Velvet Revolutions: An Oral History of Czech Society by Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Mücke (review)
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Velvet Revolutions: An Oral History of Czech Society. By Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Mücke. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 264 pages. Hardcover, $34.95.

Velvet Revolutions is the first book of oral history interpretation in English by the groundbreaking research team of Miroslav Vaněk and Pavel Mücke at the Oral History Center of the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague. It draws on more than 300 interviews culled from several previous large-scale oral history projects that focused on students, workers, intellectuals, soldiers, dissidents, Communist elites, and ordinary people to paint a portrait in broad strokes and pointillist detail of shifts in public opinion and private meaning across the fifty-year transformation of contemporary Czech society. Using both mass surveys and narrative detail from a host of life history interviews, the book documents and analyzes the ways that the large-scale reorientation of Czech politics, economics, and culture from the postwar Communist period to the present shaped social attitudes and personal values—and sometimes, interestingly, the ways it did not.

Vaněk should rightfully be called the father of oral history in Central and Eastern Europe. He fought for its recognition and legitimation against the conservative "Hapsburgian" historical establishment in the 1990s; established the Center for Oral History and the Czech Oral History Association; personally trained an entire generation of oral historians; oversaw the establishment of an oral history master's program at Charles University; and has been a global ambassador for Czech oral history, presenting at and organizing conferences around the world, serving on executive committees and as president of the IOHA. Mücke has been his right-hand man throughout these endeavors and a respected researcher and oral history entrepreneur in his own right. Despite their typically Czech self-deprecation, this team has transformed historical research in the region. [End Page 410]

Oral history is an appropriate and necessary methodology in new and emerging democracies that is used as a corrective to ideologically overdetermined historical metanarratives. Before the 1989 revolution, official history in Czechoslovakia had to conform to Marxist-Leninist dictates, which the archives were also tailored to reflect. But even after the iron laws of history were lifted, political parties continued to influence media, think tanks, and research institutes (such as the various Institutes of National Memory) to create teleological historical narratives that not only favored their own position and interpretation but also buried important aspects of national and personal experience. Against the broad sweep of world events and social transformation, these oral histories, by representing without judgment the voices and memories of a range of ordinary people, restore some balance, nuance, and polyphony to the historical record.

Considering the scope of social and political change in the period under consideration, and the inherent messiness of history, especially oral history, Velvet Revolutions is a remarkably tidy book, clearly structured and written, with a concise introduction outlining the stakes and the state of contemporary Czech historiography and a modest apologia for the role of oral history in it. Seven thematic chapters follow on the historical meaning of freedom, family, foreignness, education, work, leisure, and social stratification. Each chapter follows a similar format, with an epigraph from the interviews followed by a brief exegesis of the theme. Polling data from the mass surveys establish a baseline of general public opinion that the narrators' voices incrementally ground, nuance, and complicate. Striking black-and-white photographs by Jindřh Streit keep the focus on an intimate depth of field.

Despite the duly noted shortcomings of the survey data—especially in the case of the Communist-era polling—and the wealth of qualitative research at their disposal (the scope of the dataset from the previous projects could practically generate its own statistics), Vaněk and Mücke have chosen to maintain this balance throughout. At first it seems like an unnecessary act of humility, a concession to the quantitative bias of social science, but the interplay between quantitative and qualitative methods, between the protocols of social science and humanities, between metanarratives and petits recits, between the goosestep of history and the "rhythm of everyday lives," ultimately reveals layers of meaning and introduces...