On 17 November 1989, the police crushed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. The crackdown led to national protests, culminating in a general strike. Within 11 days, the mass demonstrations had overthrown the communist regime. Václav Havel was elected president on 29 December. Jan Bubeník became the youngest politician in the new government. He spoke to Jo Glanville
The [communist] regime was punishing in many different ways. They were very creative and if you were caught doing something against it, quite often they would just let you fail the next exam or they would ask the professor to fail you. I was involved in the medical school culture club, at the dorms. We often invited either poets or rock groups or theatre performers who were not allowed to make official recordings, or played on the radio, but were on occasion allowed to perform at small clubs. So that is what we were doing. We were exchanging prohibited books, had some discussion clubs.
But we were definitely not, I would say, dissidents.
Family was and has been a great influence on my life. My father was a professor at Charles University who was expelled after 1968 because he refused to welcome the Soviet Army. Even though he was not on the list of people being fired for supporting the Prague Spring, not voting in favour of their expulsion [from the university] meant his name was added to the list.
After losing his job, he became a railway labourer. This also had some positive sides — the husband of one of his students met him on the tracks and said: “Professor, is it you? What the hell are you doing here?” He responded that it was the only job he could find to support his family. So he gave him the position of work safety officer.
My mother’s father, who was the head of the tax authority in the 1950s, was asked to be the governor of one part of the Sudetenland.
My grandfather refused and ended up in the coalmines in North Moravia. In 1968 they came to him and wanted to rehabilitate him, but he said that given the people who were in power, he would stay where he was. So he could not practise law, and became a bureaucrat in the glassworks.
My grandfather and father were both people who were very much concerned with the wellbeing and solidarity of other people. My father was from a family of nine, a very poor family. My grandfather became the father to eight of his siblings at a German forced labour camp. So they were much more on the left, but they hated communism in the form in which it was here.
So that was the society and the personal stories which I grew up with. I felt the schizophrenia of society — that you would give a totally different answer to the same question asked at home or in front of other students.
On fear and corruption
I was afraid [in 1989]. I was afraid all the way. People were imprisoned without any cause simply for voicing their disagreement. One of our classmates got drunk and took down a Russian flag on the street and was expelled and basically put in prison. In each study group at university, which usually had between ten and 15 students, we basically knew that there would be one or two informers from the secret police, so we were always kind of watching over our shoulder.
So we were somewhat careful and we were afraid of the strength and violence of the regime. But it was so clear how morally and economically corrupt the regime was. Even kids from high-ranking communist families, our classmates, said that they didn’t believe in it and that their fathers didn’t believe in it. They were just profiteering from the system. So it was so clear, who was right and who was wrong. And there was also the global situation, perestroika, Gorbachev . . .We had information from Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and we talked about it. Even if you wanted to ignore it — you couldn’t escape it. We could see that the Wall was disintegrating one step at a time but still, to imagine, to have the courage to imagine, a revolution — I did not have that picture or aim in mind.
On 17 November I knew some of the people organising the events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Czech universities being shut down [by the Nazis — an officially permitted student demonstration]. I helped to distribute posters in our dorm and at a club, which basically said to take a candle and flower and come to Charles University campus. Nobody knew whether even a couple of people would show up and we were very surprised by the number of people that were there. I myself was there as a regular participant, ducking when I saw that the secret police was filming us. But some people were more courageous; they had posters calling for an end to one-party rule and free elections. And we started to shout and give each other courage — that we were not the crazy ones, that there were plenty of us thinking exactly the same thing. And so I marched from the campus to the cemetery where the guy who was shot by the Nazis in 1939 was buried and somebody redirected the march downtown.
I had no idea [that the demonstration was going to end in violence]. I mean, I really had no idea what to expect. I just felt that the fact that [the demonstration] was official gave people like myself the courage to show up. When we came to the National Theatre on the National Boulevard, right downtown, the riot police were in place. One end of the street was cut off by a row of crowd control police officers, with helmets, shields, and white truncheons. On the other side were two tanks with a fence in front of them.
And these two tanks advanced and basically smushed this last section of about 2,000 to 5,000 people — and created incredible fear because people couldn’t move.
With buildings on two sides and the crowd control police on the third side, they boxed us in and people couldn’t leave and people broke their legs or dived under cars just to be able to breathe. They created small bottlenecks through which people wanted to get out and they started to beat people from both sides. There was a special SAS commando with dogs and they were beating everybody coming out of that small alley which they had created.
And so we were totally panicked and just wanted to leave. I was really afraid for my life and we were passing through the alley and they were beating us from both sides. I had a backpack because I had picked up some fresh laundry, which my Mum had sent by train, and I used it to protect my head. Boris, my roommate, had his girlfriend [Dana] with him; I am 6 foot 6 and she was like half my size. We had to lift her, because I would say my thigh was at her lungs and she couldn’t breathe, so we had her between the two us going through that small alley. Boris got hit over his head, fell down and was unconscious. I was just beaten over my legs and thighs and as I was kind of numb, I realised only later that my key chain with keys was stuck in my thigh. We were pressed together like sardines and it just went into my flesh, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I just picked up Boris, and Dana was yelling so much as there was another red beret guy who wanted to beat him up even though he was on the ground, and she screamed and yelled and he hit her over her leg. So I was kind of trying to pick both of them up and just run away, which we eventually managed to do after getting hit a few more times.
Later we were sitting and talking in the dorm and saying that revolution was not really for us, that we would probably not be able to make any changes with a broken head. I guess we were quite shook up and scared and we talked through the night. When we heard on Radio Free Europe or Voice of America that somebody had died at the demonstration, we started trying to get some information and connecting with other people we knew at different
schools and learned that on Sunday people would go back to where the student supposedly died.
We worked up the courage and told ourselves that this was it, that nobody should be dying. And since we had been there, we were the eyewitnesses, we were totally appalled by the reaction of the regime, which either ignored it or just mentioned that there had been some hooligans disturbing the peace but that nothing significant had happened.
So we started going door to door. There were two 15-floor blocks of dormitories and we just knocked on every door and told people what had happened and asked them to join us on the National Boulevard again on Sunday and that is basically how I got really involved and identified with the demonstrations.
And when we gathered back on Sunday night, some people were again beaten up. We had wanted to go to Prague Castle to demonstrate in front of the presidential palace and they blocked us and prevented us from doing so.
But they did let us go home. So we basically started organising. We waited for colleagues to come back from their weekends and put together a strike committee and started to get organised. That is how the people who had organised everything from birthday parties to more sophisticated poetry readings or theatre performances became natural leaders and were officially elected.
On Monday morning, people from Prague and those living in private accommodation met with the faculty and I was the one reading the demands. On Sunday night we had coordinated with students from other universities and other schools and even other cities. I had started to organise it at the medical school level and that was it.
On right and wrong
I guess it was the first confrontation, the realisation of how brutal the regime could be and how wrong it was [that gave me the courage to become a leader]. I think it was two things for me, the child that was becoming a man: it was the feeling that I don’t want this to be my life and the naivete of youth. I knew the regime was what it was and we had been taught to not stick out of the crowd or be noticeable in any way — the easiest thing to do was to be kind of neutral and grey and average. But I just couldn’t help it. And that other people looked to me for leadership and opinion — it just kind of happened that I could not escape it. I clearly felt that what gave me the strength was the clear conviction that we were right and they were wrong.
My parents had no idea for I think four or five days, but then I called home because I knew my father was listening to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America religiously, so it was only a question of time before my parents would find out. And I have to say that that was also one of the deciding moments that gave me the strength and support to get involved even though I was already fully in it.
I called home to tell them that I was fine and my Mum answered and said, ‘You are involved? I am sure you are part of these strike committees, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I am fine, Mum.’
And she said, ‘I order you to immediately come home!’ We lived about two hours away from Prague. She said something along the lines of: ‘Don’t you remember what happened to your Dad? You know you are going to ruin your life. I am afraid for you. You have worked so hard for your medical degree.’
And I said, ‘Mum, I can’t go home. I am sorry. I have to stay here. I have some duties here.’
So she called my Dad and said, ‘Josef, talk to him, order him to come home.’ And Dad came and said, ‘You know, if you were next to me, I would slap you silly, but boy, am I proud of you.’ For me, that was the moment that gave me the blessing that my parents understood — or at least I think they both understood. When Dad said that, I knew I was free to go and do whatever was needed.
On the students
My view, or perhaps speculation, as to why the students [were the catalyst] is that it was partly coincidental, it could have been any other trigger, any other catalyst situation in which the regime would have just overstepped the boundary and people would have got pissed off, and that would have been the threshold moment for them to actually be angrier or more frustrated with the regime — but in this case it was the students.
I was born in 1968 and we were the first generation that did not remember the persecutions after 1968 or in 1977 after Charter 77, during the so-called normalisation when the regime had a much tighter grip on the lives of people. And we were too unimportant to really be confronted by the regime in its full force. We had not, as of yet, been asked to compromise our beliefs or integrity for job promotions or for even being able to practise our professions so I think we were quite idealistic, naive as young people are.
And we were still viewed as the kids of the 1968 generation who had got at least a slap on the wrist and was therefore quite afraid and intimidated but since they [the regime] were kind of killing their kids, they had to step up. And because we got involved they had no choice but to support us or let us fail like they had in 1968.
I was absolutely amazed by the events that followed. It was just . . . a trip. We couldn’t sleep. We just didn’t want to miss a single moment and it was like we were totally at war. We were young and had ideals, but we students were usually smart people who had some skill and intellect to get organised. What happened is that the students started occupying universities which had at least some kind of infrastructure like phones and video systems, which we used to copy footage that students had made of the beatings, because the regime had for many weeks been totally disinforming the population about what had happened. They were lying. They were either silent or they were lying.
So we started to send our own colleagues to their hometowns with the tapes which they showed to people, basically trying to raise awareness and asked people to support us and go on strikes or at least show up and go on the main squares after work and demonstrate their support for us. So we were very effective and since we went to our own neighbourhoods, people knew us. It was a very effective sort of grassroots movement organisation. People basically just wanted, needed, somebody clean, believable and credible to say that the emperor was naked.
On the regime’s demise
[That the government was going to fall] was clear after I guess maybe the first week. Those of us involved in the strike committees and organisation were always taking turns going to Wenceslas Square to get recharged among the million or several hundreds of thousands of people listening to Havel or one of us, to sing and feel the brotherhood, the alignment of young, old, managers, workers, students — to understand that we were in it together. It was just so clear that we did not want to live the same life. Somebody had to stay behind and get organised and keep watch, but everybody wanted to go and feel that energy which helped us to overcome the fear that the tanks might roll in and we might be shot.
There was a scare one day that the tanks were rolling in to Wenceslas
Square, to the centre of Prague, to pick up the heads of the organisations of different universities and only later on did I hear that it was only by two votes that the Politburo ended up not sending in the army. It was quite a close call and the difference between 1968 and 1989. We had, I think, around 100,000 Soviet troops stationed mere minutes from universities throughout the country, so if the Czech army had been allowed to come in . . . I think we had
more luck than brains. Young people refuse to see their mortality and they feel invincible.
I felt like a rock star. We were clearly the white knights and I think I never felt that way before or after the revolution. And on top of it all we were winning. It was a truly marvellous time and I feel truly grateful to have been able to play a part by pure coincidence.
When I was asked to become a member of parliament representing the students, I couldn’t sleep for three days — the whole world was on my
shoulders. I spoke to Otakar Motejl [Czechoslovak (1990—2) and Czech (1993—8) Supreme Court chairman, Czech minister of justice (1998—2000) and Czech ombudsman (2000—present)], a very courageous lawyer who defended most dissidents in politically motivated trials, to ask for his advice. He told me, ‘Jan, we need somebody like you in there.’
And I said, ‘But I don’t know nothing about anything!’
And he said, ‘No, you have clearly demonstrated that you have an opinion, that you have common sense and you have no baggage. We need somebody like you as a representative of the students. Go in there and just be yourself. There are people who can advise you on special or expert matters, but you have the credibility and we need somebody like you there.
Just keep your head straight and do as your conscience tells you.’
So I did that and it was really great because we were mainly destroying the old regime and making sure that a new structure would be allowed. We were replacing the old communist parliament and we were basically appointed or co-opted so to speak [in a special election]. There was a political agreement that one-third would remain for the communists and two-thirds would be replaced by other political forces. I was asked to be there on behalf of the students, kind of on the spot, for the Civic Forum, which was the broad anti-communist alliance. The first thing we did was remove the article about one-party rule from the constitution.
It was fantastic. I was sworn in on 28 December and my first day on the job I was to vote in Va´clav Havel. It still gives me goose bumps. At that moment I kind of felt that we had won. We were [at a special session of the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia] in the Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle where the coronations of the kings of Bohemia used to take place and we had only one point on the agenda — to vote Va´clav Havel in as the new president and go celebrate it.
It was a unanimous vote — even the communists voted for him. Then there was just fantastic joy and it was like the festival in Rio de Janeiro — only much colder.
I was recording an address on national public radio and I was very new to it and I was very tired, I just couldn’t get it right. It was taking forever and I just wanted to go back to the dorm and sleep. The studio of Czech national radio is close to Wenceslas Square and it was maybe eight in the evening and I was really tired and I just wanted to go to the subway and as I was going down [into the station], [I met] my colleagues from medical school — in green surgical gowns so they wouldn’t lose each other in the crowds. They had a guitar and bass and some alcohol with them and they just kind of picked me up, took me on their shoulders and were running around and screaming
‘Viva Jan!’ And people started to recognise me and somebody held rum to my mouth and I was forced to swallow. They gave me a guitar and told me to play.
We ran into an old lady on the square and she had a wheelbarrow with a barrel of slivovice, plum brandy. She was from somewhere in the countryside and had come to Prague on the train for New Year’s Eve, looking for students to whom she wanted to give [the slivovice], which her husband, who had died in the meantime, had buried in 1968 after the Soviets invaded. He had told her that he would open it only when freedom returned. So there were moments which were just like a fairy tale — and it was just wonderful. r
Jan Bubeník was talking to Jo Glanville
Following his election as the youngest MP in the Czech Republic’s first federal parliament, Jan Bubeník left politics in the summer of 1990. He has since worked as a management consultant and headhunter, and remains active in humanitarian and human rights work.
This article first appeared in Index on Censorship magazine, Volume 38 Number 3. Click here to subscribe.