Czechoslovakia’s earlier experiment with reform, known as the Prague Spring, was brutally suppressed by an invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries in August 1968. The Communist policy of “normalization” that ensued plunged the country into a Stalinist deep-freeze that lasted for the next two decades. The Czechoslovaks were, then, justifiably skeptical about perestroika’s promise of reform; indeed, their Communist leaders censored Gorbachev's speeches in the official press. Opposition breakthroughs in Poland and Hungary, however, emboldened the opposition, and the steady resistance of the Charter 77 human rights movement, already over a decade old, together with the power of samizdat publications and underground music and theatre, nurtured demands for change. East Germans, camping out on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague en route through newly opened borders to Austria, brought the example of freedom with them.
One week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was students who brought down the Communist regime. On November 17, police in Prague brutally suppressed a peaceful, and authorized, demonstration marking International Students Day, unleashing massive public outrage and demands to oust the party. The Civic Forum emerged ad hoc around a public mandate to unify the country’s dissident forces and manage a transfer of power. By December’s end, the Soviet Union had renounced the 1968 invasion, and playwright poet and former political prisoner, Vaclav Havel, had become the country’s president.
RFE’s Czechoslovak Service had for decades been reporting information about life, culture, and politics that was otherwise unavailable in the country’s official media. Jamming, begun in 1952, limited its reach, but was lifted in December 1988. As the protests began, newly-appointed Service Director Pavel Pechacek, whose long career in journalism included years at VOA, managed to obtain a visa and found himself on November 21 on Prague’s historic Wenceslas Square. The square was the epicenter of the demonstrations, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the space. Pechacek recounts how, recognizing him, a hotel manager gave him a room with a window overlooking the square, allowing him to report live. When Havel addressed the throng from a balcony that day, Pechacek was standing behind him. Pechacek reported from the square for four, intoxicating days before the Czech secret police caught up with him and expelled him from the country. He took a taxi to the border, crossed on foot, and was met by an RFE car that took him back to Munich. Two days later he returned to Prague.