Thirty-three years have passed since the first working meeting of the student strike committee at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts (JAMU) in Brno that was held in response to the crackdown by the security forces on the student march on 17 November 1989 at Prague’s Národní Street.
On Monday, 20 November, JAMU students joined a nationwide strike of students and theatre workers and actors. On Monday morning, František Derfler, a theatre artist, dissident and later professor at JAMU, spoke at the Faculty of Arts of the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University (UJEP) in Brno, currently known as the Masaryk University.
The key event of that day was an afternoon demonstration in a completely full Liberty Square, where students gathered alongside some teachers and other school staff. The JAMU was the first university in Brno to declare a strike together with the UJEP Faculty of Arts.
JAMU students then actively went out to smaller towns and municipalities to spread the word not only about the events on Prague’s Národní Street, but also to call for a reaction that would overthrow the totalitarian regime.
On the occasion of this year’s anniversary of „Velvet Revolution“, we selected three personalities from JAMU, its current rector Petr Michálek, his predecessor professor Petr Oslzlý, and associate professor Vít Spilka, asking them to recall the events of the revolution and to remind us of the importance of their message.
Petr Michálek, Rector of JAMU
You started studying at the JAMU Theatre Faculty six years after the November events and you were just 12 years old when the revolution happened. Did the memory of those events stick with you and did you feel that something special was happening?
I remember it quite vividly, although the atmosphere is not entirely tangible – what stuck with me the most was the feeling my parents had waiting for the news on TV. There was hope mixed with undoubted fear and uncertainty. It was such a strange concoction in our living room amidst the cigarette smoke.
How do you yourself perceive the significance of the November events in relation to running an institution such as the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts?
I will be brief: Nothing is free. And most importantly: nothing lasts forever. We have been given the opportunity to care. To care for the society as a whole and for the micro-world called JAMU.
What message should we take from November 1989 for today?
We owe our freedom to the Velvet Revolution and we have forgotten that freedom comes with responsibility. That would probably be the correct answer if this were a test. I must admit that it gets to me how we sometimes opt for this default correct response. I sometimes wonder if we are sufficiently aware of what these words truly mean? There is a story behind those words. Individual fates. Dilemmas. Unknowns. So to answer once again, this time the way I truly feel: the Velvet Revolution gave us a story.
Petr Oslzlý, Rector Emeritus of JAMU
What comes to your mind when someone says 17 November 1989?
I have a whole “film” of memories of the events that began on 17 November 1989, which I have captured through a number of interviews and texts, the most important of which are included in my book Theatre for Democracy, published by the JAMU Publishing House. On Friday, 17 November 1989, we – i.e. Divadlo na provázku together with HaDivadlo – performed our joint stage magazine Rozrazil 1/88 – About Democracy in Prague at the Junior Club Na Chmelnici, and I have many vivid memories of this specific day. Ranging from the emergency regiment on its way to be deployed against the students, which we watched from the club’s windows – its members looked to us like they were jacked up on drugs – to the arrival of Roman Ráček, a then-student at the Faculty of Arts in Brno, who was at the front of the student march brutally attacked on Národní Street. We interrupted the performance and I, together with Břetislav Rychlík, brought him to the stage and had him tell his story in front of the shaken audience. I also remember the night of 17 November, we were staying at the Jan Opletal university dormitory, but we basically did not sleep at all because we were constantly on the phone with colleagues from other studio theatres and with students from DAMU and FAMU, preparing to launch the strike.
Were you involved in any way in the strike, demonstrations or revolutionary initiatives on behalf of JAMU during the autumn of 1989?
At that time I was connected with JAMU only through students of its large theatre department (as the faculty did not exist yet), who ignored the communists’ ban on attending our “suspicious” theatre. On Monday, November 20, after a morning sessions at Divadlo na provázku, where we were setting up a strike coordination centre for South Moravia together with HaDivadlo, I went to my alma mater, the Faculty of Arts, but on the way I stopped at the Comenius Square, which at the time housed the only seat of JAMU in what is today the Faculty of Music, and there I briefly met a group of students at the entrance. I think they were demanding entry because the school was closed by its management at the time…
What are your strongest memories of the events of those days? Either the good ones or those connected with the threats of the when it was not yet clear that the revolution would be “velvet”?
As I said, I have a lot of strong memories. On Saturday, in Junior Club Na Chmelnici, where we were to play at 4 p.m., we and HaDivadlo were the first two Czech theatres to go on strike, and I was the first to read the strike declaration at the stage. The building was surrounded by uniformed and undercover police officers who tried to prevent us from calling the strike. After the following three incredibly active days in Brno, I moved permanently to the Civic Forum coordination centre from Wednesday 22 November, seeing as I was its founding co-signatory. At first, the centre was located in the U Řečických Gallery and it was then moved to Laterna magica – then an underground theatre space at Národní Street. We had to realistically consider the possibility that the People’s Militias, the police or the army would intervene against us. On Friday, November 24, after the new Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had been established following the fall of the old one in the evening, and it was clear that the totalitarian regime was not giving up, we were even called upon to go underground and were offered safe shelter. At that time Václav Havel asked us if there was anyone who did not expect this violent reaction from the regime, and when we all assured him that we were aware of such risk, he suggested that we stay in Laterna magica. We had hundreds of thousands of people on the streets supporting us, and to show our fear would send a negative signal. For me, the emotionally strongest experiences were, of course, the demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people on Wenceslas Square, which we addressed from the balcony of the Melantrich Publishing House, and the demonstrations of millions of people on Letná Plain, which I actively participated in organising and “dramaturgically directing” in a small group around Václav Havel.
What do you see as the message of those events for the current generation of young students at JAMU and other universities?
The message of these events is, in my opinion, primarily ethical. Czech society, or at least its majority, which saw the communist regime as a violent and totalitarian establishment, was united by a desire for freedom and democracy. We have achieved both, but living in a free and democratic society has proved far more complex than the majority expected at the time. The message to today’s youth, then, is that freedom and democracy are not a permanent state of affairs, that both must be constantly defended against tendencies, forces and individuals whose political programmes and activities are undemocratic and pose a threat to the freedom of our society.
Students of JAMU should constantly keep in mind that the moral and professional heritage of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent great activity of two men, Professors Josef Kovalčuk and Bořivoj Srba, and the first female rector of the free era, Professor Alena Štěpánková Veselá, enabled the establishment of the JAMU Theatre Faculty and fundamentally influenced the current free and democratic form of our Academy.
Vít Spilka, Associate Professor at the Wind Instruments Department, Faculty of Music
You took part in the Liberty Square demonstration on 20 November 1989 as a student of JAMU. How do you remember the strike and the related protests? What was the overall energy among the students then?
I remember that day quite vividly: on the morning of 20 November (Monday), I arrived at the building on Comenius Square and on the very door of the main entrance there was a declaration from the students of DAMU that they were going on strike. I went up to the first floor only to find Petr Veselý standing in front of the auditorium, then a student of drama direction, who told me the first information – all JAMU students were to meet in the auditorium at 10:00 a.m. A surprising number of us had gathered there, the auditorium was almost full, including several teachers. Jakub Špalek, a student of DAMU, gave a personal testimony about the events on Národní Street. The mood was quite thunderous, Špalek managed to portray the whole course of Friday’s events in a rather colourful way and it was clear to everyone at this moment that a major historical breakthrough was taking place. And the energy among the students? I remember mainly the fear I had that if this “does not work out” I would certainly be expelled as a member of the strike committee, both from the school and from the Brno Philharmonic, where I was already employed at that time. But otherwise, of course, there was great euphoria, excitement and uncertainty.
Was the demonstration more an act of protest and anger in response to the aggressive suppression of the student demonstration in Prague, or was it clear even then that everything possible had to be done to overturn the regime? How did you feel about that?
It was actually both – anger caused by the brutal crackdown on Národní Street and a feeling that the regime could no longer function in status quo, that at the very least the presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had to resign, which it did within a few days. But in reality, we were actually striving for a coup: on November 20, the Ten Demands of the Prague Universities were adopted, to which we added two more – the calling of free elections and the abolition of the constitutional article on the leading role of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in society. Then, the wheels of time started turning: at 13:00 a meeting of students of the Brno striking schools was held in the courtyard of the Faculty of Arts of Masaryk University (then still called Jan Evangelista Purkyně University) and the newly formed coordinating committee met. Our alma mater, together with the above-mentioned faculty, was the first school in Moravia to join the student strike.
What should the current JAMU appreciate about the initiative of those students, as well as the teachers and staff, who took joint action to oppose the regime at that time?
How the JAMU should respect the actors of those times is up to each individual. However, the key role of the artists, who had a significant influence on the rapid and successful course of the revolutionary events, could fill us with a certain pride. Basically, we should cherish that JAMU was not a mere by-stander, but played a key role, especially in the early days.