The accidental uprising: How 'corpse' killed Communism

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Victor Sebestyen recalls how the Czech regime fell to a hapless secret plot

For the past two decades, 17 November has been a national holiday in the Czech Republic. It is the day that marks the beginning of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that brought down the Communist dictatorship which for 40 years had run Czechoslovakia, the country that then comprised today's Czech and Slovak republics.

The celebrations in Prague last Tuesday were especially poignant. It was the 20th anniversary of those dizzying few days when a combination of people power on the streets, and clever politicking behind the scenes by the opposition, brought Czechs freedom. The people who took part in the revolution are middle aged or older now – and young people take a free market, free movement around Europe, and free voting for granted. They never knew what living under Communism and Soviet occupation was like.

There was a moving speech last week from the playwright and philosopher, Vaclav Havel, who inspired and led the revolution and became president at the end of 1989. The current president, Vaclav Klaus, solemnly recalled the names of many heroic and admirable people who fought totalitarianism. One figure who played a central role in the Velvet Revolution was not mentioned. Ludvik Zifcak was at that time a junior officer in Czechoslovakia's state security service. It is a subject Czechs do not like to discuss, but without Zifcak, and a hopelessly bungled secret police operation, history might have taken an altogether different course.

For a week after the Berlin Wall fell there had been an uneasy calm in Prague. Everybody knew what had happened 200 miles away in the East German capital. Pictures had been shown, in a half-censored way, on state-controlled Czech television, along with a warning from the regime that nothing similar would be tolerated in Czechoslovakia. Since the Soviet invasion of 1968, when Red Army tanks were sent to crush the Prague Spring, Czechs had suffered under one of the most hard-line governments behind the iron Curtain, one run by mediocrities. A few dissident intellectuals had passed around samizdat literature. Havel had founded the Charter 77 group, which had some influence outside the country but little inside. But, on the whole, for 20 years Czechs had been cowed into submission, and the country's politics was frozen in ice.

Eight days after the Wall fell, students sparked the revolution in Prague. They were allowed, through the official Communist youth organisation, to hold a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the death of a young student who had been killed by the Nazis after the Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia. The regime wanted to ban the march, but it could find no obvious reason. The police allowed a procession, along a well-rehearsed route that avoided the central Wenceslas Square. Around 50,000 people turned up, and although some shouted banned expressions such as "Remember '68" or "Down with the Commies", the police let the demonstration continue. When it ended, most of the crowd went home. It was a freezing winter late afternoon but a core of around 3,000 hung around. After an hour, a few shouted "To Wenceslas Square" and ran towards central Prague.

When they arrived they were immediately confronted by riot police and all but one of the exits to the square were blocked. The students sat down, holding candles, and started singing "We Shall Overcome". Without any warning, the police charged into them. Evidence of the brutality made headlines everywhere, particularly in the UK. The then correspondent for The Independent, Edward Lucas, was beaten unconscious. Around 500 students were injured and 120 arrested. One young man was left lying, appearing lifeless, and taken away by ambulance.

Rumours spread fast in Communist capitals, where the official media was never believed. One circulating around Prague was that the prone body was a mathematics student, Martin Smid. It was spread mainly by the dissident activist Peter Uhl, normally a reliable source of news about the dissident underground for the Western media. Uhl had been tipped off by a young woman called Drahomira Drazska, who claimed to be a good friend of Smid. Uhl passed on the news to Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Reuters. Soon it was reported as fact.

The authorities denied that anybody had been killed. The next day they managed to find not one, but two Martin Smids. One was a Prague mathematics student, and both of them looked very much alive in television interviews. It made no difference. The denials were disbelieved. Throughout the country the public reacted with indignation. Reports of murder in the square jolted the Czechs out of the apathy and fear that had characterised their lives for the previous 20 years.

The following evening, and every night for the next 10 days, huge demonstrations of up to 400,000 people filled Wenceslas Square. They were good humoured and exhilarating: the Velvet Revolution had wit, fun, music and laughter in a way the changes elsewhere in central Europe that year did not.

Without a doubt the Smid story was the catalyst. A makeshift shrine had been created near the spot where he had lain. Havel and other activists from the opposition group Civic Forum continually used his death as proof of the brutality of the system they were fighting. In the classic narrative of those days, a people silent for a generation found their voice, mainly because of the violence on 17 November. But there was a big lie at the heart of the story.

There are dozens of conspiracy theories about the revolutions of 1989: that it was all the work of the CIA, the KGB, or a cabal of Western banks with mafia connections. Most are hokum. But in Czechoslovakia there really was a conspiracy behind the theory. The ruling regime in Prague was deeply split, had lost the will to govern and was being outmanoeuvred by Havel's Civic Forum. Among the regime's myriad problems, the leadership of the country's secret police was working against the party bosses. They faked the death of Smid, thinking it would create public fury that would sweep away the ageing diehards who ran the Communist Party.

The plot was hatched by General Alois Lorenc, then 53, and a small group of reformers near the top of the party. They had looked at events in Poland, Hungary and East Germany, where Communism had collapsed, and imagined that they could maintain their positions, and make some money, if they negotiated with an opposition they would try to divide. They codenamed the operation "Wedge". An essential ingredient was to infiltrate the dissident movement and identify opposition figures willing to do a deal with reform-minded Communists.

It showed how out of touch they were with the Czech population, but still it was bold. The details were worked out when they knew the "official" demonstration on 17 November would be allowed. A key player was Zifcak, then 24, who had been a police spy within the dissident movement for three years. When the main demonstration ended that afternoon, he was the first to make an impassioned call for the rest to follow him to Wenceslas Square. It was a classic operation of the kind the Communists called "a provocation".

He knew there would be a trap there, found a place to keep his head down during the mêlée, and spotted the right time to lie down and play dead. Drazska disappeared. She was another secret agent, with orders to tell Peter Uhl about Smid's "death".

It is still unknown how closely the Soviets were involved. It has since become clear that the top Kremlin leadership did not know and would have disapproved. It was not the kind of operation the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev – who genuinely believed East Europeans should sort out their own affairs – would have backed. It was too risky and the benefits too uncertain. But elements within the KGB, which did not always agree with the "liberal" Kremlin line, certainly knew. While the riot police were beating up the students, General Lorenc was dining with the KGB's head of station in Prague, General Gennady Teslenko, and the deputy head of the KGB, General Viktor Grushko, who had arrived in Prague some days earlier. Their dinner was interrupted by 25 telephone calls, from the "front line" at Wenceslas Square and from Moscow.

It was a ludicrous plan – elaborate but a spectacular failure – that entirely misunderstood the Czechs. They did not rise up to seek salvation from reform-minded Communists. They wanted rid of the system altogether and looked to Havel. Zifcak was later jailed for 18 months, but is now an important far-left politician in the Czech Republic. Lorenc was jailed for four years – more for his actions over a decade than for his role in the Velvet plot. He once said that he and his co-conspirators had tried to save Communism, but instead hastened its end.

Conspiracy theories can make great theories and are occasionally true. This saga proves a constant in psychology: the law of unintended consequences.

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £25

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