It’s a time of celebration in Prague this month. A time to mark the November day 20 years ago when the "Velvet Revolution" erupted. A time to mark the beginning of the end of the Soviet rule that had crushed democratic reform movements in Czechoslovakia and its eastern and central European neighbors.
For two decades, Soviet troops and Soviet-controlled political leaders had been in charge. But then, on that November day in 1989, hundreds of protesting university students marched through downtown Prague. Riot police moved in to club and beat the peaceful marchers, prompting widespread outrage and a month of peaceful demonstrations — the "Velvet Revolution" that would soon lead to the end of Soviet domination.
It was a realization, at last, of the high hopes for liberation raised 20 years earlier. I was there in the hopeful summer of 1968, one of the journalists who had rushed over to record the miracle that was occurring throughout central and eastern Europe during what was known worldwide as "The Prague Spring."
We saw the people, happy and hopeful, in the streets of Bucharest, of Budapest and, most especially, in the beautiful old streets of Prague. Stalin is dead, their buoyancy seemed to say, Khrushchev is gone. We are our own masters. We will make it in our own time and in our own way.
Among the many hopefuls was Helena Svadlenka, a smiling, chubby Prager who was allowed to open her modest flat to my wife Gerry and me, two Americans full of curiosity and ideas about the freedom she had just begun to enjoy.
Materially, she didn’t have very much. But, for the first time in a long time, she had hope. And she had a bearded 19-year-old son full of spirit, dashing here and there across the city to meet with his young friends and speak excitedly of the future, to dream, to plan.
They walked with great animation along the dusty, cobblestone streets of their city, enthusiastic believers in the "democratization" they preached. Ideas flowed rapidly to them from the West, and they drew, too, on their country’s own long history of democratic socialism as a guide, one that other reformers lacking their history also could draw on.
They stood in lively knots, in squares and on street corners. They sang, sold their own hand-printed newspapers, shouted out their slogans of hope. They chalked signs on walls praising Alexander Dubcek and other Czech political figures who were leading them rapidly toward a bright future.
But then came a day in August of 1968 when Soviet forces swept in to destroy their hopes for liberalization, killing and wounding dozens of anti-Soviet Czechs. The young men still shouted in the streets, but they shouted no longer for the future. They shouted against the past. It had rolled into their city but no longer their city behind ugly, rumbling machines of war.
The tanks that destroyed their plans and hopes were dispatched, of course, by the USSR. But they were manned primarily by forces from Czechoslovakia’s fellow Soviet satellites nearby, whose leaders feared that if the Czech rebels prevailed, it would inspire the restless young in their countries to similarly challenge their rigid leadership.
For two decades they prevailed, the grim, gray, spiritless party bureaucrats of Czechoslovakia who moved in with the tanks to replace Dubcek and the others who had promised a bright future. They were among the most rigid of the satellite leaders, headed by Gustav Husak, who took over as premier in 1968. Stalinist to the core, Husak devoted much of his tenure to ferreting out "adventurers, revisionists and deviationists."
But finally Husak and the others succumbed to the pressures for reform generated by the glasnost and perestroika policies of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and, ultimately and most decisively, to the pressures generated by the "Velvet Revolution" that began 20 years ago on a cold November day in Prague.
Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco journalist. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.