Last week the Czech Republic celebrated the 20 year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which began on 17 November 1989. Various events were held to mark this occasion here in Olomouc, including free concerts on the town square and films of the events of 20 years ago. There was also an open air museum of communism, complete with the statues of Lenin and Stalin which previously stood in the town (modelled above by the lovely Mrs Sweney), mock queues for bananas, touts selling “Tuzex” coupons, which back in the days were the currency with which Western goods had to be bought, uniformed guards, a checkpoint, vehicles previously used by the security services and various other items to remind us of how shabby things really used to be. Disillusionment with the post-revolutionary situation has set in here with some ferocity, and it was impossible not to note how one of Olomouc's student revolutionary leaders quickly transformed himself into a high-ranking politician, who is now notorious for his alleged links to organised crime. Nevertheless, overall the celebration was intended to be an uplifting and encouraging experience, the point being that no matter how dissatisfied people might be with their lot these days, things are still nowhere near as grim as they were then – now we can look back at these things and laugh about the bad old days, but let's not forget how bad they were etc.
I have to say, never having experienced any of this, I felt slightly envious of those who had been involved in, or at least surrounded by such momentous events while I was quietly and unimaginatively beginning my university degree in the Free West. The fall of Thatcher in Britain the following year could hardly compare to the euphoria of 89 in the Eastern Bloc (in fact I remember feeling distinctly un-euphoric when the bitch went, knowing full well that the Tories were back in with a fighting chance of winning the next election). Walking around the square last Tuesday I felt that this was undoubtedly a commendable celebration. Czechoslovakia in the post-68 “normalisation” period may not have been quite such a dire and dangerous place as it was under the Nazis, but it didn't seem like much fun either and not for the first time I felt rather humbled seeing this in contrast with the lack of genuine hardship or oppression in my own life.
On the other hand I've often felt confused when I've talked to some people old enough to remember the revolutionary days and the times that preceded them. Some have of course been righteously scathing about the communists, and I've never doubted that they had good reason. In other cases however I've felt a little lost for words when a seemingly decent and likeable, if somewhat docile and unintellectual individual admitted to having been a fervent communist supporter throughout the normalisation years and even beyond, on occasion expressing nostalgic sentiments.
Last week, in our conversation class I took the opportunity to ask one of my students for his reflections on the past 20 years. My student is a bank manager, approaching sixty years of age, and contrary to the stereotypical image of bank managers, particularly in the current climate, is a thoughtful and intelligent man, with moderately left-leaning views. He started off by talking about how the banking system had changed, which was of little interest to me, but it killed some time in which we'd have otherwise probably been engaged in tedious grammar exercises. Still, what about life in general? He then went on to remark upon how there were far more goods in the shops these days and how we were now spoilt for choice, even if it has been at the price of the old securities. What else? Well, it's nice that we can travel abroad, he acknowledged. After all in the 70s and 80s we could only travel to other Soviet bloc countries, and if we were lucky enough to get a permit, to what was then Yugoslavia (which I've heard several times before and always reminds me that during my childhood, before holidays abroad became affordable for the masses, the most exotic place we ever visited was North Wales). By this point I was getting frustrated. What about political life? Hm, well you've seen our president and our other politicians, he shrugged. Even so, it must be better than the previous regime, surely? Back then most of us didn't think about it so much. Maybe a few students and bohemian dissident types (mostly a Prague-centred elite anyway) got in a flap, the rest of us got on with our work and thought about putting food on the table.
What about freedom of expression, isn't that important? At least now you can complain about the situation you're in these days, whereas before you couldn't even do that. His answer definitively closed the conversation: Czechs have always complained. Not complain as in protest, but complain as in grumble. That's how it was then, that's how it is now.
Evidently it wasn't just the party top brass who viewed political freedoms as superfluous bourgeois luxuries. I decided to open the grammar book.