Activity: Simulating the Velvet Revolution

Kevin Deegan-Krause


This case study simulates the process of the extraordinarily quick (and often peaceful) overthrow of various communist regimes is Eastern Europe in 1989. The simulation provides a powerful experiential study of how dissent can quickly cascade through a group, leading to fast, dramatic change.

This activity includes guidance for simulating the Velvet Revolution, including discussion questions and potential supplementary readings.


Simulating Velvet Revolution

Many look with wonder on the rapidity of political change in East Central Europe in 1989 when, in a matter of days, open opposition to the government ballooned from a handful of dissidents to millions in the streets. This case study uses a simple simulation exercise to help students to put themselves in the position of the inhabitants of these countries and think about the mechanisms of rapid political change.

Pregame show: The historical details
Discuss the revolutions of 1989 with students, tracing out the timeline and the nature of the mass demonstrations and government responses beginning in Poland and then Hungary through East Germany and Czechoslovakia and ultimately to Romania (and Bulgaria). While imperfect, Garton Ash’s Magic Lantern is a potentially useful resource, though there are now many others available online, particularly the Czech Oral History Center. For advanced students, suggest Kuran’s “Now Out of Never” as a preparatory reading (though this does to some extent give away the game). Having finished the setup, explain to students that you want them to try to put themselves in the place of a variety of people who went through this revolution.

Setting up the game:
Give each student a playing card from the deck (with cards removed as specified below). Explain that the number on their card is their “dissent threshold,” the number of other people they must see dissenting before they will dissent. In other words, if they have a four, they must see four other people dissenting before they will dissent as well. Explain that the signal in class of dissent is to hold the card high above the head with the number facing outward to the other students. Ask if anybody has a “Zero”? This should get a laugh. Since nobody has a zero and everybody’s threshold is at least one, none of the students should be signaling dissent at the outset.

Introducing dissent:
Then explain that in virtually every society, even the most repressive ones, there are some people who either have incredible courage or are not afraid of the consequences or miscalculate the consequences and so some low level of dissent is almost inevitable. Explain that in this class the dissenter is the lucky person with the Ace. Have that student hold it high above his/her head. If there is time, get that student to talk a bit about why he/she is dissenting. Have fun with this and ask students to speculate about why the student is dissenting. Ask if that student’s fearlessness/foolhardiness inspires anybody else to dissent. The answer should be no since nobody else has a card with a “one.” Ask students what it might take to get them to dissent too? The easy answer is “others dissenting,” but since nobody is doing so except the dissident, the situation is stable and the government remains in charge.

Discussing support for the old regime.
If you have time, have students do the above discussion in small groups, dividing them according to the numbers on their cards (Ace through 4 together, 5s and 6’s together, 7’s and 8’s together and 9’s and 10’s together) and have them provide a plausible picture about how they feel about the regime, and what they tell others (what they tell their friends; what they tell people they do not know) and present it to the class. Encourage them to be as inventive and personal as possible.

Changing the incentive structure.
Ask if there is anything else that might change the stable situation and lead the discussion around to those things that might lower the threshold of dissent: greater courage (unlikely) or less fear of retaliation from the government (the condition of 1989, especially less fear of Soviet intervention). Ask students what might send those signals and lead students around to Gorbachev’s statements about the “Sinatra Doctrine,” successful opposition in neighboring countries. Tell the students that in the class simulation such things have happened and ask them what that does to their threshold. The correct answer is “lowered it” and so tell them that their threshold for dissent is the number on their card minus one. Wait and see what happens (and make sure that the dissident keeps his/her card up in the air), provoking some response if necessary.

How the game plays out
From here the game plays itself out: the person with a two suddenly has a one and raises his/her card. The person with the three should then follow and so on, cascading until all the students have raised their cards. Ask students what happened, and how the society went from no dissidents to no supporters of the regime in an instant.

Postgame show: the rationality of rapid change
Ask people with 2’s and 3’s why they did not previously show public opposition to regime they did not like. Ask those with 9’s and 10’s why they are now showing opposition to a regime of which they were relatively fond. Evoke notions of peer pressure, with which students are familiar. Show that this means that post-revolution there are many apparent supporters of the new regime who are now concealing their true preferences for the system that came before. Ask how this relates to the Havel reading regarding the greengrocer. Emphasize the ways in which totalitarianism maintains stability by projecting the appearance of satisfaction, in part by forcing individuals to display their active agreement (whether they agree or not—the sign in the shop window). Discuss the importance of what Kuran calls preference falsification: if cards were not concealed, there would be more dissent (those with 2’s and 3’s) and perhaps active opposition. At the same time, without the need for concealment there would also be less chance of the rapid cascade (more like the Polish and Hungarian models). Discuss how democracy deals with preferences by pushing them out in the open. Ask whether there are concealed preferences in democracy (places where people say one thing but do another—the debate over the Bradley effect is a useful example) and how this affects the conduct of politics in our own system.

Document 1: Vaclav Havel "The Power of the Powerless" (1978)

Prop 1: A deck of playing cards with cards removed to create the following set:
One each: Ace through six
One or more each (depending on the number of students in the class): seven through ten.

Supplementary Reading 1:
Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague New York: Random House (1990) (ISBN 0-394-58884-3)

Supplementary Reading 2:
Timur Kuran, Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989 World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1991), pp. 7-48 (Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Stable URL: Now Out of Never

Possible Extensions for The Simulations

The Decision to Dissent
At the heart of the authority of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is the decision by individuals whether or not to oppose those regimes. As Havel notes in "The Power of the Powerless," the spectre of dissent hovers over all regimes, and most particularly those which respond to dissent with punishment. The preference falsification exercise used here suggests that people will often refuse to show their opposition in public settings, reserving them for circles of family and friends (and maybe not communicating the feelings at all). These decisions often rest on solid grounds--the potential costs incurred by family and friends of dissidents balanced against the limited tangible benefits of individual acts of dissent--and regimes deliberately pursue policies to encourage the futility of dissent or to suggest through media and public mobilization that the dissenters are the ones out of touch with reality. The exercise can therefore be used as the jumping-off point for a discussion about the dilemmas facing dissenters that could include discussions of Charter 77, Solidarity, and samizdat. Potential readings include:

  • Essays from Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth Boston: Faber and Faber (1990)
  • György Konrád, Antipolitics : An Essay, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1984)
  • Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison, Berkely, California: University of California Press (1987)

The discussion could also address the dilemmas faced by those in the regime about how much dissent to allow, how far to go in allowing opposition. The discussion could also expand to include the qustion of "dissent" within democratic societies, and whether the conditions of 21st century democracy make dissent irrelevant or unnecessary or whether there are circumstances within democratic societies that resemble the choices faced by communist-era dissenters.

Kieslowski's film Blind Chance (Przypadek) deals with these choices in the life of a single individual and the film could be used as a prompt for further discussion

Rational Choice and Real-World Events:
Over the past 30 years academic disciplines have developed what are called "rational choice" or "public choice" or "game theory" models to help understand political phenomena. These begin by assuming a high degree of commonality in the working of human brains and suggest that if presented with the same set of incentives, humans will behave in essentially the same way, maximizing their gains and minimizing their losses. This can seem sharply at odds with common sense notions that different people act differently, and so these methods are often difficult for non-scholars to understand. The card game used here, along with other simple games such as the "prisoner's dilemma" helps us to understand how rational choice methods clarify social dynamics by showing a similarity to real-world outcomes even when distilled to their simplest components. In addition to Kuran's article cited here, there are a variety of adequate readings on this that are available free online including:

Gary Shapiro, Rise of Rational Choice

History, Prediction and Scholarship:
Yogi Berra is famous for saying that "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." A close reading of Kuran's "Now Out of Never" raises interesting questions about why almost nobody--including most experts--predicted an event as major as the collapse of the Soviet Union (and a nice wikipedia entry suggests that many of those who did predict change did so on the basis of events entirely different from those that came to pass: Predictions of Soviet Collapse The game played here offers an opportunity to look at the question of prediction in the social sciences, what factors inhibit successful prediction, both those affecting the subject of prediction ("preference falsification" cited by Kuran) and those affecting the individuals who make the prediction. Philip Tetlock has produced some interesting work regarding expert prediction that might lead to a discussion of what it is that makes predictions more or less likely to be accurate and whether social science can (and should) try to make predictions.

Primary Sources

The Power of the Powerless

Vaclav Havel wrote this work in 1979. The essay begins the intellectual attacks that Havel, the future President of a democratic Czechoslovakia, made against the Communist regime controlling his country. Rather than rely solely on political arguments, Havel argues here that, in fact, cultivating an individual "sphere of truth" will ultimately destroy the totalitarian communist government. Using a simple metaphor, a grocer's placing a "Worker's of the World Unite" poster in his window, Havel explains how that "lie" (and similar simple acts) form both the foundation of yet ultimate weakness in his country's communist government. The spiritual suffocation under communism is promoted by these simple, everyday acts of acquiescence. If individuals cease to participate in these lies, they are no longer bound by the communist lies and therefore, create a zone of freedom untouchable by the regime. From such "spheres of truth," a groundswell of freedom will sweep away communist rule. Havel's ability to create and share such powerful images through such simple (and sustained) metaphors provided the groups working against the Czechoslovakian communist rule with a powerful intellectual and moral center. This source is a part of the Simulating the Velvet Revolution teaching module.


Kevin Deegan-Krause is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University, His research in comparative politics emphasizes central European politics, democracy, political institutions and nationalism. His book Elected Affinities: Democracy and Party Competition in Slovakia and the Czech Republic is forthcoming in December 2005 from Stanford University Press. His other publications include articles in Party Politics, the Journal of Democracy, East European Politics and Societies and chapters in a variety of edited volumes. He is the recipient of the Truman and Fulbright Scholarships as well as of IREX Individual Advanced Research Grants. He has served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of State on the politics of central Europe. His on-going research concerns the origins and consequences of political divides in new democracies, including an edited-volume project on the significance of intra-ethnic competition in ethnically-plural societies called Houses Divided: The Intra-Ethnic Dynamics of Inter-Ethnic Conflict, and a book project on the causes of electoral support for authoritarian leaders in competitive authoritarian regimes called Voting for Thugs: Explaining Support for Postcommunist Strongmen. This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.

How to Cite This Source

"Activity: Simulating the Velvet Revolution," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/activity-simulating-velvet-revolution [accessed July 24, 2024]