The day communism began to fall in Slovakia.
Thirty years ago, the communist regime in Slovakia suffered a moral debacle that deeply shattered its self-confidence and reputation abroad.
The anniversary of the 25 March 1988 Candle Manifestation is an annual event that resonates deeply with Slovak society as a symbol of Slovak resistance to the communist regime. Its ethos of non-violent protest could be also seen as an important one for the neighbouring countries, especially those behind the Iron Curtain.
It began in exile
A less-known fact is that the idea of organising a manifestation in defence of religious freedoms and human rights arose in the Slovak political exile, precisely within the Slovak World Congress (SWC). This was actually a rather logical consequence of the long-term activities of the Congress, which since its inception in 1970 had not only brought together most of the exiled Slovaks but under the leadership of the chairman Štefan Roman also made considerable efforts to fight the communist regime and Slovaks' right to self-determination.
At the SWC General Assembly in July 1987 in Toronto, Marián Šťastný, a famous ice hockey player, was elected the Congress's vice-chairman. Influenced by reports from Slovakia, especially those concerning the murder of priest Štefan Polák in October 1987, he devised a response that would resonate with the world's public and also constitute an act of defiance against violation of religious freedoms and human rights in Slovakia. The protest was to take the form of manifestations in front of the Czechoslovakian embassies in democratic countries. He selected 25 March as the scheduled event date - it may be a coincidence that this date was also his name day. He also resolved to reach out to people in Slovakia.
Today it is difficult to believe that news of the prepared demonstration in Slovakia had to be smuggled to leading Slovak dissident Ján Čarnogurský by Šťastný's mother-in-law sewn into the lining of her hat and written on chocolate paper.
Preparations for the demo
The normalisation leadership in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1980s was no longer the same regime that sent hundreds to the gallows, further thousands down uranium mines, or which conducted the thorough screening and marginalisation of tens of thousands who didn't believe the August 1968 occupation was really an international aid. Gorbachev's perestroika from 1985 not only changed relations between the superpowers, but also the attitude towards satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Brezhnev's 1968 imposed doctrine of international obligation 'to protect the achievements of socialism' was replaced by Gorbachev with Sinatra's My Way, as the eastern bloc began to crumble.
Although scarcely perceptible from the outside, the Czechoslovakian regime - which had lost foreign support - was shaken internally too: from the end of the 1960s, the aged government leadership slowly and without fanfare faded from the scene. The emerging generation may also had been pushing for Gorbachev's inspirational reconstruction, but they lacked the scope and possibly also abilities. Although they introduced partial reforms which liberalised the regime, they couldn't change its nature. That's why the authorities were still in the position to persecute actual as well as supposed opponents; shots were fired on the border with the West, State Security forces continued to bully and intimidate the opposition, anti-Church atheistic propaganda did not lose momentum, political trials were conducted, and oppression did not weaken.
All this went hand-in-hand with increased dissident activity. With Gorbachev's ascent, Dubček was emboldened, dissidents from the Hungarian minority became more prominent encouraged by the impression of a relaxed situation in Hungary, and previously forbidden names reappeared in artistic circles. Increasing numbers of people - who had previously remained only passive observers - stood up to oppose the regime. The October 1987 edition of the Bratislava/nahlas publication openly criticised living conditions in Bratislava, which indicated that normalisation's 'time without history' was coming to a dramatic end.
Other key signs of gradual change came from religious believers. Crowds numbering tens of thousands packed one Slovak pilgrimage site after another, the number of religious samizdat publications grew, and when at the beginning of 1988 a petition was launched for genuine religious freedom, tens of thousands people signed in their own names.
In was in this atmosphere that Šťastný's message about the prepared demonstrations found fertile ground within the secret church. And like the biblical seed, it yielded abundant crops The words of a leader of the Fatima Community, Rudolf Fibyh 'I have a candle as well as the will' became the catalyst for the secret church's involvement in upcoming events. Opposition activist František Mikloško shouldered the demanding task of convening the demonstration planned for Hviezdoslav Square in Bratislava.
Victory of Truth
From the very first moment that the demonstration was announced, it was clear that a fundamental encounter between citizens and the normalisation regime would take place. The announced programme envisioned a silent manifestation supporting the appointment of bishops for vacant dioceses in Slovakia, and the upholding of complete religious freedom and human rights in Czechoslovakia. Endorsement of these ideas was to be expressed by the lighting of candles. Information about the manifestation was largely circulated by foreign radio stations such as Vatican Radio, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America where Slovak journalist Anton Hlinka worked and promoted the event in the West. Equally important information channels were secret church structures, whose activists constituted a network throughout Slovakia.
On the other hand, the communist authorities - which viewed the manifestation as a political provocation - set out to prevent it from being held, or to minimise the number of protesters via various disruptive measures overseen by a specially convened commission. And sure enough, the regime utilised all the 'weapons' at its disposal: it mobilised party apparatus; propaganda machinery released news articles and television broadcasts to discredit the organisers and denounce the demonstration as 'an abuse of religious feelings' and an event organised by the West's 'bourgeois propaganda centres'; universities gave students holiday, forcing them to travel home from their accommodation, and threatened expulsions; several cultural diversion activities were organised, including an extraordinary television screening of the Western film Angélique.
Various security methods were used for the ruthless suppression of the demonstration: publicly - limiting transport and mobilising emergency units; by the state - summoning and detaining known secret church activists; and practically - with a series of preventive measures, threats and intimidation. Even the municipal authority services prepared street cleaning vehicles, using a pre-Easter deluge as a pretext.
The anticipated encounter landed a crushing victory for the demonstrators, and the regime suffered a moral debacle that profoundly shook its confidence in Slovakia and reputation abroad. Despite the security measures, thousands of people gathered. Their candles were not dimmed by the spring rain on the March evening, nor the incursions by the yellow-white police cars, street cleaning vehicles, or water cannons. The 30-minute manifestation in Bratislava - which the protesters attended despite the security forces' repressive measures - once again revealed the regime's true colours and its inability to solve accumulated social problems in any way other than through repression.
Precursor to the Velvet Revolution
Global public opinion strongly condemned the response of the Czechoslovakian authorities against the believers. From the Slovak perspective, it was very important that the manifestation showed virtually the whole world that there was active resistance against the communist regime in Slovakia - so that at least briefly, the future country became known to the world's people as a separate entity, not only part of Czechoslovakia. The European Parliament referred to the 'Slovak city of Bratislava' in its resolution condemning the attack on the protesters.
The manifestation also showed an effective way in which to fight the normalisation regime. It was the ethos of non-violent resistance, symbolised in this case by lighting candles, reciting Rosary prayers, and singing religious songs, which thanks to their transcendental nature and moral prevalence showed what had seemed impossible - to stand against armed forces of a seemingly omnipotent regime, and in a direct confrontation achieve a moral victory. This was what destroyed the communist authorities' illusion that it could intimidate and discourage people from their hope for a free life. With its non-violent resistance, this manifestation also heralded the 'gentle' nature of the fall of the communist regime and the transition to democracy in 1989. This 'Gandhi' form of protest with religious undertones can also be highlighted as Slovakia's special contribution to the fight against communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
In retrospect, it may seem equally important that the manifestation (similarly as previous petition campaigns) proved that in the environment of Catholic dissent - as the dominant component of anti-communist resistance in Slovakia (like the fertile ground of the exiled Slovaks) - there was resistance to the regime; and that such resistance was founded on democratic principles based on human and civil rights, as well as the fight for religious freedom.
Article by Peter Jašek
The original version of the text was first published at postoj.sk