Twenty years ago yesterday, I stepped off an overnight train from Poland at Prague's Hlavni nadrazi at 6 am. Sixteen hours later I boarded another overnight train to Budapest. (I was in Czechoslovakia on a 24-hour transit visa.) It was one of the most vivid days of my life.
On December 9, 1989, Prague had entered the ecstatic final phase of Velvet Revolution, which had begun with a student protest on November 17th and escalated into million-man marches ten days later. The Communist regime was frenetically backpedaling. They'd already repealed laws guaranteeing the Party a role in the nation's political life and were about to announce a new coalition government. As it turned out, December 9 would be the last full day of Communist rule. President Gustav Husak announced he would resign the next day, when a new government would be sworn with a non-Communist majority. Dissident poet Vaclav Havel was widely expected to be the next president.
But at 6:30 in the morning, the streets of central Prague were completely deserted. My companions and I walked to Old Town Square before dawn. It was a surreal scene. There wasn't a soul there, but there had obviously been many thousands only a few hours earlier. "It looked like a neutron bomb had gone off," I scribbled in my journal hours later. "There were no people to be seen, but someone had left behind an entire encampment: guitars, food, coffee pots, chairs, jackets, pastries and hundreds of still-lit candles." The famous statue of Reformation martyr Jan Hus had been turned into a candle-lit shrine covered in Czechoslovak flags, portraits of Alexander Dubcek, assorted printed announcements, and photographs of demonstrators being beaten by police. Seemingly every building in central Prague was adorned with dozens of national flags, which hung from nearly every window.
After sunrise, people began emerging from their homes, nearly every one wearing a Czechoslovak ribbon on their jacket in a show of support for the Revolution. There were many signs declaring "Havel to the Castle!" (He would be there soon enough, seated in the Presidential office there.) Demonstrators returned to their chairs and guitars to begin another day of Velvety goodness.
Slowly the streets became busier, although heavy snowflakes began gently falling in mid-morning, giving the already gorgeous city a magical quality, as if everything were under a goodly spell. We spent the next few hours seeing the sites -- it was the first time in Prague for all of us -- and by the time we got back to the Vaclavskie Namesti (Prague's half mile-long central square), it was packed with hundreds of thousands of jubilant demonstrators. There were cheers and chants, a lot of waving of flags and flashing of the V for Victory hand sign. New to the country and not understanding Czech, it was difficult to figure out exactly what was going on. I later learned I had taken part in a public celebration of Husak's resignation.
By the time our train reached the Hungarian border we were several hours over our visa, but the Czechoslovak guards seemed caught up in the spirit of '89 and didn't make a big deal out of it. (They even dispensed with the usual ritual of making us prove we still had all of our cameras, Walkmans, and other popular western gadgets with us, on the theory that every American was desperate to sell theirs on the black market.) At 8 am we were back in Budapest, reading western and Hungarian news accounts make sense of what we'd seen the day before.
For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania, late Communist Poland and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.