The term Velvet Revolution has most recently been used in connection with the 2018 Armenian revolution, which started as a series of anti-government protests and acts of peaceful civil disobedience from April to May. One of the most crucial figures of the movement, Member of Parliament Nikol Pashinyan, who is currently the prime-minister of Armenia, declared it a “Velvet Revolution”. In the majority of speeches he delivered to address the supporters and the participants of the movement, Pashinyan would combine the phrase “velvet revolution” with other adjectives such as popular, non-violent and peaceful. In some sense, it was as if he made sure that people understood exactly what the word “velvet” stood for in that expression and what meaning it carried in the given context. In addition to this, several international news media outlets were eager to use this term to refer to or describe the events that have been happening in Armenia.
As a matter of fact, there is quite a fascinating history behind the term “velvet revolution” which needs to be addressed. Why do we call it a velvet revolution? Where does this term come from?
The “Velvet Revolution” (Czech: sametová revoluce) or “Gentle Revolution” (Slovak: nežná revolúcia) (the Slovaks preferred to go with ‘Gentle Revolution’) was a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia. It took place from 17 November to 29 December 1989. Popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia resulted in the collapse of 41 years of one-party rule in the country. Since then, this term has been used to describe the peaceful transition of power, more specifically, a revolution that is of a non-violent nature.
Currently, the definition of velvet revolution in the dictionaries, velvet alluding to gentleness, is the peaceful overthrow of a government, especially a communist government, as occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
The term “velvet revolution” is said to be coined by Czech dissident Rita Klímová. She spent some childhood years in the United States and her command of English enabled her to serve as the protestors’ spokesperson and translator during the 1989 demonstrations. Klímová’s good friend, rebel playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel, was elected president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. Thereafter, Klímová was named Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the United States.
One of the potential reasons as to why she called it a “velvet revolution” is that Klímová invented the term following the advertising slogan of Palmers (an underwear manufacturer).
In her book “The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age With the Human Rights Movement” Jeri Laber, the founder and the executive director of Helsinki Watch, which grew to be the Human Rights Watch, quotes her conversation with Rita Klímová:
“Rita Klímová, with her New York accent, astounded and amused people as the English-language voice of the revolution. For a long time I thought it was she who coined the term
“Velvet Revolution”, but she set me straight one day, assuring me that the words were Havel’s.
“But it was you who chose to translate it that way”, I insisted, “Someone else might have used a different word”.
Rita took the sleeve of my jacket between her thumb and forefinger, rubbing her fingers together. “Velvet is velvet”, she declared”.
Some theorists of revolutions, such as Jaroslav Krejčí, have argued that the “Velvet Revolution” was not, in fact, a correct term to describe the events. According to him it was not a true revolution, given the fact that a revolution by definition implies illegitimate violence.
On the other hand, contending theories of revolution suggest that the “Velvet Revolution” is, in fact, a legitimate revolution because it is a “revolutionary situation” of the non-violent transition of the power (“revolutionary outcome”).
Here is a screenshot of the entry in IATE for Velvet Revolution:
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- Aviezer Tucker. The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patocka to Havel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000
- Jeri Laber. The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age With the Human Rights Movement. New York: Public Affairs, 2002
- Juraj Borcovan. Rising Up Against Communism: Memories of the Velvet Revolution, 2015
- Radio Prague’s History Online Virtual Exhibit! The “Velvet Revolution”
Written by Gohar Sharoyan – Communication Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and a student of the Master Program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She holds a BA in Linguistics and Translation from the Yerevan Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences. She speaks Armenian, English, Russian and French.