Bucharest, Romania

Posted in Romania with tags on December 31, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce


Bucharest also hosted wreath-layings on the anniversary if the day that Ceauşescus fled the city. In 2009, the city was blanketed in snow, and much of the city’s bustle was in preparation for the encroaching Christmas day. Despite this, however, quite a number of people had stopped to reflect or to organize events. One student art group, for example, put up a public display featuring the scene of the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples but incorporating symbolic elements from 1989. They set up a videocamera behind the scene pointing toward the scene’s visitors, to document reactions, thus turning the piece into a circular reflection.

In a semblance of a reenactment, the city put up blockades on the street in the university area, as government authorities had in 1989, and projected images of the protesters on large screens. Although the crowds that gathered were small in contrast with what I observed in Berlin, Leipzig, and Prague (granted, it was very cold), this seemed to give the individuals’ attendance at the event a quite determined flavor.

I was struck by one scene in the underground Metro station near the university in Bucharest. A commemorative display featured ongoing videoclips, photos, and a stand with an open guestbook in which individuals were invited to write. Every time I visited this place, there were several people lined up, silently, waiting to write in the book. Usually the writer wrote for quite some time before handing over the pen.

Overall, however, it was evident that the commemorative events, which lasted for quite a few days, overwhelmed Timisoara, a smaller city of course, more so than Bucharest.


Timisoara, Romania

Posted in Romania on December 20, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce


I was fortunate to be able to spend time in both Timisoara, Romania, where the revolution began on December 17, 2010, and Bucharest, where revolutionary activity continued, culminating in the December 22 flee of the Ceauşescus, and their execution on December 25. Both cities hosted a series of varied events; in both places, there were musical performances, art exhibits, and ceremonial wreath-laying ceremonies. In Timisoara, officials organized a wreath-laying procession that moved between all of the significant places of the city that were instrumental in the revolution. A central memorial place was an abstract sculpture in the suggested form of a cross in the main square, with the names of victims inscribed; large number of wreaths were laid here. (I am reminded of the wreath-laying ceremony in Gdansk on August 31.) A cross-shaped display of red votive candles was laid out on the picturesque main square in Timisoara, striking a contrast with the fresh snowfall. Father László Tőkés, the outspoken dissident Hungarian Protestant Christian minister whose reprimands by the party had stimulated local protests that helped fuel revolutionary sentiment, was on hand to lead some of the events.

Among the special commemorative events was a ceremony to unveil the restored graffiti message, “Eljen Laszlo Tokes – Szabadsag” (“Long Live Laszlo Tokes – Freedom!”) on the wall of the Reformed Church where it had been first painted in 1989. A commemorative event in front of the church turned into a spontaneous reenactment of the events—without the actual violence, of course.

A Timisoara university hosted a series of presentations on 1989, including a panel of former local activists, the premiere of the film, “Dracula’s Shadow – The Real Story Behind the Romanian Revolution,” followed by a panel of those who became political leaders—Romanian and others, including Lech Walesa.

There is a “Revolution Tour” that one can take in Timisoara across the important sites, including buildings with visible bulletmarks left from 1989. The tour guide, however, questioned the language of “revolution.” He didn’t think it was a revolution. This issue arises in Romania in part due to the confusion over the circumstances in 1989; there are conspiracy theories, for example, regarding what actually happened—was this an internal government coup, or possibly a CIA-KGB-orchestrated event? The question also seems to be a skeptical one about the depth of the post-1989 changes, an issue that I ran across in other places, but more centrally in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, I was struck by how much the 1989 events were inscribed into the Timisoara landscape. Street signage marked the dates of the transformation.

There is also a small museum that one man has assembled, with artifacts and films. It had recently hosted a children’s art festival on the 1989 revolution.

Although there was a noticeable attitude of victory and relief that the pre-1989 days were over, the twentieth anniversary was nevertheless a very heavy, somber occasion. TV Romania broadcast a series of documentary films of in-depth interviews with eyewitnesses on television and in a student club. These included tearful descriptions of the mother or the son that was murdered in cold blood in front of the survivor. This gave the commemorations a very personal, intimate tone.

I ran into cynicism among several young people I met toward present-day politics and the state of opportunities for their generation. Here is a quote from my translator: “I got mugged in front of my apartment building, and a group of boys took all my papers. I lost my money and my phone but I eventually got my papers back. But I was a little relieved because I couldn’t decide who to vote for (they’re all the same). Without my papers I couldn’t vote, so that solved the problem.”

I met a young married couple who rented a flat to me. They had both graduated with law degrees, but reported that they can’t get jobs in Romania because it’s all corrupt: judges, etc., just give jobs to family members. They have decided to just run their business managing properties and not bother trying to practice law. I told them that I hoped that some day they could use their degrees, and they just shrugged and said no, they’ve given up.

March to Narodni Square, November 17

Posted in Czech Republic on December 1, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce

The central tribute to the November 17 Prague events that propelled the Velvet Revolution was an organized march that re-traced the precise steps of the 1989 student march, planned and orchestrated by the NGO Opona. The march began with an opening ceremony at Albertov, the site of the Medical Faculty of Charles University, and ending at Narodní Square. Several generations were represented by the crowd, and the numbers grew as the multi-hour march approached its goal.

The spirit of the crowd was celebratory, and even at times, humorous. Stationed along the path was an individual shrouded in a white sheet, holding sign that read, “don’t give up” – at the point where the students had originally planned to turn around, since they were concerned that they would not be allowed into central Prague. This chant reportedly encouraged them to continue. A sign that this march was taking place in a completely different era was the occasional overheard conversation in the crowd, such as one about going to the hairdresser, and cell-phone calls to friends in other spots of the march. As the crowd turned into the center of the city by the National Theater, a young man dressed in a 1980s-era police uniform yelled stern warnings from a megaphone from an upper-floor window; this re-enactment drew smiles. Several colorful candle-powered mini-hot-air balloons were released into the air, labeled “balloons of peace.”

As the march drew to a conclusion at Narodní Square, organizers announced that the media was taking a photo, at which point the crowd dangled its keys just as the original marchers had done. They estimated the crowds to be approximately 45,000. As they drew close to the conclusion, the marchers sang the Czech national anthem, and before them was a white “curtain” of fireworks to symbolize the disintegrated Iron Curtain.

At the conclusion of the march was an outdoor stage where a series of performers, including Czech performers and Joan Baez, offered tributes. Baez sang “we shall overcome,” and Vaclav Havel addressed the crowd. Following the concert was a DJ, who played songs from the era, as well as protest songs from the 1960s, and concluded with U2’s song, “One.” The reveling crowd appeared to be predominantly the age of the children of the 1989 protesters, but nevertheless physically “owning” the moment somehow as their own. Appropriate, one observer has asked, for a site that is revered as a solemn place to remember the brutal police beatings that took place against the students in 1989?

The Autonomous Nationalists were not successful at disrupting this event, and eventually retreated.

Prague public concert November 17, National Theater

Posted in Czech Republic on November 30, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce

A large choir made up of pupils from schools across Prague performed the rock oratorio, “Eversmiling Liberty” on the steps of the National Theater. This oratorio is based on the “story of Judas Maccabaeus, the leader of Jewish revolt in 167 BC, who stood against the Seleucid Empire and forced Hellenization of the Jews. Judas, together with his army, finally won the battle against the army of his King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who forbade Jewish religious practices in Jerusalem.” This theme resonated with the more recent history of the Czechoslovakian social movement that rejected their externally-imposed system under prophetic leadership. The Czech Ministry of Culture supported this concert.

Several hundred protesters of the group “Autonomous Nationalists,” a right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalist group, crowded the adjacent street, however, and managed to produce concert-disturbing walls of noise through rock music and speeches broadcast over loudspeakers. The group announced its intentions to disrupt the day’s events in advance, and 800 police officers were on hand; the police lined the scene with a cautious eye, attempting to separate the protesters from the concert area. The singers were further challenged by the police helicopter circling above and intermittent rain. The protesters’ noise eventually subsided, as did the rain, and the concert was able to continue.


Posted in Slovakia on November 30, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce

Since Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia in 1989, their anniversary date is the same as the Czech Republic: November 17. I was not able to get to their celebration, therefore, but did get to Bratislava a few days later, and took in their exhibits devoted to 1989.

Remembering Student Protests in Prague November 17

Posted in Czech Republic on November 19, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce

Quite a number of events took place in Prague on this day to commemorate the November 17, 1989 events. Unlike Germany, almost all of the events were civic initiatives, not organized by the state. The events were not spared public contestation, however, and there were some parallels with Budapest.

The one Czech-state-organized event took place with a short, small ceremoney in the morning: President Vaclav Klaus arrived at the building where a plaque commemorating the 1989 uprising took place, to lay a wreath. He was met by a small crowd of demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. Students who oppose his policy philosophies, which include vocal critiques of EU “Europeanism,” which he views as a new socialism, were present with banners and chants. His supporters had their own chants: “Long Live Klaus!” to which the students responded “Somewhere else!” Klaus was able to lay the wreath, and then disappeared into the historic Louvre cafe.

Commemorating through Music: Prague, November 14

Posted in Czech Republic with tags , , on November 15, 2009 by Susan C. Pearce

On November 14, Vaclav Havel hosted a concert in a 13th century church in Prague to kick off the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Czechoslovakian “Velvet Revolution.” 

Celebrities in attendance included Adam Michnik from Poland, who gave a rousing speech, referring to Havel as the region’s Moses. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, born in Prague, also was in attendance.

Havel chose the performers for the star-studded performance. The singers Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed, Joan Baez, and Renee Fleming performed pieces that had particular relevance for the occasion, including protest songs of the 1960s. One of the evening’s pinnacle moments was Joan Baez’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” with one verse in Czech. The audience sang along, and close-ups of the audience members revealed a host of teary eyes—including those of Havel. Later, a video was projected, featuring the 1989 Czech dissident crowds in Wenceslas Square singing “We Shall Overcome” and flashing peace signs to the police.

In fact, the U.S. Civil Rights movement was prominent as inspiration and source of the spirit of resistance that the evening recalled.  A clear theme of the evening was the importance of the arts for social change, exemplified by Vaclav Havel, a novelist who rose to the position of president of the democratizing Czech Republic.

Congratulatory videos came in from the Dalai Lama, Angel Merkel, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack Obama, Bono, Bob Geldof, Mick Jagger, and others. Obama made a point of congratulating both the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic in his speech. Gorbachev praised the venue because he reported that he also loves music.  

Earlier in the day, Havel had harsh words for Russia, however, during a debate with students, charging the country with continuing controls on its society.  

Havel ended the concert with a pithy list of the societies still suffering from oppressive regimes, including Darfur, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Tibet, and others.

US singers Joan Baez, pictured in May 2009, Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega performed Saturday at a concert in Prague paying homage to former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a hero of the Velvet Revolution 20 years ago.