The Velvet Revolution & Personal History


Today Vaclav Havel will be honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol. Only three other international figures have been honored this way. This week’s ceremony marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. By the 29th of December that year Mr. Havel had been elected President by Parliament.

That year the New York Times published special pages each day under the heading Upheaval in the East. From its 29 December, 1989 edition, in an article by Craig R. Whitney:

This evening, tens of thousands of people streamed into the center of Prague’s Old Town in what amounted to a street celebration of Mr. Havel’s election. He appeared along with the visiting Portuguese President, Mario Soares, and greeted them.

Mr. Havel, son of an upper-class civil engineer, was not allowed to go to university by the Communist Government after he finished his compulsory schooling in 1951, because of his class background. Today the students of Prague, many of them children of the Communist ruling class, have made Mr. Havel their intellectual hero, and they have been on strike since demonstrations on Nov. 17 sparked the peaceful revolution that overthrew the long repression.

‘Havel is the only guarantee that the changes here will be of a permanent character,’ said one of them, Ludek Vasta, 21, an economics student.”

Leaving East Berlin’s newly accessible Lichtenberg Station four days after Havel’s election on 2 January, 1990, we stopped in Prague en route to Vienna just long enough to tear this campaign poster from a wall and bring it back home. It remains on my office wall.


Short Bits, Warsaw


Sleeper service from Prague to Warsaw in a dark, old Polish wagon lit, with tiny two-person compartments, no restaurant car and no other service, a little downtrodden. At least they’ve had time since the 90’s to put in proper toilets that don’t flush onto the tracks. Each compartment had a pair of plastic wrapped towels and soap, and two Kriss croissants for breakfast.

We brought a sack of beers from the station and enjoyed watching the fading light, then slept, on the theory that darkness is the best time to roll through towns inflicted by the Soviet love of cement.


Pawel and Marcin are IT specialists in their twenties from Wroclaw. Pawel has a baby on the way and Marcin’s wife calls him constantly. Both are, if not sanguine, at least relatively calm about Ukraine. Neither believes Poland would ever come to blows with Russia. Pawel in particular acknowledges the Russian population in Krim (Crimea).

Kasia, 34, is a geneticist in Posnan. She professes disinterest in Ukrainian affairs but believes it’s not the first time and won’t be the last that Russia acts revanchist. She cites Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. 

Russell, 56, an American entrepreneur and founder of a company that stains masonry and concrete, is skeptical that the information we get in the west is any less propaganda than the Russian side of the story.

General opinion on the Russian aggression ranges from studied indifference through resigned acceptance to denial. The prevailing idea in both Prague and Warsaw might  be, “Krim has a lot of Russians and Russia is big and powerful and if they take Krim, what are you gonna do?” Which makes my fulmination about the end of the Post Cold War era positively hyperbolic. Here we Americans go again, trying to run the world. 


In July 1944 the Red Army marched up to the river that runs through Warsaw, the Vistula. They stopped on the east bank and exhorted the Poles to rise up and essentially do the fighting against the Nazis for them. 

People of the capital! To arms! Strike at the Germans! May your million strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and win freedom,” broadcast Soviet radio.

Knowing that from books is rather different than visualizing it, standing 36 floors above town and looking out beyond the Old Town and across the river. Let alone living it.


It was our second trip to Poland in nine months (Gdansk last summer) but my first stay in Warsaw since my friend Steve and I travelled from Moscow to Berlin by train in the immediate post-Soviet days. In that interregnum most of the everyday commerce was done from kiosks on the sidewalk, because it took some time to sort out ownership of the big Soviet era stores in the buildings. 

Today is rather different, with a smattering of high-rise buildings, fleets of red and yellow trams and matching flexible buses everywhere. They’ve cleaned up the grubby old train station. Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people,” the Palace of Culture, is still here, as fearsome as ever.



Still with Communist bits, though.


All the important words: “Uwaga” means “Attention” in Polish and sounds African tribal, or maybe Japanese. And “hiccups” is “czkawka.” Sort of pronounced “chi-kup-kuh.” One more – a fine Polish dark beer called Ksiazece. Which is pronounced vaguely like “shown-zhan-tsa.” 


Short Bits, Prague


Prague. City of sirens. We wonder if they get paid based on the number of times they turn on the noise.


The camp at Lety where much of the Czech Roma population was killed in WW2 is now a pig farm. In part because of the negative symbolism, there are calls now and again to buy it from the farmers and make it a proper memorial and the government comes out in favor of that kind of move but doesn’t come with the money and it remains a pig farm.


I’m glad I heard in advance about the zombie parade, part of the fringe festival, because walking around Prague I passed some very strange looking people I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise explain.


Slovak born Finance Minister Andrej Babis is a billionaire (food, media, chemicals) who created a party with his own money and represents himself as a man of the people. You want no taxes? “Yes.” You want 365 days off a year? “Yes.” His party is Ano. Ano means yes.

He is Finance Minister because he fell just short of winning enough votes to become PM. The government is only four months old so his future stamp on Czech monetary policy is unclear.


The prevailing Czech posture appears to be not to interfere directly in Ukraine’s affairs, mind the Czech Republic’s own business, keep your head down and in a generic way, “oppose occupation.”


Czechs are great EU skeptics, pocketing the net gain that Brussels sends down while complaining about the more invasive rules. The more inane the rule the heartier the complaining, like for example about the famous ‘bendy banana’ rule. An EU rule on the speed of escalators had the effect of changing the public transport schedule, as a particularly long escalator had to slow down to comply.

Just 18.2% of Czechs voted in the EU parliamentary elections last weekend, the lowest turnout except for in neighboring Slovakia. Ano did well.


The head of the xenophobic compliment to Hungary’s Jobbik, the UK’s UKIP, the True Finns and so on is Tomio Okamur, born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and a Moravian mother. Dawn of Direct Democracy wants ‘the Roma to leave the Czech Republic and to found their own state.’