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The Triumph of the Powerless

NEW YORK – It was early June 1989. Václav Havel had been released from jail only days before, yet he was full of what now seems an almost prophetic certainty. Thousands of his countrymen had written letters petitioning for his release, at a time when declaring solidarity with Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident was a clear and dangerous act of civil disobedience.

“We Czechs are finally finding our courage,” he said, as if sensing the people’s new readiness to confront the guardians of their communist police state. “Sooner or later, they will make a mistake, perhaps by beating up some people. Then 40,000 people will fill Wenceslas Square!”

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Four months later, one week after people power brought down the Berlin Wall, revolution came to Prague. Students organized a small rally in the old Vyšehrad cemetery, the burial grounds of Smetana and Dvořák in a fortress overlooking the city. As they marched toward Wenceslas Square, bearing candles, riot police cut them off, and many – men, women, children—were brutally beaten.

Those who fell were kicked and clubbed where they lay. The night of November 17 – “Black Friday,” as it quickly came to be known – set Czechoslovakia alight. The next day, thousands of Czechs turned out in the streets. As Havel had foreseen, his job (and that of the small circle of dissidents surrounding him) would then be to fan that spark, stoke the fire – and guide it.

Twenty years later, we can only marvel at how brilliantly they performed. Prague was 1989’s happiest revolution, a delirium of good feelings. The “Velvet Revolution,” as Havel dubbed it, was sheer theater, a geopolitical spectacular that unfolded in vignettes, scenes, and acts, with cameo appearances by famous faces from the past, including Alexander Dubcek and Joan Baez.

Dissidents just released from jail and eminent emigres suddenly returned home. The theme music was the Velvet Underground. The stage was the Magic Lantern, the underground theater that served as Havel’s headquarters. The backdrop was Prague, impossibly beautiful, impossibly romantic, the city of a hundred spires, tawny ochre houses and churches, shifting late afternoon light, moonlight on the Vltava.

The audience, of course, was the world. We watched it happen on TV. We saw the people, assembled in Wenceslas Square, hundreds of thousands of them, jingling their keys and ringing hand-bells in their good-humored farewell to communism: “Your time is up.” It was so pure, so clean. It was the climax of the story, the Year of the Fall, a turning point in history: cliché transmuted into Truth.

We knew our heroes would win. Everyone swept up by it felt young again, as though the world had suddenly, mysteriously, euphorically been made new. Disney could not have worked a more seductive transformation. Here were our children, taking to the streets. Here were our children, bloodied and beaten. Here were our children, finally, victorious.

It helped that this revolution could be counted in days, a miracle of compression. Once confronted, the Communists almost ran from power. An organizer of the November 17 rally told me that he knew it was over that very day, when he expected several hundred people and 20,000 showed up. If so, the dénouement came on December 29, the day Vaclav Havel became a free Czechoslovakia’s new president.

For me, the decisive moment was on Day 11. Half a million people had gathered in Prague’s Letná Park to hear Havel speak. To this day, I can hardly remember it without tears. As Havel finished, a light snow began to fall and, as if on cue, his listeners took their places. One by one, in single-file, hand in hand, they began to march toward Wenceslas Square, more than a mile and a half away, following a rickety horse-drawn cart bedecked with the wings of angels.

It was so very gentle, so strong and irresistible. Slowly, the procession wound its way along paths through Letná’s woods, now covered in white. Slowly, it snaked down the medieval streets behind Prague Castle and into the square in front of the president's palace. There were no chants, no cheers, no hints of confrontation. Just the unbroken line of people, holding hands and passing silently in the white darkness, the line looping back and forth outside the forbidding gates.

From the castle, the line wound down the steep hills of Malá Strana, past the great Baroque cathedral, its ornate spires lighted in the snowy night, down Mostecká Street with its cafes and restaurants, across the shimmering Vltava at Charles Bridge, with its 400-year-old statues of Czech kings and religious saviors, through the narrow streets of the Old Town and finally into Wenceslas Square, where I watched three policemen join the procession, their caps set at jaunty angles, dancing along in tall black leather boots.

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Still the procession came, weaving through the snow, everyone swinging their arms, skipping, happy, joyous. The first of the marchers had reached the Square. The last still waited patiently in the park. Hand in hand, they bisected the city. Hand in hand, they drew a line. Here, on one side, stood the people, on the other their oppressors. This was the moment. Everyone had to choose.

From high above the city, I looked out at these people dancing through the streets. Prague lay away in the distance, lighted and luminous in the snow. Never in my life have I seen anything so beautiful. I doubt I ever will again.