Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration necessarily remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.
It was October 23, 1956. As I blew out the candles on my cake, whatever sweet, mid-western wishes I made had little in common with the wishes of children a world away, children who, with their own parents, were marking a different sort of occasion — an uprising that later would be known as the Hungarian Revolution.
On the 24th of October, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A photograph filled the space above the fold, and a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”
At the time, there was no 24-hour news cycle. There was no CNN, no internet, no Facebook or Twitter. There was only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.
I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me. “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did.
At the time, I thought nothing of my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans and talk with us about events in Europe. We made a special trip to the school library, where the librarian helped us find the 1848 Hungarian National Poem. Back in our classroom, we made a poster of the words, tacked it to the bulletin board, and read it in unison.
Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.
Even children could be moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, and by its breathless assertion that chains could fall. More recently, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself pondering Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:
Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth.
We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the World, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.
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, adds a reminder 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 November 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.
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.”
Ash’s description of events as “theatrical” seems apropos. There’s no suggestion that the popular uprising was in any sense “staged”, but there’s 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 intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed account of events.
…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 rang 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 Prague’s Franz Kafka Square, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransigence of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Václav Havel, and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.
Even as Czech citizens were singing in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution did its own part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany until reannexation 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. First held in 1869, the Festivals quickly became a revered tradition. The Tallinn Festival, held every five years, can 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, 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 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, Lithuania.
Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by an assortment of national movements – the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis. Milda Mendeleviciute 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)… we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration.
Despite some differences in the struggles which took place in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and Latvia, they share certain truths, particularly that revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.
In another entry from her journal, Ms. Hancova speaks movingly of dignity and 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.
Her experience is worth pondering. Innundated as we are by carols from the day after Thanksgiving, by Christmas we hardly hear them. Cynical, irritated, or bored by what we consider an intrusion into our personal space, we forget that, in our lifetime, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a woman bearing a name and a history experienced publicly-played Christmas carols for the first time in her life, and rejoiced with friends and strangers alike in the freedom to listen and sing.
Today, wherever voices are threatened or silenced, whenever hearts grow weary or fearful, the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way seeks to revivify the human spirit.
Wending through city streets, holding hands across the miles, filling our public squares with a sense of remarkable joy, it offers to us what others would deny- a swelling chorus of freedom and song.