There is often more support for radical change in the city than in the countryside. The Green movement in Iran in 2009 had tremendous support in Tehran but considerably less in the countryside. The Bulgarian opposition was convinced that it would win in the first democratic elections in 1990 elections but failed to take into account the resistance to radical change in the villages. Even in 1917, as John Reed describes in the last chapter of Ten Days that Shook the World, the Bolsheviks couldn’t count on victory without convincing the peasants to find common cause with industrial workers in the cities.
The Velvet Revolution began in the cities of Czechoslovakia, primarily Prague and Bratislava. It was started by students and sustained by longtime dissidents from organizations like Charter 77. What made the revolution irreversible, however, were the efforts of mainly young people to spread the message of the revolution beyond the cities. In the first legislative elections in June 1990, the Civic Forum founded by Vaclav Havel and others captured nearly 50 percent of the vote while the Czech Communist Party won only a little more than 13 percent.
Michaela Novotna was one of the young people to go to the countryside. She and her boyfriend Vasek were medical students in 1989 when the revolution broke out. They, along with most of their fellow students, took an immediate break from school.
“We didn’t study,” she told me over coffee in Prague in February. “Not for several months. We didn’t go to school. We were helping out: publishing papers, going to the country, visiting friends, trying to influence them. At the beginning there was lack of information coming out of Prague, and people didn’t know what was going on. We spent a lot of time traveling to places that we knew. I went to northern Bohemia where I grew up, and I talked to people there.”
“We were well accepted, mostly,” she continued. “But sometimes it was a disappointment, even with people you thought would be happy to see us coming. You could see how scared they were, and they didn’t want to help. Some of the teachers from my high school, whom I would never have thought would say such a thing, tried to stop us. They said, ‘Wait, this is not the end, you’ll regret it and you’ll get kicked out of school.’ But mostly we were warmly accepted.”
Many of the students eventually added direct service to their role as disseminators of information about the revolution. Michaela Novotna added, “After a couple months, because some people started to say that the students weren’t doing anything, weren’t studying, we went to help out in hospitals. I remember working in children’s oncology in a children’s hospital. So that they couldn’t say that we were just having fun.”
We also talked about her present profession of psychiatry, the current political scene in the Czech Republic, and what it’s been like to raise children who have had no direct experience of the Communist past. In 1990, when we met, Michaela accompanied me to a demonstration in Wencesclas Square and translated the speeches for me. A description of that demonstration follows the interview.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I’m pretty sure I was in school at the time. I was a medical student at the time, and I was in year two of my studies. I was 19 years old. I remember thinking, “What comes next?” I also thought about a trip to Berlin in the fall. I’d been in East Berlin several times during Communism. We were allowed to travel to East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria. I saw the Berlin Wall several times. I remember thinking at that time that it would be nice to have a piece of it. Which I managed to get. I also remember that we were worried that there would be violence.
In Eastern Europe in general. We’d lived under Communism our entire lives. We didn’t know anything else. One of the reasons that I went to medical school was that I knew that I would emigrate. I didn’t want to stay here for the rest of my life. Being a medical doctor, I would be able to find a job anywhere. That was one of the main reasons I went to medical school, other than the fact that I liked what my parents were doing, and I grew up in it.
I also thought about studying law. But my father went crazy when he heard that. “How could you possibly think of studying law in a country where no law is in effect?”
Do you remember what age you decided to emigrate?
It must have been at an early age, early high school: 12 or 13. My parents were very anti-Communist. We couldn’t travel because my father refused to be a member of the Communist Party. I also remember my parents talking about emigration. My father actually had everything prepared and was already offered a job in West Germany and also in the United States. Some of his psychiatrist friends were already there. But at the last moment, my mother didn’t want to go. She had old parents, and she didn’t want to leave them. So they stayed. I think that, until the borders opened, my father never forgave her. So, I knew I was going to leave this country.
Then, a week after the Berlin Wall fell, the Velvet Revolution began here. Do you remember what you were doing at that time?
I remember that really well. I was at the first demonstration. I remember having a discussion with the students who organized the very first march through Prague that ended up in Narodni Trida. Of course I have very vivid memories of that because it was very scary. We were beaten up, and I was almost choked by my scarf. I was wearing this really long scarf. And it got pulled in different directions when people were being pushed in different directions. Luckily Vasek was there with me and helped me get out. We left that place through a narrow street where there were police dogs.
I remember calling home telling my parents, “Don’t worry, I’m safe, nothing happened.” My parents had their family over from Moravia. And they were saying, “What do you mean nothing happened. What’s happening?”
I remember the people standing in the windows along Narodni Trida waving at us in support. It was very quick. Everything happened boom, boom, boom.
Were you able to concentrate on your studies?
We didn’t study. Not for several months. We didn’t go to school. We were helping out: publishing papers, going to the country, visiting friends, trying to influence them. At the beginning there was lack of information coming out of Prague, and people didn’t know what was going on. We spent a lot of time traveling to places that we knew. I went to northern Bohemia where I grew up, and I talked to people there.
Did you go to northern Bohemia and just see your friends or did you go there and stand in the middle of the town square and just start talking?
Both. We started where I went to elementary school, then the town where I went to high school. We contacted the people we still knew. We organized meetings with people at school and in town. They were eager to meet with us, because they all sensed that this new momentum was coming from the students in Prague. We were well accepted, mostly. But sometimes it was a disappointment, even with people you thought would be happy to see us coming. You could see how scared they were, and they didn’t want to help. Some of the teachers from my high school, whom I would never have thought would say such a thing, tried to stop us. They said, “Wait, this is not the end, you’ll regret it and you’ll get kicked out of school.” But mostly we were warmly accepted. It was a fun time. I really enjoyed it!
Did you go to these places on your own initiative, or did you meet as a group of students and decide which parts of the country to visit?
Both. We would meet as a group of students in the huge hall along with people from other faculties. And we would say, “We know this place, we know some people there, so we’ll go there.”
Also, after a couple months, because some people started to say that the students weren’t doing anything, weren’t studying, we went to help out in hospitals. I remember working in children’s oncology in a children’s hospital. So that they couldn’t say that we were just having fun.
At what point did everyone say it’s time to go back to school?
In late spring. I remember we were sitting for exams in April or May. We were out of school in February and March, but still we had to study for those exams. When the borders opened, I left right away for the United States.
You had already set up a position at a summer camp in the United States.
I started to work on that in March or April. In late May, I left.
How did you pick that camp in Vermont? At random?
I knew that there was a possibility to go through the YMCA, that they accepted people from Eastern Europe. They would pay for my flight, and then I would work and reimburse them for the cost. We didn’t have that kind of money. I mean, I got some money from my parents and I saved some money. But I applied, and luckily I got picked.
Did you change your mind about emigrating?
I was still thinking of leaving the country by the end of my studies. I did an internship in psychiatry at Harvard, and it was a big difference to work in psychiatry in Boston and do research there. There I felt that the work made sense. I felt useful. And the situation here with health care was not good at all, though in terms of the Eastern bloc it was pretty good. But doctors were still leaving the country to work abroad.
I was offered a job to do research at Harvard. I was really thinking about going. Then after I finished school, I dropped out for a year, then started my Ph.d. Then I got pregnant, and Vasek got a job here. So I decided not to go. I regret it a bit.
When Vasek gets a job in the United States…
I’m not that eager to go and work in the United States. I like the place. I like to visit. I like New York. I like to see friends and enjoy the place. But I don’t feel the urge to live there. I have my own job here now.
And a strong network of friends.
Yes, and that’s really important. We lived in Slovakia for four years. Even though it’s not far away and I was commuting, I still felt that I missed seeing friends.
Let me ask about your patients — not individually but collectively. Are there any syndromes or conditions that you think are peculiar to this country? There were several related to Korea, so I was wondering if there’s something similar here.
The Czechs are known all over the world for Svejk.
Is there a syndrome called Svejkism?
Yes, someone who is a little dumb, a little funny, a little naive. That is typical here.
But it’s not a mental illness.
No. It’s just how the Czech character is often described. In terms of mental illness, at the moment I can’t think of anything.
The approach to mental illness itself changed after the political changes. People are more open. They actually admit that something is going on inside. Also connected to the rapid development of the economy, more people seek help with coping with stress.
Was there any psychiatry before 1989?
Actually there was very good psychiatry. Many doctors were getting books and education illegally, were trying to import books from the States and Western Europe and even Russia where psychiatry was at a good level.
But it must have been very difficult for people to be open with another person under those conditions.
Of course, And psychiatry was also abused.
Over the last 20 years, there has been a tremendous number of changes. What have been your biggest disappointments and your biggest unexpected satisfactions?
My biggest disappointment would be related to the recent presidential elections. On one hand, of course, I understand, it’s just the way it is. On the other hand, I’m disappointed in how quickly people forget what Communism was like. So, I’m disappointed and ashamed about the election of our next president. I don’t want to see him on a daily basis. It’s what we deserve. The elections are a picture of the nation. I see him as a prototype, his personality and mentality. That’s my disappointment, that we still have very strong Communist Party people with very powerful communist history who still have important positions in politics. Many people who worked under Communism now run their own companies. But I guess that’s just the price you pay for political changes everywhere. You have to accept it even if you don’t like it.
What about this amnesty that Vaclav Klaus decreed? People say that it was specifically designed to help a few hundred people who benefited economically during the transition. Would you agree?
Because of the field I work in, I’ve met some of the families that were damaged by the people who committed these crimes. The amnesty was very unprofessional. It has to do with lots of corruption. It’s a shame because I admired Vaclav Klaus in the past. And I don’t any more.
I wanted to mention one more disappointment. I’ve seen how the changes in 1989 also changed people, changed family life. The biggest problem has been that many people could not handle the amount of freedom. Everything was suddenly possible. Of course it was a chance for many of us to be happy. But for many people it is hard to live in freedom and democracy. They just can’t handle it.
There’s that syndrome of people confronting too many choices. They have significant mental challenges. They ultimately just want someone to tell them what to do.
Exactly. That’s what we grew up in. There usually was just one choice Maybe two. For our generation, it was a shock to go to a store and choose from 30 different kinds of cereal.
Is there any Czech word to describe the confusion you have when you confront 30 different kinds of cereal?
Leave a blank and we’ll fill it in later.
Okay, now tell me about your greatest satisfaction.
The freedom of speech. The freedom to leave the country whenever I want. The freedom to buy any books I want to read. The freedom to raise children the way I want and not be scared that they’re going to say something at home that we don’t want heard everywhere. That was a constant topic in our home when I was growing up. My parents would say, “Don’t repeat this to anyone, not even your friends. You can’t say it at school or on the street.”
Of course, there’s also the possibility that I can start a company, that I can be helping people. I’m happy that my parents are still healthy and can enjoy this. Because they’ve been working like dogs their whole life. They can travel and enjoy this a bit. My brother could start a company.
Your children have had no experience growing up under Communism. Do you have to remind them of what it was like?
We do. And we make sure that they see movies about the way things were. Most of the time, they can’t imagine life without cell phones! So, we make sure that they know. We were very proud that they were interested in the elections. We didn’t think that an 11 year old and a 13 year old would be interested in the presidential election. When I was that age, we’d had the same president my whole childhood, so it didn’t matter even if changed. Of course my father makes sure they know what it was like. And we do remind them every single time we go abroad. Sometimes they get irritated when we start and they say, “Yeah yeah, we know. We’re lucky.” They also attend international schools, and they know that was not possible for us. They know how difficult it was for us to learn English whereas they’ve been learning it from the age of five or six.
Is there any part of their personality that you think, when you observe them, that’s so different from you because they didn’t grow up under Communism?
Definitely. They are much more cosmopolitan. The have contact with foreigners on a daily basis. They’ve learned very well to say what they want. They don’t hesitate. The way they learn at school is very different, the way they’re involved with presentations and so on. Also the amount of information that they’re loaded with, in terms of the Internet, that was something we weren’t exposed to. Also, the way they’re open to discussing with us as parents but also with friends, the things they’re interested in.
In this last election, young people were trying so hard, even young people who couldn’t vote yet, to support Karel Schwarzenberg. Still, the older generation is very powerful.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
And looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for the Czech Republic, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Prague, February 27, 2013
Citizens’ Demonstration (1990)
On Saturday May 12, 20,000 demonstrators gathered in Wenceslas Square to denounce the Communist party. It was a two-hour event that ended in a march toward the Communist Party headquarters. The rally began with political prisoners from the 1950s comparing the Communist era to World War II and Communists to Fascists. The speakers addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, a major sponsor of the event. Civic Forum, while endorsing the event, was not particularly visible (though Ivan Havel, Vaclav’s brother, spoke). The emblem of the Socialist Party, by the way, is a hammer and feather, on top of a corn wreath with a leaf from the national tree in the middle. The party was the first in November to break from the ruling coalition and denounce the Communists.
The demonstration was ostensibly in support of a group of hungerstrikers gathered at the foot of the monument to St. Wenceslas who are demanding that the Communist Party give its treasury back to the people and withdraw from the national elections. Many people are worried, my translator Michaela Sikorova told me, that the Communists will continue their dirty tricks from the past: vote-buying, influence-peddling and so on. Many of the chants and posters centered on the Communist party’s new emblem–two bright red cherries. “There is a worm in the cherry,” one poster read. “The cherries are rotten,” said another. A common chant was: “Judge them!” or “Put them in prison!”
In addition to anti-Communists marching throughout the city, there were smaller but equally exuberant demonstrations by Skinheads and Hare Krishnas. The crush of tourists now pouring into Prague (the rate for tourism in the first three months of 1990 equaled the rate for all of 1989!), makes it seem as though there are demonstrations every day on Vaclavsky Namesti.