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Deanna Wooley

“We Have Something to Celebrate!”: Forging a Community of Memory for the “Velvet Revolution”

21 August 2018
  • 1989
  • freedom express
  • Czech Republic
  • Czechia
  • remembrance
  • Velvet Revolution

This study investigates the trop of ambivalence in the historical memory of the “Velvet Revolution” and its legacy in the Czech Republic. As a way of “thinking about the past”, ambivalence emerged after 1989 as a mnemonic attitude through which citizens defined their relationship to the current democratic state, as well as to its foundation moment. Rather than assume that ambivalence indicates the absence of memory, however, this article examines how groups have positively appropriated the trope in constructing new traditions of remembering, in which the “Velvet Revolution’s” meaning and legacy remains unresolved and therefore a site of continuous engagement with the past.

On The Trail of Memory: In Search of the Legacy of 1989

The twentieth anniversary of state socialism’s demise offered scholars of East European memory politics what had been, in the 1990s at least, a rare opportunity: to observe the commemorative habits and rituals of the reclusive anamnesis annus mirabilis - otherwise known as the historical memory of the “year of miracles”, 1989. While a felicitous metaphor, the annus mirabilis perhaps doomed this symbolic moment to a permanent identity crisis. If past experience shapes the present contours of our historical understanding, then the memory of 1989 appears locked in a state of perpetual shadow, haunted by the intuition of a glorious past that it is neither able nor, in some cases, willing to overcome. As far as foundation myths go, ambivalence appears to have become part of the legacy of 1989.

That ambivalence has become a familiar trope, and that this attitude is often viewed with concern, can be seen in this interview with noted British historian Timothy Garton Ash for RFE/RL in Prague. Addressing the eventfulness of 1989, Ash noted that while the basic “facts” of those years are more are less known, we are still unable to synthesize them into a universal meaning and message, and this has implications beyond academia: “...the memory of 1989 is divided, ambivalent, and weak. It's divided between East and West. It's ambivalent even in Central and Eastern European countries, you see that here. And it's quite weak among the young generation. And if you don't know where you're coming from and what it was like before, you've got a problem.” (Ash, 2009)

The following analysis explores the coupling of the trope of “ambivalence” with the diagnosis of “problem” in constructing meaning out of history. It focuses on the “memory community” (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994) of young people who actively participated in 1989 and students who came of age afterwards. “Memory communities” are bound together by personal experience and common understandings of history. Transmission of historical meanings from one generation to the next can indicate moments where first-hand experience coalesces into a durable framework for representing and remembering that past to those without first-hand knowledge of the event. In this case, Czech and Slovak[1] university students played a crucial role in catalyzing the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia after November 17, 1989, when police brutality galvanized them to organize a nationwide student strike. The feeling of ownership towards the revolution’s legacy was particularly strong in student circles afterwards. Therefore, students and young people provide an ideal case study for investigating how ambivalence works not just to constrain, but also to enable possibilities for remembering.

The purpose of this article is not describe how specific historical narratives articulate, represent or challenge particular aspects of the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution”, nor will the analysis provide an comprehensive overview of public opinion on the various interpretations of history in the Czech public sphere.[2] Instead, the present study proposes to investigate the trope of ambivalence as a mnemonic attitude, focusing on memory practices that some Czechs have determined appropriate for the commemoration of the end of state socialism in their country. Rather than concentrating on the content of the “Velvet Revolution’s” narrative, therefore, the article looks at the forms under which Czechs feel its story can be (re)told and its legacy can be authentically appropriated. Starting with the twentieth anniversary, the article traces moments of engagement with the legacy of 1989 back to the revolutionary months themselves, in order to illuminate one facet of the culture of commemorating 1989: the construction of ambivalent distance in order to authentically engage the past.

In other words, could the persistent fears about a deficient memory of 1989 be in fact an appropriate way of engaging the past? As James Young asked regarding German preoccupation with commemorating the fascist era, “it may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution.” (Young, 1993, 21) While this comparison at first may seem suspect – how can we say that the glorious overthrow of communism compares with the shameful history of fascism? – I argue that, although for different reasons, in both cases the construction of meaningfulness was complicated by succeeding events. In the case of the legacy of 1989, I argue that ambivalence stems not only from disillusionment with the post-communist present, but also from the politicization of the past under communism, which had problematized the naïve construction of “foundation myths” of brave new beginnings and heroic origins. This impacted the possibilities for meaningful engagement with the past in the 1990s, and some of the tropes emerging at this time, in particular ambivalence, appeared in the succeeding decade as common themes for articulating the legacy of 1989.

My discussion draws upon Henri Vogt’s concept of societal ambivalence, which he observed as a partly generational phenomenon for coping with the collapse of communism. (Vogt, 2006, 103-139) Ambivalence can be broadly understood as the situation where two mutually incompatible states or ideas are equally desirable and thus held in a state of tension, without collapsing or assimilating one into the other. Unlike psychological ambivalence, which is located in individual pathology, Vogt’s notion of societal ambivalence highlights the co-existence of different times, spaces, and norms during periods of rapid social transition. It is precisely the notion of perpetual tension and the awareness of distance (between experience and reality, between the ideal and its realization) that opens up new windows of understanding how individuals in particular memory communities ascribe meaning and purpose to remembering the events of 1989.

How can we separate out this discursive construction of the narrative of ambivalence from the actual work of social remembering? It is necessary to note that the moments of ambivalence discussed here do not paint a total picture of the commemorative practices of the “Velvet Revolution”, or even of the main anniversary commemorating the events of 1989 in Czechoslovakia, November 17. Rather, they are moments in which memory acted as a “changeable script”, not recreating the past as a whole but providing a flexible template through which individuals and groups could engage historical memory. (Sturken, 1992, 17) If the trope of ambivalence was being realized in the actual commemoration and remembering, how did it get there, and more importantly how is this narrative embedded within an evolving “tradition” of commemoration whereby the memory of “1989” as event is being transmitted through time?

We Have Something To Celebrate!: Commemorating 1989’s Twentieth Birthday

Foundation myths recount a political community’s beginning: as the key stories by which a state or nation explains its origins to itself, these narratives of mythic collective birth allow individuals to inscribe their own pasts into the “official” memory of the current government. (See Gillis, 1994; Bucur and Wingfield, 2001) Of course, different groups often offer competing interpretations of the past, and determining which stories are told often results in contestation, not just over the past’s meaning, but whether its legacy is being properly realized in the present. In the Czech Republic, November 17 is the “official” anniversary commemorating the “Velvet Revolution” (in 2000 it became an official state holiday, the “Day of the Fight for Freedom and Democracy”).[3] In response to the perceived lack of official enthusiasm over the twentieth anniversary, however, civic organizations mobilized (continuing a trend started at the tenth anniversary, discussed below) to make sure that the date was appropriately remembered. At Prague’s Charles University, a group of students organized the group Inventura demokracie (Democracy Inventory) to not only celebrate “with fireworks” but to critically reflect on the day as a living symbol of freedom and democracy to which everyone must contribute.[4] Their founding manifesto begins with the following declaration:

“Our democracy is celebrating its twentieth birthday. For some time massive street celebrations have been prepared – and they will probably take place as usual: on the podiums will sparkle the pop starts of the past forty years, the politicians will thank themselves for how well they navigated the (jagged) rocks of emerging democracy, and the majority of the nation will extend their weekend and disappear somewhere.

As long as it remains this way, there will be a missed chance for this November anniversary. The twenty year jubilee is simultaneously an excellent opportunity: not only for the usual look back, but for a straightforward inventory of our democracy.

Our democracy has existed twenty years. Even after twenty years, we continuously make excuses, saying that we are [still] somehow at the beginning, that our democracy is still not yet mature. In this way we explain lots of abuses, almost everything. Only that the slow development is not the main problem. Our democracy in fact may not ever develop or strengthen. The events of the past year are but a sign of the decline. It is high time to take care of our democracy.” (Inventura demokracie, 2009)

To that end, the students organized not only commemorative events but also political events, organizing debates over topics such as “coming to terms with the communist past”, governmental transparency and education, including arranging meetings with local politicians to discuss public issues. Their anniversary program culminated with a second petition, “Give us a present for our twentieth birthday”, in which they called upon Czech politicians to redress four major legislative deficiencies. Although the petition’s demands ultimately went unsatisfied, Inventura demokracie continues to operate as a student lobby group on governmental issues.[5]

Another group established out of anxiety over the anniversary was Opona (Curtain), an independent civic organization created by Czech artists with the sole purpose of publicly commemorating the anniversary. According to one organizer, the idea emerged when they realized that no official program was being prepared for the twentieth anniversary, and they were afraid that public apathy would leave the day neglected. The centrality of legitimating the anniversary’s value to their commemorative program appears directly in the name: “20 years after the Iron Curtain Fell - We Have Something to Celebrate!”- in order to show that Czechs took to the streets for ideals, not just for refrigerators[6]. The celebration included symbolically toppling a wall in front of the National Theater. (Ceska Televize, 2009; Opona, 2009)

A speech by Opona co-founder Marek Vocel stated that Czechs do have something to celebrate, despite the many suggestions to the contrary. Rejecting the idea that a deficient present democracy negated the value of the past, Vocel argued that the freedom they had gained twenty years before was not, as they had “naively” believed, the same thing as happiness, and he called upon his fellow citizens to proactively overcome their disillusionment with politics and participate in strengthening democracy: “Today we can’t expect another revolution. We don’t want one, we have the regime that we longed for (po kterem jsme touzili). From many different mouths we hear the truthful saying that we have the kind of democracy we deserve. Let’s all of us go now each in their own personal way and with a sense of responsibly collectively create our society in such a way that we feel the least ashamed of it.” (Vocel, 2009)

Groups such as Inventura demokracie and Opona were only among the most visible of the private civic organizations that took it upon themselves to orchestrate the twentieth anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”. While tens of thousands of Czechs took to the streets in unofficial commemorations, the Czech state came under fire by reporters for “forgetting” to plan its own birthday celebration. (Stat zapomnel na oslavy, 2009) The Czech government was the only state in the former Eastern Bloc not to host any major official commemoration on its own in 2009, with the government limiting itself to a few state-centered events. In the article “The state has forgotten to commemorate November 17th”, an official from the Office of the President denied that a lack of “grandiose” celebrations implied official disengagement. Explaining the Czech state’s minimal participation, which differed greatly from the lavish spectacle put on by the Germans at the Berlin Wall, he said, “Our tradition is different. It’s more civilized, kmornejsi (intimate, closed-quarters) and can also be more immediate.” (Stat zapomnel na oslavy, 2009) Both former president Vaclav Havel and then-president Vaclav Klaus explained their aversion to pompous ceremonies was a matter of preference: they wanted to be “among the people.” Local authorities had varying degrees of input into celebrations, but even here the “tradition” of state deference to public initiatives emerges: for example, the Prague municipal government declined to organize its own events, and instead provided the funding for the dozens of private initiatives who independently organized the conferences, concerts, demonstrations, street theater, and other events around the capital.

According to President Klaus, he preferred to commemorate the day “among the people and with the people”. Considering Klaus’ reception at the main monument to the “Velvet Revolution”- a plaque commemorating the site where state police brutally dispersed a student-led demonstration on November 17, 1989 - located on National Street (the Narodni trida monument), one questions the wisdom of this “intimate and immediate” tradition for Czech politicians. As he lit candles at the monument the crowds reacted some with heckling and abuse, including “Klaus isn’t our president” and flying the European Union flag (Klaus was infamous for his antagonism to the regional organization). Police had to step in to calm down the situation. (Stat zapomnel oslavy, 2009) Klaus, however, reacted to the verbal sparring with equanimity: “I expected worse”, he said. Stating later that this was “natural” in democracies, he concluded that the anniversary was “a great success” in that “people can shout at the President or the Mayor without Police attacking them. It is a victory that not everyone appreciates.” (Mach, 2010)

A final moment of ambivalence in the representation of the “Velvet Revolution” in 2009 concerned the construction of a new memorial by Czech artist Jiri David, who worked with mobile service provider Vodafone to collect over 85,000 keys in October and November 2009 from Czech citizens (in exchange for free texting services). Jingling keys had symbolized the merry revolution on the streets, as demonstrators had used them to signal to the communists “it was time to go home”. Unveiled in March 2010, David had constructed the “key sculpture” (klicova socha) out of the thousands of donated keys, fastening them to iron mesh shape that vertically spelled out the word “revoluce” (with the “R” letter the largest, slowly dwindling down to a small letter “E”). According to the website (and the authors’ own viewing of the sculpture), the letters of the word “revolution” are constructed from different fonts, each of which represents a particular style of writing from a communist-era item or commodity (for example the R was shaped in the style of newspapers like Rude parvo, the E from communist-era toilet paper; etc. (www.klicovasocha.cz) Describing his reasons for making the statue, David connects the statue’s shape to “ambivalence” and the dwindling hopes for the revolution: “The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) represents a personal polemic on development within the Czech Republic in the last 20 years. Of course, it’s neither a celebratory monument nor simply a critical piece. The sculpture expresses the ambivalence I feel when I look at present-day society and politics...” (Ptacek, 2010) Whether expressly and aesthetically articulated (as in David) or as a subtext (Inventura demokracie’s tension with the current regime or Opona’s argument that there is cause for celebration), and in the state’s (apparently willing) aloofness in commemorating a key official holiday, these moments of collective remembrance share a common theme. Namely, they share the self-conscious distancing of collective or social remembering from “official” commemorations or narratives in order to preserve an “authentic” commemorative agenda. This commonality allows us to set aside the question of representation and contestation for the moment and problematize the social construction of memory itself. Not only is the memory of a particular past “constructed”, but it carries a normative value implicit in its social usage: to assert that someone must remember something is to imply that the very act of remembering has value beyond utilitarian recall. The concept of anamnesis was advanced by both Plato and Aristotle to characterize the “effort of memory”, the search for an object that is feared lost, emphasizing the struggle against forgetting rather than the spontaneous act of recall. In explaining Aristotle’s use of the term, Paul Ricouer writes that anamnesis implies intentionality in the act, as well as the possibility of failure. (Ricoeur, 2004, 17-19) This intentionality of memory underpins the legitimizing “why” used by advocates to commemorate: their arguments invoke not just the meaning of that history but its existential significance for those asked to remember - what Gil Eyal calls a “will to memory” (Eyal, 2004) Remembering is stimulated by awareness of a past that can only be known through its being absent from the present. That is at the essence of remembrance and contrasts this action to forgetting - the effort to remember is the conscious struggle against a perceived potential loss of the past - we can only forget what we remember to once have known. (Ricoeur, 2004, 30) The trope of ambivalence is made visible here as part of the overall mnemonic code, not just as a state of remembrance but as the prompt to remembrance itself.

This brings us back to the connection between ambivalence and individual and public memory of the Velvet Revolution. The will to remember demands the appropriate vehicle for remembering. Declaring that 1989 was forgotten or neglected presupposes some standard of measure as to what an appropriate or adequate remembering the “Velvet Revolution” was supposed to do. Advocates for or against commemoration argued their case not just over the meaning of the day itself, but on the basis of the assumed surplus value of remembrance for those who participated (e.g., a closer relationship to democracy). The twentieth anniversary represents a particularly fruitful nexus of narrative and mnemonic practices, because it showcases the encoding of narrative tropes as they are transmitted from the lived experience of the immediate transition to post-communism, to the received experience of life in a post-communist state.

Therefore the ambivalence that appears in such diverse forums as the sculptor David’s collaboration with Vodafone and the invocation to commemorate by students and artists alike can be seen not just as a societal phenomenon, but as constituting part of the cultural formations of collective memory. That this desire spanned generations and social groups indicates a broad base, and here I argue that in part it is the artifact of the post-communist experience. Sociologists have long described the emergence of ambivalence as a cultural formation of the postcommunist era (see Misztal, 1996; Bauman, 1994; Sztompka, 2010) The ambivalence of post-communist culture has been linked with remembering in particular by anthropologist Svetlana Boym in her discussion of nostalgia in post-communist states. (Boym, 2001) Boym’s discussion of nostalgia describes the “affective community” created by sharing a common fantasy: that of a “home that no longer exists or has never existed.” (Boym, 2001, xiii) Breaking down the idea of nostalgia etymologically, Boym distinguishes between restorative nostalgia, which focuses on the nostos, the home (including national mythologies, nostalgic returns to “Golden Ages” and a desire to escape from the present into a utopian past) and reflective nostalgia, which revels in the algia, the longing and displacement that is necessary to maintain the love affair with a place and time that has no real spatial or temporal coordinates anymore. Reflective nostalgia refuses any eternal truths or “Golden Eras”, and remains stubbornly ambivalent, multi-valenced, looking not backwards but sideways, privileging “unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.” (Boym, 2001, xvi) “Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt”. (Boym, 2001, xviii)

Marek Vocel’s speech for Opona suggests the reflective nostalgia was at work at the twentieth anniversary. The Czechs gathered to affirm that they had something to celebrate acknowledged that they had “the state that we longed for”, the purpose of commemoration was not a return to the past: rather, it was the refusal to put the past to rest, calling for continuous civic participation as necessary to maintain the democracy they wanted, or forestalling the final homecoming indefinitely (or as long as problems with Czech democracy are perceived to exist). While disillusionment with the present certainly fuels ambivalence towards the legacy of 1989[7], this analysis suggests that ambivalence in the commemoration of the events of 1989 has another side, one in which distance has preserved intimacy and critical engagement. Perhaps we have been looking for a restorative memory of 1989 while ignoring the significantly reflective nature of the Czechs’ commemorative practices.

Ambivalence both for and against Monumentality

As with all memory, it is those who create it that shape it, but in order to shape it the activists must draw upon mutually-understood cultural meanings and codes. We proceed along the lines of James Young’s description of “collected memories”, the public manifestation of mutually interpenetrating practices of memory built upon shared, but often divergent, experiences. (Young, 1993, 280) The focus brings into relief the work of memory activists, in the case of 1989 in Czechoslovakia includes especially students, whose collective identification with November 17 and the beginning of the revolution is multi-valenced and intimate. This focus not only narrows the discussion from the unwieldy universal “collective memory”, or public memory, encompassing the entire state structure, entire society, or an entire social group within society - concentrate instead on tracing specific patterns and instances of memory transmission amongst groups with shared perspectives within broader patterns of memory-making. Unlike under state socialism, democratic regimes don’t have one narrative; post-modern, post-national public memory is inherently contested. (Gillis, 1996, 16-20)

There are still frameworks that condition the form and content of memory being passed down, as collective memory is produced through shared reservoirs of cultural meaning that set parameters for when remembering is considered correct and appropriate. Remembering must be considered “authentic”. Collective memory cannot simply appear out of thin air; how we remember is as much part of the labor to faithfully render past experience as what we remember. In order to be considered genuine, collective memories must retain some sense of fidelity to an experience or narrative of the past; and the trope of ambivalence, as is argued here, has emerged in the past two decades as central components to public efforts to authentically come to terms with the end of communism. Here, poetics and performativity help engage the subtle contradictions and interstices of meaning that characterize the historical consciousness of the events of 1989, which in turn shape the contours of the broader symbolic meaning within collected memories. As Iwona Irwin Zarecka explains, the “reality of the past” being reconstructed occurs through the organized effort of memory work designed to “give presence to the previously absent or silenced past.” By self-consciously and intentionally appropriating the tasks of public remembering, memory activists “through explicit editorials and unabashed creations of new symbolic resources… expose the presence of social and political control over memory to the public at large. In that sense, their importance goes beyond the immediate results at hand, as memory projects reclaim more than a past, they reclaim the power to define it.” (Irwin-Zarecka, 1994, 133)

Rather than considering narratives as articulations of the past, the analysis of ambivalence leads us to investigate the politics of appropriate commemoration. “How” to most authentically remember 1989, as will be seen, constituted just as important an issue for Czechs seeking to remember 1989 as “what” should be remembered. Commemorations emphasize the process of constructing the past, not just in relation to present concerns but also to previous cultural understandings of the politics of memory. The level of attention to public remembrance has become a standard barometer for measuring the importance of the revolution in Czech collective memory; among other things it was the paucity of organized remembrance during the 1990s, reaching a low point at the end of the decade when the anniversary was marked by only few routine commemorative acts.

Creating commemorative space for the “Velvet Revolution” was problematic in part because of the communist appropriation and over-politicization of historical memory. State anniversaries and official holidays have traditionally played key roles in mediating between official and vernacular memory; the official calendar creates a temporal landscape of memory which symbolically institutionalizes the state’s visions of the past and shared identity. Official representations of the past transmit the dominant values and shared identity through national memory. However, as Katherine Verdery argues, the Party’s ideological project politicized the connection to the past across the board. The politics of memory under communism thus engaged personal memory in the public sphere through a particularly polarized division of official and unofficial or collective memory. (Verdery, 1999) Rejecting the specific formulation of official/unofficial spheres of remembrance thus opened up space for constructing new “traditions” of public memory that envisioned this relationship along new ideological principles. During the period in which the mnemonic code of the “Velvet Revolution” was formed, the early period of post-communism, the commemorative code of national remembering had been delegitimized, and the monumentality of the communist era was rejected in favor of smaller, privatized commemorations.

Anti-monumentality, in contrast the monumentality of communism, was small, human in scale, and made no attempt to freeze time in space. The monument at Narodni trida was constructed in 1990 as a perfect example of the mnemonic will towards anti-monumentality (protipominkove): built in 1990, the small, unassuming plaque contained just bronze reliefs of the hands (representing the unarmed students on the street who were beaten by police) and the date. As Hojda and Pokorny point out, it was only the “unmelodramatic (nepateticke) and humble manner of commemoration” that allowed the installation of the memorial without any major debate. (Hojda and Pokorny, 1996, 230-231) The human scale of commemorations became an enduring feature of collectively remembering the “Velvet Revolution”.

“The Nation Has Arisen”: Heroic Public Memory during the Revolutionary Events

Creating a “usable past” for 1989 meant navigating not only the experiences but also the previous use of history for the purposes of state legitimacy, and “official” history in the post-communist period found itself at a particular disadvantage vis-a-vis “vernacular” due to highly politicized nature of collective memory under communism. This was not problematic at the first month anniversary, however. The narrative of impending victory and success resonated with popular celebrations, in particular through “happenings”[8]. Young people in particular had used happenings, or impromptu street theater, in the latter half of the 1980s to challenge the regime’s stranglehold on the public sphere, and the practices were integrated into the peaceful uprisings in late 1989. Happenings as memory practices here mirrored the values of the revolution itself, as seen at the first month anniversary. One of the most common banner slogans of the period, “Narod zavel, bude to Havel” (The nation has awoken - it will be Havel) reflected the heroic narrative of a nation rising up to reclaim its destiny that remained the dominant motif of the commemorations. Other happenings were more informal and invoked a number of themes, including Czechoslovak nationalism as well as a public sense of ownership for the revolution. Civic Forum artists at Prague’s Manes galerie hosted the “Drakiada”, setting loose red, white and blue kites on Letna plain “in honor of November 17, which will undoubtedly become one of the nations’ svatky (anniversaries)”. (Vytvarnici, 1989) In Plzen, students unveiled their “message” to the people of Czechoslovakia, flying kites (draci) from the tower of the Church of St. Bartholomew with the national colors and the peaceful message “Be good to one another”. They encircled the town and let off 250 colored balloons that carried the banner “Narod zavel, bude to Havel”. (V nedeli, 1989)

The motif of bringing people out onto the streets manifested itself in several forms, playing in particular on the themes of tolerance and understanding. Perhaps the most obvious example of using the first month anniversary to create a new historical record can be seen in Prague, where students organized a memorial march of their journey from the month before, making their way from Albertov to Narodni trida (National Street) to Wenceslas Square. Participants in remembering the “last straw” that the nation couldn’t take - stopped at Narodni trida where they sang hymns in remembrance of the students hurt there - the end of the procession was a demonstration at Wenceslas Square. (Stepanek, 1989, 1) The procession followed the same track only this time, unlike on November 17, 1989, the demonstrators made it to their desired destination, Wenceslas Square, where the atmosphere was completely different from one month before. On Narodni trida people had already converged and were laying candles and flowers at spots where the demonstrators were beaten.

This unambiguously – and unashamedly - heroic narrative did not outlast the first few post-revolutionary months. The crisis of representation emerged in autumn 1990 through public debates about how to commemorate as well as what to commemorate. Debates over commemoration were embedded in competing interpretations of the revolutionary mandate. But the trope of ambivalence extended beyond discussion of what had actually happened; it also enveloped how to best remember what happened. There was also significant discussion as to the most appropriate way to commemorate the revolution, in particular a distinct ambivalence towards official commemorations by the state’s use the anniversary in order to further the revolution’s goals.

Beyond the “Great November Velvet Revolution”: Ambivalence and Liminality at the First Anniversary

In his study of young people in post-communist states during the 1990s, Henri Vogt found two types of ambivalence that characterized their experiences after communism: post-revolutionary ambivalence, in which the old and the new systems co-existed side by side, and post-modern ambivalence, in which uncertainty became sedimented as a permanent feature of life. (Vogt, 2005, 104-105) For the early commemorations of November 17, the concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit (non-synchronicity), the different paces of change coinciding during the early period of transition.[9] Applying this concept to early commemorations of November 17 unveils interesting parameters to mnemonic practices. The question of ownership here seems to be less who owns the story of the past - the narrative of memory - but who owns the right to remembering? The reaction of the Czech public to the first anniversary of November 17th reflects this ambivalence.

Part of defining the event of 1989 was defining the language within which it would be described; this necessitated a discursive subverting of communist language in which to remember 1989. One of the groups in society best-authorized to bear the revolution’s memory were students. Their collective memory was tied to the events of 1989 through their mobilization especially during November and December 1989, in particular their direct connection to the foundation event of the police crackdown which in the narrative of 1989 acts as the beginning. The desire to safeguard November 17 from being commercialized or tainted by communist commemoration was also implored by those who held no such irony towards it. Take for example this student criticizing normalization-era pop star Michal David’s song “Sametovy listopad”. In addition to commercializing the 1989 events, the student says,

“We have been hearing this poetic adjective - velvet - practically everywhere recently. From the poem the misappropriated word penetrates our ears without us realizing its meaning. It is becoming common, so common that it loses its power. It has lost so much strength that songwriter Michal David, and not a poet, reaches for it as if for an ordinary word. Let’s preserve it. Let’s think of something new, or better yet let’s stop speaking altogether on the great things of the past and begin to think about the great things of the future, so that thanks to our linguistic ability we don’t create out of VRSR a VLSR (Velká listopadová sametová revoluce), Great November Velvet Revolution.” (Matula, 1990, 3)

The communist system’s own revolution had worked to ideologically transform reality by separating the referent from the referred, so that peace meant war, assistance meant invasion - it was part of the ideological reality that had been created during totalitarianism. In addition to naming, a particular commemorative vocabulary associated with the Great October Socialist Revolution (in Czech Velka rijnova socialisticka revoluce, or VRSR) had been disseminated throughout all East European satellite societies through commemorations, education, speeches, etc. The association of November 17 and 1989 with a discredited idea of Bolshevik-style revolution in the grand European tradition - which the Bolsheviks had appropriated and transposed to their Eastern European satellites – was in itself problematic. In other words, to treat the cultural imaginary of “1989” as a foundation event in the traditional sense of the word meant in effect to besmirch it. In order to create a viable collective and public memory of 1989, one that could be commemorated in a separate way from the previous regime, an entirely new vocabulary had to be created, and this would not be an easy task.

These various trends converged at the first anniversary. A number of student groups also came out with calls not to celebrate November 17 in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, culminating the in petition Vyzva ke spoluobcanum III. The Student Parliament announced that it would not celebrate a "Great November Velvet Revolution" and left it up to individual university faculties to arrange their tribute. The petition called upon citizens not to celebrate November 17 because the revolution had been stolen - reform had not gone far or quickly enough and communists remained in prominent positions of power. This was no time to congratulate the nation, it was time for a renewed emphasis on pushing forth the revolution. (Vyroci bez oslav, 1990; Zadne oslavy, 1990; Wooley, 2007)

At the first anniversary, Civic Forum didn’t even release a proclamation for the anniversary of November 17 itself; instead choosing to release a proclamation for the first anniversary of its founding on November 19. Instead of reflecting the clean break with the past argument that had been adopted by others, the proclamation adopts the Havelian line that the line of totalitarianism runs through everyone in explaining why the transformation would be harder than expected. It states that “We don’t want to make a legend out of November. What is important is the spirit that bound us together back then. Let’s not lose it!” (Civic Forum, 1990) Moreover, calls for “apolitical” commemoration were part of November 17th’s mnemonic repertoire from the beginning. After receiving considerable support for their decision not to commemorate the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”, some student leaders relented and decided that the anniversary indeed warranted a commemoration, but one that was specifically "dignified" (důstojný), not “celebrations with flags and fireworks.”. (Martin Mejstrik…, 1990, 7) The students met with government leaders and persuaded them to hold a public ceremony on Wenceslas Square to guarantee that the anniversary would not be "politically abused", in the words of student journalist and leader Pavel Zacek. (Zacek, 1990, 6) According to student leader Martin Mejstrik, who had earlier explained that this symbolic location had picked because one year earlier it had been a place of solidarity and toleration, the first anniversary’s public meeting - or mass demonstration, rather - would counteract the increasingly poisonous atmosphere in the country referred to in the students’ petition “through a collective expression of interest in the radical progress of reform, in the genuine cleansing of society!" (Studenti dekuji, 1990, 7)

It is worth considering exactly what apolitical means in this context, as on November 17, 1990, Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel and American President George Bush presided over the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. The several hundred thousand people who had convened at Wenceslas Square that cold Saturday afternoon were treated to a number of challenges to the official narrative. Anarchists delayed the ceremony half an hour by blocking the passage of the presidents to the speakers' podium. These conflicts paint early political challenges to the official appropriation of the Velvet Revolution by Civic Forum, one that the Republicans would continue to exploit in narrative form through various claims to a stolen revolution. In the middle of George Bush's speech, right-wing supporters of Miroslav Sládek's Republican party shouted "Down with the totality of Civic forum!" and "Mr. Bush, do you know that you are supporting the communists? (Neomaleny protest, 1990, 2)

Havel first responds to the trope of public disillusionment with defensive statements such as his response to the Vyzva ke spoluobcanum III, in which he said that despite the widespread feelings of disappointment, most people were ignoring the things that had been done, such as negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops. (Havel, 1990, 4) Havel’s unwillingness to identify with the disappointment with the results of 1989 at the first anniversary can also be seen in his speech to Wenceslas Square that day, when he reinterprets the students’ proclamation as mainly a call for “meditation of each of us. Yes, let’s today think each one of us about ourselves. Let’s try to think calmly about our public life, with a broad view and in the light of our own consciousness. Let’s try each of us to look into ourselves and from a wider, so-called human perspective let’s try to realize, what kind of view our often too provincially numbskull actions have in the eyes of the world!” Onlookers such as Vladimir Schoedlebauer were unimpressed with Havel’s overly abstract language, although he did enjoy the U.S. President’s speech, especially when George Bush left the “Aquarium” that had been built for him to walk amongst the spectators. (Schoedlebauer, 1990, 2)

The first anniversary of 1989 is immersed in the politics of coming to terms with the past, lustration and dealing with communist property and personnel, and securing a viable political and economic program for the future. The question of keeping the anniversary “apolitical” was difficult to uphold. The first year anniversary is also the first major conflict during the commemoration that challenges the interpretation being put forth during the ceremony itself. Although in rhetoric there had been battles between radicals and gradualists, students and Civic Forum, etc. throughout, with the petition, the proclamation that challenged the “official” interpretation being held by the government (which itself was being challenged within the government), it was two groups representing extremes in society - the Republicans and the anarchists, who actively disrupted the ceremony. This pattern of conflict during the revolution would continue throughout the first years of the revolution as a large amount of political turmoil kept the anniversary a symbolic point of protest, but at the first anniversary the unofficial narratives in the anniversary held great sway.

Ambivalence Encoded in the Commemorative Narrative

When discussing early commemorations of November 17, what is striking is not so much the conflicts over interpretations of meaning and content - which do exist - but the consistent effort by many to delay the final interpretation until the time is more ripe. A great deal changes in the contemporary political and social context between the one-month and one-year anniversary in 1989 and 1990, and discourse concerning the public memory of the revolution reflects both these changing immediate priorities as well as a shift in attitude towards its mnemonic function. The problematizing of memory reached a critical point at the first anniversary, which set a standard debate that would occupy commemorations of November 17 throughout the 1990s: how to commemorate the event properly, which included a set of arguments that the anniversary should not be commemorated at all, with the inference that the revolution itself was not finished and thus the time to begin memorializing - or historicizing - the memory had not yet occurred. Arguments for or against commemoration played out in a transforming discursive plane. One main forum in which this played out being newspaper discussions about whether or not to commemorate the anniversary. At this time newspapers were experiencing an enormous upsurge in readership, and the focus on popular attitudes towards the anniversary is notable. One of the most widespread themes was that there was nothing to celebrate.[10] The day November 17 was seen as a time of symbolic reckoning about how far the Czechs had come in the last year, and one of the most widespread tropes in this discussion is disillusionment and disappointment that the promises of the revolution had not been kept. Many times this supposed “disillusionment” is projected onto others and used as an argument for a change in the contemporary situation, as seen below in the response to the student petition. This is a way of commenting on the social condition by projecting one’s own beliefs about the state of the world onto an “other” that is meant to represent the general society. The theme of disillusionment is also posited as the “inevitable” outcome of revolutionary euphoria, as here: “It is almost a year since the domestic communists shook hands across a half a century with the German fascists and had unarmed students beaten. A year which has gone by so quickly, that has been so incredible, that maybe only with the passage of time will we manage to separate out everything correctly, to evaluate and judge. After the November and December euphoria there necessarily had to come disappointment (rozcarovani), dissatisfaction (nespokojenost) with the slowness of change, intolerance and disillusion.” (Sevcik. 1990, 1)

Sevcik’s discussion of the disillusionment with post-communist change highlights the link between post-communist disillusionment and ambivalence towards the legacy of 1989. But the trope of ambivalence emerges in other ways, too, such as Mirka Spacilova’s anecdote about her friend “Josef”, who she states is meant to be an everyman from the street, the tram, a fellow classmate. Josef was born on November 18 and after last year he considers himself lucky to have escaped his father’s fate. Josef Sr. was born on May 1 (International Worker’s Day) and was never was able to come to terms with his own birthday because other people were always reading into it meanings it didn’t have - if he wanted to celebrate in a pub with friends, for example, other pub-goers thought the group was there for May 1, and that they were therefore either true believers or else provocateurs about to subvert the proletariat’s anniversary. Josef Jr. always felt sorry for those born on November 17, and Spacilova understands:

“...the extreme symbolism of the anniversary is embedded in us deeper than it seems. One person says that after a year of the “gentle velvet” there isn’t anything to celebrate - because, as a certain cashier in one Prague beauty salon maintains, “everything’s going to hell again”, because once more people are jumping off of Nuselske bridge - and celebrating from that perspective is a call verging on a miracle of any kind of merrymaking. The other person, on the other hand, falls prey to similarly general and boundary-less opti mism and with that we already have experience, they are offering an all-encompassing enchanted celebration which again doesn’t have the uncelebrated well-known obligatory voluntariness. Both stances remind me dangerously of the ever-present threat of Josef’s unwanted birthday guests.”

Her solution is toast with Josef whenever both he and she - at the exact same moment - are hit with the same burst of emotions, whether skepticism or ecstasy, and in this altered state maybe she’ll come up with a new style for state holidays “with one basic rule: to celebrate one day later.” (Spacilova, 1990, 8)

With this anecdote, Spacilova ascribes her reluctance to embrace the anniversary in the suffocating presence of the state holiday structure itself: there doesn’t seem to be any room for personal experience in the experience of commemoration itself. Through a burst of spontaneous, completely unchecked (but still collective) emotion, she and her friend create a new collectivity that opens up space to redefine the official calendar, if only on a personal level. And the use of birthday as the metaphoric parallel is significant, because it is at once a highly symbolic and personal event, but also the way in which many people experienced the events of November and December 1989. The overwhelming shadow of official memory – even in the post-communist era – alienates Spacilova from public memory, to the point to where she attempts to put temporal distance between her own commemorative gestures and that of the “official” public – by celebrating every state holiday “one day later”. The self-conscious creation of temporal distance illustrates the reflective stance of Spacilova’s engagement with the anniversary: on an individual level, the day-after anniversary seeks to “cherish shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space.” (Boym, 2001, 49) The construction of a parallel calendar of public memory, as an authenticating alternative to the overwhelming presence of official memory (in any form), reflects the awareness of multiple dimensions of time co-existing in tandem, and the navigation between them as the most comfortable spot to practice mnemonics. The “invented tradition” of the day-after anniversary exemplifies (if only virtually, not in reality) the reflective stance towards the legacy of 1989.

Challenging “official” forms of commemoration as a means to create an authentic tradition for also appear in the practices left over from the previous regime. In particular the communist practice of combining sports events with commemorations - thus creating a healthy national history and body- suffered from direct assault. The co-optation of communist forms of commemoration could have different symbolic meanings. There was nothing particularly new about this - memorial marathons, swim meets, academic competitions, and other contests had been held as part of the official (communist) November 17 holiday for a number of years. In Olomouc, the twentieth anniversary of the 17 November Memorial swim tournament - an international event with swimmers from across the Eastern Bloc, was held as per usual, the main contest still being the Jan Opletal trophy for the only difference this year being that it now commemorated International Students Day and the first anniversary of the November Revolution - for which reports said the swimmers’ performance was a dignified commemoration of both. (Memorial 17. listopadu v plavani, 1990) This didn’t seem to engender any major uproar in the community, although it is difficult to tell since the main student newspaper in Olomouc, Pretlak, had by that time stopped publishing.

However, in Prague the planned November 17 marathon, which was specifically designed to commemorate the 1989 events with the starting and ending point at Albertov, retracing the original 1989 student march, was the subject of a number of articles condemning its connection with the anniversary. While the committee planning the November 17 Marathon (Beh 17. Listopadu) worked in coordination with both student movement and Civic Forum leaders, not all in the student community were happy. (Usneseni Rady OF, 1990) One Studentske listy

journalist points out,

"You think that November 17th doesn't have anything in common with [1948's] Victory February? For forty-one years we celebrated February and only now are we learning about its background. Now SOMEONE is preparing this society for the first celebration of November 17, but what do we know about the behind-the-scenes workings of this day? Therefore, even though I have enjoyed sports since childhood, I will avoid the November 17 run. But what if next year it will be a compulsory event?” (Sved, 1990, 8) As part of an effort to keep the first anniversary authentic, Studentske listy journalists and fellow sympathizers decided to sabotage the marathon by acting as human blockades.

On the day of the run, as several thousand participants geared up to start the course, the runners heard rumors of the planned attempts to block their course and when the mass of people unfortunately jumped the gun, literally, taking off before the official start, in the general chaos they couldn’t be reined back in by security guards. In what became a breathless race to stop the runners, business owner Ceslav Vancura managed to catch up with the lead group about two kilometers into the race and, plunging headlong at the head runner, managed to throw him off course so that he began running back towards the start line. (Beh s studentstkymi prekazkami, 1990, 1,8; Maji jine mineni, 1990, 10)

Reading about the battle over the marathon in Olomouc prompted N. Hanak to contemplate the Czechs’ ambiguity (dvojznacnost, suggesting two features) relationship towards anniversaries. Clearly distinguishing his remarks from the “compulsory commemorations of the past”, he says that freedom isn’t just freedom of possibility but freedom of will and of execution. He attributes it to the occupation of the Czech lands and their heightened sensitivity (precitlivelosti) to commemorations, the “premrsteny cit” (unreasonable/eccentric/hysterical) feeling about symbols and jubilea. It takes just one mocker to ruin the whole celebration. (Hanak, 1990, 2). Hanak specifically refers to the first anniversary’s “November 17 Run” showdown when discussing what he sees as the Czech ambivalence towards commemorations, going on to state:

“The reaction to Saturday’s commemoration, or non-commemoration, is a precise picture of the contradiction in us - on the one hand a resistance against any kind of celebrating, on the other hand indignation towards undignified commemorations. The marathon “a la Rude parvo[11]” upset me as well, understandably, but I have the impression that the attachment of the students to some kind of pieta can in the future end in the same thing. But is it really possible to avoid this? I think not - every commemoration is in time ossified, every symbol fossilized. It is better to fight for the authenticity of action in the future than the memorials of the past. Despite that, if I were to wager as to how to commemorate November 17 next time for real, I would suggest that the time and place of the given action be disseminated again only through whispered by ear and in the mass media it be thoroughly denied for certainty’s sake.”

Hanak’s formula for an appropriate commemoration of 1989 with authenticity, as with Spacilova, achieved authenticity on the personalized, but not privatized, level.[12] Clearly separating out the collective and social memory practices from the national (spreading news of the event by word of mouth, not the official media) is reminiscent of the everyday “countermemory”, the “oral memory transmitted between close friends and family members and spread to the wider society through unofficial networks.” (Boym, 2001, 61) Ambivalence is here encoded into the very traditions of transmitting information: ellipses, absences, half-words and silences all spoke to a common societal collusion against the state. (Boym, 1994) As Istvan Rev makes the point that after the fall of communism, the need to construct new social frameworks of remembering left past experiences in limbo in the 1990s: “Reconstruction [of the past] makes sense only in the framework of a new narrative. In order to compose a new story, elements of the old are restructured, rearranged, refigured, left out, put aside, overlooked, dismembered - forgotten. Forgetting an event, like remembering it, makes sense only contextually.” (Rev, 1995, 9) In an effort to maintain the authenticating dichotomy between public and private, to keep the legacy of 1989 from ossifying (a certainty in the course of time), the only recourse is to build into the very commemorative practices itself an element of destabilizing uncertainty. I suggest that the trope of ambivalence emerged as part of the reconstruction of the social frameworks of memory in the immediate aftermath of the communist system’s collapse, and it has reappeared as an element in later commemorations through the constant need to re-engage with a past feared lost and forgotten.

Tenth Anniversary: Ambivalence Re-Interpreted

During the 1990s, ambivalence towards the “Velvet Revolution” was reflected in the relative paucity of official and social commemorations. Until 1999, commemorations tended to be small, often private affairs – individual politicians laying wreaths at the memorial on Narodni trida, small conferences or exhibits of pictures, sometimes in town halls, and often at universities or theaters where the activists of the revolution reunited. By 1999 the immediate post-communist period has become somewhat normalized. Yet ambivalence and distance towards official commemorations of November 17 remained, in particular through the discussion of post-revolutionary disillusionment (most famously encapsulated in 1997 with Vaclav Havel’s diagnosis of a “blba nalada”, or bad/stupid mood, in Czech society caused by dissatisfaction with post-communist transition). At the tenth anniversary, the same cohort of students who had spearheaded the “Nothing to Celebrate” petition in 1990 joined in to commemorate the tenth anniversary in order to counter public apathy and provide a proper commemoration.

Society ‘89 was created in late 1998 as a planning committee for the tenth anniversary. The group was headed by former student leader Jan Bubeník and his partners Martin and Sona Poduskova decided to plan the tenth anniversary themselves when, as Poduskova said, when they realized that no government or state bodies were planning any major commemorations. (Poduskova, 2005) Setting a trend that would be replicated in the 2000s, civic, non-governmental organizations spearhead the commemorations. This civic organization consisted of an honorary committee including the heads of state (Havel, Klaus, Zeman), top political leaders, and the mayor of Prague along with prominent dissidents and personalities; their organization was affiliated with the EastWest Institute and had as media partners Czech TV and Czech Radio; and they had a special committee for former student leaders to plan the anniversary. (www.spolecnost89.cz) Although this was not formally an “official” anniversary planning committee, it carried the implicit stamp of state or government sponsorship and with it the assumption of upholding the status quo.

Society 89’s concept for the anniversary, as expressed by its leader and in its project proposal, was to be not only a retrospective remembrance of the events of 1989 and the ensuing changes, but also a critical evaluation of the negative and positive results of those events. Bubenik said that the aim of the organizations’ commemorations was to both remind society that things really had changed for the better since 1989. (Wooley, 2007) Above all their focus was on recreating the euphoria of November 1989 and the emotions that brought everyone together to reinvigorate civil society. In an interview with the author, co-founder Sona Poduskova explained that the organizers wanted a “dignified” and “apolitical” commemoration which would not want be used by any groups for political or extremist ends and would include all levels of society. (Poduskova, 2005) Society ’89 aimed to present a unifying interpretation of 1989 and the communist period before it, placing the popular uprisings and public euphoria on the same level as the events at the domestic and international political elite level. It was also aimed at stimulating positive changes in society; not, however, at delegitimizing the government. Society ‘89’s week-long commemoration program consisted of a broad array of themes, including events concerning the former student leaders (the book launch of the oral history One Hundred Student Revolutions (Sto studentskych revoluci)) and Civic Forum (whose ten-year reunion was held on November 19). A conference representing the international sphere included most notably the Ten Years Later conference inaugural panel. On the evening of November 17, the main political leaders from each side of the Cold War conflict commemorated together. Representing the ‘East’ were former Polish opposition activist Lech Wałęsa; his Czech counterpart Václav Havel, who was doubling as President of the Czech Republic; and the former General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. From the ‘West’ came the former US President George Bush, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the former (West) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the widow of the former French president François Mitterand, Danielle Mitterand. Not only did this raise the prestige of the commemoration overall, but it also located Czechoslovakia as a key player in the wider global changes in 1989. (www.spolecnost89.cz; Statnici, kteri pomohli…, 1999, 3) However, there was one more subject of Society ‘89’s commemorations, which was the Czech society of 1989 itself. The events aimed at the general public were the culmination of the commemorative week. In addition to laying flowers and lighting candles at Narodni trida on 17 November, an event open to the public in any case, and a photo exhibit hosted by Mlada fronta Dnes of the society-wide events in 1989, there were several events which specifically were designed to show society to itself. On the one hand they were designed to recreate the euphoria of November and December, as with the Concert for All Decent People on November 20.[13] However, they were also designed to remind Czechs that the communist period should not be nostalgically remembered. This group included both the day of Czech communist television, which also occurred on November 20, and the "open-air museum" on Wenceslas Square, the site of the original protests, was the site of key chains being handed out with "10 let pote" (Ten years later) stamped on them in recognition of the spontaneous key-jangling during the 1989 demonstrations in both Wenceslas Square and Letna field. The public was framed as civil society - it was civil society that Jan Bubenik wished to reinvigorate. The skanzen totality represents an interesting facet of ambivalence. Unlike the twentieth anniversary petition from Inventura demokracie, the skanzen was meant to re-create the communist experience in order to “remind” citizens of how bad it actually was during the previous regime (lest they fall prey to nostalgia for communism, at that moment beginning to emerge in the Czech Republic.) The open-air museum to communism had actually emerged during the “Velvet Revolution” itself (the first proposal, if short-lived, was at Bezpravi near the Orlicke hory) when Czech and Slovak citizens, as in other Eastern European states, began to relocate the statues and paraphernalia of the communist regime to impromptu “museums”, thereby rewriting the communist past by consigning its artifacts to history. The musealization of communism in this instance worked not to isolate but to congregate; the entire bottom portion of Wenceslas Square transformed overnight into its mirror image from the last days of the communist regime, complete with students from local universities acting out the roles of police, merchants, and demonstrators.

Contrary to Society ‘89’s fear of the tenth anniversary slipping past unnoticed, there were many more local and small group commemorations of 1989 documented in media than in previous years. A number of other official and non-official actions remembering November 17 were connected to individuals or private groups. The main commemorative site was Narodni trida, where commemorative activities involving lesser luminaries from the Czech government, including the Senate memorial service, the other political parties laying flowers at the Narodni trida memorial, and the feting of the former world leaders by the Prague Mayor and the Senate Chairwoman. (Pravo, 1999, 2) As part of the ritual of November 17, these commemorations did not necessarily make a statement about the contemporary political situation. However, active contestation of these narratives did occur. During the candle-lighting ceremony the ex-communist boss of Prague Miroslav Stepan showed up at the Narodni tride memorial to the student demonstrations of 1989 with Ludvik Zifcak, the StB (Czechoslovak communist secret police) agent who had acted as the dummy "dead student" during the 1989 revolution, holding a mini-rally for the "obety kapitalismus", the victims of capitalism. (Na narodni znovu horely svicky, 1999, 2; Oslavy svobody…, 1999, 1-2) Even non-communist hecklers showed up to the candle-lighting, flower-laying ceremony attended by Zeman, Klaus, Benesova and Havel to heckle "Milosi, koncime" (Milos [Zeman], we're finished) and "Klaus 1989-1999". (Na Narodni znovu horely svicky, 1999, 1-2; Zklamani a poboureni, 1999, 5). Both of these protests, in different ways, called into question the positive interpretation of 1989.

Unlike these open contestations of the victorious post-communist narrative of democratic change, some young people in 1999 found ways of distancing themselves from the official narrative through happenings. For example group of students from the School of Economics staged a mock Socialist Youth Organization medal-awarding ceremony as a happening. They began with a “lantern procession”(lampionovy pruvod), which was a direct reference to 7 November and the Great October Socialist Revolution commemorations of the communist era. When I asked student organizer Martin Moravec why the students had planned a parody of a communist-era collective event for the commemoration, and what they wished to gain by this, he said that the parody was one of the few ways that they could legitimately commemorate 17 November in the post-communist environment:

“So people in the Czech lands don’t much like doing any kind of official commemorations. Because it reminds them that again someone is saying: Take a flag and go to the procession to commemorate, let’s say 17 November. People here simply don’t like doing that. [...] And so far as 17 November was maybe about students, and about young people, and precisely about, like to fight with the former establishment and with all of those idiocies, so such a thing you can commemorate only with difficulty by organizing some big, formal, organized action, because that would be basically in the exact opposite spirit of 17 November. [...] Therefore when I say that it was like a joke, I mean it in the way that, granted, it was a joke, but at the same time everyone realized very well like what they were making fun of and so on. But that form of making a joke was what made it possible to organize anything at all.” (Moravec 2006)

Moravec’s quotation illustrates a moment of transmission of ambivalent mnemonic codes from one generation (that came of age under communism) to the next (who were too young to fully participate in 1989). Another example the 1989 student march at the fifteenth anniversary in 2004, which juxtaposed a strange amalgam of lived and interpreted experiences, and official and unofficial narratives on Narodni trida. For the fifteenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Student Council at Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty (FF UK) planned a commemorative action entitled “With Apathy Forever?”. (Studentska rada Filozoficke fakulta UK, http://strada.ff.cuni.cz/listopad) Their program included a recreation of the 1989 student march ending with a rally featuring distinguished public intellectuals. Carrying banners reading “1939 - 1989 Nezapominame” (1939 - 1989 We won’t forget) and chanting slogans such as “Don’t be apathetic!”, the students marched along the same route as taken by their predecessors fifteen years previous. There was a moment of tension, however, when the procession arrived at National Street (Narodni trida) and found their way blocked by the anniversary concert sponsored by then-Prague Mayor Pavel Bem, who had placed a large performing stage in the middle of the street. The concert, which was already underway, was briefly interrupted as the marching students shouted for passage through the throngs of spectators which had gathered around the stage.

Although the students were finally allowed through and the tension subsided, the recreation of the march is an important means of transmitting a particular legacy. Five years earlier a similar political began at the tenth anniversary and while it wasn’t organized by the original students from 1989, but by students ten years younger, it was at the end of this march that the petition “Thank You, Now Leave” was read at Prague Castle that sparked the protest movement against the Zeman-Klaus opposition agreement with a narrative of the Velvet Revolution that (politely) rejected the political status quo and the transformation narrative. This petition, which should be understood as an outgrowth of the original first anniversary petition, is less important for its immediate political impact and more important for the fact that 200,000 people had signed it in the space of a few weeks - a signal that the potentials for an alternative reading of the events of 1989 were not only still possible, but politically had mobilizing force. (Wooley, 2007) Moving towards the twentieth anniversary, various groups representing themselves as “society” apart from the state appropriated to themselves to do the memory work that other revolutionary regimes such as the Russians and French eventually took on for themselves. By 2009 the call to remember had become part of the legacy itself, and one that looks to society rather than the state. This attitude is reflected in a petition released by FF UK organizers as part of their “With Apathy Forever?” event. In it, they described their relationship to 1989, ending with these words: “We, the current students, experienced 17 November 1989 only as children, thus we know its atmosphere only from stories. But its legacy is for us current and alive - and we will work so that it is not forgotten.” (Studentska rada Filozoficke fakulty UK, 2004) Student activists and memory workers have redefined the legacy of 1989 from liberation from communism to an active project to maintain democracy.

Apathy, then, need not only be interpreted in the collective memory as the turning away from the past; in student activists the perceived apathetic society can reignite the relevance of the past by keeping at bay the final victory of democracy. Another aspect of a constant anxiety of apathy in society is the need to mobilize to address the problem. This ambivalent interplay of reality and possibility reflects what Vogt calls the “plurality of utopia”, maintaining possibilities as a constitutive part of everyday life (what Vogt calls the “transformative element of human life.” (Vogt, 2005, 77) Rather than constituting democracy itself as a utopian formation, it becomes a project in constant need of perfection.

Conclusion: Ambivalence and the “Velvet Revolutionary” Tradition

We return now to the twentieth anniversary and the invocation to remember as a guiding theme of the commemorations. Post-communist disillusionment has undeniably played a role in inserting the trope of ambivalence into discourse of the collective memory of the “Velvet Revolution” and 1989 in the Czech lands. However, this analysis has argued that the “revolutionary hangover” thesis obscures some of the ways in which post-communist mnemonic practices constructed a memory culture using precisely the medium of ambivalence to infuse memory projects with meaning and purpose. Redirecting attention from content to form alerts us to the way that constant anxiety and debates over “appropriate” commemorations resulted in the invention of new traditions of remembrance such as happenings, as well as civic organizations which emerge specifically to combat the amnesia and apathy with the cry that there is something to celebrate. Without the apathy and political discontent, perhaps these organizations would never have emerged. In that case, of course, the lessons of 1989 being transmitted across the generations might have been different.

The intimate, human, anti-monumental and ambivalent commemorations showcased here represent one facet of the commemorative culture of the “Velvet Revolution.” However, these examples also caution against taking the trope of ambivalence in mnemonic discourse at face value. Looking back to Spacilova’s “brand-spanking new” tradition for “day after” state anniversaries, the motif of intimacy through distance suggests an informative paradigm of social practices of remembering. Although the Czech “traditions” of commemoration at the twentieth anniversary may have not have rivaled Berlin’s grand commemorative spectacle, in the Czech lands the legacy of 1989 seemed to be a living presence, in part embodied by people on the streets, through informal gatherings whose congregation both re-embodied and re-enactment the drama of the street. The remarkably personal and social dimension of “Velvet Revolution” commemoration makes the absence of official spectacle all the more noticeable. Groups displaying this reflectively nostalgic relationship with the memory of 1989 are pragmatic, yet ambivalence towards the present allows them to retain a little utopian hope that the future can be better through their own actions. The 2009 students released a petition called on politicians to “give us a present for our twentieth birthday” itself represents the collective appropriation of the past, echoing the personal/state birthday motif used by Spacilova almost twenty years before. In utilizing the legacy of 1989 to preserve a critical distance from the present, some groups in Czech society found a way to appropriate the state’s holiday on their own terms.

Maybe the day-after anniversary is not such a crazy idea after all; if the “Velvet Revolution” model of peaceful mass mobilization against dictatorships could be exported (with varying degrees of success), why not the “Velvet Revolutionary” tradition of ambivalent commemoration? Although foundation myths can be victorious returns to a collective’s origins, exploring reflective modes of commemoration shows other ways in which Czech citizens engage with their past, where an emotional attachment to historical memory is achieved by perpetually holding the object of desire at arm’s length. Perhaps a glimpse of the reclusive anamnesis annus mirabilis, at least for the first two decades of its life, is best captured not by looking up at the sky for a transcendent mythic story, or down on the ground at the ashes of destroyed revolutionary ideals, but sideways at the unfulfilled potentialities of the present.

[1] I focus on the Czech lands here, as Slovakia’s separate path after 1993 demands a separate treatment specific to that country’s own conditions. However, I am not saying that my analysis of ambivalence only applies to the Czech lands, only that the scope of this article limits itself to that region of the former Czechoslovakia.

[2] For examples of historical work on the memory of the “Velvet Revolution”, see Wooley, 2007; Krapfl, 2008; Suk, 2003; Mechyr,1998; Otahal, 1998. In a recent study based upon public opinion polls on Czech attitudes towards the Velvet Revolution, Lyons and Bernardyova found that, by twentieth anniversary, a “dominant narrative” of the “Velvet Revolution” had emerged, in which a majority of Czechs believed that 1989 was a revolution, it was for political (as opposed to economic) reasons, and over 30% believe it was led by the people; a further one in four believe it was led by dissident elites, while 37% have no opinion. (Lyons and Bernardyova, 2011)

[3] Until 1999 November 17 was the unofficial anniversary of the start of the “Velvet Revolution”, recognized on the calendar as a “vyznamny den”, a significant day, but not a bank holiday. November 17, 1989 witnessed the student demonstration in Prague, whose crackdown precipitated the popular mobilizations against the communist state in Czechoslovakia. This day, until 2000 called the “Day of the Students’ Fight for Freedom and Democracy”, first entered into the calendar back to the institution of November 17 as International Students’ Day in 1941.

[4] Current Information for Inventura demokracie can be found on their website, http://www.inventurademokracie.cz/. Information relating to their activities at the twentieth anniversary, including their anniversary manifesto, can be found at: http://stara.inventurademokracie.cz/studentske-prohlaseni/index.html.

[5] Their most recent (2013) activities include lobbying on the financing of political parties. See http://www.inventurademokracie.cz/nase-temata/.

[6] This statement reflects a deeper division in the legacy of 1989 – whether it was carried out in the name of pragmatically implementing Western-style consumerism, or whether it was for more idealistic political goals such as participatory democracy and national renewal.

[7] Lyons and Bernardyova’s view of post-revolutionary ambivalence, which is held by many, functions closely with themes of “disillusionment” and “disappointment” with the post-communist era, i.e. as the necessary result of a “revolutionary hangover” after the euphoric days of November and December 1989 and the inevitable betrayal of the grand ideals of the revolutionary community.7 Similarly, Keller offers one of the many illustrative examples of this theory, arguing that the state of disillusionment in 2004 (at the fifteenth anniversary) was the result of “unfulfilled aspirations” including the desire for a more accessible consumer society, a return to the pre-1948 political system, and incursions on national sovereignty. See Keller, 2005, 472)

[8] Happenings, or guerrilla street theater. They become a prominent mnemonic practice to commemorate November 17 starting at the tenth anniversary with the “skanzen totality”, although happenings parodied the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, November 7, start occurring as early as 1997.

[9] (Vogt, 2005, 109). Vogt references one of the best-know theorists of non-synchronicity, Claus Offe, whose triple transition (political, economic and societal) conceptualized multiple tracks of change after communism. Additionally, Vogt points to inter-generational discontinuity in terms of how different age groups experienced the transformation.

[10] This sentiment was echoed in a number of other articles in the newspapers. See for example (Ševčík, 1990, 1); (Spacilova, 1990, 7). Additionally, there were a number of opinion polls with both the actors in the revolution and "ordinary people" who had been on Narodni trida. November 17 was seen as a time of bilanz, or of evaluating the past year, and this connected the revolution with the aftermath of the revolution and the problems of transition.

[11] The main newspaper organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

[12] Discussing the first anniversary of November 17 specifically, Andrew Lass brings up a similar point about the movement between individual remembering and the social construction memory, or in his words, from memory to history. He draws upon Hegel’s differentiation between remembering and recollection to pose the question “what makes history thinkable? “ (Lass, 1994, 92) and emphasizes how Czechs in the first months after 1989 made sense of their individual biographies within narratives that were already becoming sedimented, in particular “collective narratives” such as the story of dissidents like Havel or borrowing aesthetic motifs from movies and literature in order to make sense of the events. I suggest that one of the reasons that ambivalence becomes a durable framework for memory, at least for some people at the time, is because it allows for a balance between the violence done to the raw data of memory, or the recollection of lived experience, by remembering, or the rethinking of that experience in understandable terms.

[13] A reprise of the Koncert pro vsechny slusny lide, which was held on December 20, 1989 .



Deanna Wooley is a Ph.D. candidate in Eastern European and Cultural History at the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington, USA. Her dissertation explores the cultural history of the “Velvet Revolution” from the perspective of the 1989 Czechoslovak student movement, and she is the author of several articles on the student movement and the collective memory of 1989 in the Czech lands. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and can be reached at deanna.wooley@gmail.com or wooleyd@ipfw.edu or via mail at the IPFW History Department, 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana, 46805-1499.


Article written as a part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.