Lessons from the Velvet Revolution

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The twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's dismantling triggered reflection on its lessons for Europe and the left. Now the twentieth anniversary of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution is prompting similar reflection on what this non-violent, student-led revolution can mean for people today. Here's what historians have learned from the 1989 overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia:

  • Revolutions Come From the Young  The Guardian's Henry Porter points out that student activists were at the front of change in Berlin, Prague, and Leipzig in 1989. "Liberty will always owe youth," he writes, and "if I were to identify one of the real adversaries of freedom it would certainly be student indifference." Seeing the British government's incursion on the rights and privacy of its people through surveillance and DNA databases, he says that it is "time to wake up." Specifically, it is "time for students in Britain to grasp what is happening." This should be their cause.
  • A New Template for Revolutions  1989 expert Timothy Garton Ash writes in the New York Review of Books about the common elements of the revolutions of 1989. In contrast with the "1789-style revolution," also seen in Russia in 1917 and in Mao's China, "the 1989 ideal type ... is nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure ... to bring the current powerholders to negotiate." So what is meant by Ash's "anti-utopian"? The "velvet" type of revolution aims for "political and legal institutions, and social and economic arrangements, that already exist elsewhere." The revolutions of 1989 were historical oxymorons: nonviolent revolutions. But copying them is tricky, and has become more so lately as "authoritarian rulers"--for example in Iran--have "identified VR [the "velvet revolution"] as a hostile Western stratagem, and carefully studied its history so as to nip it in the bud." Garton Ash concludes that, while Westerners cannot create velvet revolutions in unfree countries, they help foster them.
  • Authors Need Support, Not Just Freedom  Journalist Chris Johnston for Czech Radio writes that "writers were at the forefront of the Velvet Revolution," and the revolution was "in many respects about authors and words," being propelled by censorship. Yet, interviewing current author Vladimír Křivánek, he notes that Communist censorship coexisted with impressive support for authors and other artists. Křivánek apparently finds the current Czech Republic "uncultured"; though 1989 brought in the Western works many book-lovers had previously longed for, there were other, less desirable results:
After 1989, perhaps we pointlessly gave up some of our economic benefits ... As for demanding, artistic literary work as a whole, there is not much of that left. It is often translations--we read translations and translate a lot. I have the impression sometimes that we often translate overrated best sellers. I sometimes have the feeling we feed ourselves with the waste of US culture. Unfortunately that is how it is.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.