Twenty-seven Years after the Velvet Revolution: The Enduring Problem of a Contaminated Moral Environment

Twenty-seven Years after the Velvet Revolution
| The Enduring Problem of a Contaminated Moral Environment

This past Thursday, November 17th, marked the beginning of the 27th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. During this bloodless revolution, I was a high school junior and, like most people who participated, did not fully comprehend that I was a witness of a truly historic moment that would change both the geopolitical future of my country and my own life trajectory. I will especially never forget a two-hour countrywide general strike that brought together hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks—including me on Lenin Square in Žilina—on November 27, 1989. The square was filled with the before unimaginable euphoria, a sense of mutuality and solidarity, courage, desire for freedom, and ardent hope that the ideals of truth and justice would prevail. Four months after the revolution ended, the large bust of Lenin’s head was removed with ropes from the square, symbolizing that a new era had begun.

In his New Year’s Address to the Nation following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, President Václav Havel described the poor condition of the nation’s economy, educational system, and above all, environment. He moved on to underscore what he regarded as an even more serious problem:

The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we got used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they came to represent only psychological peculiarities, or to resemble long-lost greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.

Therefore, “Our main enemy today,” Havel reminded his fellow citizens, is “our own worst nature: our indifference to the common good; vanity; personal ambition; selfishness; and rivalry. The main struggle will have to be fought on this field.”

After the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia experienced a series of “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges”—concepts I borrow from Ronald Heifetz’s leadership theory—mirroring Moses’ experience after he led the people of Israel out of Egypt. The technical problem was conducting the revolution and later building new institutions that could support rule of law, a free market, and democracy. The real adaptive challenge lay in transforming the devastated moral environment and developing ethics of responsibility in a newly free society with only a sparse democratic tradition to draw on. Czechs and Slovaks did not receive the Decalogue on Mount Sinai for moral guidance, but in Václav Havel, they had a prophet whose voice they often ignored. When Havel identified “our main enemy” that would have to be confronted in the aforementioned speech, few seemed to pay attention. The consequence is a continuing moral crisis ensuing from society’s riven moral fabric.

It is now clear that four decades of totalitarian oppression has impacted post-communist European countries even more adversely than originally thought. As the 20th anniversary of the demise of totalitarianism approached, Havel remarked that he was “seriously mistaken” to think that people would quickly alter their mindsets, and he concluded that it would take decades to make significant progress. Even an extraordinarily perceptive person like Havel underestimated the time required to effectively address the numerous adaptive challenges facing a country transitioning politically, economically, and civically.

One of the most daunting problems Slovakia and other post-communist countries struggle with is corruption, which is the air citizens in these countries breathe. The World Economic Forum’s recently released annual corruption index revealed that six of the top eleven most corrupt countries with advanced economies are post-communist European countries (Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, and Slovenia). If we examine Slovakia, a country that fared the worst among her peers and second worst overall, we discover that one of the greatest challenges is a decreased sense of trust in democracy, because many ordinary citizens blame democracy for what they view as the absence of basic justice in society. One of the clearest indicators of the deficit in justice is the excessive presence of unreported, uninvestigated, and untried corrupt behavior on every level of the public and private sector. To illustrate, no Slovak politician has ever been convicted and sent to prison for corruption.

When there is too much real or perceived injustice in society, democracy is at risk because citizens expect a greater approximation of justice from this system of government. Democracy is threatened not only by people who trample upon justice, but also by those who do not consider it important or want to establish justice at the expense of liberty. In comparison to North America or Western Europe, citizens in post-communist countries have a relatively high tolerance level for injustice, which perpetuates a culture of corruption. Although perfect justice is unattainable here and now, one should not succumb to the cynicism and apathy that make it impossible to establish a more just society, because as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us, “human happiness in ordinary intercourse is determined by the difference between a little more and a little less justice, a little more and little less freedom.” Striving for justice must be carried out simultaneously by both reducing space for corrupt behavior using good laws and morally forming citizens through civil society’s institutions.

And it is here where an opportunity for the church opens up, but only if believers refuse to privatize their faith and engage the public square. One of the great benefits of the fall of communism is religious freedom, which has led to many positive changes for churches and their greater involvement in society. But their public ministry is underdeveloped, and churches are still learning how to carry the burden of responsibility that freedom brings. Separating theology from ethics and the spiritual from worldly affairs and being hampered by a totalitarian past, lack of courageous leadership, or unwillingness to actively confront evil are some of the most visible factors that prevent churches in postcommunist countries from being a more robust and effective transformative agent in society.

Lubomir Martin Ondrasek is the president and co-founder of Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based Christian non-profit that works for positive transformation in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. He holds graduate degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago and is presently pursuing his D.Min. in Transformational Leadership at Boston University.

Photo Credit: Removal of Lenin’s bust from Žilina’s Lenin Square in 1990, via Associated Press and Wall Street Journal.

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