Independent Decade : Tony Barber examines 10 years which saw democracy sweep away dictatorships across the world
It was an Age of Revolutions. Some failed, most succeeded. But the years from 1986 to 1996, which saw so much change across the world, transformed our understanding of what a revolution is.

Revolution, says the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is either "a complete overthrow of the established government... by those who were previously subject to it" or "a forcible substitution of a new ruler or form of government". In other words, a revolution can be a popular uprising or a palace coup, and a degree of violence or upheaval seems essential for an event to qualify as revolutionary.

The definitions must surely be updated, for neither does justice to the fashion in which revolutions unfolded across the world in this decade. For example, did the achievement of black majority rule in South Africa represent the "complete overthrow of the established government" by those subject to it?

Yes, up to a point. However, the ruling white Nationalists consciously and actively participated in the dismantling of their political supremacy. Moreover, the legitimacy of black majority rule - the legitimacy of the revolution - rests partly on the free elections of 1994 that brought victory for President Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress.

Dictionaries do not like revolutions that involve elections and peaceful constitutional change. Least of all do they like revolutions which take place because the rulers have willingly injected their one-party systems with a lethal dose of democracy. Yet this was the process by which the Poles and Hungarians effected revolutionary change in 1989. They did not storm the barricades in Warsaw and Budapest. They did not need to.

Poland's Communist authorities called semi-free elections in June 1989 in which Solidarity won 260 out of 261 contested seats. Offered the stake of democracy by their rulers, the people seized it and drove it into the heart of Communism.

By September 1989, Poland had a government led by non-Communists, the first in eastern Europe since the 1940s. Yet Communism had not exactly been overthrown; it had been partly voted out and partly negotiated away.

The negotiations between President Wojciech Jaruzelski (who had suppressed Solidarity under martial law in 1981) and the opposition were vitally important, for in summer 1989 no one knew how much reform the Soviet Union would permit in central and eastern Europe. The talks produced a compromise: key security posts in the government were to stay in Communist hands, but otherwise Poland's new leaders were free to build a Western-style market democracy.

Hungary's revolution broke the dictionary rules, too. In October 1989 the ruling Communists renounced Marxism- Leninism and declared themselves a Socialist Party on Western European lines. Meanwhile, the government had opened talks with opposition groups on holding completely free elections. These took place in March 1990, when the opposition Democratic Forum swept the Communists from office.

Not a drop of blood was spilt, yet these events constituted a revolution rather more than did the popular revolt of 1956, in which 25,000 people were killed but the Communist system ultimately remained intact.

The most evocative phrase was coined in Prague, where the Velvet Revolution - another peaceful uprising - turfed out the Communists and installed the philosopher-playwright Vaclav Havel as president.

East Germany's revolution fits traditional definitions in that it began with hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators filling the streets of Leipzig and other cities, but the unique feature of this revolution was that it abolished not just a political system but the East German state itself.

One might even say that it revolutionised Europe, by leading to a united, democratic and powerful Germany and by forcing a complete redesign of the European Union and Europe's security institutions. If so, then the chief actors in the drama (Helmut Kohl, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev) were revolutionaries, while those who initially resisted unification (Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand) were counter-revolutionaries.

What of the Soviet Union, born out of revolution in 1917, only to die because of a KGB-led attempt to preserve Communism in August 1991?

A revolution is supposed to be incomplete if it does not throw up new leaders and political classes, but the recent Russian presidential election pitted Boris Yeltsin, a former Politburo member, against Gennady Zyuganov, the opposition Communist leader.

Mr Yeltsin could be classed as a revolutionary from above. He has instigated the largest transfer of property into private hands in history, and shattered 1,000 years of Russian tradition by turning the position of head of state into an elective post.

Yet some would argue that the Russian revolution of our times has not yet finished its course. Watching the rapid rise of General Alexander Lebed, are we tempted to draw a parallel with Napoleon Bonaparte, the new face of the French Revolution, who did not seize power in Paris until 10 years after the fall of the Bastille?

Except in Chechnya, where more than 30,000 people have been killed since the military intervention of December 1994, revolutionary change in Russia has been more peaceful than anyone in 1986 could have imagined. Indeed, some of the bloodiest events in the world have happened in places where peaceful political transformation was attempted but failed.

An obvious example is China, where an unknown number died when the authorities crushed the pro-democracy occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1989. Another example is Burma, where in 1988 the forces of repression proved too strong for the forces of freedom.

Broadly speaking, however, the last decade has been a time in which we have learnt to think of revolution as a term with positive, peaceful connotations. Democracy and revolution: it turns out that the two ideas are not so incompatible, after all.