Youth Drive Democratic Reforms
Striking students were in the vanguard of protests that mobilized masses to demand change. CZECHOSLOVAKIA'S STUDENT LEADERS
PAVEL CHALUPA doesn't look like a revolutionary leader. A small, baby-faced 26-year-old wearing ragged brown corduroys and a battered wool sweater, he is a student in Prague's Drama College. He dreams of becoming an actor. Without wanting, however, he has become one of the heros of Czechoslovakia's peaceful insurrection, which succeeded in overthrowing its hard-line Communist regime. For three weeks, he led the occupation strike at the Drama College campus in Prague's Old Town. The strike continues with no end in sight.
``My father and mother didn't agree with my decision,'' he says. ``I said, we can't live in a country like this, where people don't say what they think and where they are afraid.''
Just as the courage of Mr. Chalupa and his fellow students inspired this long apathetic and fearful nation, young people are leading the revolution throughout Eastern Europe. In Poland, teenage miners and shipyard workers forced the Communist regime to bring back the Solidarity trade union movement. In Hungary, dissatisfied students formed a radical youth union called FIDESZ which helped lead that country's drive toward democracy. And in East Germany, it was largely young couples seeking a better future who precipitated the political crisis by fleeing to West Germany.
``The crisis involved, above all, young people,'' says Alexander Dubcek, the Prague Spring leader who returned from obscurity after 21 years to address a great throng last week in Wenceslas Square. ``The political leadership has lost touch with the people.''
After the 1968 Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring, older Czechoslovaks seemed to care more for meat and potatoes than liberties. Even when Hungary and Poland turned democratic this year, Czechoslovakia's Communist leaders resisted.
But as ``freedom trains'' to the West pulled out of Prague, hundreds of Czechoslovaks cheered and waved. When East Germany erupted, Czechoslovaks realized that they had become an isolated Stalinist outpost in an increasingly democratic Europe. The young students acted first.
``I myself helped more than 40 East German students escape,'' recalls Michal Cech, another drama student. ``When we saw all those East Germans leaving, it told us anything could happen.''
Prague's communists tried to head off the crisis. They issued new rules making it easier for Czechoslovaks to leave the country and halved the mandatory military service to 12 months.
It wasn't enough. Students helped organized a demonstration on Oct. 28, marking the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. Police put it down with force. On Nov. 17, the drama students organized their own rally in memory of a martyred student who resisted the Nazi occupation. Police used baton charges, water cannon, and attack dogs to disperse them. Many were hurt; a death was rumored.
The next day, the drama students called a strike. Soon, the entire university system was shut down. People of all ages began filling Wenceslas Square. Soon, they numbered hundreds of thousands. They laid flowers. They lit candles. They shook key chains. They cried for freedom - and under this pressure, the Politburo resigned.
``It was such a pleasant surprise,'' said Jiri Hayek, the former foreign minister and opposition leader. ``We older people thought it best to avoid provocations. Then the younger people come along and say, `We must act.'''
Pavel Chalupa's frustrations are typical. He was born in Varnsdorf, a poluted mining town in Northern Bohemia. His parents are loyal communists, and Pavel joined the Socialist Youth Union. ``If I wanted to be an actor, I had to join,'' he recalls, ``It was a fraud.''
Many young Czechs tried to break the constraints imposed by communism with drugs and alcohol. Others sought religion.
For years, Communist officials thought such young rockers would turn out to be apathetic and apolitical. They were wrong. Rock and roll provided a window on Western freedoms. Instead of listening to the liturgy of Marx and Lenin, youngsters like Chalupa tuned into the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and attended underground concerts.
John Lennon's assassination in 1980 was a turning point. Grieving young fans turned a wall near the French Embassy in Prague into a kind of Wailing Wall, a monument covered with drawings and lyrics calling for peace, love, and revolution. Police erased the fans' graffiti, only to find the youngsters sneaking back to repaint them. The ``Lennon Wall'' soon became a sacred place of pilgrimage for young Czechs.
In recent years, the ``Lennonists''' message became less escapist and more trenchant. In 1988, march organizers announced the formal creation of The Peace Group of John Lennon. Their agenda: withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovak soil and a civilian alternative to military service.
``The Lennon activists started with music,'' explains Karel Srp, a leader of the Jazz Section, an independent artists' movement. ``Then they turned to peace, to anti-war activities, and finally to anticommunist demonstrations.''
Religion represented another powerful outlet for youthful disillusion. Many college students flock to the underground church services in apartments.
``Young people don't find answers anymore in official ideology,'' says Vaclav Maly, the Czechoslovak priest who has become a leader of the new opposition group Civic Forum. ``They make room for God.''
Before leading the strike, Pavel planned to spend this holiday season performing in a Christmas play. Only after his fellow students were beaten up did he turn to overt politics. He and his fellow students met in an apartment to declare the strike.
``I was scared, he recalls. ``If the strike failed, I feared going to jail, even another massacre.''
It didn't fail. Pavel and other student leaders became national heroes. Posters were printed showing teachers muttering to each other, ``We learned something from our students.''
``The professors supported us 100 percent,'' Pavel says, as he opens letters full of donations from around the country. ``Look at all this money we've received to help us buy food and print banners.''
As the demonstrations mounted, Pavel traveled to factories and farms around the country to talk to workers and peasants. ``I was afraid the workers would turn us away,'' he admits.
Instead, his efforts paid off. With little prompting, they went on strike for two hours last week in support of the students.
Back in Prague, Pavel reported to his students and appeared at the National Theatre to inform audiences about his visits. His message is cautionary.
``People now feel we have won a great victory, that the communists have gone,'' he says. ``In reality, the situation now is most dangerous. People are less careful.''
On Monday, Pavel planned to leave the campus offices where he has slept for three weeks. He will go home to see his parents, the loyal communists.``My parents no longer are mad at me. They understand,'' he says. ``They even are proud of me.''