NOVEMBER was descending on Bratislava’s streets and its cold breath froze even the hardiest leaves of the city’s trees but somehow that particular November melted the ice of indifference and disinterest and lifted the fears and concerns from the hearts of hundreds of thousands of young people in a small central European country called, at that time, Czechoslovakia.
It was late November and over 100,000 people gathered at the square of the Slovak National Uprising, forming a human sea: breathing, rocking and comprehending the words of hope and change.
Courage and pride penetrated everyone who was standing there that day at one of the largest rallies of the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia. I had never before seen such a mass of people so gentle yet so powerful, and I haven’t since.
And I still recall that 1989 crowd when a frail little boy was brought onto the Bratislava stage from some remote part of the country and he sang for the people hungering for hope – silence, almost incomprehensible silence from a crowd of 100,000 people.
Revolting masses often turn into clumsy giants who, drunk with the power they have seized, cause harm and destroy everything that stands in their way – even what should be preserved. But at that time we all hoped that the throng in Bratislava that cold November night would remain a wise and good-willed giant.
And in that moment when we felt intimate with complete strangers who happened to be standing next to us on the public squares and when we started to comprehend that this was the end of the only regime we had ever known, we were then living the revolution.
Like all epiphanies, we knew how powerful this moment was but we could not know how fragile it might be.
And in a flash of a moment we were faced with redefining good and evil, left and right, east and west, past and future.
We had not known how difficult it was all going to be and how much of the old era might survive under the blinding lightning of revolutionary changes.
We had not known back in 1989 that in couple of years our parents would lose their jobs and we would learn new words like mass layoffs and unemployment benefits.
We had not known that modern-day clones of the likes of Miloš Jakeš, Jozef Lenárt, Ľubomír Štrougal, Vasiľ Biľak and Gustáv Husák might be resurrected in governments to come.
We had not known that Slovaks were soon to pick people like Vladimír Mečiar to lead the nation – in his case to the very brink of international isolation just a few years later.
And of course we had no idea that 20 years later certain judges in that very same country would be penalised for expressing their personal opinions.
And we certainly did not know that two decades later there would still be politicians capable of claiming that they hadn’t noticed much of a change in their lives.
We, the Velvet Revolution generation, are the ones who were able to catch the train and get a new chance. We learned how to check in at airports and leave for foreign shores, to apply for scholarships and get degrees at fine schools, and many of us still remember our first encounter with a person from a culture totally different from our own or the taste of our first Reese's peanut butter cup.
We are the children of parents who are often called the Lost Generation – born after World War II, growing up and living most of their lives under the communist regime, seeing their hopes and ideals crushed by tanks in 1968, often working in the same job for many decades, learning no languages and travelling nowhere except to Polish and Hungarian markets to buy the authorised two packages of candies or cigarettes.
The Velvet Revolution caught many of them in their late forties or older. Many of them lost their jobs and if they worked in an industry which had been artificially supported by the former regime and if they were not limber enough, and many of them weren’t, they found it hard to get re-qualified for the different era.
They are the people that some politicians like to deceive today with talk that evokes in them vague recollections of the lifelong security, or its illusion, provided by the old regime.
Yes, in 2009 we still see corrupt politicians and even former revolutionaries turning into liars and sometimes into criminals, falling as low as the ‘leaders’ of the old regime.
But this shouldn’t repel anyone from recalling those revolutionary days in November 1989.
Quite the contrary. Nations and their citizens need to remember their epiphanies, even if politicians leading the country at the current time somehow missed the moment and the experience.
16. Nov 2009 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová