30 Years Ago This Week

June 6, 2020

Thirty years ago, this week we were in the Czechoslovakia. We were there because in 1989 we took our kids to Berlin to see the wall. Two and a half months later it came down.  In 1990 I wanted to take them to witness history.  I asked Anne Garrels at NPR where to go to witness this history.  She suggested Prague for their first free elections since 1946, the last act of the Velvet Revolution.  We went to Prague and then Berlin.  We stayed in a campground at the end of the bus line and each evening I listened to BBC Newshour recapping what we had seen that day, and wrote my notes on a yellow legal pad.  When I got home, I typed them up into a travel diary.  Here are some excerpts from that travel diary.

Wednesday, June 6, 1990, Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia
This morning we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia.  This afternoon we visited Ceske Krumlov, an old fortified town on the Moldau River. The museum starts with exhibits of pre history. We move through the Czech migrations, the Bohemian kings, and the Austria-Hungary Empire. The guidebook tells us next we will learn about “the so-called first republic, and it’s bourgeois pretensions” and how a paper worker’s strike led to the foundation of the Communist Party.  Then we will review World War II, liberation by the Red Army and the establishment of the Worker’s State. These rooms are locked. Instead we find a temporary exhibit in the lobby explaining that the Americans actually liberated the town, not the Soviets.  There’s a super graphic of US troops and an American flag on top of Sherman Tanks with the legend “Pravda” — “Truth.”   History rewritten.

Thursday, June 7, 1990, Ceske Budejovice, Czechoslovakia.
Not many people speak English. Every Czech student has been required to take 8 years of Russian. I try to talk speak to a woman in Russian. She turns her back and walks away.

At dinner we ran into a British journalist just in from Prague.  He’s very excited. “It’s unbelievable, you should skip the museums and just hang out on the street and watch the action.” He’s written about the rebirth of free speech, as demonstrated by the showing of the soft porn movie “Emmanuelle” in Prague.  In Ceske Budejovice he’s writing about the Budweis brewery, which has made a lager named Budweiser since 1265.  It’s currently in a trademark dispute with the company in St. Louis, MO with a beer of the same name made since 1876. With all that’s happening politically, I ask him why he is writing about soft porn and beer. He writes for the Daily Mail.

Wednesday, June 8, 1990, Prague, Czechoslovakia. Prague Spring. It’s so beautiful I want to cry, so I do.  Friends here six months ago told me of a sullen and depressed city. Fodor’s guide says “People have tended to turn in on themselves… maybe wait for better times… There is a kind of sluggishness about the country…” We came out of the metro at the foot of Wenceslas Square. It’s palpable. There are card tables everywhere with people selling copies of essays plays and poems previously distributed “samizdat” style, typed or hand written copies passed from person to person. The xerox machines have been unlocked.

There are knots of people vigorously arguing and folks with megaphones proclaming points of view. Brian says it is like a flower growing in a bud, ready to bloom. At the foot of the street is a brand-new statue of Tomas Masaryk, the philosophy professor who became first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918. At his feet are many bouquets and a Czech flag.

We visit the Civic Forum Press Center. They give us translations of their party manifesto and a rundown on the 23 parties participating in the elections. My favorite is the “Friends of Beer, ” which stands for having a good time and not taking this all too seriously. The main parties are Civic Forum, the Communists and the Christian Democrats.

Civic Forum has called its election manifesto “Accepting Responsibility for Our Own Future.” It quotes Churchill and Kennedy calling for individual sacrifice. The English translation says:

“… exhortations to make sacrifices do not make for a very popular electoral platform … citizens who vote for the candidates of Civic Forum know that no easy way is promised them. Those who, despite their verbal criticism, were on the whole satisfied with the previous system, which did not require much work from them, should know that if our election program succeeds, they will have to work to the limit of their abilities… We appeal to the confident good citizen in each of us, not to the humble timidity which has been cultivated in us for a long time. We do not promise anything, but we appeal to our sense of responsibility.”

We’re staying in a campground at the end of the city bus line west of downtown. I went into a hotel downtown to change money this morning. The woman at the desk is distressed. She has three posted exchange rates and doesn’t know which one to give us. She has not yet received instructions, and she always gets instructions. She stops talking, looks at me, and says, “but today we are a free country, I do what I like, and I like to give you the best rate.”

Saturday, June 9 (polls close) Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Prague is like a city preserved in amber. It escaped the ravages of the Napoleonic and the First World Wars. It was sold out by the Brits and French at Munich, so escaped Nazi destruction at the beginning of the Second World War. At the end of that war the Americans had gotten as far as Pilsen and the Russians to Bratislava. Prague saw no fighting. It was not bombed. Since the war, it has not suffered “coca-colonization.” There are no McDonald’s or modern skyscrapers. The architectural monstrosities of socialist realism were, with two exceptions, limited to the grim suburbs. Perhaps the metaphor of a quartz geode is more appropriate, the crystal heart surrounded by grey granite. The crystal city may change with the new freedom blooming all around us, but just now it must be the most beautiful city in the world. Goethe and Mozart saw the same city. Everywhere we see examples of gothic, baroque, and art nouveau styles. It’s made more beautiful by the blossoming street life surrounding us.

We walked from Prague Castle and the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, through lower town across the Charles Bridge, through the old town square to the new town. The British journalist was right, stay on the streets and watch the action. Musicians line the Charles Bridge. We sit for a half hour and enjoy a junior high recorder ensemble playing folk songs. There’s a puppeteer, an elderly couple with a street organ, a man with a fiddle and cymbals on his feet playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and “folkies” with guitars and banjos singing a Czech version of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie, “Which Side Are You On?”

The polls closed at 2 PM. At 4 PM in the Old Town Square there’s a concert by the Czech Philharmonic. Maestro Rafael Kubelik conducts the Czech National Anthem and the square goes stone silent. Kubelic was in Prague when the Nazi’s came and exiled himself to Chicago.  At the end of World War II he came back and was exiled again.  He came back for the first Prague spring in 1968 and was sent packing by Russian Tanks.  He’s in his 80s and back again. President Havel comes to the podium, he and the Maestro embrace. The place goes crazy. The maestro mounts the podium and conducts the Czech Philharmonic in Smetana’s “Ma Vlast.” I have never attended such a moving concert. Old men are weeping proudly, kids are standing quietly.  Right hands go up flashing the “V” for Victory sign.

After the concert we go the Civic Forum headquarters. They have a stage set up and a band is playing “Johnny Be Good.” An ABC TV crew focuses on the dancing and pretty soon there’s a block party. Folks are eating street food, sausages, pastries and waffles.  The exit poll results are posted on a blackboard, and Civic Forum is projected to have a 52% majority in the legislature.

At 7 PM we’re back at the old town square for a pop concert. It’s being broadcast all over Europe.  Stage announcements are in Czech, English, German and French. There are artists from Western Europe and the U.S. The biggest applause comes for Czech artists who get introductions like, “The following poet has been banned since 1968, and has been in prison for 7 years.” or “This singer signed of Charter 77, and served three years in prison. She did not perform in public from 1977 to 1989. ” The Plastic People of the Universe, the quintessential Czech dissident rock band makes an appearance. So does Havel with Paul Simon. Everyone sings “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” An American artist ends her performance saying “I’m so happy to be here, and I’m so happy for you.” Me too.

Sunday, June 10, 1990 Prague, Czechoslovakia Prague is not the easiest place to get around these days. There is a very good tram and metro system, but you can’t always tell you are. About a third of the metro stations have had their old names ripped down. There is no longer a Moscow metro stop, which happens to be the one where we get off to transfer to our bus.  We wanted to go to a press conference and asked a Civic Forum press aid how to get there. “Go to the Gottwald metro stop, or whatever the hell we’re calling it now.” Street names also change. I need a 1946 map. Surprisingly no one has blown up the monument in the “Square of the Soviet Tankmen,” which we pass on the way to the campground.

We find the press conference where election results will be announced. I have foreign press card #1039. There are headphones for simultaneous translation. Languages are Czech, English, German and French. No Russian and, interestingly, no Slovak. The results are scheduled to be broadcast at 7:00 PM, but the broadcast is delayed because the World Cup soccer game between Czechoslovakia and the USA has not ended.  First things first.              
The results show that Civic Forum has just under half the votes, the Communists with 13%, are doing better than expected. The Christian Democrats have just under 9% in Czech lands and 18% in Slovakia. The Friends of Beer got 45,000 votes. The U.S. lost the soccer match.

After the results we’re back on the metro to the Magic Lantern Theater for the Civic Forum Press Conference. It is an appropriate venue for a party headed by a playwright. They’re happy about getting a plurality of the votes, and perhaps a majority of the seats in Parliament. But they’re disturbed because some of the partners they have been expecting to work with in a coalition government, the Social Democrats and the Greens, did not make it into the Parliament.

Someone asks where Civic Forum got money to run the campaign. Was it foreign money? They got help from benefit concerts by Joan Baez and other artists, and got $300,000 from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.  This is about 7.5 million crowns and makes the domestic contributors look small. This is a broad political movement in US terms. It’s gotten support all along the U.S. political spectrum from Joan Baez to Lou Reed, from Frank Zappa to George Bush, represented on the stage by Shirley Temple Black, the US Ambassador.  Havel’s plays tend toward theater of the absurd.  But would he put Shirley Temple and Frank Zappa on the same stage?  That stretches credulity, yet, here we are.  The Civic Forum leaders at the press conference include professors, poets and writers. This is the first time I’ve seen a successful political movement run by people who seem to be like me. I wonder if they can govern.

Tuesday, June 12, 1990 on the road.
It was difficult to leave Prague today. It is such a beautiful city, and so exciting. Our Prague Spring was a reaffirmation of everything I believe in. If a vacation is designed to refresh and invigorate, this one is successful. We made this trip on a whim. The instinct correct.  My heart is in Prague. Someday I’ll come back to see all those museums, castles, and churches we missed.  Yet I’m almost afraid to go back. It may tarnish the image of this Prague Spring. There are difficult times ahead. The country has to make the transition to a market economy.  That will mean unemployment and dislocation.

Civic Forum knows this. It promised difficult times.  But Civic Forum also wants to maintain the social welfare system. I pray they succeed. I fear they may not. No matter, this moment is important; a spring morning whose memory will warm the heart of winter; a brief triumph of humanity over an inhumane world; a precious flower that can only bloom in “interesting times.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.