33 years ago, the Velvet Revolution started in the streets of Prague

Commemoration of November 17, 1989, on Národní třída in central Prague on November 17, 2022. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

November 17, 1989 marked the beginning of a peaceful street protest in then Czechoslovakia that eventually led to the end of Communism across Central and Eastern Europe. Thirty-three years later, the events, described by historians as the Velvet Revolution, are commemorated on the very same street it all began in Prague.

This date has been marked internationally to this day, since 1941, as International Students’ Day in memory of November 1939 when the Nazis, who had occupied the Czech lands since 1938, rounded up protesting students, killed several of their leaders, sent many others to concentration camps, and closed all universities on November 17. The commemorations in Socialist Czechoslovakia (1948–1989) were closely monitored by the authorities to make sure they didn't allow for any criticism of the government.

Yet this is exactly what happened in 1989 when, in Bratislava and Prague on November 16 and 17,  Slovak and Czech students defied censorship and protested on the streets. In Prague, students eventually gathered on one of the main central streets, called Národní třída (which literally means “National Grand Street” and is related in its history to Czech identity, as opposed to the German identity during the period when Czech lands were part of Habsburg monarchy from 1526 to 1918), as can be seen in this video:

Despite the police violence, arrests, and beatings, the students were joined by many other citizens in the following days and, on November 28, the government announced that the Communist Party, in power since 1948, would not longer play a “leading role,” a de facto ending of its political monopoly over Czechoslovak society.

Since 2018, the date, which continues to be a national holiday, is officially called “Den boje za svobodu a demokracii a Mezinárodní den studentstva” (Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day, and International Students’ Day). In Prague it is commemorated in the city center, on Wenceslas Square and on Národní třída with concerts, speeches, appearances by politicians, candle lighting, image and sound archives, and even historical reenactment.

Here is a photo gallery of this year's celebration in Prague.

People gathered in the middle of Národní třída to light candles and commemorate the events of November 17, 1989. This part of the street has a permanent photo exhibition displaying images of that day and thus serves as a monument in memory of the end of Communism in then Czechoslovakia.

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

This historical photo by Tomki Němec taken in November 1989 shows how the same ritual of lighting candles to commemorate International Students’ Day was already a tradition by then. Němec's photos are permanently displayed on Národní třída.

Original photo from 1989 by Tomki Němec exhibited on Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Many parents bring their children on what is a national holiday to teach them about democracy and historical memory.

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Here a mother explains the November 17, 1989 events to her children by showing them Tomki Němec's permanent exhibition.

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

One of the main triggers of what became the Velvet Revolution was police violence, in contrast to the peaceful demonstrators, as can be seen in one of Němec's photos where the banner reads “Freedom.”

Original photo from 1989 by Tomki Němec exhibited on Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

This year, part of the reenactment involved displaying a truck from the infamous Czechoslovak Veřejná Bezpečnost, or VB [Public Security] that was involved in detaining, surveilling and beating anyone critical of the Socialist government and its ideology, among other tasks.

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Národní třída on November 17, 2022 can look just like it did on November 17, 1989:

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Part of the exhibition on Národní třída includes photos and quotes by people who took an active part in the demonstrations and the dissident movement that eventually led Václav Havel to go from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic. The quote here reads: “The [1989] Revolution gave me freedom. And that is the most precious thing I have in my life.”

Národní třída in central Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

 

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