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Prague, Forty Years On (And The Velvet Revolution)

The events of the 1960s are simply history for many of us today, but a visit to Prague (September 2008) provides a reminder that for some, the memory of those events is still very much alive. The Czech Republic is now a vital, thriving and democratic country as a part of main-stream Europe, thanks to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Yet there are plenty of Czech citizens who recall the trauma of those times as integral to their personal ‘lived experience’.

These thoughts became very focused for me today, when we took a walk around Prague with a citizen of that city, our good friend Dada. Our exploration began with a look at the gardens of the Czech Senate, which lie above the commercial centre of the city, simply designed yet formal and splendidly impressive all at once:

But as we wandered it became apparent that these were not just gardens; they were host also to an exhibition with more than token impact. For here before us was a real military tank….

And here too were notices about the objects on show, telling us (Dada explained) about the tragic events of forty years ago, in 1968: the failure of the Prague Spring which would have relaxed the grip of Communism, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia – as it then was – by Russia.

The reality of this invasion had hitherto been rather personally academic for most of us as individuals in (what was then) Western Europe; but here was a Czech citizen who had lived through it, explaining what it had meant to her, her family and her friends… and telling us how, later, these same people had been part of the extraordinary Velvet Revolution which was the basis of the transformation of the then-repressive Czechoslovakia into the present democratic state of the Czech Republic.

Mindful of these sobering thoughts, we left the graceful gardens and returned down towards the River Vltava, to the Dvorak Concert Hall (Rudolfinum) which had brought us to Prague, travelling with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for their performances at the Prague Festival.

Outside the Hall was another exhibition of posters and photographs, relating the happenings of the invasion and its long aftermath.

In a way this felt surreal. Here we all were, discussing the events as history, but they had happened right where we stood, involving in critically personal ways people whom we knew as friends. For a while they had had no choice but to bear the crushing burdens of occupation stoically…

…. but eventually the protests grew to a great clamour, and after many long years, in 1989 the Velvet Revolution came about, mercifully without a huge toll of human life.

And amongst those leading this Revolution had been many writers and artists, including Vaclav Havel who was later to become the President of the Czech Republic, and his friend the musician Libor Pesek – a renown conductor who has had a long and close relationship with the RLPO, the Orchestra with which we were now visiting Prague.

Thus did the tale round upon itself. We stood there, in the heart of the Prague, testimony by our presence to the history and vibrancy of that great city, talking between ourselves as citizens of Europe and the world, and free to read, say and do as we wished.

No longer were the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution merely events on a timeline. They were instead vital elements of the spirit and understandings of real people, standing right next to us.

And that was something we pondered as we spent the evening in the Rudolfinum, hearing the RLPO concert which was the reason for our visit.

The concert, as we’d hoped, was a triumph; but, enjoying the music, we mused too that so much more so was the human spirit which had made it possible – the determination of a fiercely brave and proud people who, as we carried on our mundane existence in the democracies of Western Europe, had had to summon every ounce of endurance and strength to let the light of self-determination shine in their culturally blessed, historic city and homeland.

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