Beginning Nov. 17 1989, the "Velvet" Revolution (or "Gentle" Revolution, as the Slovaks call it) marked a nonviolent transfer of power from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to a parliamentary democracy. Vaclav Havel—a dissident playwright who'd spent almost five years in prison—was elected president on Dec. 29 1989, officially ending 41 years of communist rule.

NYU Prague Site Director Jiri Pehe spent six years (1997-2003) as a senior political advisor to Havel. But the journey to that role was filled with danger and hardship. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1955, Pehe fled his country in 1981—by way of hiding with his wife in the trunk of a car as they crossed the Yugoslav-Italian border. There followed time in an Italian refugee camp, then emigration to the U.S., where Pehe and his wife were granted asylum. His first job was as a night receptionist at the Hotel Algonquin in New York, where he read voraciously and improved his English. He studied international relations and joined Radio Free Europe in 1988 as an analyst at the headquarters in Munich. Pehe finally moved back to his homeland in 1995, when Radio Free Europe relocated to Prague.

Rob Cameron, BBC Prague correspondent and former NYU Prague professor—who, working with NYU Prague students, just released a podcast on the revolution—recently sat down with Pehe and asked about his early life in a communist country.


Jiri Pehe

Jiri: I was born in a town in Western Bohemia called Rokycany, into the family of a military officer. My father ran into problems after the 1968 Soviet invasion, and with him the whole family. So I grew up changing schools quite often, because my father was always being transferred from one place to another—up until 1968 because he’d been promoted or deployed somewhere, after 1968 as a matter of punishment because he’d opposed the invasion.  

Rob: So you were a Czech ‘army brat’, to use the American term.
Yeah, I was to some extent, but in the context that people in the U.S. don’t really know. That is that even the fortunes of a military officer could be changed by ’68, depending on how they saw their army mission; whether they saw it as mainly serving communism or mainly as serving their country. And I think that was the line that many officers in 1968 had to draw.

Was your father expelled from the army, or did he stay until he retired?
My father stayed in the army, but he could no longer be promoted. So he was shifted around to various jobs, such as a facility in Moravia, which repaired tanks and so on. He really wasn’t allowed to remain in any commanding position.

Was he in the Party?
Before ’68, yes.

And then he renounced it? Or he was expelled?
I don’t exactly know what happened. To this day he doesn’t like to talk about it. I guess it’s one of those traumatic experiences that if you don’t want to upset your old parents, you don’t go into.

What did your father’s opposition to the invasion mean for you, as a boy in his early teens?
It meant some problems getting into high school, and later on university. I wanted to study philosophy, but that wasn’t really possible with my political profile. So in the end I got into law school at Prague’s Charles University. There I managed to start parallel studies at the Philosophy Faculty, and the advantage of that was that you could choose your courses. So you could bypass Marxist-Leninism, Scientific Communism, and all that crap. I mainly focused on the Greek philosophers, medieval philosophy, and then German philosophers of the 19th century.

So you graduated when?
I graduated in 1978. But then I had to go for a year into the Czechoslovak Army.

Of course, as all men then did.
Yes, it was mandatory. I was actually assigned to a tank unit. And that was a terrible experience. I really didn’t like it. In the end I managed to get a transfer to a unit that was responsible for refueling the tanks. So I was actually in charge of a small gas station for most of my army duty.

So you didn’t like being cooped up in the tanks themselves.
Not really, no. I’m slightly claustrophobic, so I really didn’t enjoy the exercises where we had to drive the tank underwater. Sometimes the tank got stuck, and it would take them a few hours to pull us out. It was torture for me. I was glad to get a transfer somewhere else.

Tell me about your political consciousness at that point. Did you already feel in opposition to the regime?
I have to say it was a gradual process. But it was greatly helped by the events of ’68. You could divide it into several stages; before ’68, when we lived in this sweet oblivion. As kids we believed the system was basically good. And of course we were told in school that the Soviet Union was our friend. I think our parents really tried very hard not to contradict this very much. After ’68, things changed very quickly. We were all exposed to this shock, and at the age of 13 I suddenly saw what the regime was all about. But my real eye-opening wasn’t until the first years of university in Prague, when I started reading dissident and samizdat publications at my uncle’s apartment. He was a journalist. It was like visiting a different world, a different era, much freer and intellectually much more advanced than the era we were forced to live in.

Were you aware at that point of Václav Havel and the dissidents grouped around him?
Well all of us listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. So we followed what Havel and the others were saying. Of course we were all aware of what they did in 1977, when they signed the Charter 77 human rights declaration. And actually many of us in the student community had to resolve a dilemma—if I sign this at the age of 22, I will be thrown out of university immediately. I will be forced to do menial jobs, maybe for the rest of my life. I will probably also harm all the members of my family, who will be persecuted. The second option was to go along with the regime. And the third was to try to leave. Leaving was highly risky. Everyone knew you had to plan it carefully. But I chose the third option. I decided that as soon as I finished university I would use the first opportunity to leave. And I did so in 1981.

How did you manage it?
My first wife and I managed to get on a trip to Yugoslavia. It was a communist country, but one with a more liberal regime. If you went with an organized tour group and got all the stamps, you could go. So we got on this holiday to Crikvenica, a coastal town in today’s Croatia. It wasn’t easy to get out of Yugoslavia. We first tried to do it by getting a bus from Koper [now in Slovenia] across the border to Trieste in Italy. The problem was that the Czechoslovak authorities had put a stamp in our passports saying that this passport was only valid to enter Yugoslavia. So each time we tried to cross the Yugoslav-Italian border they turned us back. After three or days we went back to Crikvenica, where the Czechoslovak tour guide told us that we’d been reported to the authorities in Prague. As soon as we heard that, we started asking German and Austrian tourists to take us across the border.

In the trunk of their car you mean?
Yes. Of course most of them were afraid. In the end we met two Austrian students who had a Citroën 2CV. And they basically loaded us into the trunk.

The trunk of a Citroën 2CV? That’s not a big car.
Yes. Two adults in the trunk of a Citroën 2CV. It was one of the most terrible experiences of my life. The trunk was small for one person, let alone two. They drove us to the border crossing, stopped in a field, crammed us into the trunk, and went across the border. We had to wait at the Italian border for about 40 minutes, and the fumes went into the trunk. Also we couldn’t move. We thought we would suffocate. But then the car suddenly started moving, then stopped again, and the trunk opened. We fell out into the dust; we had no blood circulation left in our legs. And I still remember these two students—it was a he and she, she was eight months’ pregnant—dancing around us and screaming ‘Freiheit!’ (Freedom!). And that was my first impression of the West.

What was going through your mind at that point?
Well of course that we were free, that’d we’d managed to do it, but at the same time we knew that’d we’d basically lost our families. Because it was impossible to go back, and we didn’t know whether we would ever see our parents again.

Describe the feeling years later when you had to seek a visa to your homeland to cover the Velvet Revolution for Radio Free Europe.

I actually had to go to the Czechoslovak embassy in Bonn, and when I got there, the staff of the embassy including the ambassador were lined up outside waiting for me. They told me how they’d been listening to Radio Free Europe for such a long time and how they were so happy to be able to give me a visa! That was the moment I really understood that the revolution had won. Because if all of these former spies and agents were lined up to welcome someone like me, it was clear they knew the game was up. So I went to Prague.

How did you travel?
I took a plane, from Bonn. I remember my first impressions were very unpleasant. When I arrived at the airport, it was still this communist-style airport, with dour officials and so on. And then I saw Prague, and of course when you spend a lot of time away from your home, with the idea you will never come back, you tend to idealize the place. And what I saw after all those years living in the West, in New York and Munich, was basically a decrepit, unfriendly city, with a lot of smog and pollution. Of course it was also very joyful; I was able to see my parents, I was able to go to a lot of places where history was taking place, and meeting people who were making history.

That must have been an incredible time.
I’ll tell you just one anecdote to document how history was happening. I remember that on the 10th of December 1989, I went to the apartment of the dissident Petr Uhl. Civic Forum had just managed to negotiate a compromise with the Communist regime, and it was the day that a government of national reconciliation—in which half of the seats were taken by Communists and half by dissidents—was named. As I got to his apartment, the phone rang. For many years under communism, Uhl had been employed as a coal stoker in a boiler room, with his friend and fellow dissident Jiri Dienstbier. And the guy on the phone was one of their colleagues – he was a stoker, not a dissident. And I could hear this guy saying to Uhl – so what’s going on? Are you and Dienstbier coming to work tonight? And Uhl said, "Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Dienstbier has just been named the Minister of Foreign Affairs." There was this long silence, and then the guy said, "So is he coming to work or not?" So Uhl said, "Well yeah, he’s coming for one more shift—he’s not going to leave you in a bind—but tomorrow he’s going on an official visit to Germany."

Ralf Dahrendorf said in his famous speech on transition in 1990 that it will take us about five years to establish a system of political democracy. It’ll take about 10 years to establish a sort-of functioning market economy. It’ll take fifteen years to establish the rule of law. But it’ll take about 60 years—two generations—to create a real, fully-fledged democracy with a functioning civil society. And we really didn’t know what this meant, what he was talking about: If we have all of these institutions and mechanisms in place, we have democracy, no? What he meant is that democracy has two faces. One is institutional and procedural, and one is cultural. It’s a long process. It’s a generational process. In the Old Testament, Moses takes the Jews out of Egypt, and then they spend two generations in the desert. That’s not a coincidence. It’s to signify that it takes two generations to transform a nation of slaves into a self-respecting nation that can find its homeland.

At top: Citizens in Prague used the Velvet Revolution's 25th anniversary to protest the country's current president, Miloš Zeman, who recently caused anger with his interpretation of the events of November 1989. (Photo credit: Laura Zablit)