The Freedom Express is a journey that follows 20 young Europeans as they discover the traces of 1989, an extraordinary year that transformed Europe. Twenty-five years on from the collapse of Communism in Europe, the participants of the study trip are visiting the key places of those revolutions and meeting the people that were involved. On the third leg of the trip, the group was introduced to the Velvet Revolution, which in 1989 quickly swept across Czechoslovakia, overthrowing the isolated and rigid communist regime in an extraordinarily short span of time.
After spending some time on the Austrian-Hungarian border and meeting the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic, the Freedom Express got back on the road and headed towards Bratislava. Shortly after entering Slovakia, the group was taken into a remote area where they went back in time: Through a specially organised reconstruction, the participants had a taste of what it was like to cross the Czechoslovakia border in the 1980s.
Participants experiencing what it was like to cross the Czechoslovakia border in the 1980s. Images: Europeana (CC-BY-SA)
After crossing the border, the group met with Ján Lőrincz, a freelance photographer who through hundreds of photographs captured the dramatic scenes on the streets of Bratislava during the Velvet Revolution. Europeana recorded his strongest memory for 89 Voices, where he recalls; ´It was the feeling of the freedom, because when you live so close to the border and you go up to the hill, you know that the other world is just a stone’s throw away, and yet it’s so far, you can’t do anything about it…´.
Finishing off their time in Slovakia, the participants sat down with three of Slovakia’s most prominent artists of the 20th century: Rudolf Sikora, Jozef Jankovič and Miroslav Cipár. Together they discussed the impact of the communist regime on their work and how they adapted to their newly found freedom after 1989.
Revolutionary Czech Rock
After Bratislava, the participants arrived in Prague where they met with Czech rock band, Plastic People of the Universe. In the 1970s and 80s the Plastic People of the Universe were the leading band in Czechoslovakia. This avant-garde group went against the grain of the communist regime, and due to its non-conformism often suffered serious problems, such as arrests. The group continues to perform even after the death of the founder, main composer and bass player, Milan ‘Mejla’ Hlavsa.
The next day the group was invited to the German Embassy to attend an event that commemorated the escape of Germans from the GDR in September 1989. The event centred around a discussion with Czech artist, David Černý, together with Jan Bubenik, who was student involved in the Velvet Revolution, and prominent Czech politician Alexandr Vondra. The palace, where the embassy is situated, became the resort of numerous East German refugees who had reached Prague, climbed over the fence and camped out on the grounds. On the evening of 30 September, Foreign Minister Hans- Dietrich Genscher stepped out on the balcony to announce an agreement about the refugees’ voyage to West Germany.
Next stop, Berlin…