On May 4th, Ambassador Ted Russell (Ret.) spoke at the Slovak Embassy about his experiences as Deputy Chief of Mission in Czechoslovakia during and after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. He also spoke about his role as the first U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia after the 1993 Velvet Divorce. During his speech, he discussed the involvement of the U.S. Embassy in these historical events and its interaction with Czech and Slovak leaders, including Václav Havel and Vladimír Mečiar.
Ambassador Russell emphasized how the Communist government in Czechoslovakia dissolved due to growing, massive demonstrations beginning on November 17, 1989, as it lacked public credibility and the promise of Red Army support. He then described the challenges that arose during Mečiar’s leadership of the 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.
After Ambassador Russell’s speech, Prof. James Krapfl discussed the Slovak transition, pointing out that most studies of revolutions ignore the most important actors: the citizens. 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, but never to the point of Slovak citizens becoming incapable of concerted action for the sake of the public good.
Prof. Krapfl 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.
Video of Amb. Ted Russell’s talk
Video of Prof. James Krapfl’s talk
Ambassador Theodore E. Russell (Ret.) had a distinguished career as a Foreign Service officer, spanning 36 years. He served in various posts, including Prague during the 1968 Prague Spring and Warsaw Pact invasion, and as Deputy Chief of Mission during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Later, he was appointed as the first U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia, serving from 1993-1996. Since 2001, he has been the Founding Chairman of Friends of Slovakia, a non-profit organization that promotes U.S.-Slovak friendship through volunteer work.
James Krapfl is a professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he teaches the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe. He has conducted research in over 50 local, regional, and national archives in the Slovak and Czech Republics. James is also the author of “Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989-1992” which was published in Slovak in 2009 and in English in 2013. His book won the George Blażyca Prize for the best book of 2013 in East European studies, and the Czechoslovak Studies Association Prize for the best book of 2013-14 in Czech and Slovak history. He earned his Ph.D. in 2007 from the University of California, Berkeley.