Marching in the Czech revolution, 20 years ago

Nancy Durham on Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution.

Reporting from Czechoslovakia in the 1980s was like being in a spy thriller.

Meetings with dissidents were secretly set up with the help of intermediaries and hand-carried notes. You couldn't just knock on the door of a banned philosopher. Neither could you telephone ahead.

The secret police were watching and listening so you'd only be bringing trouble.

Reporter Nancy Durham in her urban revolutionary garb, in November 1989 in Prague. (Nancy Durham)

The crushing of the "Prague Spring" in 1968 by Soviet tanks saw hundreds of academics purged from universities and intellectuals from all walks of life pushed to the margins.

At the time, before the Berlin Wall fell and before Czechs took to the streets themselves again in November 1989, I was a trustee with an educational foundation set up to support dissident Czechoslovak intellectuals and their children.

We supplied books to underground universities and sent secret lecturers to give talks at unofficial gatherings in people's homes.

The lectures were not subversive. They might be on architecture, philosophy or music.

There was a heavy emphasis on philosophy and many distinguished philosophers — such as Jacques Darrida, Jurgen Habermas and Canadian Charles Taylor — went to the aid of their disenfranchised colleagues.

Canadian philosopher Bill Newton-Smith (my husband I should add) was expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1980 for illegally giving a philosophy of science lecture in a private apartment.

His expulsion caused international outrage and the resulting publicity led to the creation of the trust, the Jan Hus Foundation, which lent huge support over the years to Czech and Slovak intellectuals.

Meet by the statue

The country ban on literature was so extensive that it generated an entire samizdat industry where individuals laboured to reproduce works of classic literature anyway they could.

I watched one night in Brno as George Orwell's 1984 was duplicated with the use of carbon paper and a typewriter, a few copies at a time.

The trust also delivered badly needed supplies to out of work writers and academics. One of our grateful recipients was the banned playwright Vaclav Havel, who would go on to become the  intellectual leader of the Velvet Revolution in the fall of 1989.

Just a few months earlier, in August 1989, Czech police and security officers turn out in force to counter a demonstration in Prague. (Reuters)

By December he was president of Czechoslovakia and three years later the new Czech Republic's first president.

For him, we provided typewriter ribbons.

That was the Czechoslovakia I met on my first visit to the country in the mid-1980s.

A friend had arranged for me to meet with a member of the Jazz Section, which, despite its name, was a dissident group of writers, artists, poets and playwrights along with all kinds of musicians.

Once in Prague, I was asked to appear by the statue of the Czech patron, St. Wenceslas in the heart of Prague and look out for a slim, bearded man standing nearby. He would be carrying a copy of a certain newspaper under his arm.

We would recognise each other with a glance but were not to approach one other. I was to follow him, keeping as much distance as possible.

He looked friendly, but still it was rather unnerving.

The 'velvet' revolution

By the time I went back to Prague on Nov. 13, 1989 for CBC Radio, the evasive, police-eluding techniques of my earlier visit were fast becoming relegated to the history books.

The Velvet Revolution, as it came to be called, took a mere 11 days and it wasn't all velvet.

The past summer, East Germans had been fleeing to the West via Hungary.

Generally, citizens of Eastern bloc countries were free to visit neighbouring Communist countries. But Hungary was liberalizing and suddenly East Germans were free to keep driving — right through to Austria and then over into West Germany.

On the road that summer I watched a sensational parade of East Germans in their tiny Trabants and Wartburgs packed with kids and belongings exiting Hungary on their way to the West.

Four days before my return to Prague, the Berlin Wall had been breached. It made sense that it ought to be Czechoslovakia's turn but revolution wasn't exactly in the air when I arrived.

Czech crowds congregate in Wenceslas Square for the fifth straight night in November 1989. (Reuters)

As usual the airport security people were unfriendly, perhaps even more so. In the summer of 1988, I had experienced a new kind of police tail, one where they absolutely wanted you to know you were being followed.

I had anywhere from one to several agents following me at all times and it had been impossible to work. So I was wondering what it would be like this time.

Who would show?

I checked into my hotel and began to get in touch with my contacts.

Although the state still had tight control it was no longer quite so cloak and dagger, in part because the police now had their hands full with all the small protests popping up here and there.

Often they were demonstrating against abuse of the environment. There were horrible pollution problems in the country (and calling for a clean environment was safer than demanding the overthrow of the Communist government).

But baton-wielding riot police made no such distinctions.

There was talk about a student demonstration planned for late in the day on Friday, Nov. 17. But there were no cellphones in those days, no internet.

So all week there was a guessing game. Would word travel widely enough? How many would show up? Was there any way this demo could turn into the Czech version of the Berlin Wall?

Wenceslas Square

When Friday came, the assembly did not look promising. The crowd was thin and it was bitterly cold.

The students had official permission to march to the grave of Jan Opletel, a medical student who'd been murdered in an uprising against the Nazis 50 years earlier. I wondered how a march to a cemetery could possibly lead to a revolution.

However, Opletel had become a symbol for the student struggle over another kind of tyranny and, if they stood together, students could be a potent force.

On the walk to the cemetery, the numbers grew and the atmosphere changed.

Police were waiting but held back when the protestors jeered them. The students were emboldened and excited and word soon whipped through the crowd — by then it was roughly 15,000 strong — to march on to Wenceslas Square, in defiance of authority.

The huge statue of St. Wenceslas, where years before I had met my slim dissident from the Jazz Section, crowns the top of the square.

That statue has witnessed all the main events of modern Czechoslovakian life from the birth of the nation to the Nazi occupation and the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Symbolically, the students needed to reach it to make their revolution happen.

The crowd swelled

As they marched onward, others joined in. Commuters from the blocked trams, men in the taverns.

For me, there were two telling moments. I watched a woman in costume wave from a window high in the National Theatre, the state-controlled theatre. If she were waving from there, the foundations of the state had to be cracking.

Playwright Vaclav Havel at an early Civic Forum meeting in November 1989. (Nancy Durham)

And then a student, walking alongside me, suddenly said, "This is not a demonstration, it's an uprising."

The growing numbers, the air of excitement, all supported his assessment. Somehow, the people had found their voice.

Blood was spilled

On past visits, whenever I had heard Vaclav Havel's name it was more in whispers. Now they were chanting "long life to Havel" and his name was echoing off the facades of Prague's ornate buildings.

Soon there were too many people to count. On Narodni Street, at the foot of Wenceslas Square, riot police made their move, barricading us in tightly, ending the march.

The demonstrators had not made it all the way to Wenceslas Square that night. The biggest demonstration in 20 years in Czechoslovakia was over but it had set the revolution in motion.

Afterwards, I learned police had badly beaten demonstrators and some foreign journalists. And it was widely reported that a student had been killed.

The latter turned out not to be true but the story engendered outrage and helped to guarantee support for subsequent protests.

Civic Forum, the group lead by Havel, the people's playwright hero, was quickly formed to help transform the country to a democracy.

Havel charmed reporters at his first public appearance. He unveiled his programme from the stage of Laterna Magika Theatre beginning modestly with "It is my first press conference in my life. I have not much experiences with it."

We hung on every word.

Fur boots and peace signs

Civic Forum worked on policy and the students focused on the need to keep marching.

They believed the success of the revolution depended on the people continuing to show their support in the streets.

As I recall it, people talked endlessly about the weather. It was so cold and they were afraid Czechoslovaks would stay indoors.

The obliging staff at Hotel Esplanade did their best to keep reporters like me prepared to cover the marches.

I hadn't packed for a marathon and Mrs. Maxova, who worked in reception, insisted on giving me a pair of her own leather boots with little heels and fur inside to keep me warm.

I bought the warmest and possibly the ugliest sweater I have ever owned and each day put on what I called my uniform of the revolution and headed out to see it unfold.

The daily protests swelled until they reached about a million people.

Alexander Dubcek, the banished political hero from 1968, reappeared and addressed the crowd in Wenceslas Square, his name, too, echoing off the walls.

He had his share of critics. But just his public appearance was further proof the Communists would soon be doomed.

A nationwide general strike on Nov. 27 brought the country to a halt. Church bells rang across the land and drivers sped up and down Wenceslas Square honking horns in celebration.

Next day, the Communists stepped aside.

By unanimous vote, the country's federal assembly chose Vaclav Havel as president.

Havel had told me he'd rather be a kingmaker than a king. As it turned out, he would be moving into Prague castle at Christmas.

I left Prague just a few days after the Communists resigned. The airport atmosphere was utterly changed.

Guards smiled. They made small talk. There were no interrogations. Even the police had been transformed: they made the peace sign and wore badges that read Havel for president.