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The Opposition Movement in Slovakia in the Period of Normalisation

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In contrast to the Czechs, the Slovakian resistance towards communist dictatorship grew out of other motives, springing to life from different ideological premises and – not least – historical experiences quite different from those faced by the Czechs. These assumed a much more religious and national character and found expression in myriad ways, ranging from pilgrimages and petitions to the efflorescent Samizdat press and written declamations against the infringements of the communist church secretary. The spate of protests in Bratislava on 25 March, 1988 initiated by Slovaks abroad and organied by the laiety of the Catholic Church was the first public demonstration for the observance of citizen and human rights in the entire Eastern Bloc before 1989. The various attitudes of Slovaks towards their Czech counterparts was no doubt one of the reasons why the best known oppotition movement – Charter 77 – was not able to maintain itself in Slovakia. Alongside religiously motivated aspects of the resistance, the political energies of Slovaks likely drove environmental activities. Environmental protectionists expressed their main criticism against the pollution of the Slovak capital by means of a leaflet campaign which caused a great stir under the name Bratislava/nahlas, and was rightly characterized as a kind of “Slovak Charta.” The following study analyzes the concrete activities of the Slovak opposition movement which became stronger in the second half of the 1970’s and had a hand in the downfall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. The analysis proposes the study of the different forms of resistance that took place in each parts of the country merits individual attention in order to see how the political and social motivations of Czechs and Slovaks differed from one another.

The resistance against the dictatorial rule of the two communist parties: the statewide Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ)1 and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS)2 – a unit responsible for the Slovak territory – was driven in Slovakia by completely different motives. The underlying incentives included different attitudes towards ideological premises and, last but not least, a historical experience that was different from that of the Czechs. Despite many transformations that took place in the last decade exposing Slovaks to the oppressive and strange Bolshevik ideology with its impact on all areas of life, Slovak mentality, as opposed to Czech, proved to be rather conservative, based on traditional values and committed to the Roman Catholic or Lutheran faith. Therefore, the opposition movement in the 1970s and, above all, in the 1980s developed strong religious-driven grounds expressed in mass demonstrations during pilgrimages claiming the restoration of religious freedom. The revival of religion was confronted with harshly enforced atheist campaigns.

Apart from the religious aspects of Slovak resistance broadly described in a separate chapter, the struggle for the retrieval of political and civil freedom was equated with national liberation. Consequently, it was meant to solve the Slovak issue. The then centralized state was transformed into a federation in accordance with the Constitutional Act No. 143 of 27 October 1968. However, it brought no fulfilment of Slovak citizens’ national aspirations. Not only the ban on the Communist Party federalisation, which in view of specific political power relations would have constituted a necessary condition for state federalisation, but also a gradual return to party centralism as well as an unchanging centralistic economy structure were preventing the practical enforcement of the Act to a considerable extent. The power monopoly of the Party was then contradictory to national sovereignty. The political centre of Czechoslovakia remained at the same time the centre of the Czech Republic. As a result, Czechs identified the republic with the Czech state. On the contrary, Slovaks perceived the federation as a bizarre and hostile creation.3 Supreme power was still exercised by a more or less ten-member steering committee of the centrally ruled KSČ. Therefore, the newly established republic governments possessed a partly decentralised function since such areas as cultural policy were pursued only at republican level. Consequently, the federal Ministry of Culture no longer existed after 1968.4 On the other hand, the relevance of national councils diminished significantly after the adoption of the Constitutional Act No. 117/1969. Moreover, the federation lost its decentralising function also from an economic perspective due to the implementation of a binding five-year plan for the national economy.5

Charter 77 and Slovaks

The lack of two components in the civil rights movement – national and religious – may well have been one of the most important reasons that Charter 77 gained no significant support among Slovaks. The Italian publicist Leo Magnino, who advocated the sovereignty of Slovakia, wrote about the citizens’ initiative in the same year the document was published: “Charter 77, being an open revolt against the dictatorship, generated a wide response in the Western world. Not surprisingly, this act aroused a feeling of moral and civil solidarity among all free people. However, we do not find included in Charter 77 – apart from a fair intercession for freedom and respect for the human rights of individuals – any of the demands made by the Slovak nation, of which we know was likewise longing for freedom and state independence. Only little by little have we learned that the absolute majority of the Charter 77 signatories were Czechs, and what is more, communists who were once in power.”6

Slovak citizens naturally associated the guarantee of human rights with the principle of national self-determination. With this in mind, one of the most relevant expatriate Slovaks, a supporter of politically active exile organisations and, for many years, the editor at Radio Free Europe in Munich, Imrich Kružliak, wrote in the exile monthly magazine Horizon published in the Slovak language (and which he himself edited): “As far as the Slovak people are concerned, the fight for human rights has been always been connected with the fight for the rights of a nation. It also corresponds to the sense of our national philosophy, according to which not only does an individual deserve to benefit fully from the dimension of humanity, but also that a nation has to be provided with a human face. Today as well it is our task to combine the struggle for human rights with the struggle for a dignified self-realisation of the nation.”7

It appears that the chartist civil rights movement developed within the Czech community and was orientated only towards the needs of the Czech part of the republic until the very end. The initiative underlying its creation was conceived within Czech intellectual circles and without consulting Slovakian. Miroslav Kusý and Dominik Tatarka were the only Slovak representatives involved in its preparation. Others learned about the initiative either from state television or from foreign broadcasting stations such as the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.8 Nevertheless, those Slovaks who signed it had to suffer a great deal. For the liberally oriented writer Dominik Tatarka, the author of Farská republika (The Parish Republic), a novel much acclaimed by the local communist founding fathers, it meant being banned from publication and isolated for the rest of his life, which had an enormously negative effect on him. Two Catholic priests, Marián Zajíček and Róbert Gombík, were granted government permission to exercise their priestly ministry while others were forced into exile. Accordingly, the number of those who dared to express their sympathies by signing the document possibly exposing themselves to persecution remained small, which definitely corresponded with the calculations of the state authorities.9

The example of two Catholic clergymen, young chaplains Marián Zajíček and Róbert Gombík, illustrates that the individual biographies of Charter signatories did not necessarily run along anti-communist lines. Gombík – a priest with government permission – had been a registered secret agent of the State Security Service since 1973. Even if the absolute credibility of the security service records cannot be assumed, a file registered in his name was maintained under the code name “Clergyman.”10 However, his loyalty to the communist regime began to waver with the implementation of Charter 77. According to the entries in his file, from that moment he was no longer willing to collaborate with the State Security.11 Eventually, together with his friend Zajíček, also a Catholic priest, he was denounced as”a threat to the national order“, and both were subject to a criminal prosecution that, however, was never concluded. After imprisonment, they were released again, which occurred most probably due to the tremendous reaction of Western media and the exile press. The most drastic measures resulting from the signing of Charter 77 involved revoking the permission to exercise the priestly ministry and the introduction of remuneration payments which resulted in existential hardship. As far as it was possible to follow the life of Gombík, he exhausted his spirit of resistance in the mid-1980s regaining government permission as he revived his contacts with dissidents.12

Also, the introduction of the official Catholic hierarchy to Charter 77 on the one hand, and the secret actions of individual church structures on the other hand, were not fully explained and still need to be thoroughly analysed. Doubtlessly, the declaration of Slovak bishops and ordinaries enforced by the regime and signed by the regime-dependent Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris and the St. Adalbert Association on 17 January 1977 can be deemed a shameful document.13

The rather cautious behaviour of some hierarchs as, for example, that of the bishop of Tyrnau Július Gábriš, who took an increasingly critical stand on the regime’s policy, mostly in the 1980s14, was not necessarily unjustified. For instance, Gábriš criticized the presence of former high rank party functionaries, such as Pavel Kohout among the signatories of the Charter since it could change the perception of the initiative to being a platform for the return of former prominent party officials.15 Certainly, it was a novelty in the civil rights movement in the Eastern Bloc countries that a group consisting mostly of non-Christian members demanded exactly the introduction of religious freedom. Nevertheless, the Church was entrusted by the foreign Catholic press with the task of supporting the Charter, as this long-lasting solidarity wave would bring unambiguous profits to the oppressed Church.16 Obviously, this kind of support on the part of Slovak bishops, who at that time found themselves under constant persecution, was impossible and the risk of embarrassment in front of their own congregation had to be accepted.17

The most famous Slovak signatory of Charter 77 active abroad, Miroslav Kusý, former professor of Marxism-Leninism and, for some time, the head of ideology department in the Central Committee of the KSS, whose polemical contributions on the internal situation of the country were broadcasted by the Radio Free Europe, tried to find an answer to the problem of minor support and admiration among Slovaks towards the so-called Czech parallel culture. The main reason for this could be two different paths of development that the Czech and Slovak nations had taken before 1968 and in the following years. Slovaks, who started to consider themselves as a modern nation for the first time (!) as a result of the industrialisation and urbanisation of the country in the 1960s, reflected the suppression by Novotný’s regime primarily as a nation and defended themselves against it. This overemphasis on the nationally-perceived obligation appeared also as far as the violation of civil and human rights was concerned. The effects achieved by Slovaks due to the establishment of a federation sated national demands for only a limited period of time. Therefore, the development in the post-invasion era was no longer as intense as in the Bohemian part of the country. No remarkable change of course took place. There were even some areas that brought a considerable profit (better professional advancement). “Based on this statement on the development after August 1968, another view emerges among Slovaks regarding the Czech parallel culture in general and with reference to Charter 77 in particular. They consider it to be a typically Czech matter and reaction to the typically Czech reality that we [Slovaks] are not characteristic of.”18 According to Kusý, at the beginning, Slovak ambitions to obtain their own statehood did not exist, because the problem of the constitutional position of Slovakia in relation to the Czech state was solved by the implementation of federal structure. In his opinion, it was only about economic, cultural and social equality. Consequently, the national issue was no longer in the foreground since Slovak people (even without their own country!) would feel equal to other European nations: “The Slovak citizen will consciously become more and more a citizen of Europe and of the world.”19 (However, Kusý with his wishful perception had to be wrong because the national element once again became an essential part of the political development after 1989 upon which a sketch of the establishment of an independent state emerged.)

Both the openness of Charter signatories to dialogue with the regime that had already violated human dignity with its materialistic footing, and the lack of distance to communism as an ideology were strongly criticized and mostly by Slovak émigrés in the West. Emil Vidra, the founder of an organization protecting human rights in Slovakia20, was extremely critical of Charter 77. The organization had been founded in 1968 during the Prague Spring. Paradoxically, none of the later Charter signatories – and reform communists at that time – attended the inaugural meeting, although each of them received a personal invitation.21 Vidra’s response to the accusations of Gustáv Husák was also refused by the editorial staff of the Literární listy magazine as many of its members at that time later became signatories of Charter 77. Vidra accused Charter 77 of not rejecting communism unequivocally. In his view, the Charter might have done harm to some representatives of communist power, but not to communism as a whole.22

The directions of Slovak exile policy, even if different from the evaluation of Charter 77 by Czech emigrants, were not entirely disapproving despite of the fact that, due to a considerable Czech influence, a large part of the global community considered precisely this dissident group to be representative of a nationwide Czechoslovak anti-communist opposition. Each center of Slovak political exile was aware that the objective to bring the communist system to a collapse should be reached jointly and together with the Czech people. In this respect, public defamatory statements on Charter 77 were rather avoided.23

Opposition based on faith: Ecclesia silientii

Secret churches in Czechoslovakia that were brought into being upon the initiative of both Pope Pius XII and Msgr. Gennaro Verolino, 24 the Vatican Chargé d´Affaires in Czechoslovakia after the WWII were gradually gaining in strength from 1949 as the first secret bishops were consecrated. The first secret consecrations had taken place in 1949. Kajetán Matoušek was ordained Suffragan Bishop of Prague on 17 September 1949 and František Tomášek was ordained Suffragan Bishop of Olmütz on 14 October 1949. Ecclesia silentii became reality in Slovakia with the secret consecration of Štefan Barnáš as the Auxiliary Bishop of Spiš on 5 November 1949.25 The subsequent consecrations involved Pavol Hnilica on 2 January 1951, Ján Chryzostom Korec on 24 August 1951, Dominik Kaľata on 9 September 1955 and Peter Dubovský on 18 May 1961. The principal duty of secret bishops was to ordain secret priests in order to secure the survival of the Church oppressed by the regime.26 Bishop Korec alone ordained 120 secret priests by 1989, the majority of whom belonged to a secret male order. In this way, the Church was strictly covered by a (secret) religious community27 and the secret Church was protected from the risk of being infiltrated by the State Security.28 However, as the State Security exposed secret consecrations, secret bishops had to emigrate (Hnilica, Kaľata, Dubovský) and others were sentenced to long-term imprisonment (Korec). After the great wave of rehabilitation in the 1970s, which was a short period of liberalisation during the Prague Spring, and after its suppression, underground activity started again in the 1970s.

In 1968, a mathematician and secret priest, Vladimír Jukl, together with a physician, Silvester Krčméry, started to organise small groups of university students in Bratislava. Both of them had gained sufficient experience in the youth apostolate, being former members of the Catholic lay organisation “Rodina” (The Family), which was established by Stjepan Tomislav-Podglajen (in Slovakia known as Stjepan Kolaković-Podglajen) – a Croatian missionary and lay apostolate promoter in the 1940s. Students were getting together with the aim of deepening their religious life. Their representatives summoned all higher education institutions in Bratislava several times a year to attend large meetings where future activities were coordinated. By 1989, a total of one hundred meetings of this kind had taken place with ten to fifteen participants gathering on a regular basis. After graduation most of them returned to their hometowns and helped with the establishment of a nationally widespread network of Catholic activists.29

An organisation of Christian families was founded in a similar way. On this basis, the activities of underground missionary work could be disseminated throughout the whole country.

In 1974, four laymen30 established the Fatima community. Being a lay community under the jurisdiction of the secret bishop Korec, its main duty was to “create, lead, expand and coordinate small Catholic communities of workers, young people and children”.31 It was given its Statutes, according to which the community was ready to give assistance to the Church whenever it required urgent help and whether it was related to the apostolate, or to the fulfilment of such duties for which the responsible organs had not yet been appointed by the Church.32 From 1975, their members33 organised meetings with local activists four times a year in many Slovak cities in order to exchange information, to plan joint activities and to distribute religious foreign literature and the latest publications by samizdat. The network that was built due to these activities included 150 towns and villages with a total number of 400 activists. The activities of the secret apostolate, whose members stayed in regular contact with the “official” Church, not least in order to discuss their plans with them, mostly with the Bishop of Tyrnau, Július Gábriš, and the Diocesan Administrators, Štefan Garaj and Ján Hirka, remained unnoticed by the public until 1983; however, to their own surprise, they benefitted enormously from it in the following years.34

A new self-awareness provided by the election of a Slavic Pope and, simultaneously, a feeling of no longer being isolated from the Church behind the “Iron Curtain” were conditions for a greater independence of the opposition after the Catholic Church was again subject to even more severe oppression in the 1970s and 1980s. Cardinal König stated in an interview that the community of believers began to fight stronger than before when they felt the violation of their citizen rights.35 They used to cite the Declaration of Human Rights signed by the Czechoslovak government in Helsinki in 1975, which from that moment on was included in the legal system. Employment bans for clergy used as a frequent anticlerical measure and targeted at priests characterized by taking successful pastoral care of their congregations.36 were no longer accepted with resignation. An increased number of cases was observed when the affected communities submitted a complaint about the actions of district and regional Church secretaries and wrote on their own to the head of state and parliament providing a complete number of complainants’ signatures. A letter of complaint from 1979 by a Catholic community from the Budweis Diocese addressed to President Husák asking for the abolishment of the employment ban for their priests was signed by 190 persons.37

Letters of complaint, after protests, represented a particularly widespread form of opposition, being a valuable historical source providing information about the state of the Church as well. Most famous are the letters written by Msgr. Viktor Trstenský,38 in which he protests against the suppression, persecution and abuse of the Church and the injustice against his own person. Only in the years 1975–1989, he wrote 65 letters. Twelve of them were addressed to President Husák, to the Chairman of Government, Peter Colotka, to the Minister of Culture, Miroslav Válek, to the television, press, and the Church hierarchy, etc.39 Moreover, cases were multiplying in which individuals were no longer afraid of submitting complaints to the official institutions. In this manner, parents protested when their children were refused to be enrolled in religious class, young priests – when they were forced to join the priestly movement “Pacem in Terris” that was loyal to the regime, and priests without posts – after being deprived of their permission to perform their priestly ministry.40

One of the most remarkable protests,41 almost without precedence in the whole Eastern Bloc, was organised in October 1980 in the seminary of Bratislava where 120 out of 147 seminarians united in a two-day hunger strike (20–21 October 1980) against the influence of the regime-dependent Association of Catholic Clergy “Pacem in Terris” (in the seminary). In a letter to Cardinal Tomášek and Slovak ordinaries theology students protested against the interference of the Association in the seminary’s issues. In addition, they called on all of the clergymen in the country to boycott the organisation.42 As eleven students were suspended for one year at the beginning of the summer semester 1981, 100 students decided to leave the seminary as well, sympathizing with their colleagues who had been punished. Although all but seven seminarists withdrew their claims upon the seminary management’s request and continued their studies, they kept protesting against the actions taken by the authorities. The wave of solidarity coming from abroad, for instance, from the seminaries of all Austrian dioceses, from 600 students and professors of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Munich and from the Jesuit University of Philosophy, with the famous theologian Karl Rahner, not only undermined the position of the Pacem in Terris Association, but also submitted various requests to the Czechoslovak president, Gustáv Husák, to cancel the suspension of the eleven students.43

The increased activity of Catholics in the 1980s could be noticed through the dissemination of samizdat periodicals, i.e. those magazines and information leaflets that were printed underground without the participation of the National Printing Office and without a special permission and being distributed via secret networks of students, Christian families and laymen. In 1973, a group of Catholic clergymen from Spiš decided to publish a philosophical‑theological underground magazine Orientácia (The Orientation), which, in 135 issues during its eleven-year existence, printed original texts written by renown Catholic intellectualists from Slovakia and translations of important works written by foreign theologians as well as other information related to the current situation of the Church.44 Since an issue consisted of barely 20 copies – they were reproduced on a typewriter – its reach within the Spiš region was limited. Nevertheless, it became a platform for artistic creation for Catholic intellectuals otherwise condemned to silence during the period of normalisation.45 This tradition was followed later in June 1982 by another Catholic samizdat magazine Náboženstvo a súčasnosť (The Religion and Modern Times). The magazine created by a group consisting of a mathematician, František Mikloško, a lawyer, Ján Čarnogurský and a mathematician and priest, Vladimír Jukl, could reach the whole of Slovakia with an issue of up to one thousand copies, thereby satisfying the needs of the already well developed “secret” underground Church for religious literature.46 From 1982, a great number of new titles appeared so that by the end of 1989 there were fourteen Christian samizdat magazines with a total circulation of 7,760 copies.47 Various magazines were printed illegally in the Czech Republic between 1988 and 1986. Some nine of them belonged to the Christian underground.48

The meaning of samizdat literature for the opposition and for the survival and continuous existence of an uncensored and free culture of writing cannot be underestimated. While the regime was issuing tons of atheistic literature – only the Church Secretariat of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture published a hundred copies of so-called reference books propagating atheistic ideology between 1975 and 198649 – the editing, publishing and distribution of each samizdat edition involved a high risk. Jozef Oprala, a Jesuit, priest and theologian responsible for the publication of the illegal magazine Una Sancta Catholica recalled: “Today we perceive those deeds as a kind of heroism that was necessary and, at the same time, provoked suffering. The existence of those courageous men [the publishers of samizdat magazines] was related to a great deal of patience and caution. One cannot describe exactly what was happening in the families where samizdat was developed. Small flats in panel buildings, tiny rooms or prudently furnished weekend cottages or cellars gave shelter to the publication process of samizdat. An unbelievable fairy tale and, at the same time, a testimony to the strength and courage of the Christian soul... It united us as the atheistic oppression enslaved our spirit and human beings were racked by the wheel of moral deformation [...] The Catholic samizdat in Slovakia is a noteworthy cultural, religious and deeply human phenomenon consisting of what should be admired by the world in the Slovak soul.”50

The pilgrimage to Velehrad that took place on 6–7 July 1985 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the death of St. Methodius, who had been pronounced patron saint of Europe alongside St. Cyril four years earlier, was a significant turning point in the relations of the Church with the totalitarian regime. One month before, on 2 June 1985, Pope John Paul II published the Encyclical Slavorum Apostoli, in which he emphasized the meaning of the two brothers’ achievements in the evangelisation in the Slavic countries.51 The years of self-sacrificing work of small religious communities in Velehrad were visible in the underground. A Slovak activist, Vladimír Jukl, recalled: “With the help of communities, we invited young people to come to Velehrad on Saturday, 6 July. We used all underground structures to spread this information. We mobilized everyone upon whom we had some influence: young people, families, priests, movements, orders... The information was also broadcasted by Anton Hlinka on Voice of America radio station. Slovakia began to move towards Velehrad.”52

Almost 150 000 people participated in the pilgrimage to Velehrad. The majority of them came from Moravia and Slovakia. Considering that a pilgrimage to Levoča took place on the same day, the number of pilgrims was exceptional. The leadership of the Party wanted to convert this unique event into a “Peace Festival”; however, without much success. As the Czech Minister of Culture, Milan Klusák, who could not bring himself to pronounce the word “saint”, preceding the names of the two patrons, turned to the believers with a call for peace. He was booed – possibly the first time that the “normalised” regime lost in an open confrontation with its own citizens.53 The pilgrimage was a manifestation of loyalty to the Pope, Cardinal Tomášek and the Church; a manifestation of the restored strength of Ecclesia Silentii and the members of its congregation who were no longer afraid.54 The pilgrimage came as a shock to the regime, from which it never recovered. The leadership of the Party had to admit that the Church had at its disposal an extremely effective information network, since the unparalleled mobilisation of the community of believers took place without the participation of the state media. It became clear to them again that they were universally hated and each anonymous gathering posed a risk to the regime.55 The Church opposed the regime as the true and only challenger, whom they had already buried and now had to be afraid of again. Consequently, one of the most important objectives of the communist church policy failed, i.e. to eliminate the Church as a real opponent together with its ambition to be a mass organisation.

The regime was put on trial by the religious population once more with a petition entitled: “The recommendations of Catholics on the resolution of the situation of believers in the ČSSR“.56 The petition’s text was prepared by a group of Moravian Catholics under the leadership of Augustín Navrátil. A one-time signature collection campaign began on 29 November 1987. An incredibly large increase in the number of signatures could not have been possible, had it not been for a personal letter from Cardinal Tomášek addressed to the congregation on 4 January 1988, in which he appealed to Christians to get rid of “their fears and lack of courage being unworthy of a Christian” and to sign the petition.57 It was an important decision because without the patronage of the Czech Primate in the initiative, it would not have achieved such an outstanding success and would have been labelled by the regime (as) a kind of “provocation by illegal and hostile structures”. The demands presented in the 31-paragraph petition included the separation of the Church and the state, the abolition of regulations discriminating against the Church, especially the Act No. 217/1949 on the economic hedging of the Church and the amendment to the Constitution concerning the claims included into the petition.58 During the first months, the petition was signed by around 300,000 members of the congregation. By the end of 1988, the number of signatures amounted to 501,590, including 291,284 Slovaks and 210,306 citizens from Bohemia and Moravia.59 In response to this, the regime imprisoned Navrátil, the initiator of the petition, in the psychiatric department of a military hospital. Nonetheless, the petition largely united believers with non-believers and Catholics with Protestants, so that it was perceived by Catholic activists as a kind of referendum against the existing system.60

In the second half of the 1980s, traditional pilgrimages in Slovakia reached as yet unknown proportions as to the number of pilgrims. From 1983, as the pilgrimage to Levoča alone attracted 150,000 participants, high numbers of pilgrims became visible. In the summer of 1987, their number increased, amounting to 250,000 people, probably on the occasion of the Marian Year, previously declared by the Pope. Considering that only during the Marian Year the total number of pilgrims reached an incredible 600,000, consisting mostly of young people, compared to the Communist Party of Slovakia with its 450,000 members at that time, it was an important sign of the invincible religiousness of Slovaks, as well as of their rejection of the atheistic ideology propagated by the state and became clear evidence of the disproportion between those in power and the oppressed.61

Candle Demonstration on 25 March 1988

The Candle Demonstration on 25 March, 1988, which was the first open protest carried out by Slovaks against the communist regime62, is a well known and recorded event in their historiography. 25 March was proclaimed the Remembrance Day of the Slovak Republic, thereby making it the focus of public attention. Interest among historians was aroused also by a wide range of historical sources. On 30 November, 1989, a commission was established by the Slovak National Council intended to investigate an excessively violent attack by the police on a peaceful gathering of believers in Bratislava.63 The commission was active until 20 March, 1990 and collected extensive documentation from the governmental institutions involved: the police, security service, prosecutor’s office, high ranking KSS officials as well as the participants concerned.64 The demonstration was widely reported abroad; about three months after the event, a collection of authentic documents appeared in Austria.They were smuggled across the border by Bishop Korec and his helpers, and then published abroad.65 By 1998, elaborate work, based on a variety of archival sources and oral history was published by Ján Šimulčík.66 Finally, we should mention that twenty years after these memorable events, an academic conference dedicated to the Candle Demonstration was organised. The results of the conference will be published in an anthology in the spring of 2014.

A direct incentive for the demonstration came from part of the Slovak political emigrant community in the West, to be precise from its leaders – the editors of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, the priest Anton Hlinka and the chairman of the Slovak World Congress, Marián Šťastný. The idea was then picked up by the leaders of Catholic dissidents and transformed into a well-coordinated secret structure.67 The Candle Demonstration in Hviezdoslav Square on Friday, 25 March 1988, was the first street demonstration demanding the free appointment of bishops, full religious freedom and respect for civil rights.68 The announcement of such a demonstration was the logical result of the growing activity of the community of believers in the country, whose resistance gained not only a religious, but also a civic dimension. Through the third demand concerning observance of civil rights, the opposition movement decided to open itself to the non-believer part of the population on the one hand, thereby showing their solidarity, but on the other hand, Catholics showed that they were struggling not only for religious, but also for political freedom.69

The reaction of the regime constitutes an example of a government apparatus that, being deep in crisis, acting defensively and wanting to save face, reached for violent and repressive measures. The minister of Culture, Miroslav Válek, described this situation a few days after a brutal police action targeted at a few thousand peaceful demonstrators,70 who wanted to ask for freedom by singing, prayer and lighted candles in their hands. Válek watched the course of the demonstration and its bloody denouement from the window of the Carlton Hotel which was transformed into the operational headquarters of the security forces. He commented on what he saw on 20 April 1988 during the anniversary meeting of the Pacem in Terris Association: “During the last few days, the public was thrilled by a demonstration that took place in Bratislava. I openly admit that it was my duty to see the truth with my own eyes. And so I observed the whole demonstration. Unfortunately, the majority of you in this room trust foreign media than more our own. The demonstration was dispersed because it was illegal. But there were neither dogs nor rubber truncheons and tear gas. There was only water and cars [...]. However, there was also another option: to let the demonstration pass with the security forces successfully selling candles. But we know that the demonstration was only a part of a carefully planned campaign. Nothing has been written about the dogs, but about the impotence of the state, the disintegration of power structures and the victory of the believers over the state...”71

The Party leadership considered the Candle Demonstration a priori as an attempt to activate the opposition in a political direction. Therefore, the KSS politburo, that held a meeting on 15 March, was eminently interested in: 1) hindering the demonstration in general, 2) requesting the participants to leave the square, if, however, the demonstration takes place, and 3) dispersing them, if the two previous measures failed.72 During the meeting, a political commission was formed consisting of the Slovak Minister of Culture, Válek, Minister of the Interior, Lazar, other high rank party officials, the representatives of the security forces and the police. The commission worked out specific counter-measures against the demonstration. A day before, Oberst Mikula, Chief of Police of the city of Bratislava, asked the Federal Minister of the Interior, Vajnar, to “grant him authorisation to enforce extraordinary security measures from 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m. on 25 March 1988”73 in order to prevent the demonstration. Large-scale and very extensive preparations illustrated that the regime wanted to make every effort in order to avoid potential confrontation with opponents at all costs. Preparations ranged from the mobilization of all available means of political power, through the introduction of certain measures in higher education institutions and student residences, where no lectures were held on 25 March, thereby forcing the students to leave on Thursday evening, as well as other measures concerning traffic and hospitals that were preparing to admit a large number of injured, to the detention of leading Catholic activists.

The demonstrators were violently dispersed, by 1,061 policemen, 20 cleaning vehicles, 17 police cars, 8 convoy vehicles, 2 water cannons, 2 buses, and 3 tanks.74 In the aftermath of the brutal course of action, 14 people were injured, and 99 were arrested and interrogated, including foreign journalists.75 The images from Bratislava evoked a wave of indignation and protests across the entire world. All prominent newspapers reported on the events for several days. Among other things, the media pointed out the lack of potential to reform the system under the rule of the new Secretary General, Miloš Jakeš,76 as well as the scale of religious repression and its relation to the ongoing Czechoslovak-Vatican negotiations concerning the appointment of bishops.77 The names of the main activists, Ján Čarnogurský and František Mikloško, became known to the world’s public. Media coverage and the resulting political protests additionally strengthened the critical attitude of the West towards the Czechoslovak state leadership, increasingly mired in international isolation.

The Candle Demonstration of 25 March 1988 was the culmination of underground Church activity and the activity of Slovak Catholic emigrés. It was simply a public peace demonstration that electrified the global political scene and attracted the gaze of the media, although it was violently suppressed by the regime. It was an incentive for further demonstrations of Czechs and Slovaks against the regime and gradually developed into an open confrontation between the street and authority. The demonstrations took place throughout 1989 and eventually put an end to the persecution of the Church. As the Velvet Revolution began, the 17 November 1989 became a special occasion of great joy for the Church as its members could finally catch a glimpse of freedom.


An important role in the increased activity of the civil opposition movement in Slovakia was assigned to the environmentalists whose critical views on the disastrous situation of the environment in the capital of Slovakia attracted public attention and caused disruption politically. The most relevant points of their criticism were summarized in the samizdat magazine Bratislava/nahlas (Bratislava Aloud) that was published in October 1987 with an issue of two thousand copies and announced to the general public on 25 October, 1987 on Voice of America. There, a group of around 80 persons, mostly members of the Slovak Association of Environmentalists,78 highlighted the air pollution in the city of Bratisalva, which proved to have the highest level of contamination in the whole of Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, attention was drawn to the enormous waste of water resources caused by damaged water piping, to the contamination of water, resulting primarily from the activity of the oil-processing industry, as well as to noise pollution. Another point concerned the catastrophic condition of Bratislava’s Old Town monuments that, in large part and probably deliberately, were destined to fall into decay, since the timely renovation either did not take place at all or was delayed.79

The publication aroused a wave of indignation among people spanning the major part of the Republic. A circulation of another 30,000 copies of Bratislava/nahlas was prepared. Even the state security forces were not able to confiscate them. The initiative of young environmentalists, who became the most active participants of the Velvet Revolution later on, was rightly hailed as the Slovak Charter 7780 since it gained the wider support of society and addressed the main needs of the capital’s inhabitants. The process of gradual rapprochement of the ever-growing opposition movement was present both in the Czech and Slovak parts of the country in the last two years before the collapse of the communist monopoly on power. However, by August 1989, when judicial proceedings were brought against the so-called Bratislavská päťka (Bratislava Five) – a group of the five most famous dissidents in Slovakia,81 and the trial was a catalyst for further bonding both within the opposition and between dissidents and the rest of the population. This criminal trial evoked a wave of indignation reflected by numerous protest resolutions. A letter to the president written by Slovak intellectuals, in which they pleaded for the suspension of the trial, was signed by historians, writers, journalists, still active or banned from their profession, alongside the representatives of the civil-liberal dissident groupings with Milan Šimečka Sr. as their leader, as well as by the secret Catholic clergy, including prominent names, such as Alexander Dubček and the secret bishop, Ján Korec.82 A similar protest letter to the president was sent by Slovak sociologists whose signatures provided an exemplary list of the future political and social, pro-western and pro-American, prominence of Slovakia, with Magda Vašáryová and Martin Bútora as the future Slovak Ambassador to the US and one of the founding fathers of foreign policy in the independent Slovak Republic of the 1990s, to mention but a few.83 “Therefore, we turn to you, dear Mr. President, so that you contribute to the recovery and moral restoration of our society and support further development of the idea of national reconciliation based on a political dialogue. This idea has become a hopeful starting point for overcoming the crisis also in other countries in the world. Some of them barely know anything about our democratic traditions. Therefore, we shall prove that these are precisely our national traditions, and not the legacy of Stalinism that will determine the future of our nation.“84


The real revolution, which began with the violent suppression of a student demonstration on 17 November 1989 at Národní Třída Avenue in Prague, originated from people’s (unsatisfied) expectations and was a thoroughly idealistic, social, political and, last but not least, religious phenomenon.85 Slovaks and Czechs detested the communist regime not because it was socialist, but because of its inhumane, bureaucratic and oppressive policies.86 Equally, no one wanted to return to the thieving capitalism implemented in the early 1990s. The fundamental concepts of humanity, religious freedom, social peace and even love and mutual respect were the core elements of the long-lasting ideology of the opposition. Lastly, if it had not been for the support of the Slovak political diaspora, not only the wide media coverage of every injustice committed by the governance apparatus on its own citizens, but also the successful outcome of the revolution and the establishment of an independent Slovak state three years later would not have been possible.


Beata Katrebova –Blehova. Born in Nitra, Slovakia in 1973 and has studied English and German studies at the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, as well as political science, history, Russian language and law at the Univeristy of Vienna. She completed her dissertation titled The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia while working as a university tutor at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Vienna and from 2000–2005 as a lecturer for the Austrian East and Southern Europe Institute on the satellite campus Niederösterreich in St. Pölten. From 2004–2009 she served as university assistant for the Institute for East European History at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include: twentiethcentury Slovak and Czech history, the history of the Cold War and the history of Czechoslovak-Soviet relations. Since 2007 she has been a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Pamäť národa.



1 KSČ – the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Paradoxically, the Party was responsible exclusively for the Czech state territory – after the transformation into a federative state in 1968, the existence of a separate Communist Party of the Czech Socialist Republic was not allowed.

2 KSS – the Communist Party of Slovakia.

3 Jan Rychlík, Češi a Slováci ve 20. Století. Česko-slovenské vztahy, 1945–1992 (Bratislava: VEGA, 1998), p. 276.

4 Cf. Beata Blehova, “Die Kulturpolitik in der Slowakei und der Beginn der Normalisierung,” in Peter Bachmaier, Beata Blehova, Der kulturelle Umbruch in Ostmitteleuropa (St. Pölten: Peter Lang, 2005), pp. 171–189.

5 Rychlik (1998), pp. 282–287.

6 Quotation after Leo Magnino, “Slowaken sind reif für Eigenstaatlichkeit,” in Slowakei 16 (Munich, 1977–1978), p. 97.

7 Imrich Kružliak, “Za ľudské práva,” nn Imrich Kružliak, V čakárni dejín. Obrazy slovenských osudov, (Bratislava, 1999), p. 272. Originally printed in Horizont, July/August 1978.

8 Peter Balun, “Akcia ‘Kniha’. Charta 77 na Slovensku,” In Pamäť národa 1 (2007), p. 84.

9 Until 1989, Charter 77 was signed by 37 Slovaks. See Vilém Prečan, Charta 77. 1977–1989. Od morální k demokratické revoluci. Dokumentace (Scheinfield-Schwarzenberg: Čs. Středisko nezávislé literatury/ Bratislava: Archa, 1990), pp. 487–514 (List of signataries.).

10 Balun (2007), p. 87.

11 Ibidem.

12 Ibidem, p. 94.

13 Pavol Čarnogurský writes that by creating the declaration and signing this shameful document the Slovak Church hit rock bottom. See Paľo Čarnogurský, Súboj s komunizmom (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2013), pp. 186–188.

14 Gábriš, to the great dissatisfaction of the party leadership, was becoming more and more critical and hostile towards the regime and advocated for the Association of Catholic Clergy Pacem in Terris after its activity was officially prohibited by Vatican in a papal decree Quidam episcopi. See Jozef Haľko, “Biskup Július Gábriš a Združenie katolíckych duchovných Pacem in Terris,” in Pamäť národa 3, vol. 3 (2007), pp. 30–45.

15 According to the personal testimony of the priest Zajíček. See Balun (2007), p. 86.

16 See “Die ‘Charta 77’: ein politisch-kirchliches Dilemma,” in Herder-Korrespondenz, vol. 31, no. 3, (Munich, 1977), pp. 116–119. This outstanding analysis was published under the initials R. S.

17 The declaration of Czech bishops of 14 January 1977 with František Tomášek on the top of the list had a substantially different wording; therefore, it appeared that they managed to oppose to the pre-fabricated statement of the ecclesiastical office. A dissociation from Charter 77 cannot be concluded on the basis of this document. See “Die ‘Charta 77’: ein politisch-kirchliches Dilemma,” reference as above, p. 119.

18 Miroslav Kusý, “Slovenský fenomén,” in Listy vol. 15, no. 5 (Rím, 1985), p. 35.

19 Kusý (1985), p. 36.

20 Slovenská organizácia na ochranu ľudských práv (SONOP). Emil Vidra belonged to the anti-communist resistance fighters whose services were not recognized by the Slovak society, although a commemorative plaque can be found in his historical house in Bratislava. After the 2nd World War, he became a member of the Labour Party (Strana práce). Following the invasion of 1968, he emigrated to Vienna, where he established contacts with Slovak exile organisations. (Personal report of Ján Bobák to the author.)

21 František Braxátor, Slovenský exil 1968, (Bratislava: Lúč, 1992), pp. 113–114.

22 Ibidem.

23 Ibidem, p. 114.

24 Gennaro Verolino travelled around the country before his deportation from Czechoslovakia on 24 March 1949 in order to authorize bishops to create a secret hierarchy. Hansjakob Stehle, Eastern politics of the Vatican, 1917–1979 (Athens, 1981), p. 273.

25 See Václav Vaško, Neumlčená. Kronika katolické církve v Československu po druhé světové válce, vol. 2 (Prague, 1990), p. 111.

26 For more information on secret consecrations see František Vnuk, “Tajné vysviacky pred 50. Rokmi,” in Kultúra 21 (2000), p. 10–11.

27 All 56 monasteries with six Catholic male oreder communities were violently attacked in the night of 13 to 14 April 1950 during the so called Akcia K (sk. Akcia kláštory, lit. Action Monasteries). The monks were concentrated in special centres and, consequently, forced into the civil life or pastorate. See, among others, František Vnuk, Popustené putá. Katolícka cirkev na Slovensku v období liberalizácie a nástupu normalizácie (1967–1971), (Martin: Matica Slovenská, 2001), pp. 134–135.

28 See Ján Chryzostom Korec, “Tajne vysvätení kňazi za komunizmu,” in Ján Šimulčík, Zápas o nádej. Z kroniky tajných kňazov 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2000), p. 9.

29 Cf. Šimulčík (2000), p. 43.

30 Jukl, Krčméry, Rudolf Fiby and Eugen Valovič.

31 It was described in the report of Fatima community concerning the conference of Slovak bishops in 1990. Here, quotation after Šimulčík (2000), p. 13.

32 Šimulčík (2000), p. 12.

33 By 1989, the community increased in number up to 24 members and 40 employees.

34 Šimulčík (2000), p. 82.

35 “‘Der Widerstand ist selbstverständlicher geworden.’ Ein Gespräch mit Franz Kardinal König,” in Herder Korrespondenz 37/7 (Freiburg, 1983), p. 307.

36 In the eyes of Church secretaries, priests were guilty of “illegal activity” when they dared to condemn in their preaching the anti-Christian smear campaigns spread in the mass media, to give their opinion about atheism, and to defend themselves against the distortion of Christian truths and moral principles. They were suspected by the state organs whenever they maintained contacts with their congregation members, especially young people while preparing them for sacraments, providing pre-marriage catechesis, and organising groups of ministrants and boy choirs or any kind of charity activities among the old and sick people. See “Die Lage der katholischen Kirche in der Slowakei,” in Slowakei 16, 1977/78 (Munich), p.81. In accordance with paragraph 178 of the Penal Code, for those “crimes” they could be convicted of”thwarting the state control over the Church“and given a prison sentence. Those elements of the offence were not explicitly named by the Penal Code, thus their identification was incumbent upon a free judgement of Church secretaries. Otto Luchterhand made a reference to this speaking about a”blurred lawlessness of the religious community“in Czechoslovakia. See Otto Luchterhand, “Organe des Staates zur Kontrolle der Kirchen. Die Religionsbehörden in kommunistischen Staaten,” in Herder Korrespondenz, 38/6 (Freiburg, 1984), p. 265.

37 Jozef Nechluwyl, “Zwischen Druck und Widerstand. Zur Lage der Kirche und der Christen in der ČSSR,” in Herder Korrespondenz vol. 33, no. 3 (Freiburg, 1979), p. 158.

38 Viktor Trstenský was born in 1908 in Trstená, ordained as a priest in 1931, arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in 1949, in 1951 convicted again for five years, released from prison in 1954, in 1958 convicted again for a fifteen-year imprisonment, granted an amnesty in 1960, in 1969 priest in Stará Ľubovňa. In 1974, after only five years, he was deprived of his permission to perform priestly ministry again and returned to be active as a priest no sooner than in 1989. For his merits, Pope John Paul II appointed him a papal Prelate in 1994. See Július Paštéka et al., Lexikón katolíckych kňazských osobností Slovenska (Bratislava: Lúč, 2000), p. 1412f.

39 Cf. Viktor Trstenský, Nemôžem mlčať, Contents (Bratislava, 1995), pp. 681–686.

40 Nechluwyl (1979), p. 158.

41 The Austrian radio station ORF described it as one of the most spectacular actions that ever occurred in a communist country. See Anton Hlinka, Sila slabých a slabosť silných (Bratislava, 1990), p. 134.

42 See “Skandal um Studentenausschluss in Bratislava,” in Slowakei. Kulturhistorische Revue, 17, 1979/80 (Munich), pp. 100–102. The article printed here was used by the Catholic News Agency (KNA).

43 Ibidem, p. 101f.

44 Rudolf Lesňák, Listy z podzemia. Súborná dokumentácia kresťanskej samizdatovej publicistiky na Slovensku v rokoch 1945–1989 (Bratislava: Lúč, 1998), p. 31.

45 Works by a poet, Janko Silan, a theologian, Pavol Strauss and an art historian, Ladislav Hanus, among others, were published for the first time in the Orientácia magazine. See Lesňák (1998), pp. 31–52.

46 Ján Šimulčík, Svetlo z podzemia. Z Kroniky katolíckeho samizdatu, 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1997), p.18.

47 Between 1969 and 1989, a total number of 23 Christian and 4 liberal periodicals were printed illegally in Slovakia. Šimulčík (1997), p. 24.

48 See Johanna Posset, Česká samizdatová periodika, 1968–1989 (Brno: Paseka, 1990), p. 180.

49 “Sekretariát pre šírenie ateizmu?,” in Svedectvo (samizdat), 2/1, 1988.

50 Lesňák (1998), p. 17.

51 See the Circular Letter Slavorum Apostoli by the Pope John Paul II addressed to bishops, priests, order communities and all the faithful in remembrance of the evangelising work of the Saints Cyril and Methodius 1100 years ago, 2nd June 1985, in Verlautbarungen des Apostolischen Stuhls, p. 65.

52 Vladimír Jukl, in Ján Šimulčík, Zápas o nádej. Z kroniky tajných kňazov 1969–1989 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 2000), p. 60.

53 Kardinál Tomášek. Svědectví o dobrém katechetovi, bojácném biskupovi a statečném kardinálovi (Praha 1994), p. 110, ff.

54 For an elaborate description of the Velehrad pilgrimage see Václav Benda, “Jak dál po Velehrade?,” in Rozmluvy. Literární a filozofická revue, Nr. 6 (England: Purley, 1986), pp. 7–37.

55 Ibidem, p. 14.

56 Podnety katolíkov na riešenie situácie veriacich občanov v ČSSR. Also known as 31-Paragraph Petition (31 bodová petícia). The Slovak text printed in Jozef Žatkuliak ed., November 1989 a Slovensko. Chronológia a dokumenty 1985–1990 (Bratislava: Nadácia Milana Šimečku a Historický ústav SAV, 1999), pp. 185–187.

57 Cardinal’s letter printed in Ján Šimulčík, Čas svitania. Sviečková manifestácia – 25. Marec 1988 (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1998), p. 25.

58 For the text of the Petition (in English) see George Weigel, The final Revolution. The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (New York/Oxford, 1992), p. 239f.

59 This number was mentioned in a telegram of the Prague Archbishopric to the Commission of the Slovak National Council regarding the investigation of police attack on the congregation on 25 March 1988, Šimulčík (1998), p. 237.

60 In paragraph 29, a demand was made to modify several articles of the Constitution in the sense of the claims included into the petition. See Weigel (1992), p. 181.

61 Cf. Hlinka (1990), p. 184. See also Ján Šimulčík, Katolícka cirkev a nežná revolúcia (Prešov: Michal Vaško, 1999), p. 12.

62 Cf. Padraic Kenney, Karneval revoluce. Střední Evropa 1989 (Prague: BB/art, 2005), p. 54.

63 Komisia SNR na dohľad prešetrenia zásahu ZNB proti zhromaždeniu veriacich 25. marca 1988 v Bratislave.

64 A total number of 97 witnesses were interrogated. The documentation is archived in the Slovak National Archives. For more information about the commission’s work see Patrik Dubovský, “Sviečková manifestácia,” in Pamäť národa (Ústav pamäti národa), vol. 4, no. 1 (Bratislava, 2008), pp. 46–51.

65 The collection was published under a pseudonym that was used by Korec as a camouflage: R. V. Tatran, Bratislavský veľký piatok: Zbierka autentických dokumentov o zhromaždení veriacich 25. marca 1988, (no indication of place: no indication of publisher, 1988), p. 222. After November 1989, the book was two times reedited, firstly in 1994 and secondly in 2008 – on the 20th anniversary of the demonstration.

66 Šimulčík (1998), p. 275.

67 See Ako sa pripravoval 25. marec. In: Ján Čarnogurský, Videné od Dunaja. Výber z prejavov článkov a rozhovorov. (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1997), pp. 370–374.

68 The demonstration was announced by František Mikloško in a letter to the National Committee of the City of Bratislava on 10 March 1988. Printed in: Šimulčík (1999), p. 35.

69 Cf. Šimulčík (1999), p. 33.

70 The figures concerning the number of participants of the demonstration differ. Most probably, 3000–4000 people came to the Hviezdoslav Square by 5.15 p.m. Then, the square was cordoned off, forcing the other 8000–10 000 people to wait in the nearby streets and under the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising. See Šimulčík (1999), p. 138.

71 The speech of the Minister of Culture was published in a Catholic informative leaflet by Samizdat. Here quoted after Šimulčík (1999), p. 158.

72 According to the statement of Ladislav Sádovský, the Head of the Department of Public Administration in the Central Committee of the KSS. See Šimulčík (1999), p. 49.

73 The letter was published in Šimulčík (1999), p. 46.

74 Šimulčík (1999), p. 139.

75 According to the report of the General Prosecutor’s Office of 31 January 1990. Šimulčík (1999), p. 137.

76 Der Kurier, 27.3.1988.

77 Die Presse, 28.3.1988.

78 Slovenský zväz ochrancov prírody a krajiny (SZOPK). See Mikuláš Huba, “Bratislava/ nahlas po dvadsiatich rokoch,” in Pamäť národa 4 (2007), p. 104.

79 Výňatky z publikácie Bratislava/nahlas In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), pp. 173–179.

80 Huba (2007), p. 106.

81 A lawyer, Ján Čarnogurský, a sociologist, Miroslav Kusý, a writer, Hana Ponická and a Catholic dissident, Anton Selecký.

82 A letter of Slovak opposition activists and intellectuals to the President on the suspension of the criminal trial against the members of the so-called “Bratislava’s Five” (30.8.1989). In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), p. 300, ff.

83 A letter of Slovak sociologists to the President (7.9.1989). In Jozef Žatkuliak ed., (1999), p. 302, ff.

84 Ibidem.

85 Cf. James Krapfl, Revolúcia s ľudskou tvárou. Politika, kultúra a spoločenstvo v Československu po 17. novembri 1989 (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2009), p. 23.

86 Ibidem.


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