Jan Bubeník was one of the organisers of a student march in Prague on November 17, 1989 to mark the anniversary of a Nazi crackdown on Czech universities 50 years previously. When the marchers carried on to Národní St in the centre of the city they were brutally attacked by police, an incident which set in train the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Bubeník quickly became one of the student leaders of the Velvet Revolution, and even served briefly as a member of parliament. Today he runs a successful recruitment agency. At its Prague offices the other day, I asked Jan Bubeník what were his strongest memories of the Velvet Revolution.
“First, when I came to Albertov [where the march started], when the people gathered. It was the first time it was officially permitted… they called it a manifestation, rather than a demonstration. It was a good pretext to get together. It was a test of how many people would show up, and there were tens of thousands of people, and for the first time I saw that we were not the crazy ones, and if we were together we could probably do something about it.
“The second memory of that day is that I just wanted to run for my life when we got really brutally attacked. I thought revolution was nothing for me – you know, with a cracked head you’re not going to do much.
“Then there was the euphoria when I was one of the members of parliament who voted [first post-communist president Václav] Havel in. That was kind of the ultimate victory, where I felt things were probably not going to go back… to communism.
“So there were deep fears and high elation and euphoria, that I was able to be part of such a dramatic change in our history.”
You mentioned the vote for Havel. I believe you were a member of the Czechoslovak parliament briefly.
“That’s correct. I was 21, I barely passed the age requirement for an MP, and I was asked to stand in Prague 5, where my medical school was located. I couldn’t sleep for three nights before saying yes.
“The late ombudsman Otakar Motejl, who was the person I sought advice from, said, Jan, go ahead, we don’t need people who have any baggage from ’68 or any other baggage. He said, use your common sense and you’ll be a big addition to the new country.”
But you didn’t stay very long in the parliament.
“That’s right. I promised to stay there and do the campaign before the first free elections for Civic Forum, because I kind of remained in the spotlight as one of the few student leaders.
“But I realised that whether I’d like to be a politician, a medical doctor or a businessman, I should first get a trade, to actually know something about life before starting to regulate everybody else’s life.
“I think I had more luck than brains, to actually go and travel the world a little bit, to learn languages and become a professional.”
You went to the United States in the early 1990s. Where did you go? What did you do? And what did you get from the experience?
“I went there for the first time in the summer of 1990 to study English as a second language, at UCLA. That was a life-changing experience, because all of a sudden it went from a black and white picture to full colour.
“All of a sudden I could exchange ideas, opinions, with people from around the world. That was the prerequisite to actually start learning things, and being able to have things first hand.
“Then I went to study economics at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. In between I was a partner in a business that was exporting Czech glass through the Bahamas to the US.
“So there was a lot of experience. But mainly it changed a certain perspective on life. I met lots of young people who borrowed lots of money to get an education. They started their professional lives with a huge debt, but they didn’t have to steal, they didn’t have to cut corners. They lived a very decent life and because they knew something somebody paid them a professional income and they had a very nice life.
“I was recruited by the American firm McKinsey and Company to join their Prague office. They also get smart young people – they work them hard but they pay them very good salaries…I think that influenced my life tremendously.”
“We were asked by the American human rights organisation Freedom House, which is a bipartisan think thank that monitors human rights around the world, to go and meet Cuban dissidents, courageous people who openly stand against Castro and his regime.
“When asked by Ivan to accompany him – because he had been on the same mission a year before, and he knew from our friends that I had done similar things in Zimbabwe and in South Africa prior to the end of apartheid – I said, OK, I will.
“Because I felt we had been on the receiving end before ‘89, and we should share the same hope, that if these people keep the battle up they will also have… maybe they could go into political retirement like myself and build a firm and raise their kids in a free and happy society.”
You spent over three weeks in a cell in Cuba. How much danger did you feel you were in?
“For 10 days we didn’t know if anybody knew what was going on with us, and that’s a universe of time. We had sleep deprivation, we were interrogated for several hours every day.
“They told us they would do whatever they wanted with us. They said, don’t you remember how it used to be in your country? At that moment you just go, eject, please get me out of here. It was very much a déjà vu. You know that one old man who is a totalitarian ruler will wake up and… you know, human life has no value.
“It was very scary. But it was, I would say, long enough to test yourself in your environment, and short enough not to give up hope. In the end we were lucky that [Czech politician] Petr Pithart flew in and negotiated our release.”
“I was headhunted to become a headhunter. I was a candidate in a search for a director of private equity. I declined that but the headhunter said, we really like how you communicate – would you join us?
“Later I joined a different company, an American global firm, and became the head of their operations in Prague. After they put me on unpaid leave of absence while I was in prison in Cuba I said, thank you very much for the support.
“I took it emotionally and left and set up my own shop. And I have to say that I’m actually grateful to them that they forced me to build something which is my own platform, where I can spend my time the way I want, and also dedicate some time to NGO activities.”
If we could go back for a moment to ’89, how do you think the Velvet Revolution impacted the course of your life?
“It was like I was hit by the speed train of history. I was being trained to be a pediatrician, and I was thinking about either working with small kids or being a psychiatrist. And I couldn’t imagine that life could be so free, so open, so colourful, like we have 20 years after the changes.
“For me, the system we live in is not perfect, but I think it is light years away from what we used to have. So I’m extremely happy with the change and I think I was lucky to be very close to the change and maybe be a very small wheel in a machine that… could be there at that historic moment.
“My generation remembers how it used to be and very much appreciates the changes. And we were able to take full advantage of the opportunity it presented to us.”
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