Bagism: Library

Timeline: Prague's "Velvet Revolution"

Though John Lennon never visited Prague, he was a hero of the underground rock subculture and a symbol for the city's youth in their pacifistic revolt that brought down the Communist state. Here are some key dates that put these events into an historic perspective:

     by Ron Synovitz Lennon wall

January 5, 1968
Alexander Dubcek takes over as head of state of Communist Czechoslovakia. Dubcek quickly introduces the so-called "Prague Spring" reform program, which is aimed at bringing a more "human face" to Communism. Czechs and Slovaks enjoy a brief period of free speech and free press never before seen in the Soviet bloc. Also for the first time, young people in Prague can legally listen to western pop records. The Beatles are even heard on the radio! Recordings by the Beatles and other western bands filter underground from Prague to neighboring Communist states where it is still forbidden.

February 16, 1968
George Harrison and John Lennon arrive in Rishikesh, India with their wives for a period of transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It is here that Lennon writes the song "Revolution."

May 9, 1968
In a sign of Moscow's growing irritation about the Prague Spring reforms, Soviet armies start to mass on Czechoslovakia's borders. It is during this period that an avant-garde band called "The Plastic People of the Universe" is formed in Prague.

June 21 - July 15 1968
The Beatles record three versions of the song "Revolution." There is a slow version for release on the upcoming "white album," a faster version for a 7-inch single and "Revolution No. 9," a sound collage destined to become the world's best-known piece of avant-garde art. A week after work on the three songs is completed, Soviet Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev summons Dubcek to a meeting at the border of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. They argue about Dubcek's reforms for four days.

August 21 - 23, 1968
Angered by the Prague Spring reforms, Moscow orders Warsaw Pact forces to invade Czechoslovakia. Dubcek is sent to Ukraine, then in handcuffs to Moscow. An estimated 83 Czechs and Slovaks are killed across the country as Soviet tanks roll down Prague's historic streets. The Kremlin starts to impose the first steps in a return to totalitarianism called "normalization." (for further insight, read Milan Kundera's novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being.")

August 29, 1968
In Prague, thousands of young people gather in the streets to face down tanks in the Soviet-led military occupation. The next day, the Beatles release Revolution as the B-side of their "Hey Jude" single. With western music still filtering into the country, the song is soon being played clandestinely by young Czechs and Slovaks.

November 7, 1968
Anti-Soviet demonstrations start in Prague. Ten days later, students occupy Prague University in their on-going protests of the Soviet-led occupation.

November 22, 1968
The Beatles "white album" is released. Soviet authorities cannot prevent copies from filtering into Czechoslovakia. Thousands of tape dubs are passed around to eager enthusiasts. The music is enormously poplar in Czechoslovakia -- particularly "Revolution No. 1" and "Revolution No. 9." The songs are destined to become a seed crystal for a pacifistic revolution against Communism in Prague that will be launched in the form of the "Charter 77" petition nine years later.

January 19, 1969
Monument to Jan Palac and Jan Zajic Jan Palac sets himself on fire in central Prague to protest the Soviet occupation. He dies two days later. Hundreds of thousands Prague residents join a spontaneous street march that defies a ban on demonstrations. Less than a month later, a second young Czech named Jan Zajic also burns himself to death at the same location.

April 17, 1969
Czechoslovakia defeats the Soviet Union in a hockey match. During the massive street celebrations in Prague, pavement stones are thrown through the offices of the Soviet airline Aeroflot near the place where Palac and Zajic had burned themselves. The next day, Dubcek is deposed on orders from Moscow.

May 2, 1969
Major Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia. Authors who had written articles critical of hardline Communism during the Prague Spring are forced to sign retractions or face "re-education" in prison. Once again, it becomes illegal to perform music by the Beatles and other western bands. Borders are tightened, but "Revolution No. 9" already has become a soundtrack of the times for young intellects in Prague who adore its avant-garde construction. Beatles music will continue to be heard under the iron boot of neo-Stalinism despite the threat of imprisonment.

The Plastic People of the Universe illegally distribute tapes of their own avant-garde music in a self-made album titled "Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned." Copies are smuggled to London and the group starts to gain notoriety in the west as a "dissident" rock group. Back home, Plastic People play mostly for their friends at secret parties.

Autumn, 1976
At the height of the darkest period of "normalization," The Plastic People of the Universe are arrested by the Communist secret police for performing at a private party. They are charged with "subversive activities against the state." More arrests are made of the band's followers. Stimulated by the trial and persecution of The Plastic People camp, young dissidents write a petition titled "Charter 77" to protest the lack of human rights in their country. The leaders of the Charter 77 movement include a dissident playwright named Vaclav Havel, who will go on to lead his country's non-violent revolution against Communism in 1989 and become the first post-Communist president in Prague. Havel describes himself as an enormous fan of Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and The Plastic People of the Universe.

January 1, 1977
Charter 77 published in western newspapers. Crackdown against signatories launched by authorities in Prague. Havel is among those who are imprisoned. He spends more than five years in prison.

March, 1977
Jan Patocka, a leading dissident philosopher in the Charter 77 movement, dies during an interrogation by the secret police. The Plastic People of the Universe credit Patocka as one of their "artistic directors."

Late 1977
An essay written in English accompanies a western release of a Plastic People's tape smuggled to London. The essay reveals the intellectual nature of the group to western audiences. "For making music and playing for their fans and friends at small, usually private concerts, the band along with others in the Czech underground movement, are treated by their own government as criminals and subversives out to undermine the morals of young people and hasten the collapse of socialism in Czechoslovakia. Because of the political nature of the repression directed against them, The Plastic People of the Universe are referred to in western media as 'dissident.' But unlike most eastern European dissident movements, the group feel that any dialogue with a totalitarian regime is doomed from the start, so they turn their back on it. Instead of trying to talk to the regime to ask for more freedom, they simply behave as though they already are free." The essay downplays "excessive claims of revolutionary power within rock," but admits that the music "as an aesthetic art form does have the power to alter consciousness and create a new type of mentality."

December 8, 1980
John Winston Lennon shot dead in front of his apartment in New York. Shortly after his death, anonymous Prague rock fans create a mock grave for Lennon at a garden wall in a part of the city called "Mala Strana." Flowers, candles and graffiti reappear daily despite the efforts of Communist authorities to keep the area clean. The "John Lennon Peace Wall" quickly becomes a venue for complaints against Communist authorities and remains so until Vaclav Havel leads the non-violent "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 that brings an end to Communism in the country.

See also...
* Prague's 'Lennon Wall'
* Bagism's Virtual Lennon Wall

Text by Ron Synovitz    /    Graphics by Miriam J Allen