Behind the Iron Curtain part 36 – Revolutions

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

We were taught at school that Marx got one thing in his philosophy wrong and that it had to be corrected by Lenin – the idea of gradual societal progress over time. A violent revolution, we were told, is necessary to defeat the evils of capitalism and institute socialism, just as it happened in Tzarist Russia after WWI and in our country after WWII. After that glorious revolution, we can go back to gradual societal progress over time and the glorious, completely fair, and egalitarian communism will come. Eventually.

When communism did not come any closer after nearly one generation, people became restless. It was not exactly an attempt at revolution, there was no violence, and no attempt at actually overthrowing the regime, only an attempt at reforming it and making it better. But this cry for humanizing the regime that was supposed to care about human welfare did not suit well the powers that be in Moscow and the attempt was quelled by force. The Czech Republic was invaded and tanks from USSR, Poland, Hungaria, and Bulgaria rolled through the streets. It worked, but not as planned – the plan was to put up a facade that people do not want any reforms and that soviet-style socialism is wanted, as demonstrated by people welcoming the invaders as liberators. But weeks-long protests against the invasion put this idea quickly to sleep and what remained was subduing the population by brute force.

A year later, a young philosophy student Jan Palach has set himself ablaze in protest of this. He did not want the ideas that led to the push for humane socialism to die, he wanted the occupants to leave the country and in lieu of other options, he decided for protest by self-harm. I cannot say I condone his approach, but his goal was undeniably noble. He died, he became a martyr, but nothing much changed.

Fast forward another generation.

I was just a school kid during the times of the Velvet Revolution in the fall of 1989, in my last year of elementary school. I knew nothing about the things that happened short of a decade before I was born. I had no idea who Jan Palach is, I had no idea that we were still occupied by Soviet Army, and because I have lived in the countryside with no connectin to big cities, I had no idea that civil unrest is brewing for almost a year already. But it was. The boil of social unrest was swelling, unseen by many but clearly visible by others until it burst.

For me, the whole thing was an incomprehensible mess. I did not understand what is happening. Suddenly I heard on the news that peacefully protesting students were beaten to a pulp by police – a thing that only evil capitalists do to protesters, surely! And then the whole thing happened really quickly – and before the school year was over, before the next summer holiday, we had suddenly a different political regime and I had to learn that a lot of what I knew about how the world functions was bullcrap.

And suddenly I learned about all the things that were kept from school curricula – the deaths and torture in the name of the greater good, the lies and deception, and the fact that it all did not lead to a better life anyway. Those were not easy times – and I was lucky to live in a country where the armed forces were not given orders to use violence and the revolution was allowed to happen without bloodshed. Hearing about armed conflicts in other countries, and for example seeing Ceaucescu being shot to death was not cathartic or satisfying, it was only terrifying.

I do not like revolutions much. They might be necessary from time to time, but they are not pretty, they are not glorious and they do not lead to instant improvements. Not even the milder ones.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    I feel there was a change in the way Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc was handled in Finnish schools 1986-1991. However, this was much less pronounced than you describe the situation in Czechoslovakia.

    Textbooks didn’t openly condemn the Soviet style system before 1986, even if the writers could be right-wingers and personally quite anti-Soviet. However, teachers could talk about the negative sides of the Eastern bloc (low-quality industrial production, the impression that people are lazy and shortage of consumer products). This was probably very much dependent on the teacher and their personal ideology. By 1991, older geography books were obsolete for European political geography. The school I went to 1987-1993 had fairly conservative geography and history teachers with one exception (the history and geography teachers for grades 7-9 in comprehensive school were old-school patriotic ladies and the secondary-school history teacher was a cynical and misogynistic misanthrope, the secondary-school geography teacher was the exception, a pacifist and left-winger).

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