Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

Prague Demonstration, November 1989 C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
Vivat Academia!
On pre-November students in a disrespectful tone

Jiří Peňas

A special place among the veterans of the November 1989 revolution belongs, and will belong, to the students of that time, or rather to those whom events lifted to the forefront. It would, of course, be absurd to completely deny the students their part in toppling the regime; just as it is, however, absurd to overestimate the credit they deserve. They had their important role, down to the mere fact that they gave the events of that time the needed colour of youth, just as actors gave it the well-known faces of television.

But to speak of one "student body" that struggled against the Communist regime is misleading - almost to the point of kitsch. The conditions were so ripe for a breakdown that someone had to be found to give the final push. Even then, Czechoslovakia's delay was embarrassing.

Statements about the "student revolution" are among the more tolerable stereotypes which have sprung up around the breakdown of the bankrupt regime. Nevertheless, it is a cliché worth disrupting with a few discordant tones.

Head for the hills

At the end of the 1980s, university students belonged to the more "awake" segments of the population only in relative terms. Of course, owing to their biological age and the fact that they had thus far not been hit by material concerns, they had more flexibility at their disposal than their parents; but one can hardly speak of any kind of spirit of disobedience or revolt. Even in the last years of totalitarianism, a sleepy mood of general conformism and disinterest in anything other than the immediately private prevailed at institutions of higher learning (perhaps with the exception of art schools). Life in the school departments and residences was marked by paltry concerns and meaningless issues, which were resolved with a worried look by the dulled and dangerous SSM (Socialist Youth Wing) officials. One ran up against their immediately recognizable forms at every turn. A careful study of their face, character and habits brought home for the observer the grey reality of that time.

Its overwhelming feature was not so much timidity and fear, because there were no reasons that brought on these feelings. Much more prevalent for a person at university was a content atmosphere of a kind of "youth Biedermeier," prematurely bourgeois consumerism and a certain "coasting through," in which the height of the average student's satisfaction consisted of taking care of academic necessities as soon as possible and then quickly departing (with the gang) for the mountains.

Such a student got much more excited about obtaining "doubles" - which if memory serves, were some kind of special meal tickets for which one could cheaply purchase several kilograms of canned goods, butter and salami - than about some persecutions of dissidents.

If university students were willing to get into some sort of conflict, then it was much more often with the management staff of the residences over the question of more frequent laundering of their sheets (although a clean bed sheet is important) than over freedom of press or the release of forbidden books.

The obligatory military training classes may have been unanimously loathed, but nevertheless, the thought of resistance let alone boycotts, about which we heard from Poland, belonged to the realm of pure imagination. Even so, the ease with which one submitted to the tyranny of the army brass, left the graduate with a life-long feeling of deep humiliation and shame.

Particularly sad was the fact that conformism and an apolitical character were most prevalent in the humanities departments of philosophy, law, journalism and education. This was also because the screening process was already so tight during entrance exams, and a halfway intelligent student had to ask himself what he had done wrong to get into the school in the first place.

What's more, the professors in these departments were the hardest hit by the purges of the Normalisation period. So nonconformist students or those who found themselves in difficulty could only rarely find support among their teachers. No longer could anyone recall the tradition of a university as free ground. That is why in September 1989, [high-ranking Communist official] Miroslav Štěpán could still appear in the main lecture hall of the Humanities Faculty of Charles University at the opening of the new semester and was neither thrown out nor booed (as he would have deserved), rather he was politely heard by both staff and students.

On the other hand, the spring petition for the release of Václav Havel only received a minimal reaction on university campuses. Similarly, the appeal "Několik vět" (Several Sentences) was only signed by a few dozen students - but then again, that one appeared during the summer holidays.

That is not to say that Štěpán was more acceptable to the student body than Havel: it simply didn't give a damn about either one.

To meet up with a politically thinking fellow student (and by that I don't mean a student of academic Communism) was also by any means the norm. When you did hit upon one - and you always hit upon one -he was always a loner, searching for a similarly thinking person. Out of these minority contacts then grew friendships, which, however, united people - among other things - in their disgust with the existing conditions at school. Their interests were thus mostly oriented toward independent activities, culture and so on. This "distance from disgust" only began to during the final year, let's say with the oncoming of the "perestrojka generation." At that time, the more critical, "Gorbachov-tuned" students did not reject a priori using the trademark of the SSM (Socialist Youth Wing), which could then protect certain activities (such as student papers, discussion forums).

It was definitely a sign of progress but one could only speak of opposition or a movement strictly "within the limits of the law." But even this valuable progress affected only a conspicuous minority. The silent majority continued to head happily for the hills.

First dibs

The events after 17 November 1989 are sufficiently well documented. Undoubtedly, more students participated in that famous procession that arrived Friday evening on Prague's Narodní třída street than had taken part in previous demonstrations (the last one being on 28 October 1989), not the least because the demonstration had been approved; the previous ones had not been.

The police intervention was undoubtedly brutal, but it was no different in character from several previous similar interventions (the most significant occurred during the week in January commemorating Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation). The outrage against the police intervention was justified; paradoxically, however, the ones who grasped and took advantage of it the best were those who experienced it perhaps for the first time. And it is quite probable that this happy occasion decided the fate of future days.

Yet, more or less violently subdued, demonstrations had been taking place in Prague for the past two years already. Their participants, who happened also to be studying, did not go to them on the behalf of "the students" but individually, on behalf of themselves.

The next day, they returned to school, a place that seemed to remain unaffected by it all.

Jiří Peňas

Jiří Peňas was a student at the Humanities Faculty of Charles University in Prague in the years 1984 to 1989. This article first appeared in issue 48 (22 to 28 November 1999) of the Czech weekly Respekt.

See this week's accompanying articles:

A book review of a collection of interviews with 100 "student leaders" of November 1989.

An interview with Martin Mejstřík, a former student leader and current initiator of "Thank You, Now Leave."

CER's spotlight on the December 1999 "Thank You, Now Leave" protest.

An interview with another initiator of "Thank You, Now Leave", film-maker Igor Chaun, conduted by Kazi Stastna.



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