about the composition of the new government. What about the crucial levers of power, the interior and defense ministries for example? From the platform comes the slightly sheepish reply: yes, but we can’t really say something here that we didn’t mention there. Somehow, in the rush and muddle, that point didn’t get made. Ah well. Once again, Petr Miller ends the intellectual havering: let’s accept it now, he says, we can always elaborate later.
Press conference. The final version of the communiqué—as edited by the two hundred!—is read out. So is the text of a letter to the Soviet authorities about the reassessment of 1968. This, they report, was accepted “with pleasure” by the Soviet embassy, who promised that it would promptly be sent to Moscow, by telex. Asked about the negotiations, Havel says they were complicated, fast, dramatic, and please don’t expect all the details here. Altogether, he pleads to be left alone by the press. All questions to him, he says, he will gladly answer at an all-day press conference—after the revolution.
Day Thirteen (Wednesday, November 29). Television broadcasts the speech of the new Party secretary, Karel Urbánek, attempting to rally the faithful at an emergency aktiv in the Palace of Culture. He adopts a fighting tone. We will not sell out to foreign capital like the Poles! We cannot concede to demands to dissolve the People’s Militia! (On Saturday, they will do just that.) The audience chants “Urbánek, Urbánek!” and “Long Live the KSC!” in the rhythms of the crowd on Wenceslas Square.
Then the Federal Assembly, the official parliament. The women with putty faces, cheap perms, and schoolmistress voices. The men in cheap suits, with hair swept straight back from sweaty fore-heads. The physiognomy of power for the last forty years. But at the end of the day they all vote “yes” to the prime minister’s proposal, as agreed yesterday with the Forum, to delete the leading role of the Party from the constitution, and remove Marxism-Leninism as the basis of education. For years, for a life-time in some cases, they have been preaching Marxism-Leninism and the leading role of the Party. But not a single deputy votes against the change. Turn your coat, just like that.
4 PM. Plenum, in the auditorium. Havel and a delegation have hurried off to Bratislava, to speak in the Slovak National Theatre. It is vital not to let the authorities divide Slovaks against Czechs, as they have done so often in the past. Yesterday’s communiqué about the meeting with the government underlined that this was a negotiation by the Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence (PAV), the sister organization in Slovakia. And the first item of today’s communiqué records their joint resolution:
The common objective of the CF and the PAV is the changing of Czechoslovakia into a democratic federation, in which Czechs and Slovaks, together with other nationalities, will live in mutual friendship and understanding.
There are rocks ahead here. For the issue is not just democracy as such; it is also the degree of self-government to be enjoyed by the two nation(alitie)s within the federal state.
But before anyone can discuss this, a group of students come on stage, dressed comically as young pioneers: white blouses, red bows, the girls’ hair in pigtails. It is the students’ Committee for a More Joyful Strike. We have come, they say, to cheer you up—and to make sure that you don’t turn into another politburo. Then they hand out little circular mirrors to each member of the plenum.
Back to business. Point three reads:
The prime minister in yesterday’s negotiations with the CF said that he wished to discuss with us the members of the new cabinet. The CF does not aspire to any ministerial post, but would like to suggest to the prime minister that the minister of national defense be a civilian who has not compromised himself and is a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, while the minister of the interior be a person who has not compromised himself, is a civilian and is not a member of the Party. This suggestion was given to the prime minister in the course of this morning.
In fact the suggestion came, drafted by Havel, from his dressing room to the “crisis staff” dressing room, and was agreed on within a few minutes. A little after-thought: Oh, and by the way, you can’t have the interior ministry any more!
Who wants to speak at the press conference? No takers. People have to be press-ganged to face the press.
Should we talk about this as a revolution? someone asks. For, after all, “in our linguistic context” the word “revolution” has a clear subtext of violence. A “peaceful revolution” sounds like a contradiction in terms. A rather academic point, you might think. But actually a great deal of what is happening is precisely about words: about finding new, clear, true words rather than the old, prefabricated, mendacious phrases under which they have lived for so long. The drafting committees try to ensure that from the outset the Forum’s statements are in a new, plain language. Alas, they do not always succeed. The communiqués, with their repetition of abbreviations—CF and PAV—soon begin to sound a little like the old officialese.
7:30 PM. Press conference. The communiqué. News of the Federal Assembly vote. Václav Klaus smilingly reports a press interview with the deposed Party leader, Milo Jake, in which he said that the Forum is well organized. “I’m sorry to say,” Klaus comments, “that even on this point we can’t agree with him.” The issue of academics sacked after 1969. We are already drawing up a list of those who should be reinstated, says a student leader. But how would they find places for them? “I can assure you that we have quite enough very incompetent professors….”
Day Fourteen (Thursday, November 30). 4 PM. Plenum. The first topic is the internal organization of the Forum “coordinating center.” Ivan Havel, whose subject is cybernetics, has produced a most impressive and logical plan, now displayed on a blackboard on stage. Suddenly the theater looks like a lecture room: the revolution has become a seminar.
One of the issues being discussed in the corridors is how to change the composition of the Federal Assembly. Once again, there is the conflict between the moral imperative of democracy and the political imperative of swift, effective action. There is a legal provision by which members of parliament can be “recalled,” that is, removed, on a vote of the parliament itself, and replaced by new nominated—not freely elected—members. This method was used to purge the parliament after the Soviet invasion. Now Professor Jicinský, a constitutional lawyer who was himself removed from the parliament by this method, proposes to hoist the Communists with their own petard. Others say: but this is undemocratic, there should at least be free elections in the vacated constituencies (as, incidentally, has happened in Hungary). But this would take much longer, and time is what they do not have. They need a more representative assembly, now. So can you take an undemocratic shortcut to democracy?
Meanwhile, a Forum delegation has the first direct, bilateral meeting with Party leaders. The Party side is led by Vasil Mohorita, who, as head of the official youth movement, licensed the students’ demonstration that started it all, and then agreed to a statement condemning the use of violence against the demonstrators. Perhaps he is the looked-for partner in the Party?
After the television news, there is a long interview with Zdenek Mlynár, a leading member of the Dubcek leadership in 1968. He was invited to Prague from his exile in Vienna by the new Party leader, Karel Urbánek, and rushed to a meeting with him after crossing the border in the dead of night. In their desperation, the Party leaders are turning for advice to, and hoping to win back, the old Communists, whom they expelled (some half a million of them) and defamed after the invasion. Mlynár is introduced on television as a “political scientist from Innsbruck.” He gives a highly eloquent performance, stressing the importance of the international context, as at all the previous turning points in Czechoslovakia’s history, in 1918, in 1938, in 1948, in 1968…. What he does not spell out is the concrete steps needed to dismantle the Communist system. At the end of the interview you feel that he is still ultimately pleading, like Dubcek, for the concepts of 1968, for a reformed communism called “socialism with a human face”—in short, for an idea whose time has gone.
Later in the evening, I walk with the theater director Petr Oslzlý through the impossibly beautiful streets of the old town, to the small Theater on a Balustrade, where Havel’s first plays were performed in the early 1960s. Today, like all the other theaters, it becomes the setting for an improvised happening. After a short talk by an economist, and a discussion with an exiled choreographer about how theaters are financed in the West, there is a Czech country-and-western group. In what might be called Czenglish they sing: “I got ol’ time religion….”
Day Fifteen (Friday, December 1). Pavel Bratinka sits in his stoker’s hut at the metro building site, with a huge pile of coal outside the door, a makeshift bed, junk-shop furniture, and he says: “On the whole I favor a bicameral legislature.” He has been studying these issues for years, politics and law and economics, writing articles for the underground press, and occasionally for Western publications. With him, one has that rare experience of someone who has really thought his political views through for himself, not taking anything for granted. He is therefore unmatchably confident of the positions he takes up: positions which in American terms would be considered neoconservative. I have known him for several years, and always treasured his explosive intellectual wrath. But this conversation is unique. For while we still sit in the grimy hut, Pavel in his enormous, leather-reinforced stoker’s trousers, I think that, within a few months, he will actually be sitting, in a smart suit, in the new lower house of a real parliament.
5 PM. Plenum. Several people have been nominated already for the “crisis staffs” over the weekend. Are there any more volunteers? This is a critical weekend, since Sunday is the deadline set by the Forum for the announcement of the new government, and they will then have to react to Adamec’s list. Effectively, almost anyone from among this miscellaneous group could appoint himself to participate in the crucial decision. But everyone is simply exhausted after a fortnight of revolution. Their wives and children are complaining. And damn it, it is the weekend. So the list of volunteers grows only slowly.
The meeting wakes up when a burly farmer arrives, having just successfully disrupted an official congress of agricultural cooperatives. He reads out—no, he elocutes—a rousing statement, beginning, “We the citizens…,” and calling for everything from freedom to fertilizers. Then he asks for speakers from the Forum to come out into the countryside. People in the country, he says, think Charter 77 is a group of former prisoners.
After seven, Havel and Petr Pithart return, also exhausted, from their five-hour-long negotiations with the Czech (as opposed to the federal) prime minister, Frantiek Pitra. Here, too, the central issue was the composition of a new government, and changes in those arrangements (e.g., for education) which are within the competence of this body. Finally they have agreed to a joint communiqué, after arguing for an hour over one word—“resignation.” Havel says: You must understand what it means for these people to sign a joint communiqué with us, whom for twenty years they have regarded—or at least treated—as dangerous criminals.
The early hours. The king of Bohemia arrives back in his basement pub. “Ah, pane Havel!” cries a girl at a neighboring table, and sends over her boyfriend to get an autograph on a cigarette packet. Havel is a Bohemian in both senses of the word. He is a Czech intellectual from Bohemia, with a deep feeling for his native land. But he is also an artist, nowhere happier than in a tavern with a glass of beer and the company of pretty and amusing friends. Short, with light hair and moustache, and a thick body perched on small feet, he looks younger than his fifty-three years. Even in quieter times, he is a bundle of nervous energy, with hands waving like twin propellers, and a quite distinctive, almost Chaplinesque walk: short steps, slightly stooping, a kind of racing shuffle. He wears jeans, open shirts, perhaps a corduroy jacket, only putting on a suit and tie under extreme duress: for example, when receiving one of those international prizes. Negotiations with the government, by contrast, do not qualify for a suit and tie. His lined yet boyish face is constantly breaking into a winning smile, while from inside this small frame a surprisingly deep voice rumbles out some wry remark. Despite appearances, he has enormous stamina. Few men could have done half of what he has done in the last fortnight and come out walking, let alone talking. Yet here he is, at one o’clock in the morning, laughing as if he made revolutions every week.
Day Sixteen (Saturday, December 2). A shabby back room, with a broken-down bed and a girlie calendar on the wall. On one side, the editors of a samizdat—but soon to be legal—paper. On the other side, Havel, the head of the Stockholm-based Charter 77 Foundation, Frantiek Janouch, and, from Vienna, the chairman of the International Helsinki Federation, Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg, with tweed jacket and Sherlock Holmes pipe. Arrangements are to be made for the newly legal paper. The Prince takes note of their needs. At one point, there is talk of some fiscal permission required. Havel takes a typewritten list of names out of his bag, and finds the name of the finance minister. “Does anyone know him?” he jokes. Silence. Schwarzenberg says: “What kind of country is this, where one doesn’t know the minister?”
Suddenly people have red, white, and blue badges saying “Havel for President.” They are made, I am told, in Hungary. Havel shyly says, “May I have one?” and pops it into his pocket.
In the evening there is a ceremony on the stage of the Magic Lantern to thank the staff for their help, since on Monday they are to resume more normal performances. After short speeches, the lights go down, a fireworks display is projected onto the backdrop, and everyone joins in signing the Czech version of “We Shall Overcome,” swaying from side to side with hands raised in the V-for-Victory sign. Then we drink pink champagne. Emerging from the auditorium, I see a solitary figure standing in the foyer, with half-raised glass, indecisively, as if pulled in four directions at once by invisible arms. It is Havel. We sit down on a bench and he rumbles confidentially: “I am just engaged in very important negotiations about…”—at which point a pretty girl comes up with another bottle of champagne. Then someone with an urgent message. Then another pretty girl. Then Prince Schwarzenberg. I never do get his account of those vital negotiations.
Day Seventeen (Sunday, December 3). Another stage, another founding meeting, this time of the new writers’ union, in the Realistic Theater. Havel says a few words and is just slipping away when they haul him back on stage, and tell him he must be chairman of the new union. Elected by acclamation, he makes his racing shuffle to the microphone and says thank you, yes, thank you, and he is frightfully sorry but he really has to dash…which he does, for they are about to make known the proposed composition of Adamec’s new government.
And a very bad composition it is too. Despite Adamec’s solemn declaration about proposing a “broad coalition” government of experts, and despite the deletion of the leading role of the Party from the constitution, no less than sixteen out of the twenty-one proposed members of the government are Party members. Among them are almost no experts, but some very compromised figures, such as the foreign minister, Jaromír Johannes. Clearly this is unacceptable.
Crisis meeting in the smoking room. What is to be done? Some say that the Forum must go for what the people obviously want: a real government of experts led by Komárek. Others say that is impossible, and Komárek is not the right man. Professor Jicinský, the constitutional lawyer, points out that the Forum is in danger of painting itself into a constitutional corner: for if they don’t accept the government, and demand the President’s resignation by next Sunday, then they could end up with no constitutional authority in the land except the old and corrupt parliament. A confused discussion ends in general agreement that the Forum must demand the further reconstruction of the government, backing this up with a demonstration on Wenceslas Square tomorrow afternoon, and the threat of a general strike a week from Monday. Petr Pithart, now a central figure, is chosen to deliver the Forum’s reaction on television this evening, along with a student, an actor, and Petr Miller, with the worker’s muscle at the end. They hurry off down into the stuffy, overheated dressing rooms to draft the statements, together with the master draughtsman, Havel. Now there is no pink champagne and no laughter. It is too serious a business.
But later in the evening there is a moment, if not for laughter, then at least for a quiet tear. There is a concert “for all right-thinking people,” a concert to celebrate the revolution. When Marta Kubiová comes on stage, the audience erupts in the kind of applause that usually only follows a brilliant performance. But they are not applauding her singing. They are applauding her silence. Years of silence. For Marta Kubiová, one of the most popular singers of the Sixties, has not been allowed to appear in public in her native land since she signed Charter 77. When the applause finally subsides, a girl presents her with a bunch of flowers, “one for each lost year.” A fragile, gentle figure—now in early middle age—Marta Kubiová is so overwhelmed that she can hardly speak, let alone sing. “Thank you, thank you,” she whispers into the microphone. Then, with a friend supporting her, she sings: “The times they are a changin’…” It is a moment of joy, but with an inner core of bitter sadness. For to most of her audience the songs she sings are ancient history—the sounds of the Sixties.
Day Eighteen (Monday, December 4). Three forty-five. Wenceslas Square. Despite the freezing cold, the demonstration will be huge, and a success. Of course it will. Everyone knows it. They file into the square slowly and matter-of-factly, as if they had been doing this for years. A few minutes before four, they start warming-up with the familiar chants, “Now’s the time!” “Resignation!” and ringing the keys. “Long live the students” they cry—is there another city in the world where you would hear that? “Long live the actors.”
Then come the official—that is, official unofficial—speakers, slowly reading rather complicated statements, full of “CF and PAV.” “Long live the Forum!” they chant, nonetheless. Loud support for the general strike on December 11. A fine, theatrical performance by Radim Palou, who reads out the proposal to recall compromised members of the Federal Assembly, such as—pause—and then, like a whiplash: “Jake.” Whistles and jeers. And so on down the list of gibbering thugs: Fojtík, Indra, Bilak. “Let it be done,” says the crowd. And from one corner: “Do it like the Germans!” (Meaning the East Germans, for this morning brought the news of Erich Honecker et al. being expelled from the Party, and placed under house arrest.) But “like the Germans” is how the Forum leadership does not want to do it. They want to do it like the Czechs, that is, gently, without hatred and revenge.
Finally, the bell-clear voice of Václav Malý reading the Forum statement: the demand for free elections by the end of June 1990 at the latest, with a new indication that the Forum will propose or endorse candidates; the formation of a genuine coalition government by next Sunday, otherwise the Forum will propose its own candidate; the Forum and the PAV declaring themselves to be the guarantors of the transition to a democratic state based on the rule of law. “Long live the Forum!” Then, in a last touch which verges on kitsch, the pudgy pop star Karel Gott (a housewives’ darling) and the exiled Karel Kryl come out onto the balcony together, to lead the singing of the national anthem(s), the slow, heart-rending first verse in Czech, the sprightly, dance-rhythm second verse in Slovak.
Up the street to my hotel, where the television brings news of the successful Malta summit, of Gorbachev’s subsequent meeting with Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow, and then, separately, with Urbánek and Adamec. Then a report about the roundup of Communist leaders in East Germany. Later, a flash: the five Warsaw Pact states that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 have formally renounced and condemned this as an intervention in Czechoslovakia’s internal affairs.
So every schoolboy can see which way the external winds are blowing. No doubt this will be a week of tense and tortuous negotiation. But it is hard to see what alternative the authorities have, other than to make further concessions. They are caught between the hammer of popular revolt and the anvil of a completely transformed external context, symbolized by the Malta summit and that Warsaw Pact statement: “From Yalta to Malta” for the world; from Husák to Havel for Prague.
A late-night walk through the old town, veiled in a mist. After twenty long years, the sleeping beauty of central Europe has woken up. The improvised posters on the shop windows deserve an article in themselves. “Unity is strength,” they say. “People, open your eyes.” And: “The heart of Europe cries for freedom.”
At this point the Forum had to leave the Magic Lantern, and I had, alas, to leave Prague. The next week was probably as important as the previous two, but someone else will have to chronicle its inner dramas. On Tuesday there were further, inconclusive talks with Adamec. On Wednesday he threatened to resign, and on Thursday he did so. His former deputy, Marián Calfa, a Slovak, was asked by President Husák to form a new government. The Forum said they might be able to come to an agreement with him, and made some “suggestions” for the new cabinet. (A week before they had said “the CF does not aspire to any ministerial post,” but, as the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once remarked, a week in politics is a long time. Above all, a week in revolutionary politics.)
There followed “round table” talks between representatives of all the official parties—crucially, of course, the Communists, headed here by Vasil Mohorita—and those of the Forum, headed by Havel, and of the Public Against Violence, headed by Jan Carnogurský. As in Poland, the “round table” really had just two sides. But in Poland, the round table took two months; in Czechoslovakia, two days. Precisely meeting the Forum’s deadline, on Sunday, December 10, UN Human Rights Day, Gustav Husák swore in the new government, and then resigned as president.
Václav Havel read out the names of the new cabinet to a jubilant crowd on Wenceslas Square. Virtually all the Forum’s “suggestions” were reflected in the agreed list. Jan Carnogurský was catapulted in the space of just a fort-night from being a prisoner of conscience. expecting a stiff sentence, to being one of two so-called “first vicepremiers” of Czechoslovakia, with partial responsibility for the security apparatus that had for so long harassed and persecuted him. In a compromise, since the two sides could not agree on an interior minister, he shared this responsibility with the Communist premier, Marián Calfa, and the other “first vice-premier,” our old friend the chief Prognistic, Pan Docent Valtr Komárek, Dr. Sc.
Komárek would have overall responsibility for economic policy, with two other members of his institute under him: Vladimír Dlouhý (like Komárek, a Party member), and, predictably, the glinting economist Václav Klaus as minister of finance. (So now Prince Schwarzenberg could rest content: one does know the minister.) As if in a fairy-tale, Jirí Dienstbier went from stoker to foreign minister. Almost as remarkably, Miroslav Kusy, a well-known. Slovak philosopher and signer of Charter 77, expelled from the Party like so many others, took charge of the Federal Office of Press and Information. Petr Miller, The Worker, became minister for labor and social affairs. The formerly puppet, but newly independent, Socialist and People’s parties got two seats each. Although the prime minister was still a Communist, only eight other ministers (out of a total of twenty-one) were Party members, and of these, two—Komárek and Dlouhý—were identified more with the Forum than with the Party.
It was an extraordinary triumph at incredible speed. The “ten days” actually took just twenty-four. Well might the factory sirens blow and church bells ring on the morrow, instead of the threatened general strike. Within the next week, Klaus and Carnogurský were already announcing fiscal and legal changes to start the country down the road to a market economy and the rule of law: the road conjured up seemingly out of nothingness in those steamy dressing rooms and corridors of the Magic Lantern just a fortnight before. The next Sunday, Jirí Dienstbier was cutting the barbed wire of the iron curtain on the Czechoslovak-Austrian frontier, holding the giant wire cutters with his colleague, the Austrian foreign minister, Aloïs Mock. The students held another demonstration, taking exactly the same route that they had on Day One, just a month before: along the embankment, right at the National Theater, up Národní Street into Wenceslas Square. This time they were not met by truncheon-wielding police, by white helmets or red berets, for this time the police were, in a real sense, under their control.
Of course there were countless difficulties ahead. One major outstanding issue was the election of a new president. The Forum quickly said that Havel was its candidate, for the transitional period to free elections, and that he should be elected as soon as possible by the Federal Assembly. The Party suddenly discovered a burning passion for “democracy,” and suggested that the next president should be chosen by direct popular vote, which would take longer to organize, and which, it fondly hoped, Havel might actually lose. (Note, incidentally, that Hungary’s Communists recently tried an almost identical wheeze.) There was also a side plot concerning a suitable position for Dubcek, with his threefold importance: as a historical symbol, a reform Communist, and, not least, a Slovak.
As this article goes to press, the (Communist) prime minister has formally endorsed Havel’s candidacy at a session of the Federal Assembly, and it therefore seems likely that the play-wright will indeed be elected by that body in the near future. But even if that important dispute is resolved by the time you read this, there are many more ahead, on the path to free elections to parliament in the first half of 1990. Barring a great disaster (external or internal), it nonetheless seems certain that Czechoslovakia is now launched down the same road as Poland and Hungary, as East Germany (in a special, complicated way), and perhaps as Bulgaria: the road from communism to democracy. The breakthrough has happened.
What I have recounted here is only a small part of the story, albeit a central part. There are many other vital parts that others will have to fill in: for example, the story from the Party–government side, and, indeed, the detail of the actual negotiations. It is too soon to draw any balance sheet. But a few tentative reflections may already be ventured.
Why did it happen in November? The real question is rather: why did it not happen before? Historically, Czechoslovakia was much the most democratic state in the region before the war. Geographically, Prague lies west of Vienna. Culturally, it is the Central European city. The Prague Spring was crushed by external force. But the river ran on underground. The gulf between the pays réel and the surreal, mendacious pays légal—Husák’s kingdom of forgetting—grew ever wider. During the last couple of years, the number of those prepared to risk something in order to speak their real minds grew very significantly. There were the 40,000 who signed the “Several Sentences” Manifesto. There were the hundreds of thousands of believers who signed the petition for religious freedom. There were the students and the actors. Once the transformations began in neighboring Poland and Hungary, one had the feeling that it was just a matter of time before things moved in Czechoslovakia.
And so it was. But East Germany went first. And if one asks, “Why did things go so fast in Czechoslovakia?” the simple answer is “because the Czechs came last.” East Germany was the final straw: seen, remember, not just on television but also in Prague itself, as the East German escapees flooded into the West German embassy. National pride was aroused. Rapid change was clearly possible, and allowed, even encouraged, by Gorbachev. From the members of the audience in the Realistic Theater on the first Saturday who immediately leapt to their feet in a standing ovation at the actors’ demand for a general strike, to the crowds on Wenceslas Square chanting, “Now’s the time,” from the journalists who at once started reporting truthfully, to the workers who never hesitated about going on strike: everyone was ready. Everyone knew, from their neighbors’ experience, that it could be done.
More than that, their neighbors had given them a few ideas about how it should be done. In a real sense, Czechoslovakia was the beneficiary, and what happened there the culmination, of a ten-year-long Central European learning process—with Poland being the first, but paying the heaviest price. A student occupation strike? Of course, as in Poland! Nonviolence? The First Commandment of all Central European oppositions. Puppet parties coming alive? As in East Germany. A “round table” to negotiate the transition? As in Poland and Hungary. And so on. Politically, Czechoslovakia had what economic historians call the “advantages of backwardness.” They could learn from the others’ examples; and from their mistakes.
Yet when all this has been said, no one in Prague could resist the feeling that there must also be an additional, suprarational cause at work. Hegel’s Weltgeist, said some. Agnes of Bohemia, said others. “The world is moving from dictatorship to democracy,” said a third, in a newspaper interview. How you describe the suprarational agency is a matter of personal choice—for myself, I’ll stick with the angels—but on a sober enumeration of causes, the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
If there were angels at work, there were also devils. One saw more than once how the devils of ambition, vanity, pride, the little germs of corruption, wriggled their way down into the bowels of the Magic Lantern. Taken all in all, however, the central assembly of the Forum in the Czech lands was an impressive body. It was as democratic as it could reasonably be, in the circumstances. It was remarkably good humored. It showed a genius for improvisation. Profound differences of political ideology, faith, and attitudes were generally subordinated to the common good. A reasonable balance was struck between the political and the moral imperatives. Above all, men and women who for twenty years had been deprived of the most basic possibilities of political articulation were able to get together and say, within a matter of days: “This is what we want, this is how the face of the new Czechoslovakia should look.” And it is a face that bears examination.
All the same, they were lucky. Even compared with Solidarity in Poland nine years ago, this was the politics of amateurs. There were several moments in the second week when one felt they had lost their way in the tangle of demands, long and short term, moral, symbolic, and political. Thus, to forget about those crucial levers of power, the defense and interior ministries, might look, to a cold and critical observer, like carelessness. To toss in the demand next day, in a hastily drafted letter, might look, to the cold and critical observer, like theater rather than politics. But such was the tide of popular feeling (helped by the favorable external winds), and so clear the general direction, that it came right in the end. And in politics, as Disraeli observed, nothing succeeds like success.
“Unhappy the land that has need of heroes,” cries Brecht’s Galileo. Unhappy the land that has need of revolution. The twenty years, and in many respects the forty years, are really lost. Lives have been ruined. Damage has been done that can never be repaired. But if you must have a revolution, then it would be difficult to imagine a better revolution than the one Czechoslovakia had: swift, nonviolent, joyful, and funny. A laughing revolution. It also came without the accompanying (and precipitating) economic crisis of Poland or Hungary. What is more, because the change has been so swift—because Komárek, Dlouhý, and Klaus are already in government, taking the necessary steps—Czechoslovakia has a real chance of making the larger transition from dictatorship to democracy, and from planned to market economy, with relatively little economic pain: although I stress the word relatively.
So the parting images should be of happiness. Collective happiness, as seen in Wenceslas Square, but even more of individual happiness. I think of Pavel, designing the bicameral legislature in his stoker’s hut. I think of Petr, given a new last chapter for his history of Czechoslovakia, which will be published legally, while he travels to Oxford. I think of Rita, preparing for her new job as ambassador to Washington. I think of Jirí, now making the foreign policy of the Czechoslovak (Socialist?) Republic. And I think of Václav—that is, Wenceslas—drinking a Christmas toast.
Sentimental? Absurdly so. But sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof, and God knows there will be evils enough in East Central Europe over the next decade: common, workaday evils of fragile polities and struggling economies. For a short while, at least, we may surely rejoice. After twenty years, the clocks have started again in Prague. The ice has melted. The most Western of all the so-called East European countries is resuming its proper history.
—December 21, 1989
"The Prague Advertisement," The New York Review, December 22, 1988.↩
“The Prague Advertisement,” The New York Review, December 22, 1988.↩