Thousands came together, without much planning or warning — in 1989, as now.
It was a perfect storm. No one could have predicted it. There was no grand plan. Not even much forethought. Instead, a handful of unrelated events took place across the Soviet bloc, through late 1989. Connected by one common thread of discontent with the status quo, each new event gathered strength from the one preceding it, and gave courage to the one that followed. Within approximately six months, Communism imploded, the Iron Curtain collapsed, and Eastern Europe began to experience a democratic awakening.
I was in Berlin during the week of Dec. 22 through Dec. 27, 1989, documenting “The Fall of the Wall.” I was an upstart photojournalist, and had quit my job in the States and traveled to Europe to witness and record the historic events in Berlin.
About five days into my stay, events in Czechoslovakia caught my attention. The situation there was lower key, but certainly no less significant. Over six weeks, a groundswell of anti-Communist sentiment burst into the open, morphing into a peaceful overthrow of Communism that later became known as The Velvet Revolution.
I had to go. I arrived in Prague on the morning of Dec. 28, just in time to witness the change of power and the hysteria of celebration.
Over the following six weeks, using neutral Vienna as a base, I made two more trips to Berlin, four to Prague and Bratislava (in Czechoslovakia) and one to Budapest, Hungary. My goal was to record as much of the rise of democracy in Communist Eastern Europe before maxing out my credit card and being forced to return to the U.S.
On one of my trips back to Prague in February 1990, I was surprised to find Old Town Square shoulder-to-shoulder with an estimated 500,000 anti-Soviet protestors. Though it had been more than three months since the Soviets were forced out of power, they still hadn’t withdrawn their troops from Czechoslovakia.
The residents were restless and impatient. They rallied most of the day, demanding the Soviets leave.
On my initial trip to Prague, I crossed into Czechoslovakia at a border town called Hate (I swear!). The scenery was beautiful, with snow-frosted trees on rolling hills. This was in stark contrast to the flat grayness of East Germany.
But the horrible stench of air pollution was the same. Communist states were definitely not green.
In Prague, Old Town Square was sea of triumphant humanity. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds filled the huge plaza as the people ushered in democracy. Folk dancers from all areas of the country performed. One dancer stomped his feet so hard he fell though the stage. Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president Vaclav Havel, a distinguished playwright and leader of the dissidents, spoke briefly and eloquently. His famous battle cry during his five-week faceoff with the Soviet Empire: “Truth and love will prevail over lies and hate, ” echoed throughout the plaza. There was much laughter, much joy and many tears. At the end, he thanked everyone.
The roar seemed as if it could be heard in throughout Eastern Europe. It was certainly heard in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Moscow. He did not send in the tanks as his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, had in 1969. Many walls were falling, and the seeds of democracy had already taken root.
The Prague celebration officially ended at 11 p.m., but the jubilant crowd partied through the night. People were singing songs and chanting “Viva Havel.” Younger groups were holding hands, kicking up their feet and running in circles as fast as they could. I was thrilled to be in their company, recording their faces and movements. Everybody seemed ecstatic. After the celebration across from the clock tower in the Old Town Square ended, a large crowd began singing and chanting in front of the nearby District Communist Party Headquarters.
Hundreds of empty beer and champagne bottles stood edge to edge, like soldiers in formation, in front of the entrance. They were symbols of triumph and the guardians of future freedoms. Somebody tried to burn the communist sign above the doorway, but was forcibly removed by revelers who insisted on a “peaceful celebration.”
An older gentleman with tears in his eyes was so happy to see a member of the Western media that he ran up and kissed me on the cheek, uttering in broken English, “Thank you. Thank you for being here.”
I saw him sit on a dimly lit bench. As I drew closer, I could see that he was weeping uncontrollably. He was a proud man. He chose this spot away from the crowd so nobody would notice his tears. They were a long time coming.
This was an historic event for me also. In more than 20 years as a photojournalist, it’s only time I’ve ever been “thanked” for “being here.”
Fast-forward 20 years.
In 2009, I decided it was time to return. Naturally, I wanted to take part in any anniversary celebrations, but I was also very curious to see what changes had occurred as a result of two decades of democracy and Westernization.
It was difficult to pre-plan anything, because as wonderful as the Internet is, it was difficult to find information on any planned events the country that was now the Czech Republic, after peaceful separation from Slovakia. I assumed there would be something, but that it would either be low key, or that I wasn’t searching the right way. I downloaded a Czech keyboard, pasted in translated keywords on Czech websites and searched through local Prague newspapers, in English and in translated Czech. Nothing.
Undeterred, I packed my bags went to Prague. I had booked a hotel several months earlier right on the Old Town Square, the scene of much of the hysteria I’d experienced two decades earlier. I figured the worst that could happen would be I’d have a nice five-day vacation in what I remembered to be a very beautiful city.
Arriving on Nov. 14, via train from Berlin, I was amazed how little Prague had changed. If anything it was even more beautiful than I remembered. Somehow, with the exception of graffiti everywhere (a liberty provided by the freedom of speech that democracy had brought), they had managed to stave off the ugly side of capitalization and Westernization. The only signs of it were the occasional KFC and Starbucks. I saw one of the latter on the square, next to the 600-year-old Town Hall clock tower — a polar opposite and cultural erosion of the Old World charm that permeates the historic core of the city.
Across the square, in a storefront in a former Communist headquarters, was a Cartier’s. Not nearly as offensive, but a scar just the same. At least an attempt has been made to blend it in somewhat.
On the morning of Nov. 17th, I walked down to Wenceslas Square, convinced there would be some kind of celebration. This square also looked exactly as I remembered it. But now I saw a display of photos about the Velvet Revolution. In front of the Saint Wenceslas statue, where thousands had gathered 20 years earlier and held vigils, was a permanent memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, two students who had burned themselves alive in early 1969, in protest of the Russian overthrow of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring of 1968.
Fifty yards south of the memorial was a man standing on a taxi yelling in Czech to approximately 100 people. I thought it had something to do with the anniversary, but he turned out to be a taxi driver, wired on Red Bull. He was shouting that his democracy now gave him the right to price-gouge tourists. He was protesting impending laws regulating city cabs.
In the afternoon I wandered about the Old Town Square, where 20 years earlier more than 500,000 people had celebrated the coming of democracy. It was full now, too, but with beer gardens and food stalls, and revelers celebrating “communist prices.” Bananas, considered a delicacy back due to the fresh fruit and vegetable shortages, were handed around. Bratwurst, ham, breads, cheeses, chicken dishes, and cured sausages of every variety, complimented free flowing Pilsner. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t find a decent meal. A restaurant I’d found back then had only two items on the menu; one of them, a meat dish of sorts, sold out. Everything was written in Czech and to this day I have no idea what I ate there, except I know it was disgusting.
I came across a barricaded street with a stage set up, and various events taking place nearby. Those standing around were given a four-roll package of high-quality toilet paper. In Communist times, toilet paper was prized, and its quality very poor. Some in the crowd thrust the toilet paper in the air in jubilation, as if it were trophy they had just won.
At last I learned that marchers would be re-traversing the route the students took 20 years earlier, when they were violently confronted by police. That event was the catalyst that had triggered the Revolution.
Within hours the crowds swelled to over 100,000; traffic was frozen. Chanting marchers, waving Czech flags and banners and flashing peace signs, clogged the road. As a light show that ended the festivities showered the crowd, and its sparks faded away, I thought of how it might symbolize the Iron Curtain and Communism fizzling out. Then came a concert, with bands playing until the wee hours.
I realized that this event was as poorly planned and publicized as the one at the end of the Communist Era – only this time, there was no paranoia. No one was looking around for the secret police, or worried about being thrown in jail for expressing anti-government sentiment. It was just a good old-fashioned celebration of freedom.
The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe: A Timeline
June 4 Pro-labor Solidarity candidates led by Lech Walesa almost swept the Polish elections, stunning the world by ousting the Communist rulers at almost every level of government.
Early July – The secret police, the Stasi, stand by as anti-Communism protests unfold in the East German cities of Leipzig and Dresden. They feared a repeat of the bloody student protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square the previous month.
August 19 – European unity activists stage a “picnic” at a Hungary/Austria border crossing. The barrier at the border was opened, allowing East and West to join in celebration. More than 600 people who drove from East Germany and Czechoslovakia used the opportunity to slip across the unguarded border to freedom in the West.
October 18 – Rising protests in East Germany force Erich Honecker to resign as Head of State and the Party leader.
November 4 – A huge rally in East Berlin draws 500,000 people, who demand a relaxation of travel restrictions. Demonstrations erupt in 40 other cities, and the world takes notice.
November 9 – Yielding to pressure, the Politburo rewrites the travel laws allowing East Germans to apply for visits to West Berlin and West Germany. Thousands of East Germans storm the border crossings. Overwhelmed, the crossing guards put down their weapons and open the gates. Within minutes, people are dancing on the Berlin Wall in celebration.
November 17 – Students in Prague demanding reform clash with police during demonstrations that last for several days.
November 22 – Some 500,000 people gather in Prague to listen to Vaclav Havel’s speech calling for peaceful demonstrations and worker strikes, demanding the resignations of Communist government leaders. Over the next six weeks, strikes and demonstrations bring the government to its knees. These events became known as the Velvet Revolution, as the goal was achieved without violence.
November 27 – Following a two-hour general strike, the Communist party announces it will relinquish control in Czechoslovakia, and dismantle the single-party system. Within days, border obstructions are removed between Austria and West Germany, and the East. Communist Czech President Gustav Husak resigned on December 10, paving the way for free elections.
December 16 -19 - Demonstrations over several days in Timisoara, Romania turn bloody as the military fires upon the crowd of almost 750,000, trying to disperse them. 162 people are killed. Rioting spreads around the country, forcing President Nicolae Ceausescu to flee on Dec. 22. He was arrested in hiding, tried the next day and executed on Dec. 25.
December 22 – A portion of the “The Berlin Wall” is torn down at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, bringing together the two divided cities for the first time in 28 years. More than 40,000 people from both sides showed up to witness the historic event that took place in the middle of the night.
December 29 – The Federal Assembly in Czechoslovakia unanimously votes in Vaclav Havel as the new president.
February – Czechs demonstrate to demand the departure of Soviet troops
July 4 Havel is awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal for his leadership role in the peaceful overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia. In his acceptance speech, he said: “The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world.”