17 years ago, in a Friday November 17 far far away, the seminal event for the soon-to-become Velvet Revolution happened. The event itself, a sanctioned student demonstration ostensibly celebrating a martyr against the Nazi invasion 50 years earlier, mattered less than its aftermath: a fairly brutal police repression, augmented by a staged death by a secret police agent.
To my then jaded eyes, the depth of moral outrage among Czechoslovak citizen about this seeming police murder was endearing. This was shortly after Tiananmen Square (making everyone aware what was at stake), and even in Western Europe death by demonstration was not unheard of, or indeed 20 years earlier they had the self-immolation of Jan Palach and the 70-some killed in the 1968 Soviet invasion.
For me November 17 is connected with a fairly subdued plaque at the spot where the demonstration was stopped by the police. I don’t remember when it was made, I think it was some time in 1990, probably at the anniversary. I do remember that in 1990 everyone would go out of their way to show you that spot, even if you had passed by a dozen times before. In the beginning were the revolutionary posters I mostly couldn’t read at the time, then the candles, and finally the official plaque which was more or less the end.
The revolution itself officially lasted 11 days, including a theatre strike and a demonstration with an estimated half a million participants, which for a city of 1.2 million and a country of 15 million was an unmistakable signal the gig was up. The post-revolutionary euphoria lasted less than a year, it was commemorated a year or two more, and then the collective amnesia set in. Thereafter it was as it never had happened, it was never talked about. If I reminded anyone about it they were invariably embarrassed, a youthful and Un-Czech (the country had split by then) indiscretion they were aware of but rather would not remember.
As time went by a generation came to be that genuinely didn’t remember it, because they never had experienced it (possibly apart from some weird and fragmented childhood memory), or the preceeding communist regime. That too embarrassed and secretly annoyed the slightly older generation. Until just recently when it became a subject again. Some of it was political, the high rating of the barely reformed communist party, as about the only protest party against the less than inspiring crowd of Czech politicians, did frighten the establishment and the anti-establishment alike. And youthful indiscretions are less embarrassing when you’re not as youthful anymore. So nowadays it is a school subject, and if a revival is too strong a word (no expected theatre strikes) it is a reminder.
So today I decided to visit that old plaque. It is on one of the main streets, so it isn’t as if I haven’t passed by it countless times already, but I too haven’t visited it for 15 years or so. It was much as expected, some strangely inappropriate posters and candles in massive appearance, to be taken pictures of by everyone in the audience with our camera phones. Having done that we all moved along.