1989: Looking Back

Unpacking A Revolution

All over the Eastern Bloc, repressive governments thought they were molding youngsters into the communist citizenry of the future. They were wrong.

By Andy Heil and Wojtek Grojec

October 25, 2019

"Always prepared!" For decades, it was a catchphrase of the Pioneers, an outdoorsy youth group that was a hallmark of communist indoctrination efforts targeting schoolchildren throughout the U.S.S.R. and its client states.

But Eastern Europe's communist leaders were the ones caught off guard 30 years ago, when mass strikes and pro-democracy demonstrations broke Moscow's tight grip on the region.

Peaceful revolutions punched holes in the Iron Curtain and toppled one-party rule in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Romania's uprising, marred by violence, soon followed.

Decades of Kremlin-sponsored censorship, isolation, and cultural and ideological brow-beating had failed: The kids were more than alright.

Here's a playful look, based on numerous personal and historical accounts, at some of the clues to Czechoslovak disenchantment that pupils and students were toting around on the eve of that country's Velvet Revolution.

The Baggage Of Communism

Even unwitting elementary schoolers were being groomed by authorities for life in a communist society that, by the late '80s, was on its last legs.

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Trendy "Western" toys were among the items coveted by schoolchildren. But they'd probably need a relative sufficiently trusted by the regime for a working trip to the West to bring such luxuries back with them.

Good communists didn't take weekends or summers off.

'Fun' Time

Afterschool clubs.1 Camping trips.2 Bicycle safety courses.3 All were organized by the Communist Party or its surrogates, and were infused with ideological zeal.

Trade union movements, sharply reined in since the Prague Spring three decades before and mostly dominated by hard-liners, controlled lots of recreational hideaways.

It helped keep communist ideals at the fore, parents in the workplace, and everyone's minds off the privations.

Home Alone

The majority of working-age women in communist Eastern Europe worked, albeit for less money and underrepresented at the top in comparison to their male counterparts. That translated into a lot of latchkey kids.

Funny Money

Lucky families with enough "Tuzex" coupons could exchange them for heavily marked-up items from abroad including toys, food, electronic goods, even blue jeans. Czechoslovak authorities used the scheme and some 170 Tuzex shops across the country by 1988 to soak up any hard currency that citizens had somehow gotten their hands on.

Stereo Reel, Merkur & Krtek

The stereo reel's 1 popularity encouraged knockoffs around the world. The main Czechoslovak manufacturer's Jewish former owners first fled the invading Nazis, then fled communism. Metal construction sets 2 dovetailed with the official emphasis on engineers and technicians to feed the workforce. The children's genre drew some of the most creative minds under socialism, producing lasting favorites like Zdenek Miler's nature-loving little mole, Krtek. 3

Keeping It Simple

The communist leadership had essentially eliminated all self-governing elements of the Czechoslovak school system by the early 1950s. Its official aim was the instruction of young Communists, imbuing them with the Leninist spirit. But it also achieved nearly universal enrollment and high literacy rates.

Pioneer Code

Children aged 6 to 15 spent lots of leisure time being groomed alongside their fellow "sparks" and "pioneers" within a communist facsimile of the Scout Movement.

The emblematic Pioneers' pin: state flag, open book, and red triple flame.

The Pioneers touted survival, fellowship, and the quest for knowledge, but they taught the defense of socialism and the tenets of Marxism-Leninism instead. In the early '80s, four out of five young Czechoslovaks were members. Within months of the 1989 revolution, the Pioneers had been disbanded.

One Size Fits All

Among Slavic nations in particular, the Czech-born Sokol movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries had fostered a principle of "strong mind in a sound body." Socialism sought to harness such enthusiasm for fitness and athleticism while evading its nationalist leanings. The result was a robust curriculum of physical education in ubiquitous and nondescript uniforms.


Working parents had to be resourceful outside the workplace, too. Many compensated for scarcities by working informal jobs, growing their own food, or sewing their children clothes or accessories like this bag for gym shoes.


Russian was mandatory for pupils throughout the Eastern Bloc from fourth grade, or around the age of 9. Students couldn't graduate from high school without passing their exam in it.

Putting Away Childish Things

By their early teens, children were either on a vocational or an academic path. Many were involuntarily funneled into the extensive network of apprentice training schools established soon after the Communists took power in 1948.

By November 1989, communist regimes had fallen in Poland and Hungary, barriers were being dismantled in Hungary and East Germany, and momentum for change was building in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.

The protests were led in many cases by labor unions and intellectuals, but always reinforced by student leaders and other young people.

In Prague, students skipped classes to join overwhelming popular calls for genuine elections, respect for human rights, and the freedom to think and say what they pleased.

The Velvet Revolution was at hand.

The Spirit Of '68

The indignity of the Soviet-led invasion to crush the Prague Spring three decades earlier had not been lost on most Czechs and Slovaks, and it remained a painful irritant in the national consciousness. Now it was their grandchildren's turn.

Graded On A Curve

Access to higher education was often contingent on political reliability, including perceived disloyalty: the emigration of even a distant family member could disqualify someone.

But all university students were still heavily steeped in ideology. Required classes included The History Of The Czechoslovak Communist Party, The International Workers' Movement, Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, and Scientific Communism.

Soft Currency

The crown wasn't convertible abroad, and access to foreign currency and imported goods was tightly restricted. "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us," went the refrain.

Just Say 'Nyet'

The regime's highly centralized approach to education discouraged individual initiative, cubbyholed young people vocationally, and indoctrinated constantly. But the ubiquitous Russian language provided an example of passive resistance to the system.

Lots of Slavic-language speakers -- Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats -- say they tried to skate by on Russian inflection and cheat sheets.

Learning The Hard Way

Education systems throughout the Eastern Bloc tended to encourage math and technical subjects, with the goal of producing technicians for manufacturing and heavy industry.

Applying For A Passport?

Travel abroad was discouraged, and required a protracted process of official authorization frequently based on character references and heavy vetting by the secret police. Few exit visas were granted for travel to the West.

International passports were generally given out on a trip-by-trip basis, and families rarely traveled together to discourage emigration.

Opening Minds

To keep one step ahead of the censors and government media, it was essential to find alternatives to official state media.

A surprisingly large number of people circulated clandestine copies of banned texts. Possession or distribution of such works could be punishable by imprisonment.

DIY Publishing

Such samizdat, from the Russian for "self-publication," might be smuggled copies of "subversive" literature, news reports from abroad, or just about anything that questioned official narratives. This carbon-copied Literary Weekly from July 1989 argued that official reports blaming an emergent protest on foreign media (including RFE/RL) amounted to "first-rate anti-propaganda that even dollars can't buy."

This full transcript of a May 1987 speech by actor Milos Kopecky to the Czechoslovak Union of Dramatic Artists turned the tables on the regime.

A heavily redacted version of the speech had appeared in the official Rude Pravo newspaper.

But samizdat versions included passages where Kopecky, a self-described "coward" who'd publicly sided with the regime against the Charter 77 rights activists a decade earlier, urged the ruling Communists to resign.

They also included Kopecky's twist on the words of a late Italian Marxist who had warned of a crisis when "the old is dying and the new cannot be born."

"To tell the truth is revolutionary," Kopecky said, "so why fear it?"

By the end of 1989, Czechoslovakia's Communists had lost their monopoly on power and dissident playwright Vaclav Havel had become the country's reluctant president.

In a mere 12 months, the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine that asserted the Soviet Union's right to intervene abroad to defend socialism had been gutted.

Czechoslovakia's first free elections in more than four decades followed months later, with turnout of over 96 percent.

Special Thanks

Martina Boudova and the National Pedagogical Museum and Library of J.A. Comenius.