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Friday, 28 November 2014 00:00

Children of the Revolution: Reflections on Slovakia

Written by Timea Szilvássy
640px-Havla 1989
Photo: MD (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
 
Demonstrators during the Velvet Revolution in 1989

 

As a way of marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, E&M asked young people from some of the countries involved to tell us what the anniversary means to them. First up is Timea Szilvássy, who lives in Bratislava and was a year and a half old when the Velvet Revolution took place.

To understand how much the post-communist countries have changed, one must recall how they started out. Recall, what freedom meant at that time and how has it changed over the last 25 years.

Our parents and grandparents might talk about the fragility of freedom, about how distant and unclear the term could be in their lives and how far away we are from that perception nowadays. Back then, propagandists of the state told the people what to think, the secret police watched basically everyone and put regime critics behind bars. Only dreams stayed safe, but it was better to not dream big, but rather to stay dutiful so as to lead a convenient life of sorts.

Something changed a quarter of a century ago. Thousands of people took the risk and stood out from the line. They exposed themselves and their families to high risks, sometimes even imprisonment. But the power of those people as well as similar actions all over Europe made a non-violent transition possible, overthrowing the communist leaders. At that time democracy and prosperity seemed to be just around the corner. In Czechoslovakia, it led to the country's first non-communist government in more than four decades. And the transition was just the beginning. On New Year's Day 2015 Slovakia will celebrate its 22st anniversary as an independent nation.

Although the Velvet Divorce is recalled as being really smooth, it wasn't ideal. The separation was favoured  by only a minority of people in the two republics and was never democratically mandated. The post-1989 federal parliament showed its weaknesses in the way the whole process was realised. Vladimír Mečiar agreed with the Czech prime minister Václav Klaus to split the country without even asking the public in a referendum. Mečiar strenghtened his position as a prime minister of Slovakia and set off on a course of governance that isolated the newborn independent state of Slovakia from the West and the EU. It took a while to get back to the route of democracy and deal with the damage that was done during that period. And we still cannot be sure enough that this won't happen again.

I do not want to talk about historical events as they can be found in the history books.

 

It is hard for me to write about happenings that took place when I was only a young child. I have been trying to get as much information about the Velvet Revolution as possible and asked my parents, the older generation, about their memories, but I still cannot feel the same way as they do. I do not want to talk about historical events as they can be found in the history books. For me and my generation is hard to think about and understand what really happened back then. It is not something wrong, I suppose, it is natural, but it still feels like we should be ashamed of our lack of knowledge, sometimes even ignorance. The revolution is perceived by the majority of young people as something confined to the past, a chapter usually covered towards the end of school history lessons.  It is a topic which we usually do not talk about at all, not in class and not at home either. A lot of young people do not know what 17 November means and why is it a public holiday or they can only name the event but do not think about it any further.  

The perception of the transition is also connected with the memory that has survived through the years. We can talk about official and private memories of the Velvet Revolution. Official actions and facts about communism are well known, but the stories and perceptions of the older generation sometimes differ from the official version. Back then, hopes ran high amid the euphoria of the transition, but the everyday reality made these hopes disappear. The disillusionment which was caused by politics and different government policies together with the economic situation (even though it is far and away better than under the former regime) have made part of the people think about communism with nostalgia.

Sigmund Freud put forward the idea that civilisation lies in the exchange transaction between security and freedom. Civilised man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security. Now it seems that we sacrificed too much freedom for security in the past, and the opposite tendency has begun to prevail. Though we sometimes seem to be tired of freedom, we are no longer prepared to sacrifice it for security. In spite of all the negative perceptions, people are still able to remember the euphoria of 1989 and its significance, and value the importance of acquired freedom.

Taking stock of the past and the present

Why do I write so critically about the situation 25 years after the revolution in my country? I did not mean to criticise anyone for how they perceive the last two and a half decades. Lots of things happened during this time, we had to build democracy up from the ground and fill the empty form of what was given to us in 1989 with meaningful content. No one could do so without mistakes.

460px-Velvet Revolution Anniversary 2010
 Photo: David Sedlecký (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Václav Havel (right) during anniversary commemorations of the Velvet Revolution in 2010, the year before his death.

Václav Havel, one of the leading figures during the revolution once said "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred". The old authoritarian regime got overfilled with lies and hate, causing it to collapse under its own weight. I agree and share this opinion, but at the same time I am worried that something similar could happen to democracy. I am worried that our ignorance towards the Velvet Revolution and the overwhelming frustration of many people might lead to similar scenarios in the future. That democracy is becoming shot through with lies and hate – that these can grow due to the lack of love and truth. Some people in Slovakia talk about how bad our democracy is and that we have to demolish it and build up a new system. But the nature of the world is hidden beyond the scope of the regimes. Lies were always the working tool of hate, even at a time when no regimes existed. And they always served to control those who want to live in truth and love. From this point of view democracy is no different to dictatorship – only the scope of the fight differs.

But democracy has one huge advantage. It is a kind of laboratory where truth and love have the same chances as lies and hatred. It is not always so easy to choose love and tell the truth, but letting hatred win is dangerous no matter what. We won't get second chance to build up the "right" kind of democracy. That is what Havel meant by his statement "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred". The key word is MUST. It means that we all have the responsibility for letting the hate and lies win. We think that the word does not affect us and is not our concern. But we are wrong and have to realise that it is our duty to fight for the right choice. We have to remember what happened in 1989 and before, to value democracy with all its mistakes and failings. Only then we can fill it with the right content.

Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:16

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