How a death that wasn't led to demise of Czech communism


FALL OF THE WALL:WHEN THE Berlin Wall was finally breached on November 9th, 1989, Jan Bubenik was a sport- and party-loving student 350km away in Prague, writes DANIEL MCLAUGHLINIn Prague

Exactly seven weeks later, he would become the youngest member of Czechoslovakia’s new reformist parliament, and the next day he would help elect dissident playwright Václav Havel as his country’s president.

Bubenik’s journey from student to MP almost matched the vast distance covered by Czechoslovakia in those few short weeks, from hardline Soviet vassal to theatre of peaceful change, whose “Velvet Revolution” was one of the most spectacular episodes of that extraordinary autumn.

Poland and Hungary had already blazed a trail for democracy that summer, with the former holding the first partly free elections in the communist bloc and electing a non-communist prime minister, and the latter scrapping the one-party state and throwing open its borders to allow thousands of East Germans to make their way to the West through Austria.

Even Bulgaria, one of the most loyal members of the Warsaw Pact, had witnessed a reformist coup within the communist party, which ousted its leader of 35 years, Todor Zhivkov.

These events – culminating in the opening of the Berlin Wall and its ravaging by hammer-wielding souvenir-hunters – fuelled hope that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin would stick to its new “Sinatra Doctrine”, by which the nations of Eastern Europe could do things “their way” without fear of the kind of Soviet invasion that crushed reform in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Czechoslovaks received little reliable information from stolid state media, but many listened to Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service, and Prague residents could see hundreds of East Germans camped out at the city’s West German embassy waiting to travel there.

So when students organised a march to commemorate the death in November 1939 of Jan Opletal, a young man killed by the Nazi occupiers against whom he was protesting, they were steeled by a new-found optimism and determination.

But no one, as Bubenik and others recall, could possibly have imagined where it would lead.

A crowd of 20,000 people swelled to 50,000 as it moved through Prague to Opletal’s grave, making it not only largest but also the most strident demonstration since 1968. Banners and increasingly bold chants demanded the release of political prisoners, free elections and the end of communist party rule, with hardline leader Milos Jakes a particular target for derision.

As agreed with the authorities, most of the crowd dispersed after reaching the cemetery. But several thousand people refused to go home, and wound back into the city centre, where they came face to face with a wall of riot police on National Avenue.

The protesters sat down in front of the ranks of police, defying their shields, helmets and heavy truncheons with candles and songs. After about an hour, the riot police closed the side streets around National Avenue and reinforcements marched on the protesters from behind, causing panic as they were squeezed between two lines of police with a well-earned reputation for brutality.

“The police formed a bottleneck and forced us through it, beating us as we passed. Their white truncheons turned red with blood and you could almost hear the bones breaking,” said Bubenik. “We made it down a little alley but then my fiend Boris was clubbed by a Red Beret, one of a commando regiment. We carried him unconscious to the subway and took him to hospital, where one of our teachers took care of him. That night there must have been thousands of us who wondered how we could oppose this violence. We had empty hands and just wanted to talk.”

But there would be no way back for Bubenik and his fellow protesters. “Bloody Friday” changed everything, not only because of what happened, but also because of something that did not. Word spread through the student community that the police had beaten to death a young demonstrator called Martin Smid.

Radio Free Europe broadcast the rumour as news, and outrage emboldened a city that could otherwise have been cowed by fear. The next day, tens of thousands of people gathered on Wenceslas Square to condemn the police violence, and their numbers would not drop until they had toppled a regime which, before Bloody Friday, they had petitioned only for dialogue.

In fact no one had been killed in Friday’s crackdown (although scores had been injured and arrested) and the authorities paraded several Martin Smids on state television to prove it. But no one believed them, and Czechoslovakia now had a “martyr” who would help turn unrest into revolution.

Student protests and an actors’ strike in Prague were copied in other cities, and Havel and fellow dissidents launched Civic Forum, which provided political direction for public dissent and demanded the dismissal of the communist leadership. A network of opponents to the regime cranked out reports on events in Prague and other cities, prepared posters and leaflets and travelled to towns and villages to spread word of the tumult that state media would not mention. Bubenik had by now been elected as a student leader, and helped produce video copies of grainy footage of Bloody Friday for distribution by activists who now focused on winning over the workers, and turning what was largely a students’ and intellectuals’ revolt into a truly national movement for change.

A week after Bloody Friday, the communist monolith was already crumbling. State television was broadcasting speeches by the formerly banned Havel, and showing factory workers heckling the boss of the Prague communist party; the hated Jakes and his politburo stepped down and, behind the scenes, the security forces made clear that they would not move against the people.

When almost a million people gathered on Wenceslas Square and an overwhelming majority of the country took part in a general strike on November 27th, it became clear to even the most die-hard communist that political authority in Czechoslovakia had passed to Havel and the reformists.

Bubenik was only 21 when he was sworn in as a member of a transitional parliament on December 28th. Alexander Dubcek, leader of the doomed 1968 “Prague Spring”, returned from enforced obscurity in the Slovak forestry service to become the chamber’s speaker, and Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia the next day.

Four days earlier at a Romanian military base, a firing squad had executed communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena amid violent revolution. In a matter of months, the communist bloc had crumbled, but the aftershocks would be felt for years to come.

In 1993, Havel resigned as president rather than oversee the “Velvet Divorce”, the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia enacted by ambitious politicians who could not agree on how to run a democratic, free-market federation.

Twenty years on, many older east Europeans crave the certainties and social protection of life before 1989, and there is a suspicion that top communists escaped punishment for their crimes and simply slipped into the shadows, where they still enjoy great power and privilege.

“To today’s teenagers, the Velvet Revolution might seem as distant as the second World War seemed to me,” said Bubenik, who has swapped politics for business but is still active in civil society.

“But it is important that they don’t face the same problems as we did, that they can make their own choices, travel freely and express themselves. Everything is up to them now.”

1989 Recalled: Memories From Prague


“I was looking after my kids but when their mother came back to Prague, I went to all the demonstrations. I just had to be there, there was no way I would miss it and I didn’t mind about the danger. The atmosphere was amazing, the protests were getting bigger and bigger. I took the kids along to the huge rally at Letna Park, where there were nearly one million people. I remember that it was absolutely freezing, but my children are very proud that they were there.

For me, this was all about freedom. I saw the people and the mood and I realised things were really going to change. I am a musician and I have to be free, so it was very important for me to be there.


“There were lots of demonstrations, on Wenceslas Square and Letna Park, and we tried to go to all of them. There was a beautiful feeling that things could finally change. I was born in 1948, the year the communists took over and, until 1989, I had never believed that things could change. We all remembered how the Soviet invasion had crushed our hopes in 1968, but somehow I didn’t fear that the same thing could happen in 1989.

With all the events around the region and the Berlin Wall coming down, it was a totally different time to 1968. We lived in a strange situation, we were not used to speaking out or changing things, but when 1989 came, we just took all those events as they came. Unfortunately, lots of the hopes of 1989 have not been fulfilled. I wondered then what we would complain about in the future, but life is still hard.