Remembering, and learning, from the Velvet Revolution

By: Eva Putzova

This month, we remember the 30th anniversary of the student-led Velvet Revolution, when nearly a million people in the former Czechoslovakia—where I was born and raised—took to the streets to peacefully overthrow the totalitarian dictatorship of the Communist Party. During those six weeks in 1989, college and high school students held teach-ins with the teachers and professors who rallied behind the students’ revolution. Everyday activities stopped across the country. Supporters wore tri-colored ribbons in solidarity of democratization and joined the demonstrations that sparked in towns of all sizes. 

The unity we felt was palpable. The organizations born in those early days were named for that unity. The Czech movement organized as the Civic Forum. In Slovakia, the corresponding movement was called Public Against Violence. Everyone was on board with taking power away from what we called the old structures—individuals connected to the ruling party, which espoused an outdated way of thinking and lacked the moral authority to continue ruling after failing us for 40 years.

That euphoric fall changed everything for me. 

I was 12 years old. I was just old enough to understand what was happening, and just old enough for my pre- and post-Communism observations to inform my permanent politics and policy stances. 

I know I wasn’t alone in those lessons; many children who grew up behind the iron curtain remember things like waiting in line for two hours for bananas, which were only available once a year before Christmas. We remember not owning jeans until the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

But those were just material things and occasional luxuries. Life was not unbearable, but it was grim. Every summer, the hot water was turned off for about three weeks while the central water tank used by the state-owned apartment complex underwent annual maintenance. My family lived in a fairly large apartment, but had the same ugly wallpaper glued to the bare cement panel walls and the same flooring as everybody else in the country. 

Our environment was colorless, grey, and uninspiring—joyless. Our winter air was filled with particles from burning coal. Rivers were polluted from heavy industry and agricultural run-off. People did not care about their surroundings; common areas were littered with trash. Everybody owned everything; therefore, nobody owned anything. People used to say “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work” or “if you are not stealing, you are stealing from your family.” Small-scale bribery was common in a society where 99.9% of the population was equally disadvantaged, but as long as somebody else was doing a bit worse than you, life was bearable. The Communist Party elites and their families were the Eastern European equivalent to today’s American billionaires—living in extreme wealth grown on the backs of the working class. 

As a child, I had no idea what I was missing under the inefficient, state-run economy. We were shut off from the world. Looking back, I can see that life was gloomy, but also very simple; I didn’t know I was supposed to desire Barbies or that wearing the same clothes to school all week was unusual. We weren’t starving and we didn’t suffer hardship in the way some people behind the Iron Curtain did; we had cooked meals every day, and, on the weekends, pastries and baked goods. Everything we needed or did was nearby. My parents were loving and provided my brother and me with a childhood I recall fondly. They didn’t worry about losing their jobs, paying medical bills, housing costs, or how they would eventually pay for my college education. As a teacher, my mom never had to buy supplies for the school. 

Yes, life was simple, and we didn’t have some of the same concerns as we do under the American economy, where millions of people struggle to pay for healthcare, rent, and other everyday needs. But, under that state-run economy, my parents were part of a lost generation: an entire generation whose potential and dreams were never quite realized because there were no other options for people in the working class besides working in state-run organizations. But they adapted when our world changed in 1989; my mom continued teaching physics and chemistry and served as a teacher union leader, while my father became a chair of the local county’s Democratic Party. 

Growing up in a state-run economy, experiencing the transition to a political democracy, and living my entire professional life in a developed country with a high per-capita GDP but also some of the most egregious incidents of inequality, I became a fierce fighter for progressive policies and against political oppression. I realized that corruption can come from the left or from the right, and that legalized, institutionalized corruption is still corruption. I realized having one party in control of all branches of government is oppressive, and that while a two-party system is better, it’s still not enough for a true democracy. In his book Disturbing the Peace, Václav Havel, post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president, wrote something I subscribe to more and more: “Parties should not take direct part in elections, nor should they be allowed to give anyone, a priori, the crutches of power, since when they do they inevitably become bureaucratic, corrupt, and undemocratic. They should instead provide those who participate in power—having been elected—with an intellectual base, with opportunities to hone their own opinions.”

Today’s big corporations are not dissimilar to state-run economies. Their employees and small shareholders are not personally invested in the products they produce and the services they deliver. They see little meaning in their work beyond paychecks and dividends. Our dreams as humans are universal. Whether it’s 1989 in Eastern Europe or 2019 in the United States, we need more than just consuming goods—we need meaning, peace, fairness, and the ability to negotiate our differences without the interference of powerful interests that silence us.     

My perspective on how unrewarding our consumption-based economy is reminds me of my first trip to Austria after the borders between the East and the West first opened. I was in awe! Everything was clean and orderly. The houses we drove past on our way to Vienna were colorful. Stores overflowed with merchandise. Everything was incredibly expensive for us. I know the people there looked down on us. We were the “others” who lacked the purchasing power that makes people valuable. But just having the freedom to travel was exhilarating, and things I consider basic human rights—like the freedom to move between countries—is often lost under our current system. Believe me, after growing up in an uninspiring and joyless environment, I understand the desire to possess even simple material pleasures that bring a person joy—especially after being deprived of them. Eventually, however, that is not enough. 

I regularly remind myself what we really wanted in 1989: freedom, equality, fairness, access to opportunities, and an end to the oppression. We wanted the beauty we’d been deprived of for generations; not in a trivial sense, but in the sense defined by writer Sandra Lubarsky—a quality of “sustaining and flourishing of life-in-relationship with life.”

The days of the Velvet Revolution, of dreaming of a more just and free society, formed my political outlook and my beliefs. I learned early on that when people organize and march in solidarity, they can transform their communities, and even their COUNTRIES, for the better. I would not be here in this country today, having served on a local city council for four years and now running for Congress to represent Arizona’s first district, if the young people in my former homeland had not believed in the power and righteousness of their demands for free speech, free elections, plurality of political power, and sweeping changes in the economy, in education, and in environmental policy. 

A lot of my U.S.-born peers running as progressives call themselves socialists. I understand their desire to offer an alternative to how we organize education, healthcare, and even housing as more and more people are left behind. We have to treat education, healthcare, a clean environment, and housing as rights, not privileges. Nobody should live in poverty, no matter what. For myself, I prefer the term social democrat, because it doesn’t carry the memory of a corrupt, totalitarian regime responsible for four decades of demagogy, violence, and intolerance. But one thing we must fully grasp in this country is that party identities should not drive policy the way they do now. Operating under one political label stymies compromise and effectiveness. Our elected leaders halt progress and trample over everyday people in their pursuit to toe the party line and get re-elected.

As we head into 2020, I hope that young people in this country will find the courage to demand transformation. I hope we have the foresight to remove old structures from power. The way students led the Velvet Revolution and altered the course of history 30 years ago, young people in this country can peacefully and swiftly lead us out of the climate, healthcare, and housing crises while envisioning a new democracy—equal, inclusive, just, and generous.