A Rare Female Voice Among Velvet Revolutionaries

Monika Pajerova’s Bumpy Journey Toward a New Czech Identity

By Vanessa Karalis

 

The first Czach Republic President, Vaclav Havel, twenty years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photo courtesy of Pavel Matejicek/Flickr

The first President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, twenty years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Photo courtesy of Pavel Matejicek/Flickr

It is three o’clock in the afternoon and somewhere between teaching her course on Civil Resistance at New York University Prague and heading to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet with a diplomat, Monika Pajerova is serving me cookies and mineral water.

Pajerova, in her mid 40s, fills many roles; teacher, diplomat, political activist, and mother just to name a few. But to many, Pajerova is known best for one of her most notable achievements, one she deems “an incredible time in life,” the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Working as the head spokesperson for the student movement between 1985 and 1989 as well as being the only woman within the leadership, Pajerova helped create the waves that started a revolution and a new way of life for Czech citizens.

Pajerova was born in Decin, Czechoslovakia and grew up under the Communist regime. Her mother often took her to dissident seminars, and after relocating to Prague, Pajerova attended Charles University, studying in the same philosophy department as the Jan Palach studied 20 years prior. Palach famously committed suicide by setting himself on fire as a protest against the 1968 Soviet military invasion that suppressed a nascent democratic movement known as Prague Spring.

“Some people were absolutely exhausted. But we just couldn’t give up after all that because we may never have been in a position like that again.”

Before joining with others who felt a similar passion for change Pajerova remembers feeling hopeless.  “I had the feeling that everybody was leaving,” she recalled. “Everybody that I looked up to were either becoming frustrated and leaving on their own terms or being forced out.”  But soon after meeting others who shared her beliefs, her hopelessness was replaced with a strong desire to take action.  In documentary filmmaker Cory Taylor’s 2009 film “The Power of the Powerless,” Pajerova remembers thinking “If we hide it forever, it will remain a cancer in the organism of the society.”

Pajerova first joined the student movement at the age of 19. In her second year at Charles University, along with a group of her peers in the philosophy department, Pajerova created the student newspaper “Situace”, or, Situation. “It was on the border between legal and illegal,” Pajerova said. “But we had an incredible reaction because since 1968, nobody dared to publish anything in the philosophical faculty.”

While the paper was funded and directed by the university, its content was often deemed dangerous to the regime and therefore was destroyed.  Aimed

toward the art and music scene and covering public debates, “Situace” editor Josef Broz once called the paper, “More philosophical, oriented toward things which the artists weren’t following.”

“I thought all the work was done in February 1990,” Pajerova said. “Havel was elected president. We had a government.” Photo courtesy of lidovky.cz

“I thought all the work was done in February 1990,” Monika Pajerova (on the far right) said. “Havel was elected president. We had a government.” Photo courtesy of lidovky.cz

“The dean of the faculty, who was part of the communist party at the time, would rip our paper to pieces,” Pajerova said. “Or else he would go out into the courtyard and burn them so that everyone could see.”

“A totalitarian government,” Pajerova said, “means total control and that was really what we were living under.”  When once asked about the desires of her generation in an interview, she stated simply, “We wanted something good to read, some good music to listen to.” These basic desires of a young population were just few of many that citizens were forced to relinquish under the communist regime.

While Pajerova thrived working with others who shared her same political and social views, her position meant taking constant risks. When speaking to students about her daily worked she laughed saying, “The boys never wanted me to come with them to distribute pamphlets because I couldn’t run away fast enough.”

Within Charles University, a striking committee was created by leaders of the student movement.  The goal of the committee was to organize demonstrations, distribute literature about the goals of the movement, and gain support from other universities throughout Czechoslovakia. Pajerova not only served as spokesperson for the committee, traveling throughout Czechoslovakia to other universities, but she was also the only woman.

“I constantly had to fight for my voice,” she said. “But I was the spokesperson as well as the only one who spoke not only Czech, but English and German so that helped.”

Her views however, did not stray far from the views of those she worked closely with. A radical activist in the student movement, Pajerova voted to go on in the final days of the revolution, a decision that helped change history.

Beginning on November 17, 1989 with the violent suppression of a student led protest, the movement was gradually joined by an estimated 75 percent of the Czech population during a general strike on November 27th.  During this time, students and protestors flooded the streets in attempts to weaken the regime each day as the masses grew in the streets.

“The dean of the faculty, who was part of the communist party at the time, would rip our paper to pieces,” Pajerova said. “Or else he would go out into the courtyard and burn them so that everyone could see.”

“I never saw so many people in my life before, in one place,” Pajerova recalled with amazement. “Some people were absolutely exhausted. But we just couldn’t give up after all that because we may never have been in a position like that again.”

Pajerova efforts along with many of her colleagues, proved vital to the success of the revolution. On November 28th the single-state, communist party dissolved.  The revolution came and went, and after much of the work that came with it began to subside, Pajerova decided to leave.

“I thought all the work was done in February 1990,” she said. “Havel was elected president. We had a government.”

At the time, not only was Pajerova the only woman from the original striking committee, but she was also the only parent out of all the student networks. A young mother at 23, Pajerova daughter Emma was only three year at the time. While she admits that she could have taken a position in the first parliament of the republic, she remembers thinking “I have to do something now for us. If I go to Parliament, I will never be home again.”

With that priority deeply set in her mind as a parent, Pajerova and her daughter moved to Paris where she worked in the Ministry of Culture as Cultural Attache. Ten years later, she returned home to Prague.  While she had a comfortable life in France, Pajerova remembers suddenly thinking, “I didn’t do the revolution in my country to be in France my whole life doing culture.”

When she eventually returned to Prague, what she saw amazed her. “It was incredible,” she said. “It was a different country. I really felt like a foreigner in my own home.” Pajerova remembers struggling to find evidence of life before 1989 in a country quickly adjusting to the freedoms of a democracy.  “There was no opposition to the government, which I was not used to.”

“In Albertov there is a little monument that says, ‘Who if not us? When if not now?’ and that is really what we thought," Pejerova (above) said. Photo courtesy of ceskatelevize.cz

“In Albertov there is a little monument that says, ‘Who if not us? When if not now?’ and that is really what we thought,” Monika Pejerova (above) said. Photo courtesy of ceskatelevize.cz

After quickly assimilating to the freedom of her new Czech lifestyle, Pajerova wished she would have returned sooner. “I might be too much of a patriot,” she explained. “But I have this feeling that in a country of ten million, every person matters and I knew it mattered more that I was here than in France, where nobody would miss me.”

Since moving back to the Czech Republic, Pajerova has served as head of the Press Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is now producing politically themed television and radio programs as well as serving as Chairperson for the Yes for Europe civic association. The group supports the greater integration of the Czech Republic into the 27-member European Union.

For the approaching 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Pajerova is also currently working on a memoir. When asked about her project, she pulls out several notebooks, many small but one massive. “I have been keeping diaries from the age of 15, so now I am putting them together into a book,” Pajerova tells me as she flips through the hundreds of pages before her.

While it has been almost 25 years, Pajerova is still continuing to uncover information about the Velvet Revolution. “In the process of writing my book, I have uncovered the identity of the main communist agent who followed me from 1980 to 1989.”

Although his file was one of many that were burned during the final days of the revolution, Pajerova continues to fight for the release of his identity saying, “He was a colleague from my faculty so he has on his conscience 20 people, all leading figures.”

When looking back on her time spent during the revolution as a whole, Pajerova says, recalling the Prague neighborhood where a key student march began. “In Albertov there is a little monument that says, ‘Who if not us? When if not now?’ and that is really what we thought,” she said. “Only crazy people like us, this young, this naïve, can do this. It was the right moment.”

Vanessa Karalis is in the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study Class of 2016. Her hometown is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2014 Issue Number 3, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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