On November 17, 1989, just eight days after the fall of the Berlin wall, students filled the streets of Prague to mark Students Day, the anniversary of the storming of Czech Universities by Nazi occupiers 50 years earlier. The officially sanctioned march was supposed to finish at the national cemetery, but students continued into the heart to the city to voice their opposition to the Communist regime. The Iron Curtain was falling across the region, but the authorities in Czechoslovakia weren’t going to give up so easily.
Police attacked the unarmed demonstrators, injuring hundreds. Their brutality shocked the country and galvanized the broader society to join the demonstrations and strikes led by students in the following days in a movement that eventually toppled more than 40 years of Communist rule and would become known as the Velvet Revolution.
Among the student leaders of the Velvet Revolution was Šimon Pánek. As a result of his leadership in the Velvet Revolution, Šimon later represented students at the Civic Forum, the organisation which ushered in free and fair elections. He was later the founder of People in Need, the oldest and largest Czech humanitarian aid organisation.
In this interview, Šimon describes how the student movement formed, how they evaded the police and organised without the advantages of today’s technologies, and what student activists in authoritarian countries can take away from the experience of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
Student leader of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow Davit Petrosyan discusses the role of students in democratisation movements.