Jack in Czech Republic: Freedom Then and Now

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

— Vaclav Havel

***

People packed Národní Třída on the morning of November 17th for the Struggle of Freedom and Democracy Day’s celebrations. Beatles music blared as people mingled, listened to speeches, held signs, and chanted many things I couldn’t understand.

One of the first people I spoke with was a local street artist. Despite his broken English, he seemed to enjoy my company. He even offered me some of his breakfast wine, which he was drinking out of a beer bottle.

I asked him several questions about the holiday and his views on the Czech Republic’s current state, and he passionately answered each. As I was getting up to go, he had one more thing to tell me, as if he hadn’t made his message clear.

“Czech Republic is freedom,” he told me. “I am freedom.”

Although the Czech Republic may be, using his words, “freedom,” it is potentially facing another era of political instability, which was on full display on this holiday.

***

This year’s holiday had a greater significance than typical years, since it marked the 25th anniversary of the incident that led to fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Parts of the city center were blocked off all day where a variety of memorials, musical events, and other festival-like attractions were held. At night, the festivities climaxed with an epic concert in the city’s most famous square – the same square where thousands and thousands of civilians rallied against the communist regime 25 years earlier.

Wenceslas Square, the Times Square of the Czech Republic, was as packed as I have ever seen it for the large concert on Monday night. But…

Wenceslas Square, the Times Square of the Czech Republic, was as packed as I have ever seen it for the large concert on Monday night. But…

Vaclav Havel, one of the greatest leaders in recent history, speaking to his followers in December 1989.

Vaclav Havel, one of the greatest leaders in recent history, speaking to his followers in December 1989.

 

November 17th marks the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. On Nov. 17th 1989, thousands of Czech students gathered in the city center to commemorate another assembly, one 50 years earlier protesting Nazi fascism that resulted in more than 1,000 Czechs being sent to concentration camps. The 1989 demonstration started off as a state-sponsored event, but it quickly turned to a riot against the current government. Violence ensued, policemen beat students, and the Velvet Revolution began.

The Velvet Revolution was, for the most part, a peaceful movement that resulted in the overthrow of the communist government. Led by Vaclav Havel, A Czech version of Nelson Mandela who was honored by America and placed in Statuary Hall on Thursday, Czechoslovakia moved into a new era. Less than a year after the Nov. 17th movement, the Czechs held a democratic election. The Czech Republic and Slovakia had a peaceful split in 1993, and moved forward into a much more open time period. And everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Not exactly.

The holiday’s demonstrations, the vandalizing of the Lennon Wall, and, most importantly, Miloš Zeman’s continued idiotic antics intruded on what was supposed to be a gleeful day of remembrance, while demonstrating the Czechs current political instability.

***

Let’s meet President Zeman. Since Zeman won the presidential election last June – I can’t comprehend how he won – he has found different, and sometimes innovative, ways to anger his people. I have yet to meet a young Czech person who has anything nice to say about their president, and for good reason. He’s not just a drunkard; he makes appearances in public drunk. He doesn’t just have a dirty mouth; he used, what Czechs have told me, the dirtiest word in the Czech language to describe the heroic Russian band Pussy Riot. He doesn’t just look the other way from oppressive regimes; he endorses them — he supports Russia and not Ukraine; he supports China and not Taiwan.

Czech people have had enough Zeman, and they made sure outsiders knew that when the world briefly focused on the small Central European nation for its historic holiday. The Czech people believe they have given their president enough warnings. He has, in terms of soccer football, already earned a yellow card. So on this day, thousands of Czechs assembled around the city to give Zeman symbolic red cards, representing their desired ejection, removal, explosion – whatever word you like best – of their president.

At a different event, some protestors took advantage of an opportunity to chuck eggs at Zeman. As you can see in the video below, his guards used umbrellas to shield Zeman as he spoke. I don’t have a word-for-word translation from his speech, but a Czech friend helped translate the speech for me. Zeman’s main gist: I’m not scared of you. You weren’t part of the Revolution. I was part of the Revolution. You cannot scare me.

http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/ct24/nejnovejsi-videa/292682-zeman-nebojim-se-vas-jako-jsem-se-nebal-pred-25-lety/?page=2

You don’t need to even know what he is saying to sense the large disconnect between him and his people. Just listen to his unsympathetic tone and the passionate crowd.

Talk about a charismatic leader!

Zeman’s unjust rule and unfound sympathy managed to overshadow what was supposed to be a day of remembrance of all those who fought for freedom, especially Vaclav Havel.

And yet, Zeman’s actions were not even the wildest part of the day.

***

The Lennon Wall has served as Prague’s greatest symbol of freedom since the 1980s. Throughout his life John Lennon preached the importance of freedom, peace and liberty – a message that struck the Czech youth when, at the time, they lacked all three qualities. So students would graffiti the wall, at the risk of punishment, to illuminate their dreams. Even after communism fell, the Lennon Wall lived on, serving as a reminder of how lucky we, the Western world, are to have peace and freedom, how difficult freedom can be to achieve, and, most importantly, that many people still do not have their natural liberties. The Wall constantly changes, but it is always beautifully decorated with beautiful messages. That is, however, until the night of Nov. 17.

Here’s a picture of the wall before that night:

Lennon Wall Before

Lennon Wall Before

And here’s what it looked like after:

Lennon Wall After

Lennon Wall After

So many questions, fueled with anger, arose: Who did this? Why did they do this? Is the wall gone forever?

The answers, luckily, are much more positive than some people, including myself, feared.

Prague Service, an anonymous group of art students, painted the wall white and added the message “WALL IS OVER!” Their reasoning was, in the best interpretation, fantastically hopeful, or, in the worst interpretation, justifiable; in a statement, they said they wanted “to provide free space for new messages of the current generation.” In essence, it was a symbolic call to action for young people. If you don’t like your government, don’t sit back and complain. Make your voice heard, one way or another.

Two friends and I went to the Wall the following night, and, not surprisingly, many people were already leaving their mark on a wall that was no longer white. Was the Wall what it had been before? Of course not. But it was already well on its way back.

Less than 24 hours after the Wall had been erased, dozens of people helped start the process of establishing a new Lennon Wall.

Less than 24 hours after the Wall had been erased, dozens of people helped start the process of establishing a new Lennon Wall.

My friends and I hung around the wall for a while talking to some of the people there, reading the messages, and, of course, writing our own messages. While I watched people paint the wall from a few yards back, I began speaking with one of the young people there who brought out loads of paint for others to use. He offered me some of his beer, and I hesitantly asked, “Are you sure?”

“Of course,” he replied “It’s Lennon Wall!”

How could you not take a sip after that?

***

Monday was a day full emotions. Tears of joy and tears of sadness; cheers of ebullience and cheers of disdain. But, most importantly, it was a day of celebratory remembrance. Not long ago, Czechs would be severely punished for speaking out against the regime. And now they can hold mass demonstrations against their elected leader, jeer his speech, and, although probably not allowed, get away with throwing eggs at him! The Czechs may not be happy with the current administration, but at least they can voice their opinion – a right many people around the world still lack. Look at, for example, Hong Kong, where its current foundation of a revolution was somewhat inspired by the Czech Republic.

The Hong Kong Lennon Wall looks much different than Prague’s, but they both carry the same hopeful messages

The Hong Kong Lennon Wall looks much different than Prague’s, but they both carry the same hopeful messages

The Czech Republic is far from perfect (Is any nation near perfect?), but, at least, as the street artist told me, “Czech Republic is freedom.”

… It was nothing compared to the events that took place in the same square 25 years earlier.

… It was nothing compared to the events that took place in the same square 25 years earlier.

***

Selfie of the week: Because I am an egotistical millennial, here is the selfie of the week:

Doug and I bought a one-way ticket to a city in the Czech Republic where the Czechs were hosting Iceland in a Euro 2016 qualifier five hours before kickoff. We didn’t have tickets, a place to stay, or a way to get home. But, as you can see, everything worked out.

Doug and I bought a one-way ticket to a city in the Czech Republic where the Czechs were hosting Iceland in a Euro 2016 qualifier five hours before kickoff. We didn’t have tickets, a place to stay, or a way to get home. But, as you can see, everything worked out.

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