I was in the frontline because it reflected what I felt inside

One of the leaders of the 1989 student movement, Anton Popovič, remembers the fall of the totalitarian regime.

November 21 gathering of students at the Comenius University in Bratislava. November 21 gathering of students at the Comenius University in Bratislava. (Source: TASR)

Anton Popovič is a civic activist from Slovakia, one of the student leaders during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, former member of Slovak parliament. He works as a producer, conductor and composer.

Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Union’s communist party, the Solidarity movement was working in Poland, there was political opposition in Hungary and later came the unbelievable events of September 1989 at the West-German Embassy in Prague, followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Changes were happening in the Eastern Bloc.

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We were young and we were hopeful when we watched these important movements. We had an inkling that political changes were necessary in Czechoslovakia too. The public had been aware of the violent suppression of citizens’ gatherings in Prague and the Candle Manifestation in Bratislava. On November 16, 1989, an unauthorised manifestation of Bratislava students took place, voicing demands for reform.

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The following brutal intervention against the peaceful November 17 demonstration at the Narodní Třída in Prague had a triggering effect. This event brought together a generation of students who actively stood against the regime. We had friends in Prague – students of the Theatre Academy of Performing Arts, located close to the incident where the communist forces attacked the demonstrators.

Students from Slovakia provided us with first-hand information. Students from Prague were coming to Bratislava to testify about the events at Narodní Třída. The desire for change was in the air. There was no push from the outside, we didn’t need to be encouraged or told what to do. We were aware of what was going on and what needed to be done.

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We viewed the communist politicians as blinded, arrogant and ignorant, incapable of any sensible leadership. They could only declaim the empty phrases of the socialist rhetoric; the recordings of their speeches were passed around as examples of stupidity. For a young person full of ideals, it was unbearable to think that these were to be the representatives of the state who would control the direction our lives would take. We found it hard to come to terms with the idea that we were doomed to live forever in an isolated, unfree country, governed by the small-minded and arrogant representatives of the regime. We also could not accept the fact that the communist regime was repressive towards those who rightfully criticised it or diverted from the prescribed line. The state secured the ideology of the regime using violence. Today, young people can hardly imagine the limitations and the lack of freedom that we were experiencing.

The incompetence of the regime was reflected in the standard of living, incomparable to that of western countries. It seemed natural for us to seek ways to contribute to the collapse of the regime, or at least to change it to a more acceptable one, like the attempts in 1967-1968.

We found it hard to come to terms with the idea that we were doomed to live forever in an isolated, unfree country, governed by the small-minded and arrogant representatives of the regime.

We saw the world as bipolar – capitalist and socialist – and these two historical concepts of governing public affairs were competing with each other. Young people were quite unambiguous. We desired to live in a free society and in an advanced, modern country.

November ‘89 wasn’t an “economic” revolution for us, though. With 40 years of experience with communism, we sought a new relationship between the individual and the state. We sought a free, dignified life, not ruled by privileged potentates abusing their positions.

Young people, unacquainted with the adult responsibilities that starting a family and making a living bring, do not live in the world of compromises that those responsibilities inevitably entail. They believe in their ideals and have higher expectations of what society should be like. They are also more inclined to try and change the world with their attitudes. That is why student movements are often behind many big events that have significantly changed the course of societies.

Regime vs. civic movement

Things were not, however, unambiguous in the then Czechoslovakia, despite the changes happening internationally. There was a hard core in the party that was not disinclined to violently suppress the post-November civic activities. In Romania, changes were accompanied by bloodshed.

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I personally only felt in danger on November 22, when we, as representatives of the faculties added our stance to the November 17 events in Prague at the Slovak government office. When we came in, gentlemen wearing leather coats wrote a list of our names and addresses. I was asking myself if I was going to end up like the people who were put in prison for their beliefs, if my activities would bring sorrow to my family too. At that point, it was still impossible to tell how things would turn out if retaliation would to follow.

On one hand, I had a responsibility to my relatives. On the other, what kind of people would we be if we did not stand up for the things we believe in? What good would such a life be? Should we just look away for fear of the consequences of our beliefs? In November 1989 I stood on the edge, with the support of my family, and the reason why I was in the frontline was because it simply reflected what I felt inside.

The civic movement that led the change included dissidents and environmentalists who had fought with the regime long before November, but also artists. These groups were the carriers of a certain national consciousness and the hope that the events of November would bring a fundamental change in our society.

Freedom and responsibility

For us, young as we were, participation in the movement was a new and special experience that accentuated our responsibility. What was said at the tribune became a generally accepted fact. This experience also made me realise how dynamic and full of action the environment was in which politics were made.

That is also why I accepted the offer to become a co-opted member of the Slovak national parliament in 1990 until the first free elections. My artistic profession led me to humility and to the realisation that a man needs to be aware of the scope of the knowledge he has achieved to be able to act sensibly. That was also why, after several months, I decided I wasn’t ready for an active, professional part in politics. I found it hard to understand that people who only had pretensions to their professional capabilities would enter politics without hesitation. Up to this day, there are people in politics whose self-reflection nears zero.

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I felt the need to learn more, to get to know what life was like in the developed, western countries. I took advantage of the new freedoms and the welcoming wave that western Europe was feeling and showing towards us, the citizens of Czechoslovakia. I felt it was important for me to learn how a society should and could work.

In the meantime, terrible people grabbed hold of power back home, and nationalism settled here in its most primitive forms. It is still hard for me to understand that so many people still succumb to the various primitive passions that politicians sow for a purpose, to gain support among the disoriented voters.

Leaning away from the November 89 values

First there were dissidents, environmentalists, students and artists, then came the elected politicians. Many of them abused their power and stole from public resources. Almost every ruling coalition undermined the ethics and morals of society with their attitude to politics.

November 1989 was an ethical movement for human rights, freedom and democracy, but it was followed by unethical and almost antidemocratic political reorganization. The nineties were really hard. There was a need for much more civic engagement and resistance in order to reach some level of the standards of western democracy, to make it evident that we wanted to belong to the European culture, to the European Union and to international structures that could protect us, even from ourselves.

We, who have actively participated in the change of the regime, believe that the ethos of this major breaking point has not been transferred into the political sphere.

During the transition from totalitarianism to democracy, the belief became widespread that it was first necessary to deal with the key problems of political, economic and social transformation first, while education and culture were pushed to the margins. That was a systemic mistake. As a consequence, we were unable to define the value and importance of these key areas for the healthy development of our society, and we have yet to do it, despite the fact that quality of education and culture represents the level of development that a state has achieved.

The November revolution had a strong ethical and civic dimension that was not later reflected in the quality of our democracy. We, who have actively participated in the change of the regime, believe that the ethos of this major breaking point has not been transferred into the political sphere. Many post-1989 politicians did not carry the values of November 89.

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As a student I expected back then that the adults must have thought it through better than we did, that they would be better able to transfer the ideas of how democracy should work into reality. I was surprised to see how they too were in the dark, and the rough mistakes they made. From this perspective, the Velvet Revolution was a wasted opportunity. Unfortunately. A better transformation would have required greater consistency and more premeditated steps to introduce systemic measures to build a democratic society that respects human rights and protects the environment.

If anyone told me back then, when we rejoiced over the victory of democracy over totalitarianism, how things would develop, I would have thought they were hallucinating. I would never have believed that state aggression and primitivism could return in a mutated form. This happened during the malign era of Meciarism that was responsible for the state-controlled abduction and most likely the brutal murder of an uncomfortable witness.

Quo vadis Slovakia?

I believe that society needs to be led by intelligent, educated and learned people whose motives are based on ethics.

We would be naïve to think that things are ideal elsewhere – but the question is about the level of tolerability. In Slovakia, publicists can write any criticism of the reality, but changes only happen laboriously, following enormous pressure. Politicians have adopted tactics whereby they pretend criticism does not exist – and something that does not exist does not require a reaction, after all, the present scandals will be overshadowed by problems that will surface later on.

The unbelievable, premeditated murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée brought a significant movement in society that finally led to some reckoning in Slovakia. In their attempts to keep their positions, politicians adopted the technique of obstruction, to keep busy and exhaust journalists and activists. Changes can only be enforced with constant, patient pressure. That, however, requires above-standard determination these days and politicians are well aware of that.

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The current situation shows how perverted are the circumstances that politicians have created. Natural and essential discussion and mutual communication have been destroyed. Communication in our country runs in different directions, making it hard to turn it into action. This in turn decreases public initiative, which the partocratic political establishment benefits from.

Politicians are aware that it is not easy to make a living in hard economic conditions and at the same time analyse and deal with distant politics in one’s free time and with one’s own resources. I have experienced that first-hand as a civic activist. An initiative like that requires space, energy, active organisation, discussions, preparation of arguments, and so on. It is far from being an easy task. That is why I am immensely grateful to all those who are helping this country through their personal engagement. Without them, the quality of life and civic freedoms in this state would be much lower.

All the good decisions that politicians make show through the improved quality of life of their citizens. Unfortunately, all their bad decisions significantly affect our lives too. We do not even need to go as far as high politics. We can see it in the decisions of municipal authorities that, often lacking any culture and against city-planning principles, approve huge development projects at the expense of public space and often accompanied by the destruction of public greenery.

In a healthy society, the impulses coming from public discussions are reflected in the way the society is governed. That is what it should be about. The key steps should be prepared and discussed in cooperation with the public in the best possible way, and decisions and practical measures should only be taken then. Today, politicians have a tendency to isolate and enclose themselves in their comfort zone.

The administration of public affairs is rarely ideal. But it is always possible to improve the situation. I believe people need to fulfil their mission the best way possible.

The decisions we made in November 89 have significantly moved our society away from totalitarianism. But for too long we have been stuck in the merism of abuse of power and corruption. That is also what the representatives of the November 89 student movement told a For a Decent Slovakia gathering in 2018:

“We want to live in a state where truth is not manipulated, and state power is not abused for personal benefit. We want to live in a state where a citizens’ initiative is appreciated and where solutions are sought that bring benefits for society. We avow to the civilisational space of the European Union, to the values of rule of law, democracy, human and civil rights. Slovakia needs to be led by people who are able to bring democratic values, ethics, elementary justice, professionalism and cooperation to the government.”

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