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Jefim Fistein: Reporting 1989 – From A Phone Booth on Wenceslas Square

Jefim Fistein, who in 1989 was a commentator for RFE's Russian Service and a contributor to the Czechoslovak Service.

A recollection of events by Jefim Fistein, who in 1989 was a commentator for RFE's Russian Service and a contributor to the Czechoslovak Service. Fistein is now a Prague-based commentator and filmmaker.

FISTEIN: In Czechoslovak society, the changes were in the air already in January 1989 during Jan Palach week, which was the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Palach’s self-immolation. This anniversary brought many thousands onto the streets for protests. It was a massive disobedience in Czechoslovak society. The Czechoslovak Service covered these protests live.

How did we verify the facts? A spokesperson of Civic Forum, Jan Urban, was covering the protests for us from a telephone booth on Wenceslas square. It was a good vantage point for him to observe what was happening on the ground, how the police were dispersing the demonstrators. At one point he even said, “hold on, the police are using water cannons, you may not hear anything”.

During that week we would agree with him on a time when I would make a call to that telephone booth, and he would report. He was an old dissident; he did not hide from the STB [Czechoslovak Security Service]. In general, the signatories of Charter 77 supplied us in Munich with information on what was happening in the country not only by phone calls, but also by sending postcards or letters, which they usually dispatched in Vienna.

And later during that year people who lived in Prague felt that the Communist bloc was falling apart because of the exodus of the East Germans who massively abandoned their Trabants, and took shelter in what was the West Germany Embassy’s territory on Trziste Street in Prague.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was obviously of special importance to us living in Germany, but it was not an end in itself. It served to focus our attention on other Eastern European countries, on Czechoslovakia, and above all on the Soviet Union itself. I witnessed the Wall stumbling from Western Berlin, where, together with Egon Lansky, we provided a running commentary for the Czechoslovak people. I was also reporting in Russian for listeners in the Soviet Union.

Just two weeks after the Velvet Revolution I was able to go to Prague on an invitation from the Civic Forum. The invitation was typed on a typewriter, and as the Civic Forum did not have any seal, the letter was stamped with a raw potato and signed by Vaclav Havel. As an RFE/RL reporter, I was greeted very warmly. And people would say: "Nice you've come, but why so late?"

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Excerpt from interview conducted by Zydrone Krasauskiene.