[This story was originally published in the July 1993 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]
“God. You don’t think they might just kill us do you?” Daisy says, squeezing a glob of stolen liverwurst onto a slice of flatbread. “I mean, they wouldn’t have any reason to kill us would they?” I lift my head off the table and look at her sleepily. A portrait of some grim-faced Czech Communist general is looming directly above her head, the only ornamentation in the chilly, tea-colored room we have, without explanation, been locked up in. It’s all very surreal. In an adjoining room, a group of Czech border guards are watching the news from the demonstrations in Prague. The roar of a half-million Czechs chanting SVOBODNE VOLBY filters through the door, making me sick with frustration. “Noooo,” I groan. “I mean, I don’t know. No, of course not. God, don’t say that.” We make bug-eyes at each other and burst into a fit of manic laughter. “Stop laughing,” Daisy pleads. “If the guards find us laughing they might just really go off us. We have to act like we’re all sorry and everything.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For getting on the bloody train without visas. We have to make them think that we’re taking this very seriously.”
So we clean up our crumbs and sit, erect, waiting for some word on our plight. I check the time. “We’ve been in here for two hours you know. I have to go to the bathroom.” I rattle the door handle. “Let me out of here, you fascist pigs! I have to go to the bathroom. Christ!”
“We are so doomed,” Daisy says with a faint smile. Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia. A political earthquake is rocking Eastern Europe, and we’re trapped in a meat freezer, halfway between East Berlin and Prague. Daisy, my best friend, and I, were trying to get to Prague, we had to get to Prague. The Czechs had finally gone stir-crazy. They were toppling their regime! Hundreds of thousands of people were pouring into the streets, waving flags, chanting, singing. Revolution! So there we were on the train, pumped to the gills, our pockets full of West German mini-sausages, zooming off to the Revolution. The next thing you know, these three East German border guards with mean, watery eyes and little black briefcases snatch up our passports, drag us off the train, and bung us in this meat freezer. Just because we didn’t have visas. “They really don’t cut people any slack in this part of the world,” I mumble, pressing my forehead dejectedly against the frosty windowpane of our prison cell. “None.”
We tried everything. We begged and pleaded. Daisy almost started crying. “Please, please, pleeeese. You don’t understand, we have to get to Prague today. Otherwise we’ll miss the revolution!” The guards just stood there in their stiff olive-colored uniforms, shaking their heads and sputtering, “Not possibull, nott possibull…”
I knock on the door and ask one of the Czechs for a toilet. One of them walks through our room, unlocks the door and points to a toilet, but as soon as I step outside the door, one of the East German guards spots me, grabs my arm, flings me back into the room, slams the door and locks it again, yelling something in German. “God,” Daisy says. “They’re really not kidding are they?”
An hour later, we’re too cold to speak. Our hands are purple when, finally, a guard unlocks the door and signals us to follow. Back to the train. We are so relieved that for a moment we forget to care whether they’re sending us to Prague or back to Berlin. Anywhere in the world but in that meat freezer was fine by us. Three hours for not having a visa. Thrity years for criticizing your government. The world is mad.
It’s snowing. “Where the hell are we?” Daisy wonders as we are escorted back to the train. A sign says something like Sinhusaksin. “We’re in Sinhusaksin.” We pass a Czech border guard who looks at us sympathetically. He’s human! Our last chance. “Please,” we say, as we walk past him, “tell them we need to go to Prague, not back to Berlin.” He doesn’t speak English, but he shrugs his shoulders and smiles. Forget it. We climb onto the train back to Berlin, sit down, and look out the window. The Czech guard is on the platform, squinting in the sun. He smiles at us and waves. He looks about 19 years old. We wave back. “Oh look at him,” Daisy wails. “Sweetheart, what are you doing in that uniform?”
Suddenly, he stretches his foot out and starts carving a big heart in the snow, then an arrow through it. “Look,” Daisy says, clinging to the window. “He’s brilliant. He’s brilliant! The Czechs are brilliant! God I love him! That does it, we HAVE to come back.” She pulls down the window as the train pulls out and yells, “We’ll be back sweetheart! Promise! Just stay there, we’ll be back!”
“I couldn’t live in the U.S.,” says Udo. “I couldn’t live thinking about nothing.”
It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall even if you’re standing right in front of it. A ten-foot concrete wall slamming right through the heart of a country, the final solution to the political fallout of World War II. A prison wall that went up in the middle of the night 28 years ago, with barbed-wire fences running even underwater — through lakes and rivers. The Wall plunged through 25 kilometers, mangling houses and dividing thousands of families in its desperate cold-war quest for political definition and above all, containment. The wall was built to avert an economic disaster, to seal in a dwindling East Germany, which by 1961 had already lost over three million people, one sixth of its population, to the West.
There was no warning, either when it went up or when it came down. People who lived on the dividing line woke up on August 13, 1961, to find barbed wire snaking its way around their buildings. In the first few weeks they jumped out of windows trying to get to the other side. Even a 77-year-old woman made the leap — she got away with a broken leg. Four people missed the rescue nets and died. Pretty soon all windows on the borderline were bricked up.
The Berlin Wall: Has enough concrete to build a small town. Enough barbed wire to span the Earth. The first year it was lined with 50,000 armed guards and 130 observation towers — after five years 210 observation towers. By 1964 there were over a hundred stations for wolf hounds trained to attack. By 1965, 245 bunkers and rifle pits. It was decided that defectors were to be shot, without warning or summons to stop. If the bullets didn’t get them, the minefield would.
I remove one glove and touch it. I am on the west side of it. On this side, the Wall is splattered with emotion and color, with symbols of fury, indignation, and ridicule: peace and anarchy symbols, flowers, protests, petitions. There are freshly hacked holes in it, none large enough for a human being to pass through, but large enough to serve as peepholes to the other side, the other Germany. On the east side, the Wall is solid gray. Except for one patch that is whitewashed. Last night some East Berlin artists, emboldened by the opening, tried to paint something on it. A West German man is patiently hacking chunks out of the Wall with a pick and sledgehammer, and putting them in a knapsack. He offers me two pieces. Moments later he gets pulled into the back of a dark green Polizei van and taken away. A punk jumps up, kicks the wall and screams, “Vack mit dem Mauer!” Down with the wall!
There are broken champagne bottles everywhere, and the line of East German cartoon-like bug-cars, Trabants, still, a week and a half after the historic opening, stretches farther than the eye can see — both coming in and going out.
If this wall could talk. It would tell us about the guy who was killed, peppered with 39 bullets, just weeks ago, for trying to climb over to the West. Or the girl who tried to fly over in a hot air balloon earlier in the year and was shot down. They each get a little black cross on the west side, nothing on the east side. The Wall museum, just a few hundred feet away from Checkpoint Charlie, has all the escape stories, those who succeeded and those who did not. Since the wall went up 28 years ago, every conceivable escape plan has been tried. People have successfully escaped by digging tunnels, building flying machines, hot air balloons, crossing the Baltic in improvised mini-submarines, sliding down wire ropes and chair lifts, sewing false uniforms, hiding in car trunks, radio cabinets and even suitcases.
Some relied on sheer wit. Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt, founder of the Wall Museum and publisher of several books about the Wall, sips a coffee and tells me his favorite escape story: “My favorite one is the simplest one,” he says. “An East German man walked all the way up to Checkpoint Charlie and told the guard, ‘My mother is dying in West Berlin. You must let me see her. I have been given permission.’ The guard asked to see his papers. He pointed to one of the offices and said, ‘They’re in there.’ The guard grunted, and called on another guard to watch the man while he went to look at his papers. When the first guard was gone, the man told the same story, except in reverse, to the second guard. ‘My mother is dying in East Berlin,’ he said. ‘You must let me visit her.’ The guard asked for his papers. ‘I’ve forgotten them,’ he said. ‘I was so upset when I heard about my mother that I left them at home, in West Berlin. Please let me in.’ ‘No,’ the guard roared. ‘Go home instantly and get your papers.’ And with that the man was released into West Berlin.”
“You see what kind of genius and courage can come out of a person’s simple wish to escape,” says Hildebrandt, who has provided contacts and advice to defectors over the years. When Hildebrandt, a tireless advocate of “non-violent struggle for human rights,” heard they had opened the Wall, he was shocked. He did not see it coming. “I was speechless. I didn’t believe it at first. I still haven’t fully comprehended it,” he says. “I never thought I would live to see this. We can really speak of a revolution now. All dictators will realize that even they can be toppled when the people learn the principles and methods of non-violent struggle.”
Just weeks ago people were murdered here, trying to cross. Today, East Germans pour through by the thousands. Already, Pepsi has made a commercial with sprightly young Germans partying on the Wall, as happy as people get when they drink Pepsi. Hooray for Pepsi! Hooray for the Wall! The world is mad.
The phone was ringing when Udo Lichsteig walked into his apartment in East Berlin on November 9. It was his mother calling from the neighboring district. She was crying. “I was sure somebody had died,” laughs Udo, a 21-year-old math student. “Then she finally stopped crying and told me… they had opened up the Wall.” Ten minutes later, the family sat in their Trabant waiting to exit through one of the checkpoints to West Berlin. “It was the best day of my life,” Udo says, sipping a soda in the corner of an East Berlin “Youth Club,” or Jugendklub. “For the first few minutes, I couldn’t believe I was in West Berlin. It was incredible. Thousands of West Berliners were waiting for us, beating the roofs of our cars, hugging us, shaking hands, saying ‘Hello! How are you!’ I stayed in West Berlin all night and went straight to school in the morning.”
Berlin. The name still has a majestic ring to it. BERLIN. It’s a strong name. It sounds like steel. West Berlin bursts with big-city glitz — with excess and ornamentation, cheeriness, coziness, and chic. With endless shopping malls, noise, candy, Christmas decor, and 100 shades of lipstick. Neon green. Stress. Competition. Nice shoes. Nicer shoes! Keep shopping! Capitalism.
On the subway map of East and West Berlin, the train lines turn from bright color to black at a certain point, and suddenly streets have names like “Karl Marx Platz.” It takes about ten seconds, once your passport is stamped, you have your one-day visa, and you’ve exchanged your 25 D-Marks, to walk from the one country to the other — the one ideology to the other.
East Berlin is dark, musty, and quiet. It has the feel of a city recently bombed. Everything is plain, sinister, functional, and unembellished. No nonsense. Lenin’s frown is everywhere, in looming statues and portraits. Every little detail has been revisited to fit the aesthetic of the ideology. Communism. There are no streetlights, and the winter sky turns to purplish black by mid-afternoon. Everything seems deliberately drab. The window displays, the curtains, the barstools, people’s boots, women’s eyeshadow — it all looks like it’s from 20 years ago. Every last object seems to be yellowing with hopelessness and stagnation. The people are all wearing the same drab, practical, acrylic clothes. Still, I am told, East Berlin is the richest and most “cosmopolitan” city in all of GDR. If I really want to see how people live in East Germany, people tell me, I should go to Leipzig or Dresden. Leipzig. That’s where everything started.
We’re sitting around a table in one of East Berlin’s Jugendkluben. The Jugendkluben are run by the Communist youth organization, and each district of East Berlin has one. The interior is sparse — one room, a few tables, chairs, a bar that sells beer and soda, a tape recorder, people — hipsters in post-punk garb, dyed hair (hair-dye smuggled in from the West). The music: Heaven 17. Brothers — Sisters — We don’t need that fascist groove thing.
Udo’s two American pen pals have informed him about life in the States. “I couldn’t live in the U.S.,” Udo says. “I couldn’t live thinking about nothing.”
And here? “I thought about escaping before they opened the Wall,” he confesses. “But now I don’t want to leave anymore. It’s more interesting here. We have a dream now. I know a lot of people have left, but a lot came back, too. They just wanted to see West Berlin. Most GDR citizens want to have a socialist country, but a real socialist country. Nothing like this one. This is not real Socialism. You’re not a free citizen, you cannot say what you want. They always tell you what to do. What to think. They say ‘The people can’t think too much.’ But they — the Communist leaders — are happy. They live well. They can go to the shops and get anything they want. They can go to the United States and visit or even live there if they want. One of them just had a long vacation in Florida, spent $10,000, I think. Meanwhile, our economy is falling apart.”
Sabina, another 21-year-old East Berliner, was not too impressed by the West. “It was too much,” she says, “too crowded. I wanted to go home to dark, quiet East Berlin. The East Germans are more modest and unpretentious than the West Germans. I think most GDR citizens don’t want the two Germany’s to merge. The character of the two populations don’t fit.”
Sabina, a soft-spoken girl who chain smokes and has a boyfriend in Poland, is studying to become an English and Russian teacher. Now she has a new problem. “People here don’t want to learn Russian anymore,” she says, crushing a cigarette butt, “They hate it. They resent it. Russian courses will all be empty in the future.” Just the other day, Sabina and other GDR students received some staggering news. A big exam that they have been preparing for for four years has been canceled. The topic: Marxism-Leninism. “It’s all too much,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m against the Communists, naturally, but I don’t know who else is going to run the country. The smaller parties have no program.”
“I can’t imagine,” says Sabina, “that we have lived through such strange times. I don’t know how I handled it. Now, for the first time, I’m feeling patriotic. I’m not ashamed to say that I am East German.”
Sabina, like Udo, has no plans to emigrate to the West. “It’s much more interesting to be here now, and I think East Germans have an obligation to stay here and fight for change. It’s a real challenge to be living in the middle of this chaos.”
Udo says students used to get expelled from school — banned from all universities — if they expressed any type of criticism of the regime. Some of his friends were expelled for writing defamatory remarks about the army and putting it up on a wall. They were told they couldn’t even visit classes. Udo strokes his chin and laughs. “And now,” he says, “they are being rehabilitated.”
Sabina says she has gotten used to walking around angry and disgusted. “Of course I’m happy that things seem to be changing now,” she says, “but I’ll never forget what has been. I was horrified to see my father, a 54-year-old man, so happy — like a child who got a toy — because he’s finally allowed to go visit his mother.”
I ask Udo what he has learned in his history classes. “Quite a lot about the two world wars,” he says. “A lot about the Third Reich and the development of worker’s organizations. Nothing before this century. We also didn’t hear anything about the period of Stalin. Nothing about his crimes. They said ‘Ok, Stalin wasn’t a real Communist,’ but they didn’t tell us he killed tens of millions of people.”
Punk came to GDR, Udo tells me, in 1984. “I like the punks,” he says. “I like the anarchist philosophy, even though I know it would never work. In West Berlin I saw a lot of red and black flags. A friend of mine who is from the North of GDR is an anarchist. He only wears black clothes and red pullovers with a black star in the middle, and a black hat. And he has a black flag hanging out of his window. He’s great.”
When in the army, Udo and his friends had a club that almost landed them in deep trouble with their government. Udo has a sense of humor about it. “There were only six of us” he says laughing. “We knew it was forbidden to have a club, but we didn’t think it was that serious. We were like an English-speaking club, we called ourselves ‘Inducement,’ and we talked about Anarchism a lot. We all wore black jackets, sunglasses, and pins with our symbol, and all we did was sit in our tents and drink green tea and listen to Madness records all day, real loud.”
“We got the Madness record, Complete Madness, from Poland.” The officers were not amused. “They organized meetings against us,” Udo says with a chuckle. “They thought we were dangerous, and they confiscated our letters, that we wrote to each other. They just walked into our bunks and said: ‘There are suspicions that you have political thoughts. We want the letters.’ But they couldn’t understand them because we wrote them half in English.”
The letters were sent to higher officers for translation, and then things got worse. “The officers got furious because they couldn’t make any sense out of the letters, even when they were translated. We wrote silly things like ‘Why didn’t you answer our last letter, even though we did not give you our address?’
“They thought Inducement was planning to fight the system,” he says, laughing again. “But there were only six of us, and all we did was sit around and listen to records. Anyway, they called us into their offices and told us that if we didn’t stop we would lose our positions at the University.”
And that was the end of Inducement.
I’m staring at Udo now, like he’s an exotic lizard in a glass box. His life is so unbelievable to me. I could talk to him all night. He can’t understand why I’m so interested. To him, he’s just Udo, a math student, and his life is like anybody else’s life.
Udo and his girlfriend, who has not said a word all night, get up to leave. They’re going to see a film version of Orwell’s 1984 which is being shown for the first time ever in East Germany. I ask Udo what he wants from America. Books on Anarchism, and funk records, he says. He especially likes Cameo and Earth Wind and Fire.
He gives me a friend’s address in West Berlin to mail the package to. “Otherwise I’ll never get it.”
Monday. It is dawn in Lichtenberg, a hazy gray, freezing day. The train platform is filled with people, gray people, waiting for the train. Now we can go to Prague. We each have a nice crisp visa, full of red stamps and everything. We hope to run into those same three guards on the train. Ha! Just as we’ve settled in for the six-hour trip, the conductor walks in. “Tickets!” Uh oh. Stranded again. We don’t have very many GDR marks. It slipped our minds that we would have to pay for the train ticket. On our last trip they never asked for tickets. Can we pay in Czech money? “Impossibull.” But it’s a Czech train. All the signs are in Czech. And any minute we’ll be in Czechloslovakia. “Nein.” Ok then, how much is it? Thirty-two GDR marks. About $1.80. For both tickets. Not to Prague, we learn, but to Dresden. It is imposssibull to buy a ticket all the way to Prague. We must get off the train in Dresden and buy a ticket there to go from Dresden to Prague. “GET OFF the train?” We stare at each other in horror. We can’t get off the train. The train will leave without us! That’s not the conductor’s problem. He is evil. He has lips like eels. He wants to throw us in that meat freezer again!
We ask a friendly-looking young man seated near us to help translate this conductor’s psychobabble. He translates to English. It’s still psychobabble. We have to get off the train in Dresden because we have to get off the train in Dresden. We cannot possibly stay on this train. His eyes are ablaze. THIS IS GERMANY! YOU CANNOT BUY A TICKET TO PRAGUE IN GERMANY! But, we argue, Dresden is also Germany. There must be some misunderstanding here. Does he mean that we either can/cannot buy a ticket at a ticket booth, or in Czech Crowns, or what? We point out once more that this train is going to Prague and that we are also going to Prague, and so the most sensible thing for us to do is stay on the train that is going to Prague. Then we will end up in Prague. If we get off the train we will end up in Dresden. In a meat freezer.
One last time, from the beginning: Why must we get off the train? Our interpreter puts the question to him. He throws a fit, slamming his little black briefcase shut. He waves his arms and yells and yells and yells. He point to us, to his briefcase, to the train. Everybody stares. When he is finished, he storms out and slams the door behind him. “What did he say?” we ask our interpreter. “Do we have to get off in Dresden?” “Yes,” he says apologetically. “Why, though?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
I am searching for my notepad to write all this madness down when an elderly man approaches me with a red plastic cup, looking for the restaurant car. His name is Siegfried. He and his family live in Dresden and they are returning from a trip to West Berlin. His English is very good. He is a professor of German and Physical Education. I ask him what they thought of West Berlin. He looks at me intently, with lively blue eyes. “Never in our lives,” he says, “could we imagine what we saw there. The colors! The people!” Siegfried shakes his head. I feel like we’re in a movie. “My sons… one of them got a pair of jeans, and the other one got a sweater. And my wife… she got a bag. A bag of real leather.”
“And you?” I ask.
Siegfried smiles. “Oranges.”
“Oranges. In Dresden we can only get oranges once a year. Bananas too. Once a year.”
“I remember the first time I saw the wall,” Siegfried says, gripping my arm and lowering his voice to a whisper. “I cried. It’s so ugly. So horrible.” He squeezes my arm. “I understand the problems of Capitalism but at least in the West, people can see results from their work. We work like slaves, and the reward never comes. We never see the results.” I decide that I’m going to send Siegfried cratefuls of oranges as soon as I get home.
We’re approaching Dresden and I have to pack up my things. I tell Siegfried about us having to get off the train and he shakes his head. As Daisy and I get off the train, Siegfried comes running toward us on the platform. “I spoke to some guards… and they said you can stay on this train,” he says, pointing to two Czech guards on the platform. We look at them and they nod. Thank God! We get back on the train and stand on the steps to say good-bye to Siegfried and his family. But suddenly, the crazy conductor — the one with the eel lips — shoves us back into the train and slams the door so fast my hand is almost crushed. We go to the window. Siegfried is still on the platform, fuming. “They treat people like animals,” he hisses. “Always, like animals.” They stand on the platform, steam rolling out of their mouths, waving happily, Siegfried slightly bent under the weight of the oranges. The train to Prague moves out.
Somehow, I fall asleep. When I wake up, Daisy is gone. I go to look for her and finally find her in a train car full of young Soviet boys. They don’t speak a word of English, so we use sign language to communicate. They have left the Soviet Union, we decipher, and they’re going to… Austria, we think. Russia? Thumbs down. Their parents are in… Poland? Doing what? One of them makes a tree-chopping gesture. Chopping trees? A beard gesture… a person carrying a sack… Santa Claus! Their parents are chopping Christmas trees in Poland. Why? Never mind. They like rock and roll. They have bought a record — Iron Maiden. Very expensive. They bought it together. Then one of them looks at me and says “Milli Vanilli,” “good,” and hold two thumbs up. I’m not sure whether I’m dreaming or this is really happening. I take a swig of vodka from the bottle handed to me, and ask what else they like. “Rappa.” “Huh?” “Rappa, rappa rappa… Boom-chi-boom-boom-chi.” “Oh, Rap. Ok. yeah.” They nod and crack up. More vodka please. It’s freezing. We say dos vedanya and head for the restaurant car.
We sit down in the restaurant car and order schnitzels from a jovial gray-haired woman who seems instantly fond of us. We tell her we are going to Prague. Her face lights up. “Ahhh. Prague!” She says. She shakes her fist in the air and roars with laughter. “Demonstration in Prague, ja?” she says. “Have you demonstrated?” we ask. “Me? Nooo,” she says, and laughs again. “Me, I am 60 years old and I am Communist. I keep my mouth shut. But in Prague…” Her fist clenches again and her face beams. Then she does a little skip and disappears into the kitchen to get our schnitzels.
The Czech train guard who stamped our passports comes into our compartment. He takes his hat off, sits down, and lights a cigarette. Nobody speaks. He’s trying to let us know that he’s a real person. We talk a little, a choppy mix of German, English and Russian. He tells us that there has been a general strike in Prague today and that a demonstration will just be ending when we get there. “Communists out,” he says jerking a thumb toward the window. He’s 23 years old. He wants to come to the States and wonders how much a plane ticket costs. About $900 round trip, I tell him. He scribbles numbers all over his notepad for a minute and then shakes his head. In his currency, Czech Kronor, he tells us, and with his salary, it would take him exactly ten years to make enough money for the ticket alone.
Finally, Prague. We get off the train, and within seconds we can feel it. ENERGY. Heightened awareness, like a mild electrical current right under the skin. Czechoslovakia has erupted, again. There are posters, banners, flyers everywhere — revolutionary slogans painted in bold, impatient strokes of black and red. A few hundred people are still in Wenceslas Square, which is covered with banners, flags, and candles. We stand gaping.
A young man hands us each a cup of hot — something. Honeywater, kisses us on the lips and pins a little red-white-and-blue Czech flag on our lapels. People are singing, falling all over each other, not drunk, just giddy. The head of a Stalin bust is on the ground with a sign hanging around the neck and a funny looking cap on its head. Brilliant. All over the square, all over Prague, there are signs, banners and information flyers churning out the message. “SVOBODO,” “FREEDOM” is all over. “SVOBODNE VOLBY!” (Free Elections) “DEMISI!” (Resign!) “CIVIC FORUM” “HAVEL FOR PRESIDENT!” “COMMUNISTS GET OUT!” “JAKES IS A FASCIST!” It’s too much for the brain to absorb. An actual revolution. Right here, right now, where I’m standing.
The next day Prague is simmering, buzzing. The bite of the revolution is softened somehow, by the dreamy, baroque beauty of the city itself. But today, the revolution is all there is — all anybody is thinking about. There is an extraordinary unity in the air — a power that seems to come more out of love, for the country itself — than out of anger. Clusters of hundreds stand reading flyers, discussing, watching the news on the TV screen hanging outside the opposition group Civic Forum’s headquarters near Wenceslas Square. People take turns speaking, and crowds form immediately, spontaneously — they need no coercion. A child of nine speaks and the crowd cheers and laughs. In the subway, an old man and two lovers stand bent over a bench, reading a new flyer that was taped to it that morning.
At 4:00 in the afternoon, the day after the “new” government is announced, Wenceslas Square is packed again. The new government is nothing but the old government reshuffled, and the Czechs are quick to explode. The majestic square, which is slightly smaller than a football field, somehow expands to hold tens of thousands of its people. Daisy and I get sucked into the middle of the demonstration. We stand there screaming at the top of our lungs, imitating the sound of the slogans as best we can. “SVOBODNE VOLBY!” “DEMISI!” A man next to us looks at us and laughs.
The Czech flag — brilliant panels of red, white, and blue — is everywhere, hanging from windows, down the sides of buildings, on people’s lapels. The Czechs have made a crucial distinction between their government and their country. The more they loathe their government, the more they love their country — themselves — each other. They are Czechs, and the flag belongs to them, not to a government they did not choose. A Czech could never fathom fighting for the right to burn his flag.
Czechoslovakia, with one of the most hard-line Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, is also the only country in that region that has a recent history of Democracy. Between the wars the country was a technical, industrial, and cultural keystone of Europe. Fueled by this legacy, the Czechs have rebelled repeatedly, and been ruthlessly crushed each time — until now. In 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, killing 143 and ending the eight-month burst of liberalization, led by then-Communist leader Alexander Dubcek, the Czechs waved their flag in the faces of embarrassed soldiers. “Why are you here?” they cried, hissing, spitting, and jeering at the troops, who had been told they were coming in to save their Czech comrades from foreign infiltration. A 20-year-old named Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the Soviet crackdown. As Milan Kundera once wrote, that fire — Palach’s death — “brought a period of history to a close.”
“68” upside down is “89.” This time, it looks like the Czechs have finally succeeded. Czechoslovakia will have a predominantly non-communist leadership for the first time in over 40 years. Thirteen hard-line Communists have been purged, and replaced by liberal reformers. Marxism-Leninism is no longer the ideological foundation of the universities. Political prisoners are being released. Moscow has officially condemned the 1968 invasion of Prague. Dubcek, who has been doing menial labor in Batislava since his ouster in ’68, is a national hero.
Summing up just “what kind of democracy” the Czechs want, Vaclav Havel, the frequently jailed dissident playwright who is now the people’s favorite for president, says, “We want to rejoin Europe.” They want free elections, a Western-style constitution, a market economy, a withdrawal from the Warsaw pact, and eventually, to join the European Economic Community.
Until now, Communism was an orthodox ideology. It was feared that any crack in it, or compromise, however slight, would bring the system down like a house of cards. So every crack was sealed, with systematic indoctrination, prisons, tanks, guns… whatever it took. And now this. A regime crumbling in a few days? Dissident playwrights taking over the country? Everybody on the streets in an orgy of protest and self-expression? The Western press being served Viennese coffee while they soak it all up in interviews with opposition leaders?
Why is the Czech revolt of ’89 so different from the one in ’68? I asked Arnulf Simmon, who co-founded the anti-Communist group that was in the forefront of the 1968 democratization movement. “In 1968 we were more tolerant of Communism,” he said. “We were at least willing to give it a chance, to let it be revised. Today, people have lost all tolerance with it. Everyone understands that Communism is a flaw of the character, the same flaw of the character as Nazism.”
“I challenge anyone to show us Communism or Socialism with a human face,” says Simmon, who has spent the last 20 years in the U.S. “It does not exist.” Simmon says his brother was killed by the Czech secret police when he tried to defect in 1980. “It’s a practical choice to be a ‘Communist,’ but very few of them actually believe in the ideology. Now they have landed the economy of Czechoslovakia flat on its back and they need the help of the West to resuscitate it. That’s the only reason they’re letting this happen.”
Countless artists, musicians, writers, and politicians who expressed liberal ideas during the Prague Spring were cut out of their culture like tumors. Some died, thousands fled, many stayed in Czechoslovakia living the lives of brutalized dissidents, hounded and censored like criminals. Now these same people are coming back to more-or-less take over the country. Alexander Dubcek, the liberal former Communist leader who was demoted to the Czech Department of Forestry in ’68 and has been doing menial work in Batislava ever since, addressed a crowd of 500,000 cheering Czechs from a balcony the day after the former government started to collapse.
With Dubcek on the balcony, singing the national anthem, tears streaming down her face, was Marta Kubisova. Kubisova, the most popular folk singer in Czechoslovakia, was silenced, banned, and placed under virtual house-arrest for her “inflammatory” lyrics 20 years ago. She has not been allowed to sing a note in public since. In 1970, the government put her to work in her apartment, making paper bags to wrap toys in. She did that for a few years, and then moved on to secretarial work., which she has been doing ever since. Twenty years.
I spoke to Kubisova backstage at a rock concert in Prague — the first of its kind, dubbed “The Concert for Kind People” — a nine-hour musical feast of silenced artists, able to sing again at last — folk singers, punk bands and speed-metal bands — before tens of thousands of screaming, chanting Czechs. I asked her how she stayed sane. “I sang for friends,” she said, “in my living room. I had children, became a housewife. There were days when I was able to forget that I ever was a singer.”
Although her records have been banned for 20 years, every Czech — old and young — goes mad when she walks out on stage. From the first word to the last, they sing with her, arms upstretched, holding up peace signs, crying. “MARTA! MARTA!” they scream throwing her flowers. She smiles and blushes. She looks like a housewife, in a sweater and slacks, graying hair. But her voice is just like they remember it — rich, deep, clear as a bell, and wracked with pain.
Another musician I spoke to, Avant-garde artist Filop Dobol, told me about the first time he performed with his band Dog Soldiers. He was 14 years old. “I woke up the day after the gig, it was a small gig, and my mother told me I had been summoned to the police station.” Filop laughs. “I was too young to go alone, so my mother had to go with me.” For Filop, the situation is so commonplace that he forgets to tell me what the problem was. To say it is to state the obvious: They didn’t like his lyrics.
Since then, his life has been an obstacle course. He soon found out he would not be able to attend the music school he had always dreamt of going to, etc., etc., etc. He asks me whether I think there would be any interest in the U.S. for recording Czech music. I tell him sure, if they get it in their heads that it will make money. “It has to sell,” I explain, “a lot.” He nods.
Prague is simmering, buzzing. The revolution is all there is, all anybody is thinking about.
People Power. Like Beijing, it was the students of Prague who got the ball rolling. Like all revolutions, it started with discontent, nausea, rage — people pushed beyond their limit. It erupted on November 17, when students held a legal demonstration commemorating student Jan Opletal, who was killed by the Nazis in 1939 for demonstrating. “All it took,” says one of the student movement’s leaders Monica Pajerova, “was for that many people to be in the same place at the same time.” The students spontaneously decided to take the demonstration further, to the city’s center — Wenceslas Square. This took the government by surprise, and within minutes, troops from the so-called People’s Militia had barricaded the students, trapping them from both ends, and beating the daylights out of them.
“It was sheer panic,” says Mike Kukral, a Czech-American student studying in Prague. “We all just ran like hell. I saw some people run into a doorway and I followed them. I came into this old woman’s apartment where dozens of people were hiding. I felt like I was in a Nazi war movie. She gave us all tea. Several hours later, after midnight, she went out and checked to see that the troops were gone, and we left. There was blood everywhere, but most of it had been washed away by early the next morning.”
Mike shows me spots, doorways, where the blood is still on the walls. In every spot where students were beaten, little memorial beds with candles and flags have been set up. The candles, somehow, keep burning, day and night, all over Prague.
Every university in Prague has been transformed to Revolution Headquarters, draped with banners, posters and flags. Here, the students, whose strike has now gone on for almost two weeks, eat, sleep, and breathe the Revolution. Here they print the posters, paint the banners, and write the flyers. From here, they drive out to the rest of the country, knock on people’s doors, and spread the word. Prague is ablaze, its streets lined with information, but the rest of the country is still in the dark about what is really going on. The government is still trying to confuse them with counter-propaganda — with media reports of armed-and-violent “enemy forces” threatening the country. Students get arrested in other parts of the country just for having Prague license plates.
At the University for Applied Arts in Prague, a pretty, dark-haired fashion student named Maria Helena walks me through the school, showing me the revolution. Why it is. How it is. Who it is. As we are walking in, one of her professors sweeps by with a steaming, cloth-covered tray of fresh baked bread. “The students can’t go hungry,” she says.
“It’s very basic what we want,” says Maria Helena, as we climb the heavy marble stairway, and walk through the gothic building, with its vaulted ceilings and dark hallways lined with the student’s own artworks. The art is exceptional, poignant, and focused. All through the hallways, students sit crouched over posters, painting intently. “We want basic freedoms, basic rights. We want to be able to travel, to express ourselves, to create our art without risking our lives. Everything is a problem here, or it has been in the past. Every day there is something. You have to be very strong to survive it all.” She walks me into the ceramics workshop where food is being made. They’re listening to the Clash, London Calling.
Maria Helena tells me about a weakening in one of the walls that the students could escape through if government troops were to invade. They’ve thought of everything. They all sleep in the same room, but somebody stays on guard at all times. All alcohol is forbidden. “We have to stay alert.” Plan B, if the hole in the wall failed upon invasion, is for everybody to run into a room and throw themselves on their stomachs. “To protect our insides,” Maria Helena explains matter-of-factly.
But so far, so good. Miraculously, the peaceful revolution, so smooth they’ve dubbed it “The Velvet Revolution,” has had no martyrs. Many wounded, but none killed.
We walk on, to the print shop where they make the posters and flyers. I want to cry. The students are all geniuses. Geniuses! They have those sharp Czech features and that slightly crazed look in their eyes — more alive than any people I have ever seen. Their faces are smeared in ink, they stand bent over the printers, spitting out their posters — their battle-cry, their Czech pride, their very basic demands — thwap, thwap, thwap. There is frost on the windows, and outside the streets of Prague are already thirsting for more posters. A disheveled blond, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, throws on his coat and darts off with a stack — still moist. The Clash lyrics are almost eerily appropriate: “Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall, how can you refuse it. Let fury have the hour, anger can be power, you know that you can use it.”
It’s unbearable. I can’t even read what the posters say. Daisy walks in, and after a few minutes, we are both paralyzed. Unable to speak anymore, to ask any more questions, we stand dejectedly in a corner and just watch the vitality that we cannot touch, have, participate in. “I can’t stand it,” Daisy says. “I can’t stand to leave this room.” Yeah. Nor could I: I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to boring, glassy-eyed, nice-to-meet-you America, where we have all the FREEDOM in the world and still we can barely move. We’re too overstimulated to get excited. We have too much information to be curious. Too many choices to have a choice. The great paradox is that the people we were watching are the ones who have been deprived, yet here I stood feeling like the biggest loser in the book. If Maria Helena and I were lined up in front of OZ, she would ask for freedom, and I would ask for meaning. She would ask for the right to say what she wants to say, and I would ask for the challenge to HAVE something to say. The last poster I saw when I left NYC said “YES! WE HAVE THEM HERE! DISPOSABLE CONTACT LENSES! COME ON IN!” You know?
Down by the river in Prague, an old man is feeding the swans. A huge flock of swans, over a hundred. I go stand by the man and he starts talking to me, in Czech, naturally. It sounds so beautiful — Czech — like soft Russian. I let him talk for a while, and just stand there nodding. Finally I tell him I don’t speak Czech. He doesn’t speak English, but we keep talking anyway, he in Czech, I in English. Somehow, we seem to understand each other, although I’m not sure what we’re talking abut. He says something about demonstrations, and points toward Wenceslas Square. “Communists no good,” he says and tosses a chunk of bread to the swans, who devour it hungrily. I nod.
The man keeps talking. I think he is saying that he likes it down here because of the swans… the swans are the only ones who are not… who are just living.