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My 72 Hours in Golden Prague

Published December 20, 2019 by Zuzana Barakova

In the first of a series of reflective pieces, Woolf Institute & University of Cambridge MSt alumna Zuzana Barakova discusses the profound affect the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia had on her.

This year marked the 30th anniversary since the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Even though I have lived abroad for the past 18 years, I decided out of curiosity and mostly utter homesickness to travel back home this November to see where things are at – politically, socially and spiritually. This doesn't mean, of course, that I would consider myself to be a great (read: self-appointed) authority or judge of the last three decades, especially since I have been absent for the last two but in the age of fake news, it seems to be an imperative to be present and witness key historical moments first hand whenever possible. The Velvet Revolution and its aftermath is a personal matter to me. Without it, my life would have been so very different. I would have grown up in a totalitarian regime without real education, freedom of worship, freedom of expression, freedom to travel and freedom in general. I can't fully picture it to be honest.

To say that the vibe in Prague was ecstatic, electric and joyous is an understatement. On the 17 November, the streets of the city centre were packed with free lectures, talks, documentaries, concerts and exhibitions. Hundreds of candles were being lit everywhere. We remembered the victims of the Communist regime who did not live to see the cataclysmic change in 1989. I thought namely about Rudolf Slánský, Milada Horáková and Jan Palach. I thought about the 137 casualties of the Soviet invasion in 1968 and all those émigrés routinely shot at the borders whose numbers are already now impossible to track. I felt sad but hopeful for the future. Another 'never forget' tattooed on my soul.

*Poster of Václav Havel in Wenceslas Square that says: 'Havel Forever'

To the dismay of the current ruling class, there was one name and one name only that resonated emphatically throughout the marching crowds: 'Václav Havel'. I was six years old and in the first grade of elementary school when I noticed that Gustáv Husák's photo on our classroom's wall had swiftly been swapped for that of Havel. It was the same year our teacher told us to stop calling her 'Comrade teacher'. I didn't think much of it then, I was too busy developing my first childhood crush, plus I was getting over my disappointment of not being accepted to a local folk dancing group. Something to do with a lack of basic motoric skills and my appearance as a tom-boy, I was told.

Today I understand better the role Havel played in 1989 and the formative decade of the chaotic 90s that followed. Democracy, unlike the revolution, was not born overnight. As one prominent Czech theologian, Pavel Hošek, observed: "It is one thing to leave Egypt but to manage the 'Egypt' within to leave us is a whole other ballgame". It's a real tragedy when you have been enslaved for so long that when freedom finally comes to you, you do not know what to do with it. I believe that Havel tried to lead by example. He did not fall prey to the temptation of power that must have tried to ensnare him. What was his secret? I do not know but I have a feeling that it had something to do with him not taking himself too seriously. Not your typical leader, you might think. A playwright of the absurd, who stuttered frequently (a similarity that he perhaps shared with Moses?) and wore trousers that were way too short – something that later became somewhat of a national joke. Those were small things that he did not sweat. He instead focused on continuing in the T. G. Masaryk's school of thought: 'truth prevails' or 'Veritas vincit' that Masaryk borrowed from Jan Hus, a reformation hero burned at the stake in 1415. As the New Yorker puts it: "His [Havel's] honesty was so extreme, so theatrically self-imposing, that his aides came to dread it". His political etiquette was simple enough: When he was wrong, he admitted it – a rare trait that became his strength rather than a weakness.

Candles for Václav Havel

Trying to reverse 40 years of Kremlin's influence on the Czech foreign policy and its well documented anti-Zionist sentiment, Havel visited Israel at first given opportunity in April 1990. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he confessed a "long and intimate affinity" with his countryman, Franz Kafka. It was clearly not lost on Havel that Kafka's work was way ahead of its time and sadly possessed a prophetic quality and shockingly intimate knowledge of a life lived in a totalitarian dystopia where the absurd becomes the new norm. Understanding of the absurd was perhaps Havel's best qualification for the presidential post. His multiple imprisonments steeled up his character and taught him to never get too comfortable in his new-found success: "I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry… Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months… The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger the suspicion that there has been some mistake", he once confessed to a close friend.

My generation knows that there has been no mistake. A poll conducted in November 2019 revealed that 55% of Czechs consider Havel to be the best post-communist president. The only mistake clearly was Havel's premature death in 2011, which left a gaping hole in the Czech political, cultural and spiritual canvas. Only recently, there have been signs that his legacy is not dead. A 26-year-old, Mikuláš Minář, a theology student at the Charles University and the founder of movement called 'Million Moments for Democracy' seems to have inherited Havel's mantle and zest for humble leadership.

I am standing in the Wenceslas square, next to a statue of another significant Václav. Suddenly, His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes an unexpected appearance on the screen before me in honour of our late president. People around me gasp and I am sure many realise that this will not make China very happy. The Tibetan leader calls us his brothers and sisters from the heartland of Europe and urges us to carry Havel's wisdom and moral principles continuously and tirelessly to ensure we live in a peaceful century. I look around me and the place is flooded with crowds waving little Czech flags, a very rare sight for a people usually too reserved to display any patriotic feelings – those we typically leave to the Americans who seem naturally better at them (read: louder). We sing the national anthem, a few shed a tear. I notice a man next to me put on his sunglasses even though it's already quite dark. Perhaps out of embarrassment for the public display of his emotional weakness. Big men don't cry, especially Czech men. I look at him with mixed feelings of sympathy and pride. I feel a sense of belonging with the crowd. At this moment we are one and I have truly arrived home. Sure, things have not been easy and we don't have everything figured out quite yet. The gap between the rich and poor has been widening. Populism and oligarchy are on the rise. Some of the old power-structures have survived and merely changed cloaks. The injustice of the old regime continues to go unpunished. We still have a long way to go but we are on our way now.

Zuzana Barakova is a Woolf Institute & University of Cambridge alumna. She undertook the MSt in the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations between 2009 and 2011. She also has a BA degree from UCL in Hebrew and Jewish Studies & a Masters from Tel Aviv University in Security and Diplomacy.

The second in the series of Zuzana's reflective pieces will appear on Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January 2020).

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