Velvet Revolution: Few expected a smooth and non-violent transfer of power in the country

Images from the history of the Sme daily: The Revolution

SNP Square during the Velvet Revolution. SNP Square during the Velvet Revolution. (Source: TASR)

Alexej Fulmek is the CEO of the Petit Press publishing house. In 1993, he co-founded the Sme daily along with its first editor-in-chief, Karol Ježík. He has been part of the story of the daily, and the history of Slovakia, ever since. This extract is from his memoir One Flew Over the Newsprint published in the Slovak original in December 2018.

Society found itself swaying in the powerful euphoria resulting from the quick and nearly-painless victory. The political compromises and the democratisation of the society that Poland had been demanding from its Communist government through strikes for years took place in Czechoslovakia in the course of a few weeks.

The speed of changes took the media aback

Less than two weeks after the attack on the peaceful gathering of students in Prague, article four of the constitution, about the leading role of the Communist Party in society, was scrapped. The compromised government of Communist politicians stepped down, and representatives of pro-democratic civic initiatives were co-opted into the parliament. The country had a new government led by Marián Čalfa and several ministers from among the anti-Communist opposition. The Communist president Gustáv Husák, the man who had been an inseparable part of our lives, abdicated. His eyes had been following us throughout our school years from his picture hanging above the blackboard in every classroom. All this happened within less than one month, before December 10, 1989.

The speed of political changes took most media aback. Television, radio, and press were in the hands of the Communists. In the initial days, all news service clearly condemned the pro-democratic demands and held the line of Communist propaganda. The main media labelled them as the mere non-constructive demands of students to improve conditions for their studies. No newspapers welcomed the democratising requirements of the anti-Communist opposition.

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I experienced this overwhelming historical moment as the editor of the culture desk of the Smena daily. From August 1989, when I took up the job, they halted several of my articles, including my interview with the editor of the literary magazine Dotyky, Róbert Kotian, because we mentioned the writer Milan Šimečka in it, a dissident who nevertheless published a short story in Dotyky. Part of my interview with Peter Zajac also did not make it through censorship – due to his mention of Václav Havel’s membership in the Pen club.

One of my texts even made it to the programme of the regular session of editors-in-chief with members of the party’s central committee. It was a story on the restoration of a damaged painting by Antonín Procházka, Prometheus Brings Fire to the People, and artistic window-panes by František Kysela at the military academy in Brno, which the army had had removed just because they depicted naked figures along with quotes from the speeches of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The chief of the academy made sure I submitted all the material I had collected about the topic to the editor-in-chief of Smena.

The beginnings of free journalism

At that time, there were several young people in Smena who represented the beginnings of new, free journalism. In November 1989, they almost immediately understood the situation and they were the first to support the democratic changes. They did not carry the burden of the trauma of their older colleagues from 1968.

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As a Smena journalist, I participated in a heated discussion between the leadership of the faculty and its students going on strike on November 20, 1989. On that day, students of the Faculty of Arts of the Comenius University and the University of Performing Arts in Bratislava joined the strike of students and theatres in Prague in protest against the brutal police intervention against the peaceful student demonstration on November 17. I wrote a report from the discussion along with my older colleague, Pavol Komár. It was published in a shortened version with an editorial note. In such a situation I could not publish an independent text. All the information I provided was edited and processed, owing to the self-preservation instincts of my then-superiors.

In the evening I marched with the crowd from the building of today’s Istropolis at Trnavské Mýto to Hviezdoslavovo Square, where we cautiously eyed the police officers to see whether they would intervene against us. The next day we stood on SNP Square and the crowd grew larger every day.

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Alongside my younger colleagues we did not enter into an open conflict with the editorial management, but the culture desk's head, Miloš Ščepka, started sending our unpublished texts to the Czech daily Mladá Fronta, which had openly supported students and the revolution from the very start. At that time, Karol Ježík covered the events in Prague.

In those early days, few expected a smooth and non-violent transfer of power in the country. There had been justified concerns that the police and the army could be deployed against protesters. Historical sources show that the army was in a state of alert the whole week. Only on Saturday, November 25, 1989, did all the units receive a coded message about the results of the extraordinary session of the central committee of the Communist Party, which definitively rejected violence as a solution, apparently due to their worries that there would be international consequences.

Smena was popular among readers

By the end of the 1980s, the Smena daily was published with a daily circulation of 100,000 copies. This was not an objective number, because it was not based on market forces. The prices of newspapers were low thanks to state subventions. There was even something like a compulsory subscription for schools and state companies, while commercial advertising practically did not exist.

Newspapers depended on the amount of paper they received for printing. Paper was ordered and assigned through the printing house directly owned by the Communist Party. So it was the party rather than the market that decided on the circulation of newspapers. Despite this, Smena was popular among readers, partly because it clearly targeted young people, it had an attractive sports section overseen by Karol Ježík, and it covered topics that other newspapers avoided. Here I can humbly mention my own stories on the founding of the Slovak branch of the PEN Club, a feature story about the Jehovah's Witnesses, or articles on Sigmund Freud. The young journalists who worked on these topics were liberals who came to Smena just before the Velvet Revolution.

The Communists feared the printing machines and any reproduction technologies. The final attempt of the party to control the media was the more than 20-storey building on Pribinova Street near today’s Eurovea, called Presscentrum, owned by the J&T financial group. By the end of the 1980s it was the headquarters of all the newspapers as well as the Danubiapress printing house. Our editorial room sprawled across two floors. Journalists sat in separate offices of two to four people and each desk had its own typist. All the tables were equipped with mechanical typewriters, and the click-clacking was an omnipresent sound.

Smena was not an opposition daily before the revolution, even though some of my colleagues might have felt like that, because as the non-conformist journalists they were, they maintained a mild conflict with the ruling power, and they supported Gorbachev and his Perestroika. This was also why, shortly after the revolution broke out, Smena became different from other newspapers, aggressively favouring democratic reforms more.

I must confess that I cannot keep my distance when looking back at Smena. But the fact is that in those days, Smena used to sell out on the newsstands, and its circulation went up to 170,000 after the revolution, while Pravda went from a circulation of half-a-million to under 300,000. These numbers from the emerging market conditions suggest that readers found the content that Smena offered to be attractive.

The then editor-in-chief of Smena, Ľubomír Chorvatovič, stated on the third or fourth day after the first major protest on Hviezdoslavovo Square, that the editorial staff could write freely. One month later he offered to resign even though he was confirmed in his post in a secret vote organised by our VPN branch. But he refused to lead the editorial. As his successor, he proposed Karol Ježík, who until then worked as a staff writer at the sports desk. That too was one of the paradoxes of the revolutionary times – the editor-in-chief was elected by the editorial staff in a secret vote. At that time, Karol was 36 years old, which provoked some hesitation among people who grew up with socialist journalism. Under Communism, a journalist of his age could become the head of some of the editorial desks at most.

The Slovak Spectator will publish more extracts from Fulmek's memoir in the coming weeks.

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