Exactly thirty years ago, Václav Havel was in Moscow meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the pact on the total withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia was signed. That very day, the first soldiers began pulling out, as a brass band struck up the “Internationale”, while outside the garrison gates locals bid them a less-than-fond farewell.
Philosopher Jan Sokol was an MP in the early 1990s, served as Czech education minister and lost in the final round of voting for president in 2003. Barred from studying under the Communists, Professor Sokol came to philosophy via his father-in-law Jan Patočka, an early signatory of Charter 77. In the first part of a two-part interview, he discusses Patočka’s death, the achievements of Charter 77 – which he also signed – and the Velvet Revolution. But our conversation began with Jan Sokol’s family background and his own beginnings.
Sunday is the 30th anniversary of one of the most significant moments of
the Velvet Revolution, when the general secretary of Czechoslovakia’s
Communist Party, Miloš Jakeš, stood down, along with the rest of its
The move, on November 24, 1989, came a week after the demonstration that sparked the fall of communism in the country and ultimately paved the way for dissident writer Václav Havel to become president by the end of December 1989.
On Sunday, Czechs commemorated 30 years since the start of the Velvet Revolution. Emotions were high at times as politicians paid tribute to the demonstration on November 17, 1989 that resulted in the eventual fall of the communist regime. For the most part, however, it was a day of celebration, marked by a wide range of events.
Sociologist Jan Hartl set up Czechoslovakia’s first modern-day polling agency, STEM, in 1990 and has been closely monitoring domestic politics and society ever since. When we spoke, the conversation took in Czech politicians’ shifting attitude to opinion surveys, Václav Havel’s private discussion circle and the “cautious nature” of the country’s voters. But I first asked Mr. Hartl for his standout memories of the Velvet Revolution.
On Sunday, at exactly 17.11 (5.11pm Central European Time), chruch bells
across the country rang out to honour the victims of communist era
persecution and those who stood up to it. At the same time, many of the
country's public and private radio stations played the song Modlitba
pro Martu (A Prayer for Marta), which many Czechs see as one of the anthems
of the revolution.
The song was sung by Marta Kubišová, a singer known for her resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, who was banned from performing by the regime from 1970 until 1989, when she sang to the public during the revolution. She sang the same song at Saturday's special anniversary concert titled Samet 30 (Velvet 30), finishing her performance with the national anthem.
Around 10,000 people recreated the route taken by demonstrators on November 17, 1989 in Prague this Sunday afternoon. The march, which is organised by students from Charles University, set out from Albertov and headed towards Národní třída, the site of the brutal crackdown on demonstrators by members of the police, which sparked the Velvet Revolution.
Thirty years after November 17, 1989, the Czech Republic sees perhaps the largest commemoration of the Velvet Revolution this Sunday. Politicians, artists, academics and the wider public are all paying tribute to the revolution which ended communist rule. The role of Václav Havel, as well as various liberties gained through the revolution are among those repeatedly highlighted by speakers from much of the political and social spectrum. But some have also been loud in voicing their disapproval with the current government.