1999 as a Turning Point: Lionizing the 1989 Student Leaders
13. 7. 2021 / Muriel Blaive
Many thanks to Veronika Pehe, Marián Lóži, and Jill Massino for their critical remarks on this text.
In September 1990, I enrolled as a student in the Faculty of Czech at the University of Oriental Languages in Paris. I already had a passion for everything Czech, and I eagerly followed the activities of the cultural institute. We had a new Czechoslovak ambassador, Jaroslav Šedivý, and a new cultural attaché, Monika Pajerová. Šedivý was a jovial fellow, and at every event I attended until 1992 (when I left Paris for Prague), he reminded that he had inspired Kundera in his character of Tomáš in The Unbearable Lightness of Being – “minus the philandering, as I keep repeating to my skeptical wife”, he would quip to the audience’s unfailing mirth.
Another joke he was fond of repeating was that his young cultural attaché, Monika Pajerová, had been one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution. But Monika Pajerová was very shy, and she would blush bright red to the root of her very blond hair. She would feel compelled to protest: “No, no, not at all, I was no leader, I just happened to be there and to speak some languages, and they needed people to communicate in English and French to the outside world!”
Fast forward twenty years, and the improvized-press-attaché of 1989 discovered her inner heroic identity after all. “Monika Pajerová was among the top personalities of the student generation who managed to lay the ground of the independent student movement during the mid-1980s … During these unsettled days when the communist regime was collapsing, Monika Pajerová organized the strike committee at the Faculty of Arts, and also functioned as a spokeswoman of the University Strike Committee and later also participated in the newly established Civic Forum activity.”
Indeed, by 2009, Monika Pajerová had not only become a full-fledged leader of the Velvet Revolution but, it was now revealed, she had actually planned it for years together with Pavel Žáček. Large information panels on Wenceslas Square put together by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which Žáček had founded the previous year and of which he was director, described how Pajerová and he had met and planned all the details of the revolution: “This really conspiring group’s task was to establish a very powerful network throughout universities. After STIS united with Stuha led by Šimon Pánek, an unbelievably sophisticated organization of future strike committees was created throughout the faculties. Its ability to act quickly and its professionalism surprised us. It is probably an irony of fate that the November 17th demonstration was only one of the many planned activities which we prepared together. But the other ones were swept away by the avalanche of changes that came after the police raid on National Avenue.”
Since the Czech public is fond of the notion of “historical truth”, what is the historical truth in this case? That Monika Pajerová was a modest cog in the wheels who happened to be at the right place at the right time, and was otherwise a loyal citizen of the communist state, who had the privilege not only to study in Czechoslovakia but to repeatedly travel, and even study, in the West, or that she was a genuine student leader during a movement that was preparing to bring down the communist regime? Had Šedivý’s remark, that was made partially or wholly in jest at the time, become the new truth? Is my own memory reliable, or has it been influenced by the thirty-two years that have passed in between? Did I even hear or understand correctly what was said back then?
The answer is: both versions of the story are equally true insofar as the notion of historical truth is a feeble concept that changes with time and is inscribed in a constantly evolving context. The example of Monika Pajerová, that I take here because I happened to hear her in 1990 but the same point could doubtless be made also of the other student leaders, shows that their personal trajectories and the rewriting of their biographies has evolved alongside the tenets of ideal conduct defined and redefined along the years by the official memory politics of the Czech state, as well as by the societal evolution of the relationship to the communist past.
The narrative substantially evolved between three versions over twenty-four years: what I remember hearing in 1990, the interviews Monika Pajerová gave to Mirek Vaněk in 1997-1998 for his volume One Hundred Student Revolutions, and Monika Pajerová’s memoirs published in 2014, purportedly reproducing her contemporary diaries but evidently heavily redacted. As Přemysl Houda has usefully pointed out in an analysis inspired by cultural anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, the great pains Pajerová (and others) takes into painting herself as having been “against” the system before 1989 is a reconstruction that dates to the post-socialist period. Indeed, the “within/against the system” dichotomy is a dissident discourse that was mainstreamed only after 1989, resulting in the representation of the socialist public sphere as illegitimate and anyone being active in any way in the late socialist period as being “against the system”, whereas there was no such binary at the time. In 1990, the students were modest and dedicated to the collective success of the newly established democracy; by 2009, the state narrative was promoting a call for heroes, perhaps to divert the attention away from the failures of the decommunization policy, and those of the 1989 social actors who had a career or a reputation at stake made use of this new call.
How have we reached this state of development? I contend that a major stage was the year 1999 and the first commemoration of the Velvet Revolution.
Who benefited from the 1989 rupture?
The narrative promoted by the students and more generally by the new political elites after 1989 was one of rupture, that refused to acknowledge any continuities with the pre-1989 regime. Yet the wider public had no qualms acknowledging and underlining these continuities. In a report prepared for the Czech public radio ČRo 1 in 1999, here is what the providential “ordinary people” had to answer to the question of knowing if we had succeeded in dealing with the communist past in the previous ten years1: “I think we weren't doing bad under the communists and we didn’t have what we have now, this horrible Sherwood park at the Prague Central Station where we are standing now”; “We have not come to terms with the communist past, I fundamentally think we haven’t. The economy of the country today is controlled by the communists, absolutely nothing happened to anyone, yet it would have been easy to document the crimes”; “I don't see that we are any better off than we were before, not me personally, anyway. As for myself, I've had three heart attacks and the communists gave me a pension and the new guys in power now took it away. And so, I actually have to go to work even though I had three heart attacks”; “The people who were in the Communist Party and who were in power just turned their coats.”
Even more enlightening is the reaction of surprise and shock by the guests of the same talk show, first of all former dissident and now politician Rudolf Battěk: “These are bitter words, and one is at a loss how to respond … part of the historical tragedy is in the way it all happened ten years ago.” Indeed, Battěk lamented that his generation had not been morally prepared for the change, and had to take on board many of the former communists in 1989, some of whom were decent, but some of whom were crooks. As to the other guest, former student leader Monika Pajerová, she mentioned that the communist regime had all the power, while the revolutionaries had only public opinion on their side, so their aim was mainly to avoid spilling blood.
This is a legitimate argument to justify the course taken by Havel and his allies in November-December 1989. As I have shown in another article, the dissidents suffered from a lack of legitimacy in the revolutionary days. They were the only alternative to the communist power, but they represented only a minor segment of society at first. Their only “argument” was to be anticommunist, and this is how the anticommunist constitutional identity of the new state was born.
Insofar as the new state was anticommunist, the policy of lustration seemed to make sense. However, it proved to be misplaced, and needlessly excluded from public service many a competent, be they formerly communist, administrator. Instead, it pushed the former apparatchiks, who had the social, economic, and networking capital, towards the economic sphere, and it left it entirely at their mercy. As both Battěk and Pajerová readily admitted it, neither the dissidents, nor the students, any part of the loose opposition, or the West for that matter, were prepared and ready for such a radical change as the fall of communism, nor could they have been. When Václav Klaus appeared in 1989, despite the personal misgivings of upcoming President Havel the former dissidents could only be grateful for his presence, as they had no idea how to navigate the economy. They also did not have much of an idea in the following years about what Klaus was really up to as Finance Minister – which might appear, in hindsight, as little else but preparing to sell the country away to emerging barons of the industry, or in any case slowly but systemically destroying the core value of Czech identity, i.e., egalitarianism. Perhaps the most visible symbol of the continuity in behavior, if not in policy, of the post-1989 leaders was the gigantic 1998 electoral billboard of Václav Klaus that had taken the place of the previous statue of Stalin, itself the biggest Stalin statue in the world. The megalomaniac impression that resulted from it was quite at odds with the message conveyed by the billboard, “We think differently.”
The 1999 debates make clear that the student leaders and former dissidents were fully aware of their own shortcomings in 1989, while the public was begging them to rectify their original mistakes. The petition Thank You and Goodbye!, organized by seven former student leaders of 1989, Monika Pajerová, Igor Chaun, Vratislav Řehák, Josef Brož, Vlastimil Ježek, Šimon Pánek, and Martin Mejstřík was a manifesto that demanded the resignation of political leaders Václav Klaus (then head of the lower chamber of Parliament) and Miloš Zeman (then head of the government), the end of the so-called “opposition agreement”, and the restoration of “civic decency.” Indeed, the “opposition agreement” passed between ODS and ČSSD in 1998 had essentially silenced the opposition and stifled the democratic debate. The petition garnered 200,000 signatures in just a few months and was, according to opinion polls, supported by 56% of the population.2 The public was evidently expecting, and hoping, that the former dissidents and/or student leaders would create a new political party and lead the country back on the path of honesty and decency. But none of the political leaders who had been in power since 1989 agreed that they should step down, be it Miloš Zeman, Václav Klaus, Petr Pithart, Daniel Kroupa, Jan Ruml, Marek Benda, or even Václav Havel.
As in 1989, the former students toyed with the idea to run for political mandate. However, as in 1989, they eventually gave up on it in the context of internal feuds. Ježek decided not to involve himself, as his “embedded distrust in political parties” was “too strong.” Independent senator Václav Fischer, held by pundits as a potential head of a future party, refused to meet with the students. Šimon Pánek decided to keep dedicating himself to humanitarian work. Igor Chaun “supposed” that a new political subject would be born and decided to remain a filmmaker. Martin Mejstřík said he was too busy reconstructing his house in Malá strana – although he would indeed be elected senator in 2002 and continue on his own path of anticommunist radicalization. Josef Brož left for France. As to Monika Pajerová, she aimed for a federation of civic movement (that would never really take off), and continued her career as a civil servant.
That the former students pulled off from political engagement as a group was a fateful turn in the post-communist development; their retreat symbolizes the unwillingness, or inability, of anyone in this country to shoulder the responsibility of developing civic society, even though both they and the wider public knew it was badly needed.
The Original Sin
The former students were of course not responsible for the imperfections of the transition out of communism. But their attitude only worsened the situation. Here is one small example of historical reconstruction: in 1999, Monika Pajerová knew that the lack of development of Czech civic society was a major handicap in the post-communist transition. She called for a dialogue “between different groups of citizens, between the state and society, between state institutions and society.”3 Ten years earlier, in her speech on 17 November 1989, she had already appealed for dialogue: “It is all about dialogue, because there is more that unites us than divides us”, she had then said. "People clapped a lot”, she reminisced in 1998 about her 1989 speech, “because it was the feeling of probably every one of us that nobody has a completely pure conscience, everybody got a little mixed with up the regime, every (student) was taking the tests in Marxism-Leninism, but what we had in common was bigger, and that is what we had to build on.”4
By 1999, she had seemingly forgotten that her call for dialogue in 1989 was one of dialogue with the communists, not against them, and one that took into account people’s everyday compromission with the regime. If the devil hides in the detail, by 1999 the former students’ notion of “dialogue” now actively excluded the communists and their 20% share of the electorate. Monika Pajerová invited the media to “exercise judgment” and stop inviting communist leaders, she wanted them simply to “be pushed out of the mass media.”5 Or as Igor Chaun put it, “We invite everyone to join us for a decent and peaceful meeting. Our slogan is: Take your Christmas bells with you, and you, communists, stay home.”6 Martin Mejstřík agreed, as did film director Jan Hřebejk.7
The question becomes, of course, the following: if the students’ notion of dialogue excluded both the elected representatives and the communists, who would have been the discussion partners? Between whom and whom should the “national dialogue” have taken place?
From excluding the communists to rewriting history
It gets worse. Vratislav Řehák, another one of the former students and authors of the appeal, pronounced the following words at the big demonstration organized by the Thank You and Goodbye! organizers: “I call on you to wage intellectual terror against current politicians, MPs and representatives of all parties. It is your democratic right to ask them what they are doing and why they are doing it, and to demand that they make amends.8 In a country that had recently exited a forty-year dictatorship, a call on citizens to exercise “intellectual terror” upon their elected representatives was rather chilling.
Indeed many 1999 students and other citizens were in favor of using radical practices to get rid of the communists. In their rejection of the communists, the former students replicated the communist methods that had become standard practice in Czechoslovakia against the enemies of communism: rejection, boycott, appeal for “intellectual terror.” I therefore argue that the movement around Thank You and Goodbye! symbolizes a turning point in the post-1989 regime, one that would turn genuine concerns and a sincere analysis of the democrats’ own shortcomings into a new ideology of remembrance that would gain extraordinary precedence in the following years.
Under the guise of “never forgetting”, the former students would in the following decade transform their pertinent analysis of the situation in 1989 and in 1999 into a powerful anticommunist ideology that would soon endeavor to rewrite history, with all the more determination, as Ondřej Slačálek has shown, that the growing importance of anticommunism in public discourse was in fact hiding the loss of its hegemony. This is how we arrived at the biographical difference between 1990 and 2009 described in the incipit of this article.
The hard and painful way to solve the inconsistencies of the Velvet Revolution would have been for society to face their own past, their own involvement, their own compromission with the past regime, and it would have been for intellectual elites to lead them in this direction. Instead, the refusal to lead any “dialogue” with the communists was a more facile path. By pretending that communism was alien to Czech culture, by externalizing the communist period as a period that was not worth belonging to Czech history, the new democracy adamantly rejected any possibility of national reconciliation and placed itself into an impossible position: what kind of democracy could pretend that 20% of the electorate did not exist? How could a movement make any claim to national unity in these circumstances? How could it blame “the past” while pretending the new political actors did not belong to this very same past?
In the same way as the postwar Czechoslovak democracy had pretended that the Germans had never belonged to Czech history, the post-communist Czech democracy pretended that the communists had never belonged to Czech history. The refusal to hold any nation-wide reconciliation was a fateful choice of the post-communist regime, one that would create the necessity to rewrite history so as to de-legitimize the place of communism in national history – the latest avatar of which is its latest proposal to reduce the pensions of former communists and secret policemen. The radicalization of the former students is inscribed in this collective refusal to face the past, be it in 1989, 1999, or 2009 – or as it would continue be in 2019. It opened the door to the manufacture of heroes. By the end of 1999, Monika Pajerová had already become, in Erik Tabery’s words, a “legendary figure of the student movement.”9
1 ČRo 1 – Radiožurnál, 19.11.1999, 17:10 Radiofórum, Jana Klusáková, moderátorka.
2 Ondřej Neumann, Lucie Tvarůžková, “Existuje "generace 17. listopadu"?... kdo vlastně jsou a co chtějí tvůrci výzvy Děkujeme, odejděte!”, Lidové noviny, 29 November 1999, p. 3.
3 tva, “Co by se mělo v ČR změnit”, Lidové noviny, 29 November 1999, p. 2.
4 Miroslav Vaněk, Milan Otahál, Sto studentských revolucí. Studenti v období pádu komunismu. Životopisná vyprávění, Prague, NLN, 1999, p. 611.
5 Martin Schulz, moderator, Televized talk show Sněží, “Stoupající preference komunistů”, ČT 2, 7 December 1999, 21:35, Invited guest Monika Pajerová.
6 Iva Potřebová, “Máme právo pískat, když politici hrají falešně. Rozhovor s Igorem Chaunem, jedním z autorů výzvy Děkujeme, odejděte!”, Plzeňský deník, 3 December 1999, p. 13.
8 Erik Tabery, “Zvonky s sebou, komunisty ne. Výzva Děkujeme, odejděte vyvrcholila pátečním shromážděním”, Respekt, 6 December 1999, p. 5.
9 Erik Tabery, “Děkujeme, přicházejí. Výbuch občanské nespokojenosti přivedl na scénu i nejmladší generaci”, Respekt, 6 December 1999, p. 5.