- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

PRAGUE It was a bitterly cold winter, but it felt like a summer of love.
Tasting freedom that barricades and barbed wire couldn't shut out, people put up posters that said, "Love and truth will prevail over lies and hatred," and took on heavily armed police.
It was 1989, and the old communist order that had divided Europe since World War II was grinding to an end. Here, in what was still called Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution was at its peak under an improbable but charismatic leader: Vaclav Havel.
"We had pictures of Havel all over the place in the kitchen, in the living room, everywhere," recalls Eva Adamova, now 51 and the manager of a catering company.
The road to the grand finale, and Mr. Havel's 13-year presidency that ends today, had started in February 1989 with his nine-month prison sentence for laying flowers at the place on Wenceslas Square where Jan Palach had burned himself to death 20 years before in protest against Soviet domination.
Charged with inciting a rebellion against socialism, the playwright mockingly told the prosecutor in court: "Your words have lost their semantic meaning through overuse."
Meanwhile, on the streets, the "Movement for Merrier Present Times" was powering up young political pranksters who would, for instance, launch a paper whale on Prague's river just to draw a crowd of like-minded people.
Released from prison after four months, Mr. Havel would sometimes join in street protests. "We thought it was fun to run down the street in the name of political prisoners," recalls Bara Stepanova, a founding prankster who went on to become Mr. Havel's presidential secretary. "Running was a way of protest. You don't get busted for just running."
The political thaw was moving rapidly in neighboring Poland and Hungary, emboldened by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalism. But in Prague, the hard-liners held on. "Mr. Havel is a zero to me," Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec said in October.
"We want freedom for Christmas," the crowds chanted.
Then on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. "Even then I didn't believe things could change," Mrs. Adamova recalls. "I thought [the Germans] were just lucky and we would be stuck with communism forever."
The rally on the morning of Friday, Nov. 17 seemed routine enough. But at dusk, as some 10,000 people marched toward Wenceslas Square, police cracked down hard. Hundreds were injured.
"You have lost already," demonstrators chanted the next day, and the next, gradually swelling to a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
In a couple of weeks, it was all over. The Iron Curtain was being rolled up, and on Dec. 29, Mr. Havel stood before a parliament still dominated by Communist holdovers and laid out his hopes of becoming the country's first democratic president in half a century.
"I promise not to let you down," Mr. Havel said in his nomination speech, pledging fair and free elections.
And free they were almost absurdly so.
Rock stars Frank Zappa and Lou Reed were among those helping a motley crew of bohemians to mount an election campaign. As the Soviet army began leaving, the Rolling Stones arrived.
"The tanks are rolling out, the Stones are rolling in," posters proclaimed.
Mr. Havel had won and the Communists were finished.
"We were so happy then," said Mrs. Adamova, the catering company manager. "The feeling returns even today when I think about it."

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