Czechoslovakia's New Spirit

After years of fear, citizens demand right to `live in truth'

IT is, above all, a revolution of the spirit. The latest demonstration started at dusk right after work. Czechoslovaks filled Wenceslas Square, waving the national red, white, and blue tricolor. Soon, they numbered at least 250,000.

The crowd shouted ``Shame! Shame!'' and ``Resign!'' to their communist rulers. They called for free elections, and warned that unless the communist-dominated government resigned, the opposition would go ahead with a short general strike next Monday.

After an hour, the rally finished with a rousing version of the national anthem, in time for an early dinner. Politely, patiently, and purposefully, people filed out of Wenceslas Square. Within 10 minutes, almost all of the huge square was empty.

By recent East-bloc standards, it may have seemed a somewhat tepid display of support for democracy. It wasn't. The calm and confidence of the crowd was most impressive, particularly in Czechoslovakia.

For two long decades following the 1968 Soviet invasion, Czechoslovaks were cowed by a deal they themselves described as ``Salami for Submission.'' As long as you kept your head down, you could enjoy one of the highest living standards in the Soviet bloc. Fear of losing a job, a home, or a car sufficed to silence almost all of the population.

In the future, analysts will point to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (openness), Poland's Solidarity victory, Hungary's democracy, and East Germany's revolution to explain this month's upheaval in Czechoslovakia. All are valid reasons. But they overlook the crucial role played by simple morality.

The opposition writer Vaclav Havel describes this phenomenon as ``living in truth.'' To explain his point, Mr. Havel tells the story of an employee at a beer factory, who always thinks about brewing better beer and doesn't hesitate to offer advice. Instead of appreciating the suggestions, management views them as a threat and denounces the worker as a ``political saboteur.'' The expert brewer loses his job.

Westerners used to patronize this idea as intellectual posturing. Havel retorted that Westerners understand little of what it means to live under a government founded in hypocrisy, one that signs human rights declarations and then jails its critics; one that destroys public life while claiming to base its rule on popular support.

What, Havel asked, if the expert brewers, all the workers, all the students, and all the intellectuals stand up and give advice to their corrupt bosses? Well, then the regime will crumble.

In Poland, that happened in 1980 with the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement. In Czechoslovakia, it now has happened with the formation of new opposition group Civic Forum.

``It was a question [of] who was afraid,'' one Western diplomat now admits. ``Once the public lost it fear, the battle was won.''

Journalist Jana Smidova recalls ``that moment of bliss when I just said, `No, no, I won't be controlled anymore. I want to write the truth.'''

Actor Marek Vasut of the prestigious National Theatre tells of the tantalizing second when ``suddenly, I just realized the regime had gone too far, that I couldn't take it.''

Pensioner Milada Masek describes how she ``didn't dare to hope; then thank God, I realized I'm not alone.''

At the beginning, all admit that they were frightened. The first demonstrations were weak and only gradually gained momentum. Worker Karel Polivka says he didn't act before because ``I was scared, everybody was scared - of the police, of the cadre officers, of the personnel officer.''

Once this fear was overcome, once they realized that the police wouldn't arrest them, and that their neighbors were taking to the streets, they too stood up. Each day, the rallies kept growing in size and confidence. ``I wanted to be counted,'' Mr. Polivka says.

After a two-hour general strike on Nov. 27, opposition leaders called off the demonstrations. They already had ousted hard-line Communist leader Milos Jakes and forced the Communist Party to renounce its ``leading role.''

Better to cool down the situation and avoid violence. Havel, who has emerged as the key opposition leader, recalls the armed suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring and knows that the communist state still holds the weapons. It only lacks the will to use them. He also knows that violence corrupts, that violence and hatred, and above all, lies are the methods of the oppressors.

For that reason, Havel hopes to broker an honest compromise with the communists. After the 1968 invasion, some 500,000 party members lost their positions. Havel now promises the ruling party apparatchiks that there will be no purges. His rallying cry is ``We won't be like Them!'' At rallies, crowds now shout ``We won't be like Them!''

This gentleness and generosity has infused the country with a new spirit. Only a few months ago, everyone seemed so dour. They showed scorn for their jobs and fellow citizens. They scowled. Now, everyone seems to smile. The young border guard wishes visitors ``a good trip.'' The hotel receptionist says she will ``try to find a room.''

The war is not yet won. After Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec named a government dominated by communists this Sunday, Civic Forum called its demonstration for Monday. It demanded that new nonparty ministers be added to the government and that full free elections be held by this July. At those elections, Civic Forum plans to present its own list of candidates.

``We cannot just destroy all the existing structures. We must transform them to ensure the transition to democracy,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, a Forum leader. ``We must avoid chaos.''

This certainly is a calm, civilized, and above all, peaceful revolution. But faces at the demonstration revealed a nation transformed.

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