Street press of the Velvet Revolution


Demonstrators pray in Wenceslas Square, November, 1989.

In the fall of 1989,  Tomas Jane, a student at the University of Ostrava,  risked his life for what would become known as the Velvet Revolution.

About twice a week,  the  computer science student took a 370 kilometer train trip to Prague and back to Ostrava, carrying suitcases packed with subversive street literature.

He knew that if he was discovered by the police, he could  face years of imprisonment, or worse.  But as the Velvet Revolution gathered steam,  he also knew he was on the right side of history.

Jane was one of a handful of people who volunteered for these missions so that political reform groups could share the same street pamphlets and cartoons in all Czechoslovakia’s major cities.

Because he was aware of the historical nature of his work, Jane decided he would save one or two of the pamphlets after every trip. And then, in the fall of 1991, concerned about a possible counter-revolution, he brought the pamphlets out on a visit to the US.  He left his collection with Prof. Kovarik, who would later be the author of Revolutions in Communication and this book-related web site.

Most of these cartoons and manifestos were printed on crude mimeograph machines — the kind that were found in thousands of  schools and universities in order to create handouts and tests.  These old copying machines were everywhere, and they were impossible for the Soviets to control.

These cartoons and pamphlets are examples of the way that political or social revolutions often borrow from older communications technologies in order to circumvent censorship.

Similarly, hand-written copies of forbidden books, called “samizdats” (same-as-that) were a feature of resistance to Soviet communism throughout Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s; audio cassette tapes were used for revolutionary messages during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s; and wall posters were a major feature of student demonstrations in China in 1989.

All of these cartoons, street manifestos, samizdats and posters also convey something of the enduring human spirit, infused with enduring humor and a long view of history,  that refuses to submit to oppression.

 This canceled postage stamp equates Ladislav Adamec, who was Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1989, with Joseph Stalin, the notorious Soviet dictator of the 1930s and 40s. The stamp reads “Lide Bdete,” which means “People Awaken,” a phrase used by a Czech journalist murdered by Stalin’s government. The date refers to the repression of a student demonstration in Wenceslas Square Nov. 17, 2009. The motto of the National Theatre is ‘Narod sobe’ or ‘The Nation for Itself,’ — a reference to the long Czech struggle for cultural identity epitomized by musicians Bedrich Smetena and Antonin Dvorak in the 19th century and author Vaclav Havel (among many others) in the 20th century. In this context, Narod Sobe was meant to be ironic. Underneath the cartoon of the thug-ish policeman is this line: “School play – From Theory to Practice.” In other words, the theory of Czech cultural identity had been reduced to the practice of a policemen with a club and riot shield.
nepratel Old.constitution.xed.out
“Don’t be afraid of the enemy. Dont count their numbers.”  — Quoting a national song from the 30 Years War (c. 1420s). The X suggests canceling the 4th clause of the old constitution saying the the Communist Party is the final authority in Czechoslovakia.
 Disperse.birds Beat.them.Rudolph
“Disperse, birds!” “Beat them, Rudolph. The Nation is standing behind you.”
 anoYes, We’ll have a dialogue, but you can’t brag about it. vseobencna-declaration-txt-1Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Czech.