BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (LifeSiteNews) — On March 25, 1988, little over a year before the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia saw its first mass anti-Communist protest in nearly 20 years in the form of a candlelight demonstration in a peaceful and prayerful demand for religious and civil liberty.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the protest. In an exclusive interview, LifeSiteNews received the firsthand account of Stefan Makovnik, who took part in the historic candlelight demonstration and was arrested and detained by police.
The demonstration came shortly after a petition for greater religious freedom was signed by more than 300,000 Slovaks toward the end of 1987. The idea for the peaceful protest for religious freedom originated with exiled dissidents gathered at the Slovak World Congress (SWC). The plan was spearheaded by vice chairman Ma’rián Štastný after a 1987 SWC meeting in Toronto.
Details about the demonstration were smuggled to dissidents within Slovakia, and with the help of underground Catholic resistance groups, news spread across the country by word of mouth or illegal leaflets for the upcoming March 25 demonstration. Outside Czechoslovakia, news of the event was widely circulated by foreign radio stations, including Vatican Radio, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe.
More than 10,000 Slovaks gathered on March 25 in Bratislava’s central Hviezdoslav Square, located near the National Theatre, to demand religious freedom despite the efforts by authorities to suppress the event. Holding lighted candles, they sang religious chants and anthems and prayed the rosary until the secret police dispersed the demonstrators with water cannons, beating and arresting many in the process.
The candlelight demonstration and its repression received extensive coverage in foreign media and was seen as a precursor to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that saw the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
Below is LifeSiteNews’ interview with Stefan Makovník on the 35th anniversary of the protest.
MEMORIES OF THE CANDLELIGHT DEMONSTRATION
How would you briefly describe life in Slovakia during the communist regime (before 1989)?
I was born in 1953. At that time, the communist regime was already quite well rooted in our country. The period of the “red terror,” following the example of Soviet Russia, was reaching its peak and the population was slowly “adapting.” They were “helped” to adapt to the regime mainly by the rigged trials of individuals and groups who had a different view of life and governance than the generally held and imposed worldview of the ruling Communist Party and who still found in themselves a disgust for the way the country was being governed. These were mainly groups of people who professed faith in God and were in opposition to the worldview and ways of governance promoted by the communists.
I grew up in a Christian Catholic family; my grandfather served as a churchman in the parish. There were many precious people in our family who shaped my life. They were people who longed for a life of freedom and living out the legacy of our ancestors. There were many such groups in Slovakia who encouraged and supported each other and resisted various forms of pressure and persecution from the ruling structures and the conformist behavior of the majority of the population.
The most significant change in the perception of life in Czechoslovakia and the people’s desire for change, for freedom from totalitarianism, took place at the celebration of the 1,100th anniversary of the death of St. Methodius in 1985. The assembly was the most publicly visible protest against the communist leadership and was an encouragement for further activities in promoting the struggle for freedom and the legitimate claims and demands of the life of Christian societies in Slovakia.
Was the candlelight demonstration the first protest in which you participated?
Before the candlelight demonstration, especially after 1985, petitions for religious freedom and for the appointment of bishops to vacant “bishops’ seats” were organized in the former Czechoslovakia. A little over 300,000 people from Slovakia joined this petition. These were also the main themes of the upcoming rally; the idea to organize such an event came from foreign Slovaks, namely from Marian Štastný (brother of Petr Štastný, a well-known Slovak hockey player). The program of the demonstration and its content was to remain for 30 minutes in prayer for the stated purpose with lit candles on Hviezdoslav Square in front of the National Theatre. The main task of organizing the event rested on the representatives of the “secret church,” who at that time were Ján Čarnogurský and František Mikloško.
It was the first time that I took part in such a protest as the candlelight manifestation. Before this event, I had lived in Bratislava since 1973, where I studied at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of what is now the Technical University. Here I became involved in a community of young people who met secretly and developed in the spiritual sphere. There were many such communities in Bratislava. These communities were organized by people who were in contact with the authorities of the spiritual life in Slovakia, such as Bishop Ján Chryzostom Korec (later Cardinal), Father Vladimír Jukl and lay collaborators, especially Silvester Krčméry, František Mikloško, Ján Čarnogurský and others.
How was the candlelight demonstration different for you than other protests/demonstrations?
The significance of the candlelight demonstration was mainly in the fact that people came out of their anonymity, freed from fear, and publicly participated in a protest that was presented in advance with possible repression and sanctions in their personal lives. It was a demonstration of people who knew what they were protesting for and a public declaration of a certain way of life and living their faith. It was quite different from the pilgrimage three years before at Velehrad, because that action was organized by the authority of the state, it just got out of hand. Here there was a risk that the participants would not be treated with “kid gloves.” The previous actions of the state authorities in statements and in the media already indicated this.
Why did you decide to go to the candlelight demonstration? How did your wife and the rest of your family experience it?
It was a spontaneous expression of our attitudes in the family. I took it for granted that it was an expression of our attitude towards the situation in Slovakia and the beliefs in the family.
We were currently expecting an addition to the family (our Andrew). My wife was at home with our three young children and there she also joined the protest from a distance. She had it harder than me because when I didn’t come home after my expected return, she had to deal with a lot of things in case of expected reprisals with our family. We had in fact stored at home a lot of materials that were being prepared for the distribution of the so-called “samizdat” [self-published, anti-Communist, dissident literature], such as stationery, cyclostyle stencils (which were forbidden material and could not be found in private), already published samizdat publications, etc… These she tried to “disperse” to safe places. Also fear of what was happening to me and what the implications might be for family life. But faith in God’s help in this situation gave us both the strength to overcome this fear.
What do you remember from the candlelight demonstration? How did you experience it?
The situation at the site of the Candlelight Manifestation itself was strong. I didn’t get to the square though because I arrived just before the prayers started and the security forces closed the square. I managed to get within a few steps of the closure and with other people who were also not lucky enough to get into the square, we unpacked candles in the side streets and burned each other’s candles at that hour and prayed the rosary with the participants in the square for half an hour. Those lucky enough to get to the square were those who arrived well in advance.
The police officers who formed the roadblock were surprised, but they let us go because they had the task of not letting anyone into the square. There were things happening there that were also documented in the videos. It was more difficult there, the attacks by police cars and water trucks on the crowd of people praying, the deployment of water cannons. It was a heroic endurance of the protesters that we in the side streets were spared.
After half an hour, the “heavies” got in and started pushing those praying out of the alleys heading towards Hviezdoslav Square. In swarms, they “wiped” the streets and pushed the crowd toward Michael’s Gate. When we were somewhere around the Main Square, I was walking with a grandmother, unknown to me, just in front of the “troublemakers.” I saw that the grandmother could barely walk and could not keep up with the pace dictated by the policemen. So I turned around and asked the policemen to be considerate of the elderly lady and walk slower because she might get trampled. Then the command was given, “Take him!” And no longer feeling the ground beneath my feet, the two lifted me up so that I was not touching the ground and carried me to the ready police car.
So I spent several hours at the police station, where they brought more of us. They took my fingerprints, “took my picture for free” and made us wait in the corridor facing the wall with our hands propped up against the wall. Whoever spoke was shouted down. So we waited (with a silent prayer for strength and protection in the situation).
After a few hours, I got in line for questioning, where I was questioned by two police officers (one “good” and one “bad”) in the standard lineup. The good one scolded me as to why I was being so irresponsible and putting myself in danger at an event that was forbidden, thus endangering my safety and the safety of my entire family. He also wanted to find out why I had participated in the said event and if I knew what I was trying to accomplish by doing so. The bad guy yelled at me and threatened me that I would feel it at work, that I could expect to lose my job and my children would feel it too.
When I saw that it was just going to stay at verbal altercations (I expected to get some of those punches … ) I calmed down. Finally, they finished talking to me and had me sign a note, which I signed after reading it to them. Then they let me go home. I got home at about four in the morning, I don’t remember exactly.
What was the reaction of the regime and the police? Did you experience it firsthand?
I expected something to happen. That a notice would come to work about the anti-state activities of their employee, or an unexpected visit from the police at home. But nothing like that happened, nor did I register any unexpected interest in me from the police. Nor did anyone at work from the personnel department mention that anyone was interested in me, not even in hints. The cops were also probably derailed by the situation. I consider it a protective cloak of our Heavenly Mother, since the demonstration happened on the Feast of the Annunciation, in which She had a major role.
In the days and weeks after the candlelight demonstration, were you able to observe its aftermath? Or were they hidden from you for a long time?
The consequences of the WYD were visible in Slovakia. People became sort of nicer, braver. At least it seemed so to me. It was felt that the communist power was not so certain anymore. I remember that in November 1989 we had a spiritual renewal, still in secret conditions in a private apartment. At that time, at the same time, historic moments were happening in Prague on the National Avenue, which definitely started the fall of the regime. We feared that the communist authorities would use similar measures as in February 1948. But it didn’t happen. It no longer had such strength and power.
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