On May 4 at the Slovak Embassy, Ambassador Ted Russell (Ret.) discussed his experiences as Deputy Chief of Mission in Czechoslovakia during and after the 1989 Velvet Revolution and then as the first U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia after the 1993Velvet Divorce. He described the role of U.S. diplomacy during these turning points in Czech and Slovak history and the U.S. Embassy’s interaction with Czech and Slovak leaders, including Václav Havel and Vladimír Mečiar. Ambassador Russell emphasized how the Communist government in Czechoslovakia, which lacked public credibility and the promise of Red Army support, simply dissolved in the face of growing, massive demonstrations beginning November 17, 1989. He then described the bumps in the road towards democratization during Meciar’s leadership of newly independent Slovakia after the 1993 Velvet Divorce. He underscored how the popular vision of rejoining Western democratic institutions, including the EU and NATO, helped buffer some of Mečiar’s autocratic tendencies and opened the way to successful reform efforts once Mečiar left office in 1998.
Prof. James Krapfl then discussed the Slovak transition. He pointed out that most studies of revolutions ignore their most important actors: the citizens, without whom a democratic system of government cannot (by definition) be created. He explained how citizens across Slovakia took myriad concrete steps in 1989 and the early 1990s to create a democratic political culture. He pointed out the social, geographic, and temporal patterns in the revolutionary process, explaining how and why the joyous sense of unity that characterized 1989 gave way to frustration, factionalism, and in some quarters despair—though never to the point of Slovak citizens becoming incapable of concerted action for the sake of the public good. He described how the civil society forged in the Slovak revolution of 1989 has proved remarkably resilient, enabling the country to overcome repeated crises since becoming independent 25 years ago, and setting it apart from its neighbors.
Ambassador Theodore E. Russell (Ret.) served 36 years as a Foreign Service officer, including postings in Prague during the 1968 Prague Spring and Warsaw Pact invasion, and as Deputy Chief of Mission during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. He then served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia 1993-96. Since 2001, he has served as Founding Chairman of Friends of Slovakia, a non-profit organization of volunteers promoting U.S.-Slovak friendship.
Prof. James Krapfl teaches modern central and eastern European history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989-1992 (Slovak edition 2009, English edition 2013), which won the George Blażyca Prize for the best book of 2013 in East European studies, and the Czechoslovak Studies Association Prize for best book of 2013-14 in Czech and Slovak history. He earned his Ph.D. in 2007 from the University of California, Berkeley, and has conducted research in over 50 local, regional, and national archives in the Slovak and Czech Republics.