Velvet Revolution

Velvet Revolution
Non-violent protesters face armed policemen

The Velvet Revolution (Czech: sametová revoluce) or Gentle Revolution (Slovak: nežná revolúcia) was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that took place from November 17 – December 29, 1989. Dominated by student and other popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, it saw to the collapse of the party's control of the country, and the subsequent conversion from socialism to capitalism.[1]

On November 17, 1989, a Friday, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.

With the collapse of other Warsaw Pact governments and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

The term Velvet Revolution was coined by Rita Klímová, the dissidents' English translator[2] who later became the new non-Communist regime's ambassador to the United States.[3] The term was used internationally to describe the revolution, although the Czech side also used the term internally. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia used the term Gentle Revolution, the term that Slovaks used for the revolution from the beginning. The Czech Republic continues to refer to the event as the Velvet Revolution.


Political situation prior to the revolution

History of Czechoslovakia
Coat of Arms of Czechoslovakia
This article is part of a series

First Republic

Second Republic and World War II

Third Republic

Communist Era

Velvet Revolution and Democracy



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The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia began its rule on February 25, 1948. No official opposition parties operated within the government during the party's rule. Dissidents (notably Charter 77) published home-made periodicals (samizdat), but they faced persecution by the secret police. Thus, the general public was afraid to openly support the dissidents for fear of dismissal from work or school. A writer or film maker could have his/her books or films banned for a "negative attitude towards the socialist regime." This blacklisting also included categories such as being a child of a former entrepreneur or non-Communist politician, having family members living in the West, having supported Alexander Dubček during the Prague Spring, opposing Soviet military occupation, promoting religion, boycotting rigged parliamentary elections or signing the Charter 77 or associating with those who did. These rules were easy to enforce, as all schools, media and businesses belonged to the state. They were under direct supervision and often were used as accusatory weapons against political and social rivals.

The nature of blacklisting changed gradually after the introduction of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in 1985. The Czechoslovak Communist leadership verbally supported Perestroika, but did little to institute real changes. Speaking about the Prague Spring of 1968 was still taboo. The first anti-government demonstrations occurred in 1988 (the Candle Demonstration, for example) and 1989, but these were dispersed and participants were repressed by the police.

By the late 1980s, discontent with living standards and economic inadequacy gave way to popular support for economic reform. Czech and Slovak citizens began to challenge the governmental system more openly. By 1989, citizens who had been complacent in their official or professional capacities were now willing to openly express their discontent with the regime. Numerous important figures as well as common workers signed petitions in support of Vaclav Havel during his 1989 imprisonment. Reform-minded attitudes were also reflected by the many individuals who signed a petition that circulated in the summer of 1989 calling for the end of censorship and the beginning of drastic political reform.[4]

The actual impetus for the revolution came not only from the developments in neighbouring countries but also in the Czechoslovakian capital. Since August East German citizens had occupied the West German Embassy in Prague and demanded exile to West Germany. In the days following November 3, thousands of East Germans left Prague by a train to West Germany. On November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, removing the need for the detour.

By November 16, many of Czechoslovakia's neighbours were beginning to shed authoritarian rule. The citizens of Czechoslovakia watched these events daily on TV through both foreign and domestic signals. The Soviet Union also supported a change in the ruling elite of Czechoslovakia, although it did not anticipate the overthrow of the Communist regime.

Chronology of the first week

Thursday, November 16, 1989

On the eve of International Students Day (the 50th anniversary of death of Jan Opletal, a Czech student murdered by the German occupiers during World War II), Slovak high school and university students organized a peaceful demonstration in the center of Bratislava. The Communist Party of Slovakia had expected trouble and the mere fact that there was a demonstration was a problem in Communist countries. Armed forces were put on alert before the demonstration. In the end, however, the students moved through the city peacefully and finally sent a delegation to the Slovak Ministry of Education to discuss their demands.

Friday, November 17, 1989

Memorial of the student demonstrations of November 17th in Prague

New movements led by Václav Havel came into being that stood for a united society with a demand that the state politically restructure.[5] The Socialist Union of Youth (SSM/SZM, proxy of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) organized a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students Day, and the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of students by the Nazi government.[5]

Most members of SSM had privately been in opposition to the Communist leadership, but had been afraid of speaking up for fear of persecution. This demonstration gave average students an opportunity to join others and express their opinions without fear. By 16:00, about 15,000 people had joined the demonstration. They walked to grave of Karel Hynek Mácha at Vyšehrad Cemetery and - after the official end of the march - continued into downtown Prague (map), carrying banners and chanting anti-Communist slogans. At about 19:30, the demonstrators were stopped by a cordon of riot police at Národní Street. They had blocked all escape routes and beat the students. Once all the protesters were dispersed, one of the participants - secret police agent Ludvík Zifčák - kept lying on the street, posing as dead, and was later taken away. It is not clear why he did it, but the rumor of the "dead student" was perhaps critical for the shape of further events. That same evening, students and theatre actors agreed to go on strike.

Saturday, November 18

Two students visited Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec at his private residence and described to him what (really) happened at Národní Street. The declaration of the strike at the Realistic Theatre in Prague occurred, and other theatres quickly followed. The theatres opened their stages only for public discussions.[5] At the initiative of students from the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the students in Prague began a strike. Gradually, this strike was joined by university students throughout Czechoslovakia. The students were supported by the theatre employees and actors in Prague, all of whom had also gone on strike. Instead of playing, actors read a proclamation by the students and artists to the audience, that called for a general strike on November 27.[5] Home-made posters and proclamations were posted in public places. As all media (radio, TV, newspapers) were strictly controlled by the Communist Party (see Mass media in Communist Czechoslovakia), this was the only way to spread the message. In the evening, Radio Free Europe reported that a student (named as Martin Šmíd) was killed by the police during the previous day's demonstration. Although the report was false, it heightened the feeling of crisis, and [5] persuaded some hesitant citizens to overcome their fear and join the protests.

Sunday, November 19

Theatres in Bratislava, Brno, Ostrava and other towns also went on strike, following the example of their colleagues from Prague. Members of artistic and literary associations as well as organizations and institutions joined the strikes. Members of a civic initiative met with the Prime Minister, who told them that he had been prohibited twice from resigning his post, and that if they wanted to achieve changes, there would have to be mass demonstrations like those in East Germany (some 250,000 students). He also asked them to keep the number of "casualties" during the expected changes to a minimum. About 500 Slovak artists, scientists and leaders met at the Art Forum (Umelecká beseda) in Bratislava at 17:00. They denounced the attack against the students in Prague on November 17 and formed the Public Against Violence, which would become the leading force behind the opposition movement in Slovakia. Its founding members included Milan Kňažko, Ján Budaj and others.

Actors and members of the audience in a Prague theatre, together with Václav Havel and other prominent members of Charter 77 and other dissident organizations, established the Civic Forum (Občanské fórum – an equivalent of the Slovak Public Against Violence for the territory of the Czech Republic) as a mass popular movement for reforms, at 22:00. They called for the dismissal of top officials responsible for the violence, and an independent investigation of the incident and the release of all political prisoners. College students announced a strike. On television, government officials called for peace and a return to the city's normal business. The television aired an interview with Martin Šmíd to persuade the public that nobody had been killed; the quality of the recording was low and rumors continued. It would take several more days to confirm that nobody had been killed and, by then, the revolution had gained further momentum.

The leaders of the Democratic Initiative presented several demands: 1) the resignation of the government, effective November 25; 2) the formation of a temporary government composed of noncompromised members of the current government.[6]

Monday, November 20

St. Wenceslas Monument

Students and theatres went on permanent strike. Police stopped a demonstration from continuing toward Prague Castle, which would have infiltrated the striking theatres.[5] Civic Forum representatives negotiated unofficially with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec without Václav Havel. Adamec was sympathetic to the students' demands. However, he was outvoted in a special cabinet meeting the same day and the government, in an official statement, refused to make any concessions. Civic Forum added another demand: the abolition of the "ruling position" of the Communist Party from the Constitution. Non-Communist newspapers started publishing information which contradicted the Communist interpretation. The first mass demonstration in Prague (100,000 people) and the first demonstrations in Bratislava occurred.

Tuesday, November 21

People on the Wenceslas Square in Prague
A statue of Saint Adalbert of Prague with a streamer and banners

The first official meeting of the Civic Forum with the Prime Minister took place. The Prime Minister said he would personally guarantee that no violence would be used against the people; however he would "protect socialism, about which no discussion is possible".[5] An organized mass demonstration took place in Wenceslas Square in central Prague (demonstrations were held there throughout the following days). Actors and students travelled to factories inside and outside Prague to gain support for their colleagues in other cities.

A mass demonstration took place in Hviezdoslav Square in downtown Bratislava (in the following days, it moved to the Square of the Slovak National Uprising). The students presented various demands and asked the people to participate in the general strike planned for Monday, November 27. A separate demonstration demanding the release of the political prisoner Ján Čarnogurský (the later Prime Minister of Slovakia) took place in front of the Palace of Justice. Alexander Dubček delivered an address at this demonstration – his first appearance during the Velvet Revolution. As a result, Čarnogurský was released on November 23. Further demonstrations followed in all major cities of Czechoslovakia.

Cardinal František Tomášek, the Catholic primate of the Bohemian lands, declared his support for the students, and issued a declaration in which he criticized the current government's policies and their effect on all of Czechoslovakia. For the first time during the Velvet Revolution, the "radical" demand to abolish the article of the Constitution establishing the "leading role" of the Communist Party was expressed by Ľubomír Feldek at a meeting of Public Against Violence.

In the evening, Miloš Jakeš, the chairman of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, held a special address on Federal Television. He said that order had to be preserved, that socialism was the only alternative for Czechoslovakia and criticized groups that stood behind the development in Czechoslovakia. Government officials, especially the Head of the Communist Party Miloš Jakeš, kept their hard-line position and seemed increasingly out of touch. During the night, they had summoned 4,000 members of the "People's Militias" (Lidové milice, a paramilitary organization subordinated directly to the Communist Party) to Prague to crush the protests, but they were called off at the last moment.

Wednesday, November 22

Civic Forum announced a two-hour general strike for Monday November 27. The first live reports from the demonstration in Wenceslas Square appeared on Federal Television (they were quickly cut off, after one of the participants denounced the present government in favor of Alexander Dubček). Striking students forced the representatives of the Slovak government and of the Communist Party of Slovakia to participate in a dialogue, in which the official representatives were immediately put on the defensive. Employees of the Slovak section of the Federal Television required the leaders of the Federal Television to provide true information on the events in the country; otherwise they would initiate a strike of TV employees. Uncensored live reports from demonstrations in Bratislava followed.

Thursday, November 23

Evening news showed factory workers heckling Miroslav Štěpán, the Prague Communist Secretary, who was popularly viewed as the most loathed politician in the country. The military informed the Communist leadership of its readiness to act (ultimately, it was never used against demonstrators). The military and the Ministry of Defense were preparing for actions against the opposition. Immediately after the meeting, however, the Minister of Defense delivered a TV address, in which he said the army would never undertake action against the Czechoslovak people and called for an end of the demonstrations.

Friday, November 24

The entire Presidum, including General Secretary Miloš Jakeš, resigned. Karel Urbánek, a considerably more moderate Communist, was named the new General Secretary. Federal Television showed pictures from November 17 for the first time and the first television address of Václav Havel, dealing mostly with the planned general strike. Czechoslovak TV and Radio announced that they would join the general strike. A discussion with representatives of the opposition was broadcast by the Slovak section of the Federal Television. It was the first free discussion on Czechoslovak television since its beginnings. As a result, the editorial staff of Slovak newspapers started to join the opposition.

Saturday, November 25

November 25, people flow from the Prague cathedral (where ended a mass in honour of canonization of Agnes of Bohemia) and from the metro station Hradčanská to Letná Plain.

The new Communist leadership held a press conference. It immediately lost credibility by keeping Miroslav Štěpán, leaving Ladislav Adamec out and not addressing any of the demands. Later that day, Štěpán resigned from his position as the Prague Secretary. The number of participants in the regular anti-government demonstration in Prague-Letná reached an estimated 800,000 people. Demonstrations in Bratislava reached their highest number of participants at around 100,000.

Sunday, November 26

Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met with Václav Havel for the first time. The editorial staff of Slovakia's Pravda, the central newspaper of the Communist Party of Slovakia, joined the opposition.

Monday, November 27

"To the general secretary – a general strike!!!" An appeal with portrait of Miloš Jakeš who abdicated on November 24

A successful two-hour general strike led by the civic movements strengthened what were at first a moderate set of demands into cries for a new government.[6] It took place throughout the country between 12:00 and 14:00, supported by a reported 75% of population. The Ministry of Culture released anti-Communist literature for public checkouts in libraries, which effectively ended censorship. Civic Forum demonstrated its capacity to disrupt the political order and thereby establish itself as the legitimate voice of the nation in negotiations with the state.[5] The civic movements were successful in mobilizing support for the general strike because their anti-political claims offered another option to the political experiences of Czechs and Slovaks under Communist rule, while their claim to represent citizens against an illegitimate state could incorporate challengers.[6]

Wednesday, November 29

Federal Assembly abolished the constitutional article about leading role of the Communist Party.

Sunday, December 10

President Gustáv Husák swore in the first government in 41 years that was not dominated by the Communist Party. He resigned shortly afterward.

Shortly After

The victory of the revolution was topped off by the election of rebel playwright and human rights activist, Vaclav Havel, as President of the republic (December 29th). Free elections held in June 1990 legitimized this government and set the stage for the changes needed to deal with the remnants of the Communist party’s power and the legacy of the Communist period on popular values and expectations. The new government also had to deal with the accumulated social, environmental and other problems that were the result of Communist rule for forty years. Changes were needed to strengthen democratic government, restructure the economy and rebuild the country’s external economic and political relations. The main threat to political stability and the success of Czechoslovakia’s shift to democracy was likely to come from ethnic conflicts between the Czechs and the Slovaks, which resurfaced in the post-Communist period.[7] However, there was a general consensus to move toward a market economy, so in early 1990, the President and his top economic advisors decided to move ahead quickly to liberalize prices, push demonopolization, and privatize the economy. The outcome of the transition to democracy and a market economy would depend on the extent to which developments outside the country facilitated or hindered the process of change.[8]

Open questions

Not all the events of the Velvet Revolution have been explained completely. For over a decade conspiracy theorists tried to portray it as the result of a plot by the StB, KGB, reformists among party members, or Mikhail Gorbachev. According to these theories, the Communist Party only transformed its power into other, less visible forms and still controls society. Belief in such theories has decreased, but well-known individuals such as KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn and Czech dissident (and former friend of Václav Havel) Petr Cibulka still contend that the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was staged by the Communist StB secret police.

The most contentious points were:

  • It is not clear to what extent events were spontaneous or orchestrated by the secret police. For example, the incident with the "dead student" was staged by secret police provocateur Ludvík Zifčák and assisted by other secret agents (those who took him to the hospital and initially disseminated the rumor). Zifčák is currently a chairman of the "Communist Party of Czechoslovakia", a non-parliamentary group aiming to restore a Communist regime, with popular support below 1%, and rejects all inquiries relating to his role in the revolution.
  • The Army and People's Militia were ready to attack the demonstrators, but did not receive orders to do so.
  • Secret police carried out surveillance on all the leaders of the revolution and had the ability to arrest them. However, they did not do so and let the revolution progress.
  • A Soviet military advisor was present in the control center of the police force, which beat the demonstrators on November 17. Supposedly, he did not intervene, but his role is unclear.

It is assumed that there was a split between different factions of the Communist leadership (namely, reform Communists anxious to replace those afraid of any change) and some of them tried to use the popular unrest to promote their agendas – ultimately ending Communist rule. Another likely factor is that with communism crumbling everywhere abroad, the Czech communists didn't see their position as tenable, as the days when a significant part of the populace actually sympathised with them were long gone. Most importantly, it was always the military power of the Soviet Union that was holding the Eastern Bloc communist governments in power (as evidenced by the suppressed attempts at revolution in many communist states in the 50s and 60s), and by 1989 it was clear that that power is gone in all but name (the Soviet Union wasn't formally dissolved until 1991).

Summary of the Revolution

The events of November 1989 confirmed that outside factors were significant catalysts for the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Therefore, the transformations in Poland and Hungary and the collapse of the regime in East Germany, both of which could be traced to the new attitude of the Soviets toward East Europe, encouraged Czechs and Slovaks to take to the streets to win their freedom. However, national factors, including the economic and political crisis and the actions of groups and individuals working towards a transformation, destabilized support for the system.[8] The state’s reaction to the strikes triggered by the suppression of student protests demonstrated that while global isolation produced pressures for political, social, and economic change, the events that followed could not be determined. Hardly anyone thought that the fearsome state could collapse so quickly. Striking students and theaters did not seem to intimidate a state that was able to repress any sort of demonstration. The state seemed to overpower any possible opponent with its control over the army and police and national network of party structures. This concluded the "popular" phase of the revolution, with many public demonstrations. The following victories, were made possible by the Civic Forum’s successful mobilization for the general strike on November 27, 1989, which established its authority to speak for the nation in negotiations with the state.[5] The mass demonstrations that followed on November 17 led to the resignation of the conservative Communist party leadership of Milos Jakes, the removal of the party from its leading role and the creation of the country’s first non-Communist government in 41 years. Since the fall of Communism took only a few weeks in Czechoslovakia, supporters of the revolution had to take instant responsibility for running the government, in addition to establishing essential reforms in political organization and values, economic structure and policies, and foreign policy.[9]


One symbolic element of the demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution was the jingling of keys. The practice had a double meaning--it not only symbolized the unlocking of doors,[10][11] but was the demonstrators' way of telling the Communists, "Goodbye, it's time to go home."[2]

A commemorative 2 Euro coin was issued by Slovakia on 17 November 2009, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The coin depicts a bell with a key adjoining the clapper, reflecting the symbolic role of keys in the revolution.[12] Ursula LeGuin wrote a short story, "Unlocking the Air," in which the jingling of keys played a central role in the liberation of a fictional country, Orsinia.

See also


  1. ^ RP's History Online - Velvet Revolution
  2. ^ a b Sebetsyen, Victor (2009). Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. New York City: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0375425322. 
  3. ^ Nelson, Lars-Erik. New Czechoslovakian Leaders Are As Stunned As Their People. New York Daily News, 1990-02-21.
  4. ^ Wolchik, Sharon L. “Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution.’” 1990. Current History. 89:413-416,435-437. Retrieved March 11, 2009
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Glenn, John K. “Competing Challengers and Contested Outcomes to State Breakdown: The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia”. September 1999. Social Forces. 78:187-211. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  6. ^ a b c Shepherd, Robin H.E. (2000). Czechoslovakia" The Velvet Revolution and Beyond. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, Inc.
  7. ^ Holy, Ladislav (1996). The Little Czech and The Great Czech Nation: National identity and the post-communist transformation of society. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambride University Press.
  8. ^ a b Wolchik, Sharon L. “Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution.’” 1990. Current History. 89:413-416,435-437. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  9. ^ Wolchik, Sharon L. “Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution.’” 1990. Current History. 89:413-416,435-437. Retrieved March 11, 2009 (h)
  10. ^ Havel at Columbia: The Velvet Revolution
  11. ^ "Today, at exactly noon in Prague, people flooded into the streets around Wenceslas Square, the central shopping thoroughfare, rattling key chains and tinkling tiny bells. The jingling of keys, acts symbolizing the opening of hitherto locked doors, has become a common gesture in the wave of demonstrations.... On Jungmanova Square, Mr. Havel himself stood beaming broadly on the balcony of a building.... He lustily jingled a bunch of keys." John Tagliabue, "Upheaval in the East; From All Czechoslovakia, a Joyful Noise," The New York Times, Dec. 12, 1989.
  12. ^ Slovakia 2009 2 Euro Comm.- New image

Further reading

  • Kukral, Michael Andrew. Prague 1989: Theater of Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press. 1997. ISBN 0-88033-369-3.
  • Tauchen, Jaromír - Schelle, Karel etc.: The Process of Democratization of Law in the Czech Republic (1989–2009). Rincon (USA), The American Institute for Central European Legal Studies 2009. 204 pp. ISBN 978-0-615-31580-5.
  • Williams, Kieran, 'Civil Resistance in Czechoslovakia: From Soviet Invasion to "Velvet Revolution", 1968-89,' in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6.

External links

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