Thirty-three years after I stood transfixed before a photograph of Russian tanks moving into the streets of Budapest, quelling the popular uprising there with determined brutality, true revolution and an overthrow of communist government came to Czechoslovakia.
British historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash, noting the series of revolutions cascading through Eastern Europe in 1989, reminds us that “in Poland the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, and in Czechoslovakia ten days”. Those ten event-filled days between November 17th and 27th, known to Czechs as the “Velvet Revolution” and to Slovaks as the ”Gentle Revolution”, were in fact a remarkable, non-violent resistance whose effects reverberated throughout the world and still are celebrated today.
Reflecting on those events in an article written for the New York Review of Books, Ash said,
In the autumn of 1989, the term “velvet revolution” was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists. So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders. This seductive label was then applied retrospectively by writers, including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, as “the velvet revolutions of 1989.”
From a certain perspective, the most interesting word in Ash’s description of events is “theatrical”. Certainly there’s no suggestion that the popular uprising was staged, but there’s also no question it was dramatic. Marketa Hancova, Dean of Education at Platt College in San Diego, California, was present during those ten days of transformation and has published an account of events that is both intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed.
…It is late at night and I cannot sleep. And who can? The telephone is ringing, the radio is on, people are stopping by, so my friend and I are going out at four in the morning to buy a newspaper. Prague is bubbling, steaming, the city is in a frenzy and people delirious with certainty of victory, by their strength and by the historical moment we all feel palpably burning under our skin. The air smells sweet, and you can drink and eat for free. Everyone is sharing, everyone is offering, everything is open twenty four hours a day.
Revolution does not know night or day. It is one big day that ends with achieving our goal. I am tasting the life in paradise. If nothing else, these incredible moments have already made up for the years under the communists’ despotism. The sense of giving and sharing offers me a rare opportunity to experience the uniqueness of human closeness.
Day three… The crowd is bigger. We are in the main square again, and the Communist vice-president is trying to deliver a speech. All of a sudden I hear a key chiming. Everybody pulls out their keys and we are all chiming above our heads. The whole of Prague is chiming and the politician cannot finish his address. We sing instead the Czech national songs…
To see and hear the “chiming” recorded on November 25, 1989 in Wenceslas Square as citizens ring their bell-like keys in a final, dismissive gesture to the communist regime is to appreciate the significance of The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) by Czech artist Jiří David. Formally installed on March 9, 2010 in Franz Kafka Square, Prague, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransience of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Vaclav Havel and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.
Jiří David’s Key Sculpture Spells the Word “revoluci” – Revolution
Even as Czech citizens were singing in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution was doing its part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany and then reannexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. Despite the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia and the forced resettlement of Russians into the country, one aspect of Estonian culture held firm: their festivals of song. The first Festival, held in 1869, was the beginning of a revered tradition. Some festivals, such as that in Tallinn, are held every five years and often draw as many as 25,000 singers.
In 1987, Estonian singing began to serve another purpose. Initially, smaller groups gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets. In the words of participant Artur Talvik,
“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”
For reasons best known to themselves, perhaps, the Soviets ignored the first song gatherings. In response, the people’s courage increased. In June of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs, including the banned Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room (“My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”). Ten thousand people singing may be a song festival, but 300,000 people singing and waving flags is a revolution. By September, political leaders were participating in demonstrations and insisting on the restoration of independence.
In the midst of Estonian singing, alliances were forged and pressures on the Soviets increased. By August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, more than a million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were willing to hold hands to travel ”the Baltic Way“, a human chain stretching 360 miles from the foot of Toompea in Tallinn to the foot of the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius in Lithuania.
Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by national movements in each State - the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis. But national movements are, of course, people. Milda Mendeleviciute, eight years old at the time of the demonstration, bends over to look at the camera in the photo below, and provides one reminiscence:
I was less than 8 then, so I can remember very little. As my Mom tells, we went to this small town close to Vilnius, hoping there would not be overcrowded, and we were right (only two cars there on that site when we came): as one may notice in the picture – we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration, and we even had time to catch a grasshopper. The pictures are taken by my father and my uncle”.
Milda Mendeleviciute, age 8, travels The Baltic Way
Eventually, the drama and inspiration of events in the Baltic became a film. On December 1, 2006, The Singing Revolution premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia. As filmmakers Maureen and James Tusty said, ”We had made the film for the rest of the world, but we could think of no better venue for our international premiere.” A year later the film opened in this country, and The New York Times movie reviewer Matt Seitz invited readers to “imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing La Marseillaise in defiance of the Germans”. ”Multiply its power by a factor of thousands,” he added, ”and you’ve only begun to imagine the force of The Singing Revolution.” Indeed.
Now, after so much success, The Singing Revolution will take another step toward broader recognition as plans are made for its airing on PBS throughout 2011. Those who have watched the film no doubt will do so again, and many who remain unaware of Estonia’s story will be given a new opportunity to experience its power.
While there were differences between the struggles of the Czech people and the experience of those who participated in the Singing Revolution, one thing is clear – revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity and freedom are found not in lofty pronouncements, but in the ordinary routines of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility. In another entry from the journal quoted above, Ms. Hancova speaks of a remarkable first experience of freedom.
There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol. We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.
It’s impossible to imagine a greater irony. Innundated by Christmas carols from the day after Thanksgiving, we hardly hear them. Certain they are meant only to entice us into a “shopping mood”, we grow cynical. Hungry for novelty, we become bored with the comfortable and familiar. And yet, in our lifetime, in Wenceslas Square in Prague, a woman with a name and a history heard a Christmas carol played in public for the first time in her life, and in the company of her friends and compatriots rejoiced in the freedom to listen, to sing and enjoy.
The promise of Czechoslovakia, the promise of the Estonian Singing Revolution - the promise of Christmas - is that when human voices are silenced, the human heart will sing. And should hearts grow cold or weary, unwilling or unable to sing, the further promise is that there are angels abroad in the land, revivifying hearts with the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way. Wending through city streets, holding hands across miles of Eastern Europe, perhaps even filling a Canadian food court with a sense of remarkable joy, they offer to us what has been given to others - an opportunity give and to share, and to enjoy a season of singing hearts.