The Velvet Revolution

Eight days after the Berlin Wall fell the phone rang late at night. It was November 17, 1989, and one of my inlaws rattled on with excitement from Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Eight days after the Berlin Wall fell the phone rang late at night. It was November 17, 1989, and one of my inlaws rattled on with excitement from Prague, Czechoslovakia.

A group of university students did what no one else could do in 40 years. They stood up to the communists and called for freedom. When the riot police beat them with clubs, the young people threw flowers at their attackers.

That sight electrified the nation. Czechs were catapulted out of their paralyzed fear into euphoric resistance. Thousands who hid in their homes, kept their head down and mouth shut for four decades now poured into Wenceslas Square.

They waved banners and sang for peace. It was the Velvet Revolution.

Communism crumbled.

For many years before that, I had been perplexed and alarmed at the Czech emigres I knew in the Yukon. They had used various tactics to escape their country to live in freedom, but it wasn’t as simple as just being free now.

On the surface they were intelligent, gainfully employed self-starters. But something dark lurked beneath. As a new bride of a Czech man 16 years my senior, I was bewildered by the cruel and sarcastic humour of escapees from behind the Iron Curtain.

All jokes involved humiliation.

Sarcasm is an unpunishable form of anger, says registered clinical counselor Irene Champagne, of Whitehorse.

Dark humour is a survival tool.

“Making it funny is a semi-disassociative technique,” she says. “If we weren’t laughing we’d be crying so we’ll be acid and dark, but laughing. Otherwise we’d be depressed and paralyzed by our emotions. I imagine a lot of people from the Eastern Bloc would experience that.”

Also startling was the array of guns and weapons many hid in their homes. One had an AK-47 rifle.

“Chronic intimidation creates a distorted sense of self-preservation,” says Champagne. “The demeaned, crushed, bullied person is either bracing for a blow, or getting them before they get you.”

They feared the Canadian government would implement martial law overnight. These Czech emigres, after decades of communism, would take to the streets and this time fight for freedom.

This time. It was all-important that this time they would do it.

I read Josef Skvorecky’s books to understand the Czech psyche. Black humour masked shame for not fighting, for selling one’s soul to survive, for collaborating.

The titles gave it away: The Republic of Whores and The Cowards.

Then the bullied and abused became abusers themselves.

I went behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. Everywhere I went, store clerks and waiters went to lengths to humiliate customers.

In a so-called classless society they used what little power they had to exert superiority and control, always in a demeaning way.

Jan Polivka and Libor Chladek were both eight years old when communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia. They moved to the Yukon two years ago.

“I remember standing in line with my mom for three hours for tasteless factory bread,” says Chladek.

“Then, immediately after the revolution, there were lots of new bakeries and thousands of different kinds of breads. My mom explained to me that if we are not satisfied with this one we can go to the other one because now there is competition.”

People could maintain self-respect and simply walk out when bullied or neglected by staff.

Polivka remembers some of the tension.

“Before the revolution, my dad told me the secret police came to him and pressured him to work for them. They made threats, ‘If you don’t join, we will prevent your kids from getting into university. ‘Dad said, ‘No.’”

My husband took our four-year-old daughter back in 1992 once the threat of communist police was truly gone.

As he wandered around taking in the country he had not seen since Russian tanks crushed their last hope in 1968, he felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down to see Pavlina staring up at his face. “Daddy,” she asked. “Why are you crying?”

He never paid another visit.

Few parents, whether emigres or those who stayed behind, talk much to their children about what they endured. Instead, say Chladek and Polivka, they shop. And shop, and shop and shop.

Polivka and Chladek only have sketchy memories of pre-democracy. Their generation never hears of the self-loathing from betraying co-workers and neighbours by reporting uncommunist behavior to the police. They know no anger, no shame.

As for my daughter, she’s hoping to take her dad’s hand once again, hold on tightly and take him back to his homeland.

Perhaps together they will walk across the 14th-century stone bridge and work their way up Prague Castle.

Perhaps they’ll see the narrow cobblestone streets of Golden Lane.

And now that Prague, the crown jewel of Europe, sparkles again in her magnificent beauty, perhaps now her father will begin to answer the question that’s been on her mind since childhood:

“Daddy, why are you crying?”

Roxanne Livingstone is a

broadcaster and freelance writer who lives in Whitehorse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

d
Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Premier Sandy Silver speaks to media after delivering the budget in the legislature in Whitehorse on March 4. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Territorial budget predicts deficit of $12.7 million, reduced pandemic spending in 2021-2022

If recovery goes well, the territory could end up with a very small surplus.

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Most Read