Archive | November, 2009

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Velvet Recall: The Rushed Revolution

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: photographer Jaroslav Kucera.

kuceraMUGI was living in a little flat near Narodni trida with my partner, Marketa. On 17 November and we were walking nearby when we saw a big demonstration. My partner wanted to go over, but I said, “No, I’ve seen all of this before, I know what it’s like.”

In 1969 I was at a demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Soviet occupation when I was arrested by the secret police. First they took us to the police station, and then to Pankrac prison. The guards lined both sides of a passage with truncheons, and we were made to run through while they clubbed us. They repeated it five times, and many of the other prisoners broke down mentally or physically. Then they tried to make us name names. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Tadeusz Mazowiecki

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

Polish journalist, dissident, and politician, 1927–

Mazowiecki-1989When Poland needed a recipe for national reconciliation after five decades of totalitarian rule, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in Central and Eastern Europe since the late 1940s, came up with the gruba linia – the notorious “thick line” that was to be drawn over the past. Whether this was a better solution than the harsh lustration law proposed by the government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains a bone of contention in Poland.

The legacy of Mazowiecki’s 17-month tenure (August 1989-January 1991) includes more than the “thick line” formula – which, whether or not it was intended that way, has come to be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the outgoing totalitarian regime. He undertook radical steps aimed at moving Poland toward a free-market economy. The crash reforms were successful, but only at the cost of sharply rising unemployment and a fall in real wages – fallout that cost him a shot at the presidency in November 1990, when, in a shocking setback for his policies, Mazowiecki finished third behind his erstwhile ally, Solidarity titan Lech Walesa.

That year marked a split within the Solidarity camp, which Walesa and Mazowiecki had co-led for a decade. Mazowiecki, a former parliamentary deputy, was one of the principal legal advisers to the striking shipyard workers and helped mobilize intellectual support for the union. In 1981 Walesa entrusted the first Solidarity publication, Tygodnik Solidarnosc, to Mazowiecki, who was imprisoned when martial law was declared in December of that year. In early 1989 he was a key figure in the Round Table Talks that opened the door to political competition.

For the next decade and a half Mazowiecki remained in the thick of Polish political life, serving in the Sejm until 2001 and co-founding two parties, the Polish Democratic Union in 1991 and the Democratic Party in 2005. He also served as a special UN rapporteur in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, when he resigned to protest the big powers’ inaction over the bloodshed there, including the massacre at Srebrenica.

Mazowiecki left high politics in 2006, but he is still active on the public stage as a journalist and commentator. On 31 October, in Berlin, he joined other statesmen in office in 1989 – from conservatives George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl to reform Communists Mikhail Gorbachev and Miklos Nemeth of Hungary – for an informal commemoration of the events of 20 years ago.

Daniela Ivanova

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Klara Vesela Samkova

Posted on 18 November 2009 by admin

Czech attorney, post-communist MP and legal advocate for Romani rights, 1963-

Samkova-facebookIt can be difficult for an outsider to wedge her way into the trust of an ethnic community that has been the target of much discrimination, much less to carve a name for herself as a staunch advocate for that group. This is what Klara Vesela Samkova has achieved in a career that includes a stint in the first post-Velvet Revolution parliament, constant threats from extremists, and almost attaining the highest position in the Czech legal system.

Born in Brno in 1963, the well-known human rights lawyer is not Roma by birth, but she holds a deep interest in Romani affairs and is married to the prominent activist Ivan Vesely, who is of Slovak Romani origin. Both are known for provocative public pronouncements on the problems facing the Roma and other minorities in what is still a very homogeneous society.

Samkova’s interest in the “Roma question” dates to her student days at Prague’s Charles University, but she was only able to fully immerse herself in the issue after the Velvet Revolution. The anti-communist movement made 1989 “the first time in the 700-year-history of the Roma in our country that the Roma spontaneously joined the gadje and their political life,” Samkova noted in an interview with Radio Prague.

On 27 November 1989, the president of the Prague-based International Romani Union, Emil Scuka, addressed an enormous crowd on Prague’s Letna park and promised full support for the budding revolution. The Romani Civic Initiative, a new political party Scuka and others founded, joined the anti-communist Civic Forum coalition and party members were elected to the Czech, Slovak, and federal parliaments.

Samkova was one of those deputies in the Czechoslovak federal parliament. The party tried to raise public awareness of Romani issues, but it soon dropped off the political radar. Today, Romani representation in Czech political life consists of a few members of municipal councils.

Samkova began practicing law in 1994, the same year she and her husband founded the civic association Dzeno to publicize the plight of the Roma community. She’s become one of the country’s best-known lawyers for her work on civil rights cases, notably on behalf of Roma who complained of mistreatment by local authorities. In 2003 President Vaclav Klaus – not known as a friend of the Roma – surprisingly nominated her to the Czech Constitutional Court, but the Senate rejected her and Klaus’ other nominees.

Samkova and her all-woman law firm still specialize in discrimination cases. The need may be greater than ever, with ultra-nationalist organizations boosting their public profile and attacks on Roma on the rise. But at least two of Samkova’s early goals have been attained: nearly 20 years after the Romani Civic Initiative proposed it, there is now a cabinet-level Ministry of Human Rights and Minorities, and a long-delayed law banning racial and other forms of discrimination is finally on the books, passed by legislators over Klaus’ veto.

Betsy Mead

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , ,

Velvet Recall: ‘I Didn’t Believe It Would Last’

Posted on 18 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: novelist Ivan Klima.

There are moments in history when a spirit falls down on the mob, and people are filled with joy and hope. It happens in every revolution. The feeling has no connection to the real world. It was the same in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution. There were even many happy Nazis. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Velvet Recall: Dancing Days

Posted on 17 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: National Theater ballerina Adela Pollertova.

When it happened I was at home alone. The 17th of November began like a normal day, but when I got home from school no one was there. My mother was always at home in the evenings, and usually my father, too. I wondered what could have happened.

My parents and older brother returned late. They said that they had been to a demonstration in Narodni trida [National Street in Prague]. My parents were talking about what had happened but I didn’t understand, because I didn’t know the first thing about politics. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , ,

21st-Century Czech

Posted on 16 November 2009 by admin

By Elizabeth Walters/Argus

What does it mean to be Czech today, two decades after the collapse of communism? That was the question posed on summer day to people strolling through the Franciscan Gardens in central Prague. In this video report from the Argus, an online magazine produced by students in the ePhotojournalism program at Australia’s Griffith University, Czechs from a variety of age groups and walks of life reflect on the state of their lives and their country in 2009.

Click here to learn more about the Argus’ Velvet Revolution anniversary project and view other videos about the post-communist Czech experience.

CZECHS IN THE 21ST CENTURY from Liz Walters on Vimeo.


Comments (2)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Velvet Recall: ‘A Spiritual Revolution’

Posted on 16 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik.

We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.

One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, “Try to contact the Holy Father,” so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, “There will be an end to communism. You will be free.” I said, “Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen.” But he insisted that it would come soon. Continue reading …

Comments Off

Tags: , , , ,

Remembering ’89: Nicole Wowesna-Trhlinova

Posted on 16 November 2009 by admin

Nicole Wowesna-Trhlinova was 7 when Czechoslovakia’s communist regime was swept away by an onslaught of peaceful protest. Today she lives in the Prague suburb of Hostivice and works in the public-relations department for the state air-traffic-control service. In an interview with TOL contributor Sarah Kunkler, Nicole recalls seeing the revolution through a child’s eyes.

Remembering ’89: Nicole Wowesna-Trhlinova from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Miklos Nemeth

Posted on 12 November 2009 by admin

Hungarian politician and international banker, 1948-

On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans began pouring out of Hungary and across Austria, en route to new lives in West Germany. Opening the border was the latest in a series of bold moves that would define, and mark the end of, Hungary’s unique brand of “goulash communism.”

The man most responsible for that event, Miklos Nemeth, had become prime minister at age 40 in November 1988, six months after the doddering Communist Party chief Janos Kadar resigned amid a devastating debt crisis. Nemeth and other “radicals” (such as future prime minister Gyula Horn) were keen to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of the reins and accelerate Hungary’s gradual shift away from centralized political and economic control. After visiting Gorbachev to check that the Soviets would not crack down, the reformers began lifting border controls in May 1989.

That summer, many East Germans holidaying at Lake Balaton decided not to go home, and thousands more headed for Hungary. By 25 August, over the heads of the East German leadership, Nemeth had struck a deal with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to welcome any East Germans already in Hungary. The move effectively tore down the Iron Curtain, threw the East German communist chiefs into terminal confusion, and helped galvanize Czechs and Slovaks to launch mass protests of their own a week after the Berlin Wall fell. (As they flew home after the meeting with Kohl, Nemeth recalled in a 1993 interview, one of his advisers mused that the day’s events could lead to redrawing the map of Europe – in five or 10 years.)

Hailing from a small village, Nemeth was little known outside Hungary before being named prime minister. He served only 18 months before sliding back into relative obscurity, taking a job as a vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He made a final foray into politics after leaving the bank in 2000, campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He lost out to Peter Medgyessy, who had served in Nemeth’s cabinet as finance minister. The Socialists went on to win the 2002 elections and preside over Hungary’s EU entry.

Amid this year’s anniversary celebrations Nemeth has emerged again as an eminence grise of the Cold War’s end. At an event in September commemorating the Hungarian-German accord, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party – no friend to anyone on the left – praised Nemeth’s “chivalrousness and generosity,” noting in particular his refusal of Kohl’s 1989 offer of financial aid in exchange for opening the border. On 9 November, Nemeth and Lech Walesa toppled the first in a chain of giant dominoes marking the route of the vanished Berlin Wall as dozens of statesmen, many of whom likely didn’t recognize the former Hungarian PM, looked on.

But as Nemeth told the BBC recently, the approval he appreciated most came far from the spotlight of Budapest or Berlin. “After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990, I went back to my home village,” he said. “And my father clapped me on the back and said, ‘Son, well done, I’m still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.’”

- TOL staff

Comments Off

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Velvet Cinema

Posted on 12 November 2009 by admin

By Daniela Ivanova

For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.

February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’s From My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’s The Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.

Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.

This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.

The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD

In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.


With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.

Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.

In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.

Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.

“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.

“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”

The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.

Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.

“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.

“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”

INTO THE LIGHT

What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89

“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”

The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.

In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.

While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”

The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.

Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.

To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”

Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).

Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.

“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”

Comments (1)