Archive | Recollections

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Northwest Passage

Posted on 11 December 2009 by admin

vratsa300By Diana Ivanova

[Editor’s note: A native of Bulgaria’s Montana province, journalist and poet Diana Ivanova is working on projects that explore personal and collective memories of the socialist period. This article is drawn from one such project with students in the region. Photo of Vratsa by Elena Chochkova.]

VRATSA, Bulgaria | “Teacher, you disappointed me when you said you were with the Communists!”

The dialogue occurs in Vratsa, a town in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s a 10th-grader’s reaction to his teacher’s recollection about her father: a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1989, he thought the protesters in the streets of Sofia wanted to plunge the country into chaos.

The exchange is part of 1989: Mapping the Northwest, a project of the New Culture Foundation, a network of writers, artists, and new media designers in the region. The student’s comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it stays with me – maybe because I have a similar story. Continue reading …

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‘The Big Excursion’

Posted on 02 December 2009 by admin

By Francesco Martino/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

EDIRNE, Turkey | Rasim Ozgur’s eyes are framed by deep wrinkles, but they still shine with intensity as he recalls the events of May 1989.

“I was beaten twice until I bled and lost consciousness,” says Ozgur, a painter and sculptor who now teaches art at the University of Izmir. “The men from the milicija told me that if they saw me talking to ‘reported’ people they would kill me. Then one day they told me, ‘You’re about to emigrate. You choose: Austria or Sweden.’ I got ready. I had no choice. On the 29th, though, Zhivkov announced that the borders with Turkey would be opened. I packed and left with my family. A week later I crossed the border, right here, in Edirne.”

Today this city on the Thracian plain, for centuries the gateway from the Balkans into Turkey (and, from 1365 to 1453, the Ottoman Empire’s capital), has the sleepy and somewhat provincial look of a decayed capital, mirrored in the city’s two rivers, the Maritza and the Tundzha. There is no outward sign of the tragedy for which it was the stage two decades ago. Continue reading …

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Remembering ’89: Michal Horacek

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

horacekWhen Civic Forum emerged as the driving political force of the Velvet Revolution, its views were often relayed to the world by Michal Horacek. Then a 37-year-old journalist and co-founder (with singer Michael Kocab) of the civic initiative Most (Bridge), Horacek was a spokesman for Civic Forum and a key figure in talks with the tottering Communist regime. He would go on to become a successful lyricist, publicist, businessman, and public intellectual.

Horacek was never a darling of the Communist Party. At 22 he was expelled from journalism studies and jailed for forging an exit visa for the United States. Living in mid-70s Czechoslovakia, he says now, was like “living in a forced-labor camp, where one was constantly being discouraged from making a personal dream come true, even discouraging from dreaming itself. Risking a jail sentence then did not – and still doesn’t – strike me as risking so much.“

After his release, Horacek obtained a fake certification of mental illness, which enabled him avoid the unwanted attention from the authorities. In 1977 he started publishing abroad, and he eventually managed to secure a World Press Institute scholarship, which he used to study at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1984. Upon his return he went to work for the magazine Mlady svet (Young World), published articles abroad, and produced albums with the composer Petr Hapka.

Horacek continued making music after the revolution (his latest collaboration with Hapka, the verse opera Kudykam, premiered in October at Prague’s State Opera); a horse-racing enthusiast, he also founded Fortuna, the country’s first legal bookmaking firm. More recently he has entered academia as a teacher and doctoral candidate (in anthropology). In this e-mail interview with TOL contributor Lucie Kavanova, Horacek discussed his memories of 1989 and its impact on his life.

TOL: How did you manage to get your articles published abroad before 1989? What did you write about?

Horacek: I simply wrote them using my typewriter, put the result in an envelope, and mailed it to Australia, U.K., U.S.A. Such envelopes might have been opened by a secret-service officer from time to time – but that was not my problem. My problem was to put a feature together. In fact, all of my articles reached the magazines I was writing for. From the point of view of the Communist regime, they were harmless: I was writing about the history of horse racing and the thoroughbred horse.

How did your studies at the Macalester College change your life? How did you manage to get the Communist Party´s permission to study abroad then?

The Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Helsinki agreement. Therefore they had to observe the mutual visits of the closest kin, provided the sibling or parent lived in the West “legally” (meaning they did not “desert the camp of peace and socialism”). I was simply lucky. My sister got married and was legally living in France. On paper, I was going to visit her. In fact, I went to study in America. Those studies changed my life fundamentally; I got introduced to a world in which truth was observed as something not owned by a central committee of a party, but as an ideal courted and individually sought by anyone who felt like courting and seeking it.

Did you face any problems from the party when writing your columns called “Letters of Love and Hate” for Mlady Svet?

Sure I did. The magazine was being published by the Socialist Youth Union and many a member of its leadership protested against what I was writing. But I got another lucky break: the editor-in-chief was a stubborn, weathered woman capable of defending what she had approved of (my writing).

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, in terms of both your life and also literally, when it happened?

I was writing for what was then Czechoslovakia’s most popular weekly magazine, Mladý svět (circulation over 500,000) and also writing song lyrics. Two of my albums co-written with the composer Petr Hapka became best-sellers (selling over 150 000 copies each – something unthinkable today). I was living in three-bedroom apartment in Prague. When the Berlin Wall was being taken down I was busy preparing MOST, the civic initiative looking for providing grounds for eventual dialogue between the Communist Party and its opponents.

What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? What impact did you expect it to have on your country and you personally?

Thoughts were few, feelings many. In a time of such an upheaval the welled-up dreams burst the dam. I expected what I had never been able to truly expect: living in a country respecting the individual, observing the free-market rules, offering anybody a chance to seek and achieve a true knowledge, read whatever I feel like reading, formulating an opinion and freely stat[ing] it . . . and much more. All of that was eventually fully achieved. I do feel lucky.

What do you feel now when looking back at the Most initiative?

Pride. We did bring the two antagonistic parties together for talks, minimizing the very real chance of a bloodshed. And we did shake the monolithic nature of a totalitarian regime which can be totalitarian only when talking in one voice. When Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec did sit at the same table with Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed only months before, that monolith was gone. And, with it, the grip of the Communist Party over our lives.

Had the wall and the regime not fallen, how would your life have been different?

It would be a life of an aging inmate, frustrated at the loss of chances one living in a free world may expect to take. I would never [have achieved] material wealth, never traveled the world, never studied anthropology, never written what I eventually did write. Thank God for the miracle of anno domini 1989.

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Velvet Recall: ‘We Are Not Like Them’

Posted on 20 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: human rights activist and former student leader Simon Panek.

I was completely out of money. I’d just got back from Siberia, traveling overland and rushing to get back in time for the demonstration on 28 October. On the 17th of November I was in South Bohemia earning money. I heard what had happened on Radio Free Europe that night and returned to Prague the next day. Students from the Drama Faculty suggested a strike, and word spread quickly. Sitting in one of the faculties in the middle of the night on Sunday [19 November], we drafted our first statement. After that I went home, put on a warm coat, boots, and stuffed a few pairs of socks into my pockets. My father said to me, “Take enough warm clothes because you might not return for days, once you start.” I left home on Monday morning, and did not come back for three weeks.

On Monday morning we held a meeting outside the faculty. My friends found a rubbish bin, and I climbed up and asked the students if they agreed to a strike, which they did. After that I went to the Drama Faculty, which became our headquarters. On the second day of the strike I was elected co-chairman of the Central Strike Committee. Continue reading …

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Remembering ’89: Robert Troska

Posted on 19 November 2009 by admin

Robert Troska was born in Prague on May 1, 1930. A veteran of various technical and industrial fields, he worked during the communist era at the state Research Institute of Technology and at Czechoslovak Television. In 1992 he founded the industrial consultancy RITMO and remains its managing director. In this interview with TOL contributor Sarah Kunkler, he offers his view of the Czech Republic’s bumpy transition to private enterprise and a market economy.

Remembering ’89: Robert Troska from Transitions Online on Vimeo.

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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.

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