Prague, 26 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty years ago this week, after months of intrigue, intimidation and the strategic bribing of a divided opposition, Czechoslovakia's Communist Party seized power in Prague. The takeover was extolled in local history books, up until 1989, as the "Victorious February."
The Communist victory, however, came at a price, especially for those deemed less than enthusiastic in their support for the new government. In the forty years that followed, according to statistics compiled by the Czech government's Office for Research into the Crimes of Communism, at least 260,000 people were imprisoned by the regime. Some 300,000 others resorted to emigration. Some 240 people were officially executed, but some 3,000 others died in jail or in labor camps under suspicious circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of others lost their jobs or student stipends, only to be shunted into menial positions or manual labor for the rest of their productive lives. All this, out of a combined Czech and Slovak population of barely 15 million.
The statistics have been documented by historians and writers, but earlier this week, some of the people who made up those numbers, those who refused to be silenced and paid the price for that "Victorious February," gathered in the Czech capital to remember.
Hundreds of war veterans, priests and grocers - men and women from all walks of life, but who collectively became the conscience of the nation in the years of totalitarianism, came together amid the gilded splendor of Prague Castle's Spanish Hall. They came at the invitation of President Vaclav Havel, himself a former dissident who spearheaded the Velvet Revolution that finally eclipsed the "Victorious February."
Most of those invited survived the first and harshest wave of repression, in the years immediately following the 1948 Communist takeover. All had done jail time, and among them, there were few faces under 70. Some, on crutches, had to be helped to their chairs by soldiers of the Castle honor guard. But spirits remained undimmed and when Senate speaker Petr Pithart told the crowd, "You, and not the politicians present here today, are the rare and important guests of honor," the moment was savored.
Pithart said he had been watching newsreels of events back in 1947, when few people realized the cataclysms that the next years would bring. He noted that it is precisely when citizens become complacent about democracy, that it can be most threatened. He said Czechs must always bear in mind "the price of freedom."
Havel, whose recent illness prevented him from attending the event, addressed participants through a speech delivered by a senior aide. He noted that all too often, former dissidents meet with ignorance and indifference in today's Czech society. Their warnings and calls for justice are left unanswered, he said, although they are the living embodiment of "precisely those values and traditions upon which we want to model today's Czech Republic."
The president of the Confederation of Political Prisoners (KPV), Stanislav Drobny, struck a similar, though sharper note. He called on the government to prosecute representatives of the Communist regime, saying "an unpunished crime is still a crime." And he lambasted the judiciary, saying Czech courts remain staffed by Communist-era judges and continue to work in accordance with Communist-era laws.
Drobny's criticism was met with warm applause by participants. And several government ministers in attendance clearly looked ill-at-ease. Some of the bitterness faded, when 92-year-old Alois Hlavaty, who during his 12 years in prison 40 years ago wrote over 250 poems, got up on stage to recite. Hlavaty, who was neither allowed pencil nor paper in detention, committed his poems to memory and only managed to have them published two years ago, at the age of 90.
At the end, everyone rose for a rousing rendition of the national anthem. And for a moment, the beauty and significance of the moment rose high above the angel-bedecked chandeliers and lingered. Hundreds of ordinary citizens, once marked for extermination and left to rot in labor camps and uranium mines by a totalitarian regime, had outlasted their tormentors to find themselves singing as one, in the most magnificent hall of the castle that symbolizes Czech nationhood.
Outside, 70-year-old Jana Mullerova said she was glad she had come, though she regretted not getting a chance to meet President Havel. Mrs. Mullerova was jailed for 12 months in 1949, for failing to denounce a fellow-student at university. Although the sentence was mild by the standards of those days, her refusal to cooperate with the secret police meant a black mark in Mullerova's record for the rest of her working life.
"I wanted to be a journalist and I had begun to study journalism at university. Then they locked me up and I never again got the opportunity," she noted matter-of-factly. "At first I supported myself by doing odd jobs, then I took factory work. After my kids were born, I finally got a place in an office as an administrative assistant. But I was just a subordinate. I never had a chance to excel or prove myself. That was all a given because of my past."
And Mrs. Mullerova, checkered coat and handbag, melted into the tourists crowds at the Castle - to them, just another old lady on her afternoon walk.