The Czechoslovak Revolution of 1989 was the most surprising, yet most rational, event in the array of startling upheavals that ended the decade in Eastern Europe. It was surprising in that virtually no one-in Czechoslovakia or abroad-foresaw anything approximating what would happen between November 17 and December 29. It was rational in that all those characteristics that had shaped Czechoslovak history for the past several hundred years seemed to merge in what was clearly the most gentle and complete disestablishment of communism in Eastern Europe.

There were many factors-accidental happenings and political trends-that came together to create that "velvet revolution." The person who started it was Mikhail Gorbachev. The ideas underpinning the clean sweep of the communist dominion in Eastern Europe flowed without question from perestroika and glasnost. Yet the way in which the events in Czechoslovakia unfolded demonstrated Gorbachev's apparent lack of vision or even ignorance of the real forces at play in this important allied nation.

The spark that lit the fire under revolution in November surely came from the explosive events earlier in East Germany, events which Gorbachev condoned if not wholly encouraged. Human waves of East Germans flowing through Czechoslovakia and Hungary to freedom in the West riveted the attention of young Czechs and Slovaks, opening their minds to the potential for mass action and the possible impotence of their security police. Ultimately, however, it was a uniquely Czechoslovak reaction to the prospect of reform in Eastern Europe and to the dramatic change in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev that formed the character of their revolution and led to Václav Havel's election as the Czechoslovak president on December 29.

Historians over decades to come will dissect the almost miraculous disappearance of the Cold War and East European communism in 1989. Many in Prague find their own revolution so mystifyingly beautiful that they attribute it to astrological forces, to the recently canonized Bohemian princess St. Agnes, or to the return of Rabbi Loew's golem. For now, however, tracing the earthly steps that led to the momentous changes in Czechoslovakia may help to explain why the world, and even Czechoslovaks themselves, failed to anticipate the "Prague Autumn" of 1989.


Gorbachev's revolution is clearly the starting point. Without the Soviet leader's "new thinking," perestroika and glasnost, the fundamentals of Soviet relations with Eastern Europe could not have changed so rapidly. It was Gorbachev's changing vision of Soviet national security and national interests that created the conditions for the revolutions of Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, few experts would have disagreed just two years ago with the basic proposition that Soviet security interests in Eastern Europe profoundly limited the potential there for fundamental change.1 Even as it became clear that Gorbachev's policies would have unpredictable and possibly dramatic implications for the states of Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Hungary where reforms were evolving rapidly, the Soviet commitment to the retention of the Warsaw Pact alliance and Communist Party rule seemed firm.

The surprisingly rapid collapse of communist power in Czechoslovakia is a metaphor for the failure of the Stalinist system to secure Eastern Europe as a cordon sanitaire for the Soviet Union after World War II. In a sense, if the Soviet Union could not impose "friendship" on Czechoslovakia, it could not do so anywhere. The Czechoslovak party and government apparatus of control were never as repressive as in, say, Romania or, at times, in the Soviet Union itself. Czechoslovakia emerged from the war the least damaged economy and country in Eastern Europe. Moreover, the Czechs and Slovaks, who had been betrayed by the West at Munich in 1938 ("about us, without us"), had retained a certain cultural and even political affinity with the Russians.

The communist left had a legitimate political following in Czechoslovakia after the war. After the country was finally subdued in 1948 in the Soviet takeover, however, the communist regime became slavishly submissive to Soviet power. Indeed the "Prague Spring" in 1968 was but a delayed reaction to Nikita Khrushchev's reforms in the U.S.S.R. earlier that decade. Thus the Prague Spring was led by communists who, like the Khrushchev reformers, believed that Soviet-style socialism could have a human face, could be reformed and could be made to work. This paradox found the puppet Czechoslovak regime of Antonín Novotný pursuing Khrushchev's reform policies even after Khrushchev had been deposed in 1964. One-time Czechoslovak Communist Party Secretary Zdenek Mlynár, who accompanied the reformist leader Alexander Dubcek to Moscow for the showdown with the Brezhnev politburo following the invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, describes it this way:

At a time when Brezhnev was increasingly abandoning the Khrushchevian line-it happened under the Novotný government-anti-Stalinist reform communist criticism was first fully developed not only in Czechoslovak society but also inside the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the power structure.2

So it was during the period between 1964 and 1968 that reform trends quickened in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet reformers who survived Khrushchev and watched the rise and fall of the Prague Spring in 1968 knew that the end of Dubcek also meant the end of their already lanquishing reform movement under Brezhnev.

Many of the Khrushchev reform generation who were subsequently resurrected from obscure institutes by Gorbachev-or earlier in 1983-84 while Yuri Andropov was general secretary-had spent time (exile is too strong a word) in Prague during the 1960s or early 1970s. Many of them worked on the Cominform publication, The World Marxist Review, published in Prague. The list of these Soviet reformers, referred to in Moscow as the "Prague Club," reads like the Who's Who of perestroika. It includes Ivan Frolov, editor of Pravda and a longtime close adviser to Gorbachev; Gennady Gerasimov, Gorbachev's press spokesman; Georgy Shakhnazarov, a principal foreign policy adviser; Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev's personal assistant; and Fedor Burlatsky, a top Soviet human rights authority. There are many more now working in key Soviet research institutes and in the government.

These Soviet reformers should have had a particularly good understanding of Czechoslovakia and the tragedy of the post-1968 period. Perhaps because that group was so preoccupied with Soviet domestic reforms in the period between 1985 and 1988, it seemed to have had little impact on Gorbachev's own thinking; more likely the top leadership had already decided for other reasons before 1989 not to press reformist views on Czechoslovak authorities.

A second paradox thus arose in the relationship between the Soviet Union and its Czechoslovak satrapy during the early Gorbachev years. The traditional Soviet institutional controls remained in place even though the reformers close to Gorbachev had special knowledge of the particular conservativeness and growing isolation of the Czechoslovak party leadership. During Gorbachev's first years Soviet influence over the top echelons of the Czechoslovak police, party, military, press and trade unions was probably greater than in any other East European country except East Germany. As long as the Soviets chose to exercise that influence and as long as the Czechoslovak old guard installed by Brezhnev after 1968 chose to tolerate it, there was little likelihood that real reform would take hold.

The difficult question to answer is why Gorbachev and these advisers did not move sooner to encourage reforms within the Czechoslovak party before it was too late. There are several possible explanations.

Gorbachev's first principle in dealing with Eastern Europe after assuming power was that the Soviet Union would no longer interfere in the internal affairs of its allies. He thus was caught in the uncomfortable circumstance of deciding whether to interfere in Czechoslovakia to scrape away the residue of prior Soviet interference, or simply to let things go on as they were and trust the Czechoslovak Communist Party to reform itself. He chose the latter course. He did so probably not only to retain his posture of non-interference, but perhaps also because of a fundamental ignorance of Czechoslovakia-the questionable strength of the party, the stagnant nature of the leadership, the conservative cut of the Soviet team there. Despite the fact that many of Gorbachev's advisers knew the situation in Czechoslovakia, it is difficult to imagine any apparatchik appreciating the depth of the Soviet problem there.

The Soviet ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Viktor Lomakin, played an important role in obstructing reformist tendencies, and Gorbachev trusted him. They had served together for many years as regional party secretaries-a close club in the Soviet party. Gorbachev was party leader in Stavropol, Lomakin in Vladivostok, where for nearly 15 years he worked particularly well with the large military-police establishment of that security-laden zone between China and the Sea of Japan. After his appointment as ambassador shortly before Gorbachev became general secretary, however, Lomakin seemed to look upon his role in Prague as if he were still a ruling party boss. Even Czechoslovaks for the past few years seemed to feel that Moscow looked upon Prague much in the same way it did Kiev or Vilnius.

Gorbachev also had a personal relationship with Miloš Jakeš, who became the Czechoslovak first party secretary in 1987 with a vague promise to reform. They had first met in 1979 and worked together frequently; Gorbachev was Soviet party secretary for agriculture from 1980-85, and Jakeš held the same post in Czechoslovakia.

Then after Jakeš took power, the Soviets may have applied the old principle: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." From the Soviet perspective the Czechoslovak economy was the least troubled in Eastern Europe; Czechoslovak citizens lived relatively well; except for a few unruly students and an occasional crazy intellectual or playwright, the party seemed to have matters well under control. With all of Moscow's problems, why create more? After all, until the incredible events of 1989, Gorbachev retained belief in the ability of the communist parties to pull Eastern Europe out of its economic morass. Given the unraveling of communism in Poland and Hungary, Gorbachev desperately needed at least one successful reform somewhere; perhaps he counted too much on Jakeš and company in Prague.

But there is also evidence from the press and other Soviet sources that Gorbachev had become increasingly impatient with the Jakeš and Eastern Europe's other conservative regimes even before 1989. Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu had tried to orchestrate a conservative coalition with Jakeš and East Germany's Erich Honecker to use force if necessary to repress reform in Poland and Hungary. Moreover Jakeš was beginning to play to Yegor Ligachev and other conservative opponents of Gorbachev in Moscow. For all their personal ties, according to a senior Soviet academic, Gorbachev and his advisers would have preferred the more liberal Lubomír Štrougal rather than Jakeš to replace Gustáv Husák in 1987. Gorbachev, of course, knew that Jakeš had led the Czechoslovak party purges of the 1970s.

By 1989, in the end, other dynamics had been set in motion within Czechoslovakia that led to the isolation and eventual downfall of Jakeš and his team. For Jakeš, it was simply too late.


What had been so obvious to Western observers for two decades or more was not really understood in the Kremlin: the increasingly anti-Soviet and anticommunist attitude of the Warsaw Pact populations was undermining the security as well as the economies of the region.

At Yalta Stalin had tried to persuade Roosevelt and Churchill that what the Soviet Union required, above all, was a glacis of friendly nations in Eastern Europe. In an aside to an American official Stalin confided that "free elections" were not likely to assure the Soviets that the countries of Eastern Europe would be "friendly." Later Brezhnev, like Khrushchev, was prepared to use force if necessary to preserve the "fraternal relationship." Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader who, perhaps to his own surprise, began to appreciate the depth of hostility that had developed in Eastern Europe as a result of those imposed regimes.

Nonetheless, the Soviet policymaking community simply did not recognize the significance of anti-Soviet attitudes in Eastern Europe, or the potential for change in Czechoslovakia. Soviet diplomats and officials often appeared blind to the steadily eroding base of Czechoslovak popular support for the communist regime and the alliance with the Soviet Union.

One incident stands out among the dozens demonstrating this point. In the spring of 1985, a world hockey tournament was played in Prague shortly after Gorbachev came to power. A young, inexperienced American team made a surprisingly excellent showing. As the tournament progressed the Czechoslovak audience became increasingly vocal and demonstratively supportive of the U.S. team-and overtly hostile to the Russians. In the finals, the Americans played the Soviets for third place. By that time the Soviet embassy had become so embarrassed by the anti-Soviet crowds that the ambassador chose not to attend the game. Indeed the crowd was loudly supporting the Americans even though the Soviet team was clearly superior. Toward the end of the match, after an ugly incident in which a Soviet player bloodied the nose of the U.S. goalie, the American and Soviet teams got into a full-rink fight. The Czechoslovak audience was uncontrollably hostile to the Soviet side and shouted loudly, "Go! Go! U.S.A. Go! Go! U.S.A."

Anecdotal evidence, however, does not adequately describe the sense that had grown among Czechoslovaks that the enormous Soviet power network-permeating the party, the trade unions, the secret police, the army and the media-was profoundly out of touch with the realities of the country, precisely because those Czechoslovak party institutions were themselves so out of touch. The Czechoslovak population was turning inward, engaging in what was called "anti-politics," or internal immigration into their own private lives. Moreover, after Gorbachev's much-anticipated visit to Prague in the spring of 1987, which did not spur the party to reform, Czechoslovak activists and youth became even more convinced that real change was not in the offing.

Nevertheless, during 1988 several important dimensions had begun to emerge that would shape the policies, attitudes and reactions of Gorbachev toward Eastern Europe:

-As Gorbachev came to realize the depth of the problems of the Soviet economic and political system, he and his advisers became more focused on their own domestic issues, placing less emphasis on trying to manage deteriorating relations with the Warsaw Pact and Comecon.

-By late 1988, as reflected in his stunning December speech at the United Nations, Gorbachev had substantially changed Moscow's thinking about the nature of national security and Soviet interests. Security was now defined more in terms of international cooperation and economic stability than in terms of military power.

-Developments in Poland and Hungary had confirmed the degree of a pent-up popular political power in those nations as the people were pressing for radical changes in the nature of the communist rule.

A revealing window on the emerging attitudes of Gorbachev's inner circle of advisers came in June of 1988 when a group of Soviet and American specialists met in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss the role of Eastern Europe in superpower relations. The American experts were not prepared for the candor of the Soviet paper presented at the conference.3 The profound implications of Gorbachev's new thinking suddenly came into view-at least as far as Eastern Europe was concerned. The paper was strikingly fresh for its recognition of the fundamental problems of Soviet relations with the region and the weaknesses of the region's political and economic systems.

The subject of Czechoslovakia came up. Did the Prague Spring not anticipate the Gorbachev reforms, 20 years earlier? Was it not important for the Soviets to recognize publicly the mistake of the 1968 invasion? Did the current Czechoslovak regime not present the ultimate challenge to Gorbachev, since it was the one most clearly installed by Soviet power yet the one least responsive to reform? The Soviets privately acknowledged that most of these questions were valid. In fact the two officials who knew Czechoslovakia best echoed the concern attributed to Gorbachev, that the decision to make Jakeš party boss instead of Štrougal was a fundamental error on the part of the Czechoslovak party, in effect postponing real reforms and betting on Gorbachev's early political demise.

The Prague leadership's strategy since 1987 had been to keep the old guard together at the top. Through 1988 and into 1989 the leaders continued to resist Gorbachev and the increasingly dramatic reforms of Poland and Hungary. They realized that once a leader came to power who had not shared in the humiliating "normalization" process after 1968, the old guard would be thrown out and blamed for the past twenty years of decline. By the summer of 1988 Štrougal, who was then prime minister, was pressing Jakeš for more aggressive reforms with the backing of the Czechoslovak Institute for Forecasting, led by Waltr Komárek. One of the few who had a feel for what reform was needed, Štrougal was removed as prime minister in the fall of 1988.

Jakeš and the rest of the old guard determined that they all would have lost out had Štrougal succeeded in launching a genuine reform movement. After Štrougal's departure, however, Jakes made a conciliatory gesture by retiring the dreaded Vasil Bil'ák-the ideological hard-liner who had set the repressive tone of domestic policy for twenty years. Jakeš also promised a few other liberalizing measures, such as easing foreign travel restrictions and permitting more cultural freedom. But he still resisted fundamental political and economic reform.

During early 1989 democratic changes in Poland and Hungary, the continuing deterioration of the Soviet economy and the dramatic Soviet parliamentary election in March focused the issues even more clearly for the communist leaderships of Eastern Europe. For the first time it became arguable that the Brezhnev Doctrine was in fact dead and that Gorbachev had no intention of using military force to repress democratic change in Eastern Europe-or even, apparently, in the Soviet Union. The repression of the Tbilisi riots in April 1989 had become an embarrassment for Gorbachev, rather than a demonstration of strength. Then in his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on July 6, 1989, Gorbachev seemed finally to remove all ambiguity about the Brezhnev Doctrine when he pledged that people would have not only the right to choose their social system, but to change it. He rejected any interference in the internal affairs of "friends, allies or anyone else," or attempts to limit their sovereignty.

The conservative regimes of Honecker, Jakeš, Ceausescu and Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov had become an economic burden and, more important, were creating a credibility gap for Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The longer these regimes put off reform, the more problems the communists would likely have retaining some role in reconstruction, and the more likely the Soviet political and military presence would be challenged. Moreover, pressure was mounting in Soviet society, particularly in the national republics, for more open debate and candor about the past: 1939-40 in the Baltics, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Evidence indicates that Soviet policy in the fall of 1989 became somewhat more "interventionist," urging reform particularly among party leaderships in Berlin and Prague.

Finally the isolation of the communist parties from the populace was demonstrated in incident after incident in Poland, Hungary and even in the Soviet Union. Thus, demoralized communist institutions, combined with the growing boldness of the populace, in the summer of 1989 brought the region to the threshold of its revolution.


Gorbachev's perestroika created the conditions for the Czechoslovaks to rid themselves of communist rule. But it was the intellectuals gathered first under the umbrella of Charter 77, later giving birth to Civic Forum, who gave the "velvet revolution" its gentle and even spiritual character; they made possible the remarkably smooth transition toward a free society.

The history of Charter 77 brings together many other elements that affected Czechoslovak attitudes over the past decade and prepared the society for the events of 1989. In particular, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act played a vital role in providing the Czechoslovak people with political leverage and hope. It also justified Western support for the movement and the mounting number of parallel dissident and opposition groups that became bolder as the decade of the 1980s progressed.

Charter 77 included some of the 1968 "reformers" who were frustrated in their attempts to give socialism a human face, but it also had a broader, more anticommunist group of signatories. Charter "presented a challenge of a new kind, more ethical and less political than its predecessors."4 Founded in January 1977 by a group led by Václav Havel, Jan Potocka and Jirí Hájek in response to the Helsinki Final Act, Charter 77 declared itself to be:

a free, informal, open community of people of different convictions, different faiths and different professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respect of civil and human rights in our own country and through the world. Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity.5

This was and continued to be a very new type of "community"-subtle, anti-party, anti-ideology, ethical and ultimately very powerful. So powerful were its words, ideas and values, and so strong the mutual trust, sense of community and internal communications that Charter 77's work contributed mightily to the simultaneous demoralization and collapse of the Communist Party.

Prior to 1989 most Western experts saw two basic models for reform in Eastern Europe. One model was Hungary, where change was led by the Communist Party reformers. The other was Poland, where the collapse of communist rule was carried out by two strong national institutions-the church and Solidarity. One of the major miscalculations that experts made about Czechoslovakia was in underestimating the capacity of the Charter 77 movement and other intellectual and dissident groups to wrest power from the communists. No Western expert dared to doubt that Czechoslovak rulers would ultimately resort to police or military force to repress an increasingly bold opposition.

Not only the power of the ideas underlying these organizations, but the cunning of their activists was also underestimated. These dissidents claimed in the style of the Good Soldier Schweik that they were not a "political opposition"-in order not to provoke too much repression-and yet they evolved their "informal community" into an effective array of parallel civic groups. They claimed no ideology and no leadership structure, yet the very openness, courage and seemingly abstract philosophical style of a man like Havel enabled individuals of widely differing points of view to trust him, inform him and seek his support and leadership for all variety of happenings.

These dissident leaders simply claimed to be seeking a dialogue with the communist rulers to discuss, for example, how the government would institute practical changes that would enable it to comply with the Helsinki Final Act-a seemingly innocent, almost naïve objective. But as the former dissident and newly named foreign minister, Jirí Dienstbíer, indicated on several occasions, this was essentially a call for the overthrow of the old regime. The old guard communists finally understood better than anyone that Charter 77's game was a direct challenge to communist rule; this was no mere reform movement.

Charter 77 was often hamstrung by its lack of structure and organization, by its often maddeningly time-consuming "consensus" approach to decision-making, by its variety of personalities and by the split between its nonviolent human rights purists and its activists who saw value in increasingly political acts and demonstrations. It was, however, this very disorder that gave rise to the movement's improvisation, creativity, individual initiative and dramatic gestures. In particular, that large segment of the movement coming from the theater recognized the important role of symbols in political action, and brought a vitality to Charter's efforts that captured national and world attention for its cause.

Almost from the start, the Charter activists were in close, though highly discreet, contact with parallel dissident movements in Hungary and Poland. As early as 1978, Charter leaders conferred secretly with their opposite numbers from Solidarity; with all the clandestine precautions they could muster, they met in the mountain woods on the Polish-Czechoslovak border-not just that first time but repeatedly over the years-camping out, comparing notes on tactics, strategies and goals.

The man who reluctantly emerged as the leader of the movement was Havel. Like so many other East European intellectuals he was influenced by phenomenology, a philosophical strain stressing personal responsibility and rejecting ideologies that blame others for one's own predicament-whether it be the "class enemy" or the "evil empire." In this system of beliefs, human rights are not something granted as a political reward or withheld as a punishment, but are what allow individuals to flourish in a free society. Havel's teacher in this set of ideas was Jan Potocka, the continuing intellectual father of Charter 77 even though he died shortly after its founding. The Civic Forum, the revolutionary political heir to Charter 77, is based on the same fundamental principles and seeks to revive the sense of personal responsibility lost in a society so long dominated by a dead, utopian ideology that systematically deprived the individual of free thought and self-awareness.

Thus, two important aspects of Charter 77 and Civic Forum are the protection of human rights and the restoration of the traditions of the Czech and Slovak peoples. These traditions draw much from the history of the religious and philosophical heretic (e.g., Jan Hus), the nonviolent response to national conquest (e.g., after the Thirty Years War), the central role of philosophy and language in the development of the national political character (e.g., Tomáš Masaryk), and the strength of the democracy and the free-enterprise system that thrived in the period of the 1920s and 1930s. Havel and his fellow writers gained their energy from these traditions and intellectual roots.

There is another side of that history relevant to this modern period-the Roman Catholic Church. The church was seen by Masaryk and Czechs in earlier centuries as a force used to oppress the Czech national character. Slovaks, on the other hand, had long been strongly Roman Catholic. Despite their Czech heritage, Havel and Charter 77 found themselves closely allied with the church-its František Cardinal Tomásek, its dissident priests and the growing number of young intellectuals seeking spiritual refuge in Catholicism. The Catholic Church became not only a powerful force in support of the goals of Charter 77, but is now a potential binding link between the Czech and Slovak peoples.

Another part of this history is the Czech effort after independence to remove centuries of the overbearing presence of German culture. Indeed two of Masaryk's objectives in 1918 were to reduce the role of the Catholic Church and of German culture and economic power in Czechoslovakia. Later, after the Second World War, there was even a repressive period of expelling and persecuting Germans who lived in the Sudeten region. Today, however, Czechoslovak intellectuals have received important support from West Germany, and German economic and political investment in Czechoslovakia's post-communist development is certain to be more abundant than most-and possibly more controversial. Similarly, just as the Czech nation has feared German domination in the past, the Slovaks have harbored anxieties about the Hungarians. It remains to be seen whether the end of communism in Slovakia and Hungary will become a constructive or debilitating factor in the strengthening of the Czechoslovak nation.

Finally, Czechoslovakia's own communist government and that of the Soviet Union over the past forty years have manipulated the relations between Czechs and Slovaks for their own purposes. The period since 1968 has been a particularly difficult one for Czech/Slovak relations. Charter 77 was principally a Czech and Moravian phenomenon, while the dissidence in Slovakia was church-centered. Slovak students and intellectuals clearly played an important role in the liberation of Slovakia with their Public Against Violence organization-the equivalent to the Czechs' Civic Forum. But the different ways in which the Slovak and Czech peoples have dealt over the past decade with communism will add one more complexity to the troubled relations between these two principal nations of the Czechoslovak state.

Beyond the cluster of Charter 77 organizations the most important group was the "Jazz Section." Originally a tolerated unit of the Union of Musicians, the Jazz Section had been around since 1971, organizing concerts and publishing magazines. Under the leadership of the energetic and canny Karel Srp, the Jazz Section became much more political by the early 1980s, and boldly began to engage large numbers of young people in quasi-opposition activities beyond the realm of jazz, which the regime found so distasteful precisely because they understood that jazz had become a widespread form of protest. The role of modern music in the dissidence of this very musical nation has become legend in the West. John Lennon, after his death, became a symbol of freedom to young Czechoslovaks, and it was on "Lennon's Wall," across from the French embassy, where protest posters and graffiti appeared throughout the 1980s.

The Jazz Section was unique in that it was a semi-official organization, received UNESCO recognition, published a magazine read by tens of thousands, and had a headquarters. The boldness of Srp and his colleagues in publishing and promoting anti-regime material and in garnering international support prompted the government to arrest and try them in March 1987. These arrests radicalized Srp's many young followers and forced the movement into bolder and more diverse activities. Not only did the "Unijazz" and "ArtForum" groups become direct offshoots of the Jazz Section and attempt to do similar things with young people, but other groups developed in the wake of the Jazz Section trials as well, including the Czech Children, the Society for Friendship with the U.S.A., the Independent Peace Society and the John Lennon Peace Club.

Another vital factor in creating the conditions for revolution in Czechoslovakia was the media, in its broadest sense. One could argue persuasively that the very speed of the transformation of Eastern Europe in 1989 was created by television and radio. The sight and sound of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Leipzig, Berlin and Prague; East German emigrants jumping over fences and into the West German embassy; the tearing down of the Berlin Wall-these events seemed to give instant courage and a sense of community to cowed citizens of Czechoslovakia.

The persistence of foreign radio stations like the BBC, VOA and Radio Free Europe in transmitting the true story of events in the world, and in Czechoslovakia in particular, eroded the credibility of the communist government and fostered an awareness and sense of judgment and history among the Czechoslovak citizenry. Indeed, in December 1988 when the Czechoslovak government ceased jamming Radio Free Europe as a gesture of reform, much broader and more effective dissemination of the growing popular movements became possible. Finally, samizdat and other publishing activities grew in Czechoslovakia in 1987-88 with increased foreign support and greater boldness on the part of Charter 77 and other groups. Such journals as Lidove Noviny, Revolver Review and dozens of others, plus an unapproved videocassette news program, Original Video Journal, emerged despite government efforts to restrict circulation.

A third relatively new development in Czechoslovakia in the 1988-89 period was the successful organizing of demonstrations and petitions that engaged much larger numbers more actively against the regime. Demonstrations had been tried for years, but had not been greatly effective. Unlike Poland and Hungary, where large public manifestations had been effective tools of political action, large crowds gathered in Czechoslovakia only at officially organized events or in Catholic pilgrimages in Moravia and Slovakia. Charter 77 and some of the larger dissident groups used traditions like Human Rights Day (December 10), John Lennon Day (December 8), the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion (August 21) and the anniversary of the Czechoslovak state (October 28) to prod the authorities by trying to entice large numbers into the streets.

In 1988 the demonstrations began to get serious. On the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion up to 10,000 gathered. Another several thousand massed on October 28 to appeal for new laws to permit the right of assembly, and an even larger demonstration took place on December 10. Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of public support in 1988 for an opposition cause was the 31-point petition for religious freedom signed by over 600,000 people, including non-Catholics and non-dissidents, along with a letter of support from Cardinal Tomásek. The petition was a powerful public "vote" that brought a firm response from the regime against the activists who had organized it.

Western governments and private human rights organizations played an important role in encouraging and supporting these signs of dissidence. In particular, American support of the spirit of the Helsinki Final Act-the promotion of human rights and freedom of the press, religion and assembly-was critical. Officials at the American embassy in Prague met regularly throughout the 1980s with leading opposition groups, and encouraged prominent private and official Americans visiting Czechoslovakia to do the same. Virtually no other Western embassy offered similar support in the mid-1980s, and often diplomats were critical of the extent to which the U.S. ambassador met with opposition groups. Yet by 1988 several of the other NATO governments began following the American lead and encouraged visiting senior government officials-most significantly French President François Mitterrand-to meet dissidents in Prague.

Finally helping to set the stage for 1989 was Helsinki Watch, a human rights organization based in New York, which together with the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights organized international support for the Czechoslovak dissidents. Many European-based groups also lent their support, most particularly the Charter 77 Foundation of Stockholm and the Jan Hus Foundation of London.

The primary impact of Western support was to strengthen the sense of purpose and respectability among the Czechoslovak community of dissidents and, more important, to demonstrate to the Czechoslovak government and party the "legitimate" role that the opposition groups were playing in promoting the rights guaranteed by the Helsinki Final Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which the government had signed.


The revolutionary events inside Czechoslovakia in 1989 are among the most interesting and also the most difficult to grasp of all the upheavals of Eastern Europe.

A series of demonstrations began on January 15, around the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach's self-immolation to protest the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. The demonstrations had not been planned, but grew from a plea by Havel to the writer of an anonymous letter not to repeat Palach's sacrifice of 20 years before. Havel's plea was broadcast on foreign radio stations into Czechoslovakia and caught the attention of opposition groups as well as the government security forces. For a week young people and independent organizations came to Prague's Wenceslas Square in large numbers, but police used violent methods to disperse the crowds. Havel and several other dissidents were arrested. On February 21, Havel was sentenced to nine months in jail.

The arrests and sentencings turned out to be a major tactical error for the government. Havel's supporters throughout the country took the opportunity to circulate a petition for his release. Signed by thousands of intellectuals and others who had not previously signed such documents, this petition created widespread sympathy for Havel at home and abroad. The government's actions provoked condemnation from foreign governments and intellectuals, including some even from the Soviet Union. The event also further radicalized the nation's youth, especially students and the members of Prague's theaters. Tactical differences emerged, however, between the different generations of the opposition in Czechoslovakia. Younger and newer organizations sought a more radical response, while some of the purists of Charter 77 rejected demonstrations that could provoke further violence and retaliation.

The arrests also prompted the People's Party and the Socialist Party, the two satellite parties that had done the bidding of the Communist Party since the late 1940s, to strike out tentatively on their own. It is still unclear whether that initial split was stimulated by Charter 77 initiatives or simply the opportunism of those in the parties who saw the writing on the wall. Nonetheless those two parties sponsored a draft bill in parliament in the spring to permit greater freedom of assembly for the public. The newspapers of the two parties also took a more independent line from the Communist Party newspaper Rudé Právo, and several journalists from the two fellow-traveling newspapers began to write for the clandestine Lidove Noviny.

Charter 77's still-inchoate strategy of isolating the leadership of the Communist Party was beginning to make some sense. On July 17 party First Secretary Jakeš delivered a speech to party officials in western Bohemia, which was secretly recorded. The recording was passed to Western radio stations, and its sound quality was so good as to indicate it must have been taken directly from the microphone, suggesting a planned effort-probably by party insiders and possibly encouraged by opposition elements-to discredit the bumbling party leader.

The foreign broadcasts of the Jakeš talk were heard inside Czechoslovakia, to the humiliation of party and government officials who already held Jakeš' intelligence and speaking ability in low regard. Among the recorded remarks was Jakeš' recognition that it had been a mistake to arrest Havel, "because the more we persecute him, the greater a hero he will be." Jakeš warned, "We must not direct our hits directly against Havel, but against the others. Otherwise cultural figures all over the world and the democratic world will stand up in his defense." The "others" by late 1989 had become a very large number indeed.

Havel, released from jail that May on parole, had continued with renewed energy and a reinforced national and international reputation to expand the network of opposition forces. He crafted yet another document entitled, in typical Czechoslovak understatement, "A Few Words." That document was issued on June 29 and garnered 1,800 signatures, many of which were not those of prominent dissidents. It was the most radical demand for change to date. Yet as late as August, Havel was still struggling with the dilemma of whether to mount demonstrations that might provoke further crackdowns and violence and raise the ante against an increasingly isolated government.

By September or early October a small contingent of Havel's more innovative followers had decided that Charter 77 strategy should be to try to drive a wedge between the government and the party leadership. Czechoslovak rock star Michael Kocáb said he began to establish a "bridge" for contacts between Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec and Havel. Kocáb carried messages back and forth, seeking to nurture Adamec's instinct for accommodation and playing on his growing awareness of Jakeš' isolation. Kocáb could perform that task because of his stature as a national celebrity, and because he was emerging as one of Havel's most cunning political strategists and advisers. The two interlocutors, Adamec and Havel, finally met face to face for the first time on November 21.

The strategy of isolating Jakeš and the other party leaders was effective because of signals coming from the Soviet Union that implied a need to reevaluate the Warsaw Pact suppression of the Prague Spring, and consequently the current Czechoslovak leadership that still firmly defended the action. Those signals included an interview with Dubcek carried on a Leningrad television program, a debate in the Moscow News about the need to reassess 1968, an interview in Izvestia with Dubcek's foreign minister, Jirí Hájek-a strong opponent of the Warsaw Pact invasion-and a forceful article in Izvestia in October calling for a condemnation of the Warsaw Pact action in order to make the new Soviet foreign policy credible at home and abroad. According to one Czechoslovak source, Jaromír Sedlák, the Soviets even told the Czechoslovak leadership that "further delay in introducing political change could cause serious trouble."6

The East German exodus in September through Czechoslovakia and Hungary into West Germany inspired young Czechoslovaks. They witnessed young East Germans boldly resisting Czechoslovak police and senior authorities; they learned the police could be intimidated by unarmed citizens; when the authorities ultimately let the East Germans leave, they learned that authorities could be made to back down. Before and after Gorbachev's October visit to Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating in East Germany and were not stopped by police. As the Honecker government fell, and with it the Berlin Wall, young Czechoslovaks quickly got the message: thousands of demonstrators could make a difference, the police would not necessarily use force, and the Soviets would not intervene.

Early in November young Polish musicians organized a jazz concert in Wroclaw, near the Czechoslovak border, and thousands of Czechoslovak jazz fans flocked across to join in a sort of East European "Woodstock."

The demonstration in Prague on November 17, organized to pay tribute to a student killed by the Nazis, became the event that transformed Czechoslovakia. It had been organized legally by students through the communist youth organization. Many of these young organizers were children of Charter 77 activists, but many more were bold students and young workers who were prepared to test the police. Nearly 100,000 gathered to march on Wenceslas Square, and the police reacted with unexpected brutality. Opposition reaction was speedy in taking advantage of the moment, dramatizing the violence, calling it a massacre (although no one was killed), and appealing to the broader population. The national theater shut down at intermission that night, and other theaters and university faculties went on strike that weekend. Havel and his many groups of supporters coalesced to form the Civic Forum, and the demonstrations grew day by day.

The events that followed have been well described elsewhere, particularly by Timothy Garton Ash in his remarkable first-hand accounting of the "velvet revolution."7 Yet a few of the more peculiar circumstances that made that revolution possible remain unclear. Within the Civic Forum, for example, and among Czechoslovak Communist Party officials, suspicion exists that the KGB played an important and perhaps provocative role in suppressing the November 17 demonstration. Then, under new guidance from Moscow, the KGB is also thought to have influenced the forbearance of the Czechoslovak police and military in confronting later demonstrations. Havel's confidant, Kocáb, said that a senior KGB official was with the Czechoslovak police on November 17, and that the Czechoslovak secret police began burning and destroying their secret papers two or three days later; the secret police seemed to realize before anyone else that the struggle was turning against them. Kocáb admitted, however, that no one really knows who ordered the strong police response to the November 17 demonstration.

There are other reports from Czechoslovak sources suggesting the Soviets gave the Jakeš leadership a strong warning against the use of force on November 19 or 20. When asked about those reports the present prime minister, Marian Calfa, said the old-guard party leader Alois Indra told him in December 1989 that it was the Soviets who ultimately made possible the overthrow of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel, asked why the police and military did not crush the uprising, said he could write a book on that subject but that "love, tolerance, nonviolence, the human spirit and forgiveness became the bacteriologic weapons" that intimidated the armed forces and police.

Kocáb, by now an experienced go-between, became the liaison between the Soviet embassy and the Civic Forum beginning November 19. During the next weeks he had several meetings with Soviet embassy officials in which he described how Czechoslovaks wanted their country back, they wanted the Soviet troops to leave, and they wanted Havel, not Dubcek, as their leader.8 The Soviets wanted to speak directly to Havel but Kocáb continued to act as his messenger. One senior Soviet official seemed to seek assurances from Kocáb that the new government would "not begin to kill communists." This official praised the Czechoslovak revolution because it was so gentle and was being carried out "after work"-that is, the economy and society were continuing to function. He added that the Czechoslovaks were a "new wind of ethical politics." Another Soviet official praised the Czechoslovak instinct for pluralism and history of humanism, and said the Soviet Union "would learn from Czechoslovakia [about the need for many political parties] but not sooner than seven years from now."


The events of the autumn of 1989 that eliminated 41 years of communist rule were unplanned and unexpected by all parties involved. The young people and students who initiated the demonstrations on November 17 and afterward were following an instinct, a pattern set by earlier demonstrations that the larger the numbers in the streets of Prague, the more dramatic the "vote." Likewise, the various opposition groups brought together by Havel did not orchestrate the November 17 demonstration, and the founding of the Civic Forum was an improvised response to an opportunity by a group of people who had grown to trust each other and work together. At no time prior to these events had opposition groups openly called for the overthrow of the government. But their plan to pressure the authorities into reform and dialogue set up a challenge that the party was afraid to accept, and consequently resulted in its effective isolation.

At no point in the preceding four years did Soviet authorities plan, anticipate or even imagine their policies would eliminate communist rule from one of their most important allies. The overthrow was a surprising consequence of the failure of the Czechoslovak Communist Party to reform itself, and its reluctance to use force to remain in power. Party leaders failed to support reform because they were convinced that in doing so they would create a momentum that would sweep them from power. They did not respond more forcefully to the mounting demonstrations after November 20 because of Soviet opposition and the prospect of having to let too much blood. Ultimately they left power because they were demoralized. Then, unable to use military force in the face of overwhelming masses of demonstrators, they became powerless.

The revolution was a popular and peaceful uprising driven and controlled by spontaneity and improvisation. The Czechoslovak people had swept aside their own government and the Civic Forum, as the only alternative group left in the society with some organizational ability and moral authority, simply filled the vacuum.

Searching for an explanation of how it happened, Czechoslovaks often fall back on the spiritual or the mystical. One Civic Forum leader, a philosopher and historian, claims to have read in some sixteenth-century Czechoslovak chronicles that Bohemia would achieve independence two weeks after Agnes, the pious Czech princess of the thirteenth century, was canonized. In fact, the canonization of St. Agnes was celebrated in St. Vitus' Cathedral in the Hradcany Castle on November 25, a few days before the fall of the communist government. Later in the same cathedral during the Te Deum celebrating Havel's installation as the new president on December 29, one of his aides remarked, "St. Agnes had her hand under our gentle revolution."

But if Stalin were to ask from his grave who destroyed communism in Czechoslovakia, the long and eclectic list would have to include-in addition to St. Agnes and St. Wenceslas-Thomas Jefferson, Tomáš Masaryk, the Muses, the Dalai Lama, history's first Slavic pope, John Paul II, the seemingly unquenchable Mikhail Gorbachev, and of course, the irresistibly refreshing Václav Havel and his band of gentle revolutionaries.

1 This was my view in "The U.S. and Eastern Europe," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1987, p. 981.

3 See "East-West Relations and Eastern Europe," published in Problems of Communism, May-August 1988. This conference was sponsored by the International Research and Exchanges Board.

4 Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia, by H. Gordon Skilling, George Alien Unwin Ltd., London, 1981, p. 178.

5 Charter 77 Declaration, January 1, 1977.

6 The New York Times, Nov. 15, 1989.

7 "The Revolution and the Magic Lantern," Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books, New York, Jan. 18, 1990, p. 42.

8 In his speech to the U.S. Congress Havel gave credit to Kocáb for having been first to suggest that Havel, not Dubcek, should be president.

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  • William H. Luers is President of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a former U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
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