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.
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.