The big names had finished speaking, the early winter darkness was descending and many people were already drifting homeward from the biggest of a series of massive outdoor demonstrations that would, within days, end 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia.
So, little notice was taken on that late November day when opposition economist Milos Zeman took the microphone and delivered communism's epitaph.
The last four decades have seen what was previously one of the world's most advanced countries plummet from 22nd to 72nd in the rate of its spending for education, he said. Czechoslovakia now ranks 49th in the percentage of university students among its young people, just ahead of Nepal. And the level of its once impressive technological development has fallen to that of Algeria.
Its people have the second-shortest life expectancy (behind Hungary) among 28 European countries, he continued, and the proportion of its territory devastated by pollution is the worst on the Continent.
In his own way, Zeman was ridiculing the "absurd" argument by the architects of such failure that an anti-government protest strike called for the following Monday would disrupt the economy.
But he could also have been sketching the outlines of the daunting task ahead as East European countries try to secure their breathtaking political gains of the last year and to find their place on a fast-changing Continent.
For all the drama of 1989, the fact remains that the region has barely begun its transformation. "On one level, everything has changed," said Norman Stone, an Oxford University professor of modern history. "On another, nothing has."
What has occurred so far is a revolution of expectations and, to some extent, in the methods of political decision-making. But the changes rest on little foundation except rejection of the postwar past.
The 1990s promise a perilous journey of political, economic and social reconstruction during which the peoples of the region will be hostage to both Soviet and Western good will, neither of which will be unlimited.
And while most now say that they believe the process of change in the region has gone so far as to be irreversible, few expect it to proceed as smoothly as it has to date.
"I find it difficult to believe that somewhere along the line, someone won't try to stop it," commented Norman Davies, a professor of Polish history at London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounds the future of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. His hands-off policy as one Warsaw Pact ally after another rejected Communist Party dictatorship made the democratic gains of 1989 possible. But now those same gains are fueling expectations at home that threaten the very existence of the Soviet Union in its present form.
A possible backlash in Moscow has added to a sense of urgency among those trying to transform Eastern Europe. Some analysts, however, argue that things have already gone so far that, in order to reimpose Soviet control, a new Kremlin leader would have to order the occupation of virtually the entire region--an impractical step even for Moscow's formidable military.
Developments in Eastern Europe may even constitute a Machiavellian form of insurance for Gorbachev, in this view. The reason: Even as they have dumped their Communist leaderships, the democratizing nations of the region have pledged their continuing loyalty to the Warsaw Pact alliance. But if a hard-line alternative to Gorbachev appeared, their turn to the West could become a stampede as they scrambled to distance themselves from Moscow, and abandoned the alliance in the process.
Another major strategic question mark is the future of Germany. Long the pre-eminent economic power on the Continent, West Germany is fast becoming its political pivot as well, with the issue of German reunification suddenly near the top of Europe's agenda. Whatever the outcome of that emotional and complex debate, however, the Federal Republic is already well ahead of the other Western nations in establishing its influence on the other side of the disappearing Cold War divide.
Tactically, the immediate task for the peoples of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland is to confirm their commitment to pluralism at the polls.
Hungary's Parliament is expected to dissolve itself this week and to call first truly free, multi-party national elections in two generations for no later than March. Czechoslovakia and East Germany are expected to follow by summer.
Poland, which was the first country in the region to break with its Communist past during partially open parliamentary elections last June, is scheduled to hold free local elections early next year. While less eye-catching than the national polls of its neighbors, Poland's local balloting could be crucial in purging still dangerous pockets of hard-line Communist resistance to change in the provinces.
Beneath the democratic spectacle of elections lurks a worry, however, as the more or less united opposition movements that brought down totalitarian rule themselves divide into competing political parties, altering the balance of political forces in unpredictable ways. It has already happened in Hungary, where the so-called Alliance of Free Democrats and the Hungarian Democratic Forum took opposite sides in a November referendum.
What pre-World War II democratic traditions exist in these countries are based on a large number of political parties--20, 30 or more in each--meaning that, at best, their first freely elected parliaments are likely to yield large and unwieldy governing coalitions of the Israeli or Italian type.
Besides elections, there is a vast body of laws in each country to be updated. It is indicative that most of the activities that brought down Prague's Communist government in just three weeks remain illegal under statutes still on the books.
These countries also must restructure their judiciaries to make them truly independent. In Poland, for example, judicial appointments are still the prerogative of the Communist president, Wojciech Jaruzelski--although a pro-Solidarity parliamentary panel was recently created to "advise" him in the task.
It would be tough enough to overhaul Eastern Europe's political and legal structures in an otherwise strong, stable economic and international environment. What exists is quite the opposite.
While the situation varies from country to country, the economies of the region are so crippled that it may well be near the end of the next decade before they can begin to enjoy the kind of even modest prosperity that would be the best assurance of political stability. Until then there exists a serious risk of social unrest in response to the inevitable unemployment, inflation and other dislocations associated with deep economic reform.
Catching up with the West is an even longer-term dream. "Even if the East German economy were to grow at twice the rate of the West German economy, it would still take 20 years . . . more for it to catch up," according to Heinrich Machowski, an economist at West Berlin's German Economic Research Institute.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, said Radio Free Europe analyst Patrick Moore, is to reorient "a whole complicated system of values" internalized during four decades of Communist rule. He described them as "patterns of interpersonal relations, attitudes toward authority, attitudes toward the workplace."
How long does it take to build respect for law when for years the only law has been whatever the party bosses say it is? Will populations excluded from politics for two generations now take an active part? And if they do, will the political extremism that plagued their prewar past resurface? What will be the problems of reviving cultures distorted by existing mostly in the underground?
The main enemy, contended Gabor Damszky, a longtime dissident now among the leaders of Hungary's Alliance of Free Democrats, is "the bureaucratic mentality. People have to become lords of their lives, and that is going to take a long time. Here, somehow, we are waiting--for orders coming from the center."
"We have to establish another culture of manufacturing industry," noted Csaba Csaki, rector of Budapest's Karl Marx University. Csaki sees Western influence as crucial. "Even if a specific (joint Hungarian-Western) project isn't going to make any profit (for Hungary), it should go ahead."
The West has so far pledged about $8 billion in aid, mostly to Poland and Hungary, to boost the process of democratization--but there are strings attached.
Commercial concerns are also surfacing even at this early stage. In the United States, some Bush Administration officials reportedly are worried about so-called tied aid used by some European countries to boost exports. They will loan money to Eastern Europe on condition that it is spent on products produced in the donor nation.
Probably the most frequently advanced vision of a future Eastern Europe foresees a system of satellite states on the periphery of the European Community being exploited for cheap labor. However, Radio Free Europe analyst Jan DeWeydenthal cautioned, there is as yet no guarantee that Western Europe will open its borders to such products.
After 40 years of separation, the peoples of East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia likely feel themselves more "European" as a result of the stunning changes of the last year. They also know that the hard job of turning the feeling to reality remains ahead.