Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000
B O O K R E V I E W:
Sto studentských revolucí
[One Hundred Student Revolutions]
Nakladatelství Lidové Noviny, Prague, 1999
Milan Otáhal, Miroslav Vaněk, eds
ISBN 80-7106-337-1 (Czech)
Years ago, my then girlfriend told me a story which I was very impressed by. A classmate of hers from elementary school, although very talented and with an excellent academic record during his elementary school years and thus more than qualified for secondary and potentially university education, decided he did not want to pursue a career at the end of which a PhD. would be awarded to him. Instead, he voluntarily decided to go to vocational school, which was not competitive and did not offer the prospect of a brilliant career. What lead him to this decision, today's reader might ask? The story goes that he did not want to compromise himself and collaborate with the Communist regime and knew that if he entered higher levels of education he would have to do so in some way. At the time of hearing the story, I was really moved by it; however, being 14 years old, I did not have the courage to follow the same path. I never knew whether this story was a true or made up but wanted to believe it was true.
Reading the book Sto studentských revolucí (One Hundred Student Revolutions), a collection of interviews with 100 student activists who played a role during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, I recalled this story many times. Those interviewed were in most cases chosen at random, with the exception of students who later became prominent politicians, such as then medical student and current Deputy Chairman of the Civic Democratic Party Ivan Langer; Prague Humanities faculty student Monika Pajerová who is most often referred to in the Czech media as a "diplomat" although her most recent job was that of deputy in the press department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Vlastimil Ježek, also from the Humanities faculty, and later director of Czech Public Radio, commissioner of the Czech Republic's exhibition at EXPO 2000 in Hanover and most recently politician-to-be either on the candidate list of the Freedom Union or his own party.
Of course, passive resistance was not an alternative for everyone. Those ambitious or seeking a relatively decent education had no choice but to attend the secondary schools and universities in Communist Czechoslovakia. The reason I mention the above story at all is that often those interviewed in Sto studentských revolucí portray themselves as the ones who had the courage and were brave enough to stand up to the regime. It was much more courageous though to decide to limit severely one's own life through passive resistance than to go on strike with thousands of others. Myself a student at the time before, during and after the 1989 revolution, I can say I saw only very little individual courage but a lot of individual ambition.
I cannot comment on all the oral histories included in Sto studentských revolucí, since the situation I know quite well is restricted to the Humanities Faculty of Charles University. One general problem with the book, though, seems to be that the method of oral history used is not complemented by adequate analysis. At the beginning of the book, there is an attempt at historical analysis of the role of students and intelligentsia in general; however, it is far from sharp enough. Furthermore, those interviewed were chosen very carefully and are not challenged by other colleagues from that time. Thus, at least for the cases I am personally familiar with, the book seems to be more of a glorification of certain individuals than a critical analysis of the role students played at the time.
Some of the stories seem almost grotesque in their "revolutionary" pathos, such as the one in which one of the activists, Monika Pajerová (who later joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was also on the Czech team in the Council of Europe and became one of the "student leaders" to be associated with the "Thank you, Now Leave" initiative) recalls that at the age of two she saw Soviet tanks while on a bus with her mother and still remembers the chilling silence that came over the bus. (What a miraculous baby!) Then she adds that none of her peers who were younger than her, presumably ones who were one year old, can remember a thing from the Soviet-led invasion. This made her very special and gave her life very special meaning. It almost sounds like a biblical story.
Elitism seems to be another feature that some of the protagonists share. This very much corresponds to the actual situation that existed at the Humanities Faculty, which was seen as a very prestigious place that only privileged students could enter. Common people were seen as marginal and there was no doubt that they did not have the skills to run the country. This very anti-democratic attitude was very typical, although of course, it cannot be generalised. Nevertheless, it was quite common and for some of the former student activists, judging by these interviews, still is.
Another problem with the book is that those interviewed were allowed to say whatever they wanted. It seems that the method applied was: "You talk as long as you can, and we will then publish it." In some cases, which I am personally familiar with, the interviewees simply made their past look better and took someone else's credit. This cannot be forgiven in the cases of people who are now in the public arena and want to get engaged in public and political life.
What is the value of such a book? If it is to tell today's reader who did not have personal experience with the political changes of 1989 and specifically with the role students played in what actually happened, then it clearly fails. We do not hear from people who stood on the other side of the barricade or simply missed out not later being portrayed as the "student leaders." In fact, the whole idea of "student leaders" is false and misleading, as the situation in many university departments at the time was rather chaotic [see accompanying article], and there was no democratic election process to choose the revolutionary student leaders. No doubt it would have been difficult or even impossible under the circumstances, but there was not even an attempt to do so.
Nevertheless, the book is a very worthy document in its own right. It provides us with the opportunity to see how the 100 student revolutionaries portray themselves, and thus gives us a chance to reflect on this - either now or later. It would perhaps be even more interesting to publish a book of reflections on the individual stories found in Sto studentských revolucí.
Reading the book we can also learn what to expect of some of the then students who have become involved in the recent initiative "Thank you, Now Leave" [see CER's special feature on this initiative in Issue 24]. First of all, it seems that the most prominent of them, such as Vlastimil Ježek and Monika Pajerová, cherish their own good image in politics more than an actual political agenda. As they did in the book, they idolise themselves and build on an image of fresh, honest and angry men and women. Instead of thinking about the future, they talk about their past and are hardly able to deliver any interesting message that addresses today's situation. It is almost striking how limited are the reflections in the book on the current situation and how visibly absent are any interesting and relevant thoughts related to contemporary social and political issues.
Furthermore, there are clearly at least two distinct groups among today's leaders of the "Thank you, Now Leave" initiative: those who, after the revolution in 1989, assumed lucrative or at least prestigious jobs within the public administration and retained them for years such as Vlastmil Ježek and Monika Pajerová, and those who deliberately chose not to do so such as Šimon Pánek, Josef Brož and Martin Mejstřík [see interview with Martin Mejstřík in this week's issue]. I suggest that those who worked within the public administration lack experience with genuine grass-roots activism in spite of their talk about civic society. If there is anything that Czech politics badly needs today, it is a grass-roots political party that does not run public matters from the shadows of Prague-based secretariats but seeks legitimacy from the general public across the country.
If the question is "What can we expect from the then 'student leaders' now activists," my answer would be: probably not too much. Some of them will most likely join already established political parties (as much as they deny it) and become career politicians, whilst others might choose to join some other already existing institutions. The rest will try to mobilise public opinion and political support through an outdated agenda focused on the past rather than the future.
Pavel Tychtl, 1 March 2000
Pavel Tychtl is director of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees in Prague.
Order Sto studentských revolucí from the Czech on-line bookstore Vltava
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