In pre-revolutionary Slovakia, dissidents were basically divided into three groups, which were very often intertwined: intellectuals, religious believers, and environmentalists. Intellectuals often belonged to one of the other two groups, but the core group were neither religious nor environmentally-motivated. The late head of the Nation’s Memory Institute, Ján Langoš, used to act as the link between intellectuals and religious believers. “He was a strong personality with great charisma and had the revolution come later he would have become the leader,” Martin Šimečka, another former dissident, recalls. Šimečka got involved in dissident movement through his father Milan, in the mid 1970s. At that time, dissent was much weaker in Slovakia than in the Czech lands, with only a few dozen people daring to voice opposition to the regime. The first years of so-called ‘normalisation’, i.e. the consolidation of communist rule after the Soviet invasion in 1968 which abruptly ended the political thawing of the 1960s and replaced it with harsh oppression, seemed like some kind of search, he says. Generally, people were afraid of everybody and everything, Šimečka recalls. However, the situation was much worse in the Czech lands, and so dissent there was also much more desperate, and thus also courageous. In the beginning, dissidents like e.g. Miroslav Kusý (now a political analyst), Jozef Jablonický, the late writer Dominik Tatarka and another writer, Hana Ponická, often met up with Czech intellectuals like Milan Uhde, or writers Ivan Klíma and Ludvík Vaculík. They met at weekend cottages, often pursuing quite complicated schemes in order not to be followed and bugged by the ŠtB secret police. Although they discussed politics and petitioned for the release of prisoners of conscience they never really expected the regime to fall. They also published samizdat works, i.e. self-published pamphlets and books which were copied and distributed in secret.
The group of religious believers were united by their faith. In Czechoslovakia under communism, religion was either controlled by the state, or – if used to mount opposition – churches were closed and followers persecuted. The ‘secret religion’ that formed gradually in communist Czechoslovakia was a unique phenomenon in central Europe, perhaps even the whole world, says one of its members, František Mikloško, now an MP. Believers met secretly in flats, read the Bible and other books, and discussed scores of subjects. They also met at huts and cottages in the countryside and organised trips or even processions, disguised to look like mountain hikes or climbing trips. The only thing that distinguished these events from ‘normal’ trips, were prayers, which were performed several times a day. People were persecuted for their beliefs, and often ended up in prison, where some of them were tortured and humiliated. Among this branch of Slovak dissidents were names like Daniel Bédi, Ján Kubiš, Jozef Labuda, Anton Srholec and even secret bishops like Ján Korec, who later became Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec. Secret bishops used to consecrate secret priests, who then spread the faith among others. Mikloško concludes that they had one advantage – you cannot fake faith for long.
The third group represented conservationists and environmentalists who were at first mobilised by anger at the regime’s attempt in 1981 to quietly close and remove historical cemeteries in Bratislava. The official reason given was the reconstruction of the city’s four oldest cemeteries, but in fact out of thousands tombstones only a few dozen would have been left. The movement gradually grew stronger and increasingly struck a chord with the public. After some time, a split occurred, mainly between the leader of the environmentalists, Mikuláš Huba, and boilerman and underground artist Ján Budaj, who would later become a leader of the Velvet Revolution. At first, environmentalists tried to save traditional Slovak wooden houses, riverside forests, old watermills and sawmills, and areas of great natural and cultural value. Later, they became radicalised by the regime’s responses, and at the Bratislava Environmental Conference in April 1989 guests like Martin Bútora, Peter Zajac, Peter Tatár, Vladimír Krivý and Soňa Szomolány attracted much attention. Huba represented the more conservative environmentalists, while Budaj brought new ideas and also involved artists and the wider public in the movement’s activities. Budaj was also less interested in nature and historical monuments, and more in the fight against the regime. One of their memorable common successes was the key Slovak opposition document Bratislava/nahlas (Bratislava Aloud) in 1987. The environmentalists managed to save much of the Bratislava cemeteries, and contributed a great deal to the course of the November 1989 revolution.