Talking Point Writer Padraic Kenney discusses his book "A Carnival of Revolution" and the events of 1989 in Central Europe

28-07-2003 | Pavla Horáková, Dean Vuletic

Almost fourteen years ago, the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe came crumbling down, starting a new era in the history of Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the events of November and December of 1989 came to be known as the "Velvet Revolution". Although they bear much in common, the revolutions in other countries of the region were not so peaceful and rapid. Professor Padraic Kenney from the Department of History at the University of Colorado is the author of a recently published book called "A Carnival of Revolution", which deals precisely with those events that ultimately changed the map of Europe. Dr Kenney came to the Czech Republic recently to discuss his book and the events of 1989 at Prague's Charles University. Our former colleague Dean Vuletic spoke to Mr Kenney and began by asking him about the genesis of his book.

Download: RealAudio

A Carnival of RevolutionA Carnival of Revolution "Well, it began actually as a book about Poland, a place I know well, and what I was interested in were the movements which came right before the revolutions of 1989, ones which contributed to it in a very important way. But it didn't take long before I realised that the revolutions of 1989 were so multinational that one simply cannot write about them in one country. Neither in Poland, nor in Czechoslovakia, nor anywhere else. And really, to think about it honestly, one has to look at it across the entire region. So in the end, the book is about the movements which emerge in the region from about 1985 onwards and have an influence on 1989, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovenia and East Germany - so some whole countries, some parts of countries, and some countries which are no longer countries.

What I tried to do in that book is show that there are other stories which are true. It's true that, for example, Gorbachev and Reagan had an important role, Western leaders, Eastern leaders, and so on. They had an important role in one way. It is true that an important part of the story was that the regimes were just falling apart. They were no longer capable of governing. And it is also true that the intellectual dissidents, like Vaclav Havel, or Adam Michnik or Gyorgy Konrad, to think of three, sort of totemic names, had a decisive role as well. But none of those stories are complete. For me, if we think of the Czech case, the best example of that is to imagine the crowds on Vaclavske namesti in November of 1989. To imagine that any of them are there because of Gorbachev or because the economy is falling apart or because of something they read by Havel is ludicrous. That's simply not true. We need something else that gets people motivated, that gets people mobilised and start thinking that first of all, it might not be so dangerous to be on the streets, and secondly, it might actually be worthwhile, you might accomplish something.

And to do that, I believe, you need a forth explanation for the revolutions, which as it happens, is also one that I find the most interesting and engaging of all of them: namely a wave of new kinds of movements, which are mostly young, although sometimes there are older people involved. They are focused on concrete issues in contrast to the more abstract ideas. Maybe not so much abstract but the more large ideas that an older generation brings up, like nationalism and sovereignty and democracy, and so on. They are focused on more concrete things like specific peace issues, or such as serving in the army, or ecological problems. And one other thing is that they have somewhat of a distaste for ideology. Yet at the same time they are very political.

When I first started working on this, I thought, oh, I'm looking at anti-politics, because of course, ecology is always anti-political. But it's anything but - these are very political animals. Some of them, when you talk to them, it's so clear that they thought of change in a very, very political, instrumental way. And in every country, I found people who thought very much like that. An example in Czechoslovakia was Hana Marvanova, now, of course, a very influential politician. An analogy - although today we would hate this analogy and I'm sure she would reject it, too - would be Viktor Orban in Hungary. Fifteen years ago they had a lot in common, not today. People who say change needs to be brought about. Whatever gets us there is what's really important and we need to think in terms of how we can bring about change."

When you compare all of the revolutions, how would you say the revolution in Czechoslovakia was especially unique?

"Well, one of the ways that people often think about those revolutions is with Timothy Garton Ash's famous phrase: "what took place in Poland over the course of ten years and took ten months in Hungary and ten weeks in East Germany will take just ten days in Czechoslovakia." I was living in Poland at the time and I remember seeing almost instantly banners that appeared throughout Prague with that line painted on them. And the Polish newspapers added the quip, I don't know, maybe it appeared here as well: "Well, sure, and in Romania it will take ten minutes." You shoot Ceausescu - or so people imagined - and the revolution will take place. And so one of the things that is often assumed is that Czechoslovakia's revolution was much faster, taking advantage of some kind of a domino effect and that it was able to achieve in just ten days what the Poles needed ten years to achieve.

There was a rapidity here, that is undoubted. I think that is a real mistake because if we think about it logically, you can't have a revolution in ten days. You can have a coup d'etat in ten days. But in the sense of having - not an entire population but large numbers of people being committed to change and saying yes I'm willing to take even the minor risk of going down to Vaclavske namesti and shaking my keys or whatever - ten days isn't going to do it. You need much, much more time. And if that is all there was, then we would say Czechoslovakia did not have a revolution. But it did.

That revolutionary period really begins in 1986-87, in part because of Chernobyl, in part because of some awareness of what was going on particularly in Poland, but also in Hungary. We have people in Slovakia who are very much attuned to the rise of ecological movements in Hungary over the Danube, but particularly oriented towards Poland where so much more was going on. You have a rise of precisely those kinds of movements that I'm talking about which - and let's not get carried away - they don't mobilise hundreds of thousands of people. The marches organised by "Nezavisle mirove sdruzeni" (the Independent Peace Association) attract tens, sometimes hundreds of people. Maybe, by the very end we are talking about thousands. But the circle is spreading quite rapidly in Czechoslovakia. We can say that things do happen quite rapidly. I won't say ten days, I'll say three years, three years of change. So that's one way in which, I guess, we could say that the revolution was not so much radically different, but it bears the imprint of all the others. Which doesn't make it a secondary revolution, somehow a shadow of others."

And when you compare the way civil society has developed in each of these countries since the 1980s, when in many ways the foundations for civil society were laid in these countries with these social movements, how would you compare the Czech Republic to the other states? Do you think its civil society is more or less successful than that of Poland, Hungary or Slovenia?

"Well, I have to be cautious about this, because I don't follow contemporary Czech politics day to day. But I do have the impression that it is somewhat less successful than the other countries. When I say that, for me it is not at all a reflection on the Czechs, of some sort of national characteristics. That is ridiculous. But what it is a reflection on is that the Poles did experience thirteen years of opposition before 1989. Think of what is learned in opposition. And again, it's not something that everyone participates in, but a lot of people do. Some of the things that one learns in opposition are compromise, thinking about concrete goals which can be expressed concretely and concisely, you learn about negotiation and you learn about pluralism, because at the beginning of any opposition there is always an essence of we're all together, we all agree, and then that starts to break down if you have opposition for a long enough period of time. Poles learned these lessons very strongly, Hungarians to a somewhat lesser extent. And in Czechoslovakia there was simply less opportunity to experience that. I think I can say that there have been occasions in Czech politics over the last ten years where seeing what is happening in Poland and seeing what's happened in the Czech Republic or earlier in Czechoslovakia I could say, you know, there has been something that is missing, would that there had been a much longer experience of broad opposition in Czechoslovakia."

Social bookmarking


Most Popular

Related articles


Section Archive


Latest programme in English