Freedom to speak your mind

In most of Europe today, we’re used to saying exactly what we think. Whether we’re posting our beliefs on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, or debating politics between friends in a cafe, we’re free to speak our minds. Behind closed doors our conversations remain private, but we also have the freedom to broadcast almost anything we like to the world, no matter which party we support or what we believe.

But we weren’t always so free. While the Soviet Union was under communist rule, the consequences of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or expressing anti-government views – even behind closed doors – were brutal.

Those who spoke out against the regime could be charged under Soviet Criminal Code and given the choice of exile, being placed in a mental hospital or working in a labour camp.

The strict controls on free speech were enforced by the most intrusive state surveillance operation in history. Most infamously, East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, ran a vast spying operation to identify and crush anti-government sentiment before it could spread. From family homes to places of work and subway trains to bars and restaurants; the Stasi would bug anywhere they thought they could gather information.

No private conversation, even among friends and family, was free from being snooped on by the state. The Stasi used all this information to build extremely detailed and personal files on people – from average Joes to rebellious punks. This information became part of one of the largest databases of private information in the world. There are over 111 kilometres of files in the Stasi Records Archives on everyone from bakers to bankers, poets to paediatricians.

If you had to be careful about the conversations you had in private, public acts of protest against the regime were even more forbidden. In 1968, eight dissidents staged a peaceful sitting protest at the Lobnoye Mesto in Moscow. The protest, which is now known as the Red Square demonstration, was staged in reaction to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Within minutes of the protesters taking their positions, seven of the eight were assaulted, brutally beaten and forced into cars by the KGB – the Soviet Union’s main security agency. Many of the eight were sentenced to prison for their involvement in the protest.

Without the right to protest, citizens resulted to extreme measures to express their discontentment and get noticed. Some Soviet citizens even resorted to setting themselves on fire as an act of radical protest. Student Jan Palach, Polish accountant Ryszard Siwiec, Czech toolmaker Evžen Plocek, Lithuanian high school student Romas Kalanta and Ukrainian engineer Oleksa Hirnyk all burnt themselves to death.

Those who spoke out against the regime could be charged under Soviet Criminal Code and given the choice of exile, being placed in a mental hospital or working in a labour camp.

In order to prevent dissent from spreading, riots and protests often went unreported by the heavily controlled state media. So most citizens would be unaware that a protest had even taken place, unless they heard about it on the grapevine.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that the Soviet regime was finally brought down by a series of mass protests and uprisings on a scale hardly before seen in history. On 23 August 1989, around two million people joined hands to form a mass human chain across three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – to demand independence from the USSR. And on November 9th of the same year, around two million East German citizens descended on the Berlin Wall and began to pull down the hated wall that had divided them from friends and family in the West for nearly thirty years.

Real people: Jan Palach

On January 16 1969, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in Prague in a public act of protest against the communist government in Czechoslovakia. Palach – a 20-year-old student studying economics at Charles University in Prague – died of his injuries three days later in hospital.

Prior to his self-immolation, Palach sent a letter to several communist public figures demanding the abolition of censorship and a halt to the distribution of Zprávy, the official newspaper of the Soviet forces. Palach also called for Czech people to go on strike in support of his demands.

On the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death in 1989, memorial gatherings for Palach turned into anti-communist protests. The protests gave momentum to the Velvet Revolution that brought down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia later that year.

Palach’s death is thought to have inspired two other Czechs – Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek – who also died from self-immolation in the following months. Before Palach, Polish citizen Ryszard Siwiec set himself on fire in protest of communism. Siwiec’s death was successfully concealed up by the authorities and only came to light after the fall of communism. Palach was not aware of Siwiec’s protest at the time of his death.

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