Nov. 13 was damp and misty in Prague, already dark at 5 p.m. The city was quiet, but an expectation seemed to weight down the echoing, shadowed streets of the Old Town. Anticipation was in the air, like an ionic disturbance or falling barometric pressure.
In how many dissidents' apartments over the last two days had the conversation, speculation, analysis turned over the question-- when?
Leaning over their coffee cups, under the haze of cigarette smoke, in rooms with heavy, worn furniture and walls of books and framed photos of secret meetings in the mountains with Polish dissidents, they talked into the night. When?
Jan Urban's apartment was in the oldest part of the city, at the foot of the 1,000 stone steps leading up the hill to Hradchany Castle, the seat of the Czechoslovak government. Urban, 46, sat now at his dining table under a cone of light from an overhanging lamp. He was a teacher and one of the leaders of a group called Obroda, composed largely of former Communists who had been expelled from the party in the purges that followed the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
Urban had just been on the phone to Bratislava, where a dissident had been on trial. The defendant, once a Central Committee member of the Slovak Communist Party, had been charged with subversive activities for proposing a memorial to those killed in the invasion. The judge had thrown the case out of court. It was a sign, perhaps. Definitely, the government was nervous--first Erich Honecker, then Todor Zhivkov.
To Urban and other opposition figures, the demise of the East German and the Bulgarian leaders demonstrated the arrival of two new principles in the Communist world. The Honecker case showed that a Communist leader unable or unwilling to control disorder was in deep trouble. The Zhivkov matter showed that in a fight between reformers and conservatives, Moscow's vote went to the reformers.
The portents, for the Czechoslovak leadership, had to be obvious. Never had the government been so isolated and so vulnerable. "The situation is wonderful," Urban said, "and absolutely unpredictable." The question was, how would it happen, and when?
"I think it must come from the streets," Urban said on Nov. 13. "People are not yet in the streets, and that is worrisome. But the demand is there, the market is there, the situation is now so ready that we have to be willing to go to jail in numbers of 200 or 2,000. So I think it is question of a very short time before someone takes the risk to open the space, to provoke the authorities to make a mistake."
The mistake was only four days in coming. On Friday, Nov. 17, a demonstration was organized by the Charles University Union of Student Youth, a Communist-sanctioned group, to commemorate the death of a student at the hands of Nazi occupiers during World War II. The authorities, after much debate, had approved the observances, and late in the afternoon, about 7,000 students gathered at the university. One of the speakers was a representative of the youth union. As he got up to speak, he was jeered and whistled. A banner, hoisted aloft in the crowd, said, "We Want Freedom for Christmas." But the crowd was good-natured, even jovial.
As the evening sky darkened, they marched off toward the cemetery where the martyr, Jan Opletal, is buried. There, with an air of solemnity, they lit candles. They sang the national anthem. And the mood shifted.
The students, now perhaps 15,000 strong, headed toward the center of Prague, Wenceslas Square. A line of riot police blocked the way. For an hour it was a standoff, until the students turned up the main thoroughfare of Narodni Street and were met by another line of police. The students were hemmed in, front and back, with only a narrow alley for escape.
Then the police charged. Batons flailed, cracking against heads and upraised arms. Boots thudded into the backs and stomachs of those who fell. Police dogs jumped into the melee. The dazed and wounded crawled from the street. Blood poured from cut faces and heads. The police pursued those who ran, trapping them in doorways and alleys, methodically clubbing anyone they could reach.
The next morning, Jan Urban was careful to avoid the arrest that often came at times when the authorities were nervous. He went to the attic of his building, climbed onto the roof and crossed over adjoining buildings to join his friends. "We knew immediately," he said, "this could be the moment of change." The authorities had crossed the line.
For years it had seemed as though the Czechoslovak public had bought into the unwritten bargain offered by the Communists. The trauma of 1968, the spectacle of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague and Bratislava and Brno, stamping out the "Prague Spring" reforms of Alexander Dubcek, lingered heavily.