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  • The Restoration of Freedom
  • Milan Šimečka (bio)

During those weary times of immobility that followed the consolidation of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, I often reflected upon how easy it is to lose one's freedom. It can happen without a person of my age (I was around 20 at that time) even noticing it. The wings of your freedom are progressively clipped until you suddenly realize that you can no longer take off. I used to tell myself that it is easy to lose one's freedom, but extremely difficult to regain it.

Yet now I find with surprise—the greatest surprise of my life—that freedom can be regained within the space of only a few days. That is what happened in Czechoslovakia. In spite of predictions by Czechoslovakia's political scientists, in spite of various Western theories according to which reforms would be gradual (the country would undergo a "Finlandization" or an "Ottomanization," as Timothy Garton Ash argued not so long ago), freedom returned to Czechoslovakia in just a few days.

Of course, I am not referring to a freedom protected by constitutional guarantees. Freedom in Czechoslovakia burst out after a fairly routine police action against a student demonstration in Prague; after several days of demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands of people; after a rebellion by artists, scientists, and journalists. People suddenly shed the burden of fear from their shoulders and began to "speak their [End Page 3] minds." This was, by the way, an old idea of Václav Havel's, It used to seem esoteric and politically impractical. Yet the arrival of freedom manifested itself most conspicuously in the readiness, ability, and relish with which people spoke their minds.

Naturally, it took a little (but not much) longer for the seemingly unshakable rulers to give up their positions. A combination of political negotiations and cleverly applied pressure by the masses eased them peacefully out of power. The old regime eventually gave up its formal legitimacy by agreeing to scrap the constitutional clause stipulating the leading role of the Communist Party. Next, it gave up the lie that had been propping it up for 20 years: the lie that the 1968 Soviet invasion was a legitimate act.

It is true that the old mechanisms of power still continued to function. The legislative bodies continued to be made up of the same people who prior to the revolution had obediently voted for repressive measures and approved mindless proposals for half-hearted economic reform. The secret police continued to exist. Most of the media were still in the hands of the Communist Party. Yet despite all of this, the short march of the people toward freedom was so forceful that it soon became clear to all that this was the definitive return of freedom and that nothing could prevent it from eventually being confirmed institutionally.

At the end of 1989, only six weeks after the start of the rebellion, the Czechoslovak Parliament (composed of an overwhelming majority of Communists and Communist fellow-travellers) unanimously elected Václav Havel president of the Republic. A "Government of National Understanding" was then created for the purpose of initiating thorough democratic change. The new government was strong enough to prevent anyone from trying to subvert our newly won freedom. The speed with which all these changes took place surprised not only myself, but the entire world.

The Czechoslovak revolution was not only the fastest of all the East European revolutions, but also the most orderly. Blood was shed only on 17 November 1989, when the police attacked the student demonstration; after that, there was no more violence. Even the actual transfer of power was smooth enough. The representatives of the old regime simply gave up. The general strike of November 27, which lasted for only two hours, was a clever device to show the last of the power wielders that it was time to go. The strike, which assumed the guise of a popular nationwide gathering, decided who was going to win.

As a result, the Czechoslovak revolution has been assigned a number of attributes: velvet, tender, peaceable. That which everyone had long desired suddenly came to pass; the evil spell...