Former dissident: Recalling the unexpected revolution

Justine Costanza
10. 11. 2009 8:00
Interview with Velvet Revolution frontman Jan Urban
Jan Urban /courtesy of Prague Wanderer/
Jan Urban /courtesy of Prague Wanderer/ | Foto: praguewanderer

Prague - Prior to the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, Jan Urban assisted in the creation of the Eastern European Information Agency, a dissident network. He experienced harassment by the secret police and his phone lines were constantly tapped due to his involvement with the dissidents.

After numerous instances of detainment, and fearing for his family, Urban became a prevalent figure in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that led to the end of the regime. He helped establish the Civic Forum and in 1990 was appointed the primary speaker of the group.

Urban is proof that here is a price to be paid when you stand against the majority. In Urban's words one "should know the price [of going against something] or not go against it." Following the revolution he had difficulty interacting with people in everyday social settings. "You lose the ability to talk to people around you because you cannot trust anybody," he said. After a personal notebook of his was stolen by the secret police, he did not write a single word on paper for nine years.

Prior to the revolution, Urban worked closely with Václav Havel and can recall the future president as having "a hint of genius". Urban believes that Havel's success stems from his position as "a mouthpiece for people's dreams and fears" during that time. Though he was irreplaceable as a dreamer and icon, Urban believes Havel was capable of much more when the Revolution was in its infancy than when he became president, stating that Havel "did not need power, he needed influence. He just didn't know how to use it."

Urban and Havel have continued to work together and recently appeared at Forum 2000, an annual Prague conference on globalization. Urban currently teaches at Charles University and lectures at New York University in Prague.

Prior to November 1989 individuals could be detained simply for holding a meeting. How did you, Václav Havel, and other members of the dissident movement manage to hold meetings and eventually organize a mass movement?
Jan Urban: We were never able to organize a mass movement. It simply happened through demonstrations on November 17, 1989. Remember, this was before email. It was a time before mobile phones. If you needed to communicate, you did so by leaving messages and trying to meet as often as possible. On some occasions it worked. But often it did not.

Describe the media prior to the 1989 Velvet Revolution and why, despite massive censorship, it managed to play such an indispensable role in overthrowing the communist regime.

There were three categories of media. The first, official media, did not help at all. On the contrary it was a tool of the counter-revolution. It was the media of the regime. We had four or five different newspapers but if you laid them all on a table, they would all cover the same topics. Sometimes they would even use the same headlines. All of them would go through censorship before being printed.

The second [category] was the unofficial independent media which had extremely low circulation. According to secret police estimates, around 5,000 copies circulated but only about 1,000 people were able to read it each month. The third and most powerful media that we used was foreign radio stations. Our collaboration with the Voice of America Radio, Federal Radio Liberty, and the BBC was the most effective way of communicating our ideas and information to our citizens.

It was all about fear and security. If you were caught with an independent medium, you would get into trouble and face imprisonment. If you listened to foreign radio in the privacy of your own home, hopefully no one would report you and you'd be safe. Sometimes I would lean out my window and could hear foreign broadcasting all around me. It was funny because half of my neighbors were army officers. It was less risky compared to any other means of finding independent information.

As a member of the dissident movement prior to November 1989, did you expect the regime would collapse as it did, if at all?
No. I never believed I'd see the end. I didn't think about it because it seemed impossible. None of us were prepared for it.

On November 17, 1989 you and fellow dissidents informed the media that police killed a student during a massive demonstration, but this was later revealed to be a hoax. What role did the event played in the ensuing days of the Velvet Revolution?
It was a crucial moment because the whole regime was built on a social deal. The regime was to take care of decent living standards for most of the population, especially compared to other communist countries. In exchange you had to shut up. It worked beyond imagination. Then came this information [about the student's death] and the deal was off. If you humiliate people and teach them to humiliate themselves, it's one thing. If you start killing their kids then there is no deal. This misinformation, this professional blunder, electrified an entire population and made the change possible.

Despite confirmation of this hoax, there were several confirmed reports of a protestor lying on the ground in order to provoke media coverage of the event. Yet it has been debated whether someone could lie and remain stationary on the ground for four hours in the cold. What do you believe actually happened?
I don't know. It is still debated today. There was even a parliamentary commission put in place to investigate this. There are layers of very contradictory information. Some people believe that as many as three people could have been killed because there are missing people from that time who have never been accounted for. My reading of the event is that it was secret police provocation.

I don't know the goals of it. If it was a pro-[Mikhail] Gorbachev style exchange of leadership, then it was so silly. You cannot unleash popular revolt thinking that you can control it. It was naďve and irresponsible, and thank God for [the regime's] stupidity. Again, none of us expected it and none of us could foresee that we would be going through a complete regime change and instead of socialism, we would have capitalism, and more or less, a market economy and rule of law - that we would just change everything.

Do you believe that Havel's ideas that Czechoslovakia's regime enabled people to "live within a lie" were fundamental components of the Velvet Revolution and its aftermath?
No. There were no ideas and there was total chaos. Havel came on top because there was nobody else. There was a general agreement that he should be the face of change. His group was best organized and best equipped to take power in office. Some of us thought it was a mistake and that it would be the end of the change. At that time it was very unclear. This change or revolution was not programmatic. It was a hundred percent improvisation.

Twenty years after - not long ago a group of Velvet Revolution key figures met up in Prague's theatre Na zábradlí
Twenty years after - not long ago a group of Velvet Revolution key figures met up in Prague's theatre Na zábradlí | Foto: Ludvík Hradilek

You have said that once Havel entered the presidency he "became a tenth of what he otherwise could have been" and "lost everything he touched." Why do you believe this to be the case?
In terms of domestic politics, yes. He was extremely important to the outside world. He put Czechoslovakia back on the map, as we say. He sustained his position as a moral authority but in my opinion he failed to influence domestic policy and he did not realize the importance of institution building. He behaved, especially at the beginning, more like a monarch. He thought that simply staging a marketing event would shake up people's minds and everything would move. This is not the way democracies work.

Describe the transition that occurred for media professionals once censorship was lifted. Were many of them forced to leave their jobs?
There were no media professionals. There were media employees who were useless under the new circumstances because they would write anything and everything that they were told to. They say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. This was much more complicated. These people were, as a generation, unable to learn how to be independent. This entire generation [of state media employees] was changed and replaced by youngsters with no experience at all but who had a lot of enthusiasm.

One of the most fanous photos capturing the peaceful revolution of 1989
One of the most fanous photos capturing the peaceful revolution of 1989 | Foto: Aktuálně.cz

[The younger generation] had to learn by doing and through making many mistakes, mostly derived from their attempt to help the revolution, which was not their job. I made mistakes myself, exactly for the same reason, but I learned. But I think we failed. It's a gradual process but it is important that there is a debate about what is happening. Now we are facing, like any other media in the West, a disinterest in serious news.

In what way did you fail?
It was this naďve dream that because of what we'd been through that we should come out as better people, as journalists who could get audiences interested in serious news and analysis. We were hurt to see that the tabloid press became more popular, like anywhere else. It took time to realize that this is the way people react and that the majority of people prefer to read about scandals than about facts. People want to read what they know. They don't want to be surprised by what they don't know.

When you were growing up, the Czech border was barricaded and heavily guarded. How difficult was it for you to metabolize the freedom to travel?
It was beautiful, hysterical even. Before 1968, my parents could only take us to communist countries. My first official trip to the West was London. At that time I was kind of a VIP. It took an hour and 20 minutes to fly from here to London. I remember being shocked and thinking, "How come it's taken me 20 years?"

The first post-Velvet-Revolution president Václav Havel became an icon in this year's One World festival
The first post-Velvet-Revolution president Václav Havel became an icon in this year's One World festival | Foto: Reuters

In the four months before the change I was constantly on the run. I even had everything prepared by the bed and a rope by the window. I didn't want to take the chance of landing in prison. I never slept well so when I traveled I thought I would be cut off from everything and expected to sleep like a log. I remember being in my room in this fancy hotel and I spent the night walking back and forth in the room wondering why I couldn't sleep. The next time I left for the West was in 1990. For 19 years prior to that I didn't even have a passport. By then I was intoxicated with the freedom to travel.

What is your take on the Czech Republic today?
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am enjoying every day. On the other hand, I was born Czechoslovak and educated Czechoslovak. To people like myself, the Czech Republic was an entirely different concept. I did not like being defined by my language. I think that I am much more complicated. I want to be much more complicated. I believe that if you are looking for the most tragic mistake in European history it is acceptance of the concept of language-based nationalism.

Just yesterday I was giving a lecture in Vienna and said a hundred years ago Vienna was my capital. We only had one political system, one parliament, one currency, one transportation system. After two world wars and the expulsion of millions, are we any wiser?

This story was originally published by the Prague Wanderer, a web-zine run by New York University students in Prague, Czech Republic.

Justine Costanza is a senior from Bronx, NY studying Media, Culture, & Communications at NYU. Our thanks to the New Presence for sharing this interview with us.


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