Socialism? One felt like a hostage.
An interview about the November 1989 velvet Revolution at our Faculty, through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.
Experience with us the events at our faculty during the Velvet Revolution, in an interview with Eva Sýkorová, a member of the faculty's strike committee at the time. Take a look at unique period photographs directly from the faculty and from Brno, which are being presented to the public for the very first time.
In what way was November 17, 1989, a turning point for you? What was different “before” and “after”?
It was different on several levels. I’ll start with the personal divide related to my mum. I was born in Brno but my mother is from Šlapanice. She graduated from the Faculty of Arts with a Doctorate in Czech and Bulgarian and for some time worked for company magazines, after which she became an editor for Brno TV, where she worked until 1968 as a journalist, reporting on the Moravian Karst, art, the streets, fairs and the like.
My mother never talked much about it, but she made her point of view about communism clear. After August 1968, there was no work for her in Brno anymore; she was expelled from the party and fired from her job. She was a single parent with me and my brother. She got a place in Bratislava, where we moved, because she studied remotely at the University of Economics, and then worked as an economist until November 1989.
Sometimes, we were visiting Brno meeting her friends, who − I only later found out − were connected with the dissent. She herself did not undertake any dissident activities; like any mother, she was afraid about what would happen to us children. All her friends respected that, so we as kids had no idea. These were people like Mr. Jiří Šigut, editor-in-chief of Rovnost after the revolution, and Mrs. Šigutová from Moravian Library (Moravská zemská knihovna), her acquaintances from television and artists such as the painter Antonín Širůček.
As my mother made her living as an economist and did not talk about her journalistic work, for me, November 17th was more about the fact that, after the revolution, I discovered that I didn't really know my mother at all. She ceased having attitudes and opinions and functioned, as it were, in maintenance mode. After the revolution, she had retired and it was not possible for her to return to full-time journalistic work. Even so, she tried and contributed news and journalism to Rovnost and other journals from Bratislava. She used to go to the Slovak parliament and the like, and I couldn’t believe what an energetic person she was. Nevertheless, for the whole twenty years she was completely “under cover” because of us.
How did you end up at the science faculty?
University meant a big change for me, moving from Bratislava to Brno. I moved on to biochemistry from my secondary technical school studies in chemistry. Even at high school, I entered with the idea (responsibly😊) that I wanted to have a skill, so that I could find employment straight after graduation.
How did you then get into journalism in Brno?
This is related to the fact that I stayed at the Druzhba dormitory, the high-rise building on today’s Kounicová Street. Students there sold a magazine called “Informační list” (Information sheet) from the Faculty of Science of the current Masaryk University. My mother was a journalist, and I also wrote something in high school, so I applied. They usually had a problem finding someone willing to write anyway😊. A group of nature scientists and editorial staff lived there, and I got together with them.
At what stage of your studies were you at the faculty in November?
At that time, I had been in Brno for a year − I entered in the second year. Before starting university, we went to Ploskovice to pick hops, something I did again after my freshman year. Today it’s called team building😊 − you made contacts and you immediately saw who was doing what, and what we were going to talk about. During the holidays in 1989, I completed the mandatory Summer Youth Activity. This was a three-week period when you were posted to some kind of company. I didn't mind that, I like to work with my hands rather than just sit at a desk. I went to the Zbrojovka weapons factory, and while there, “before November”, I could see how the socialist system worked in terms of work performance. I worked on the lathe, which I enjoyed tremendously, but I say this because the great planners planned it for us in such a way that after a week, we found out that Zbrojovka had started a two-week vacation. So then we would go to an empty hall and countersink nuts, which is normally done by an automatic machine that completed three times more in one shift than we did.
If the workers spent an hour and a half on the machine during the entire shift, then that’s too much. I thought to myself, how can this exist? But people took it for granted. What was funny was that I knew the regulations from high school, what is the norm and how they are formed and so on. And on the first day, with the lathe in front of me for the first time, I made a third more parts than was the norm − and they got scared, saying “you can't do that, you did too much”! and “save it for the next day”! So I adapted to the system😊. But there were also places where people worked diligently, like on the hops.
Socialism was already slowly dying in surrounding countries. Did you have the feeling that something would happen here too?
No... I felt that something should be done 😊 😊 😊. I expected a coup in 1988, after 20 years, in twenty-year historical cycles tied to eights (1948, 1968...). I knew about the official and authorised demonstration on November 17, 1989, in Prague from a poster in the dormitories. In the end, I didn’t go there − and like most people, I think I would have left at the first sign of trouble.
And how did you learn that the armed forces had used violence against the protesters, and that the cracks in the system were beginning to show?
At the dormitory. As people arrived on Sunday 19 November, the first reports began to trickle in. All the students from the newsroom that lived there met and began a debate: What is going on? Is this a provocation? Then news leaked out about the creation of “Civic Forum”, and that there would be a strike. We discussed it and agreed that the next day we would go to the faculty before lessons started and climb the ramp by the gatehouse and tell those we knew what had happened and that the teachers should not teach and the students not go to classes.
So what happened at the faculty on Monday, November 20, 1989?
As we said, we did. I didn’t go to the seminar on organics, and then my classmates said that the teacher himself, Jaroslav Jonas, had dissolved the class. Then we, as the editors of Informační list, met in the clubhouse (in the former biochemistry building) where we were based. There we produced issues of the magazine, we had a typewriter and there was the Informační list archive. Very soon, the strike committee was also based there.
First, a meeting was convened in the hall, where various declarations and petitions were read, and then they were signed. Several people, from the SSM (Socialist Youth Union) for example, tried to talk us out of it so that we wouldn't cause problems. Some believed that it was all a sham, a provocation, and that there would be no coup.
When was the strike committee established at the faculty?
It was already agreed that Monday that we would organise a meeting in front of the Dean’s office. Dozens of people gathered there and a strike committee was established, in which our editors got involved. And then a strike was called. My senior editorial colleagues agreed to go to the Dean, and it was then decided at a meeting that we would go on strike. So the faculty was on strike from day one. In the strike committee, we divided the tasks. And then someone said, “Someone should go to the newspaper and tell them we’re on strike”. Everyone was looking at me, but I was looking away and not going anywhere. Of course, there was the threat of being searched in the newspaper editorial office and possibly being arrested, and I wasn’t ready for that. Later, when the newspapers published the faculties that were on strike, we never appeared there, even though we were on strike from day one😊. But we did put flyers up about it.
Did you go to the demonstration at Náměstí Svobody in the afternoon?
Yes. Again, we first spread the news that there would be a demonstration throughout the faculty. Our colleagues prepared themselves so that they only had their identity cards with them, so that they would not have anything important with them if they arrested us. But we couldn't get to Svoboďák, all the narrow streets leading into it were blocked by the police, there were trucks there and it was impossible to walk. So we went around the outside of the square shouting slogans, and the crowd from Svoboďák answered our slogans. Eventually, we managed to break through the police barricades at today's Masaryk street, because the road to the square was widest there and they couldn’t hold back the crowd. Or maybe they had been instructed to let us through? There was no sound system that day, nothing, just someone that climbed on the banister of the plague column and read the statement of Civic Forum. It was agreed that we would meet again tomorrow, and so it went on for several days. At night, we put up posters, which we started producing on a larger scale at the faculty where the poster centre was created (which you will read about in this interview: editor’s note)
We should remember that, at that time, the state media were not reporting on the demonstration objectively. What was being done at the faculty to disseminate information about revolutionary events?
We received information about what was happening and where from Civic Forum, other faculties and from official sources, mostly through newspapers. The first item of the day was for someone to go to the booth and buy all the press. You don’t see that anymore in the age of the internet, but there was always a queue so we left very early. And from the news we deduced how we stood and what would probably happen next. And, of course, we always listened to the radio and watched a television that someone gave us, which over time began to inform objectively.
But you had to distinguish between what was propaganda and what was not…
We lived our lives in a world of socialist reporting, so we were trained in it and knew how to read between the lines. A positive moment was when the news broke that the army would not go against the people. That was a reassuring moment, because by then people were unsure and no one knew if the army would intervene. Helicopters were flying over Brno, and reports were circulating that “it” was about to happen.
How were the posters and leaflets created, that spread from the faculty throughout Brno and beyond?
We had a poster centre in which two groups worked, one making large posters and the other small leaflets, Civic Forum statements and other texts to be distributed. We had a single typewriter in the Informační list editorial office, Jan Paleček had a computer with a printer (see interview), there was a mainframe in the chemistry department that printed on a long roll of paper, and could even print through a carbon paper layer to produce two copies. The computer was operated by a laboratory assistant, who was very afraid at the beginning and immediately threw away the carbon papers, but she helped us print there. The faculty made it possible for us to have an internal and, later, an external telephone line, and we used that to communicate with the poster centre and other faculties. Otherwise we sent messengers.
How were slogans for the posters and banners used during demonstrations created at that time?
Often it was invented by the staff directly in the poster centre, sometimes they asked us what we thought was good or not. We tried to make the slogans funny as we thought they would be remembered more if they made you laugh. “With deep ploughing against persistent weeds” – a communist slogan − and that was it😊 − people knew what we were on about.
At that time, many people were very much in solidarity with the students who were setting the entire Velvet Revolution in motion. How did they offer you help?
There were also students from dissident families at the faculty. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts and relatives started coming and offering to help as they had a typewriter. They would come and get the text, type it and we would distribute it at night. But the militia and other supporters of the socialist order often pulled them down. I remember a funny story − we were pasting posters at two in the morning and a police officer walked by, shaking his head and saying “couldn’t you at least do it neatly?” ... and I realised that, as our hands were covered with glue, the posters had become smeared. So we took more care next time😊. But he didn’t tear it down − he pretended not to see anything. It was nice to see that, as soon as you put something up, people immediately gathered and wanted to know what was going on. When the occupation strike started, we knew we couldn’t leave the faculty, so we guarded the clubhouse and other places so that they wouldn’t be able to get us out. Grandmothers, mothers and relatives kept us supplied with cakes, and then took away what they had to copy. That was a welcome help. Anthropologist Jaroslav Malina gave us a really old car. It was plastered with posters (partially to cover the holes in the sheet metal) and it became a visible icon of the Faculty of Science.
You participated in the creation and dissemination of videotapes with footage of the violence at the demonstration on November 17, and these certainly didn’t appear on state media in the early days...
I was given the task of producing a videotape that could be shown at the faculty. I received two videotapes and was asked to create something from them. One tape had probably been professionally edited by “Divadlo Husa na Provázku”; however, the second tape contained amateur footage of the demonstration directly from the crowd. Most of the time, the footage was just dark, or candlelit, but you could hear people. There was someone looking for someone and people calling names, people shouting things like “there’s blood here”; there was a lot of horror, fear and emotion. Through students from JAMU who lived at Druzhba, I found the person who had the two video tapes. I played the role of director and editor, and it is possible that someone at the faculty saw the final tape that included more of the shots from the crowd. At the end of the tape, I added the famous shot with the hand swinging the baton, to make it clear that everything was not bright and sunny, but that reality was like this. We made two copies and it was shown in the biology lecture hall. Die-hard communists had comments about it, like “you can’t really believe that”.
How did the magazine ‘Informační list’, in whose editorial office you worked, function at that time?
The editor-in-chief at that time was Pavla Neradová. The magazine mainly published articles, poetry, prose, illustrations, cartoon jokes, and, of course, official information about the faculty. We also organised things like a literary competition, as well as competitions like ‘A Night Time Run Through Brno’, where you had to complete several tasks, such as counting the number of fence posts in one of the squares, and return first. It used to be in May, and our boys, who organised it, deliberately set the route through parks and orchards … and a lot of couples never came back 😊. At the time of the Velvet Revolution, the magazine could not be published in a printing house; however, some departments had a cyclostyle printing machine and we obtained some membranes and learned to work with it. You could insert text onto the cyclostyle membrane with a machine; however, we had a problem with adding images. It was our illustrator, Mirek Hlavenka, that came up with the idea of drawing the picture and then piercing the lines with a pin.
How did you spend December 1989?
I usually went home every three weeks, but I couldn’t leave because of the events in November. My mum had had no news about me and, one day, I remember that I had been asleep for maybe an hour and a friend came with my mum and said “she’s here and she’s fine, don’t worry”. She’d brought me a coat, which was good because I wasn’t equipped for the winter and I was walking in tennis shoes – I have a memory of a person trudging through the snow with freezing feet. I liked the general strike in November. It gave us a little mischievous pleasure that the communists used strikes as a tool in the struggle for power, and we had decided to call a strike too. It was satisfying that people joined. When the trains were sent to Prague for the demonstration, I was so frozen that I lost my voice for the first time in my life.
What do you remember about that time?
I jumped into it head first. I thought to myself, this is our chance, and if it doesn’t work out, so what. I remember that I didn’t take pictures, even though photography was my hobby, just in case they found the pictures on me. They could have identified who was where and when, and I could have gotten someone in trouble. On the other hand, I was sorry because now I have almost no photos from that time. It was my self-censorship. In those times it was everywhere, with people self-censoring so much that official censorship was often not even needed.
And how did Informační list develop after November?
Later, the magazine was renamed ‘Revue Naturalis’. Near the end, it was run by me; everyone suddenly had other things to do and there was no one else available. Also, there was no longer any money available at the faculty for publishing. We put some issues together as I didn't want it to disappear, but no one took over the magazine after me.
What do you do at the Academy of Science’s Institute of Biophysics, where you have spent most of your career since your studies?
Most of the time I work with Prof. Jiří Fajkus, sometimes working part-time at the faculty. I do what I enjoy as I have never had any ambitions for other titles. Just now, I am researching telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres are nucleoprotein structures at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps to protect the chromosome. We investigate what they are made of and what sequences they comprise. There is a replication problem with Telomeres. DNA polymerase only works in one direction, and, to put it very simply, there will be a ‘hole’ at one end of the sequence. If there is a critical shortening of the chromosome, telomere protection stops working and the cell dies. The solution is the addition of an enzyme that can sit on the end of the chromosome and ‘complete’ it. This is a popular field of study at present as telomerase is active in cancerous growths, enabling cell immortality. My own research, however, is primarily devoted to research on telomerase in plants.
Thank you for the interview.
An interview about the November 1989 velvet Revolution at our Faculty, through the eyes of our biochemist, Jan Paleček.
Interview with Eduard Fuchs on November 17, 1989 and the period before and after him. About the atmosphere at the faculty under socialism, stormy November and the first trips abroad.
Interview with Milan Číž about November 17 , 1989.
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