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Mary Dejevsky

Mary Dejevsky: Not every revolution is victorious

Efforts to challenge an established order fail at least as often as they succeed

Three weeks have now passed since Iran's election, and it seems pretty clear that the opposition, defeated at the ballot box by fair means or – more likely – foul, has suffered a second defeat in the mosques and on the streets. The protests have faded to almost nothing; the foreign media have been sent on their way, and the regime has been reduced to snarling at Britain, threatening yesterday to put an unspecified number of embassy employees on trial.

The election has not vanished completely without trace. It has complicated life for President Ahmadinejad at home, and his international wings, such as they were, have been clipped: he has just postponed, without explanation, a planned trip to Libya. It exposed, for a while, a fractious and initially uncertain leadership among the ruling ayatollahs. And it has left in its wake a sullen and unco-operative public – at least the many city-dwellers who believe their votes were traduced.

With the euphoria over, however, and many brave souls in prison or otherwise silenced, it may be scant consolation to acknowledge that efforts to challenge an established order fail at least as often as they succeed. The victories for anti-communist protesters 20 years ago and, more recently, the joyous popular revolts in Georgia and Ukraine have tended to blot out the revolutionary efforts that came to naught: China's Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, and the protests in Tibet, Burma and Moldova. Those that produced more ambiguous outcomes, such as the so-called "Tulip" revolution in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan four years ago, muddy the picture further.

It is a dangerous fallacy to conclude, from the examples of Ukraine and Georgia, say, that making or unmaking a revolution is relatively simple, and that some street protests and a bit of stone-throwing will do the job. Generally rather more than that needs to happen. Few rulers simply fold up their papers, award their staff commemorative pens and transfer the nuclear briefcase to their opposition rival – which is essentially what Mikhail Gorbachev did when he announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

This time last week I was in Budapest at government-sponsored ceremonies to celebrate the 20th annniversary of what Hungary described as the "cutting through" of the iron curtain. And when they say "cutting through the iron curtain", they mean it not just in the figurative, Churchillian, sense, but literally. In the Cold War years, Hungary's border with Austria consisted of a series of barbed wire fences, equipped with electronic early warning systems, expressly designed to prevent travel – or escape – to the West.

On 27 June 1989, several months after his government had declared that Hungarian citizens would be allowed to travel freely, the foreign minister of Hungary met his Austrian counterpart at the border and together they hacked through what remained of the barbed wire with a pair of giant metal-cutters. Once the border was open, one thing led to another. Within four months the Berlin Wall was gone; within 18 months communism in Europe was no more.

But Hungary's anniversary celebrations, joyful as they were, incorporated reminders of something else: the failed uprising of 1956, which left 2,500 Hungarians dead and sent 200,000 into exile. Both 20 years ago, and still more strongly now, the destruction of the "iron curtain" is seen in Hungary not as an isolated victory, but as the reversal of the 1956 defeat – and as history's vindication for the attempt. Something similar could be said of East Germany's failed uprising in 1953 in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the doomed Prague Spring of 1968 in the light of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Poland's first, thwarted, moves to set up a free trade union. Solidarity's election victory of 1989 seemed utterly impossible back in 1981, when its burgeoning popularity had precipitated the declaration of martial law. There is a pattern here: all these separate challenges to repressive regimes were crushed, before individually and collectively they won through.

Successful revolutions have something else in common. What emerges from the considered reminiscences that have been published over the years, and are still being coaxed from reluctant witnesses, is how many small details have to come together to bring about a change of power in countries where elections – being unfree – are not enough.

The opening of Hungary's western border 20 years ago had the momentous effect of allowing East Germans to reach the West and so rendered the Berlin Wall redundant. But it was no isolated event. At state level, Hungarian, (West) German and Austrian politicians and diplomats had long been working behind the scenes, promising help and support to a free border regime, but only if Hungary made the first move. Much tactical thinking, for instance, lay behind the Budapest government's decision to sign up to the Geneva conventions and accord diplomatic recognition to the European Union. In both cases, Hungary assumed international obligations that conflicted with those it owed to Moscow; in the end, its new, Western-orientated obligations prevailed.

Hungarians were also, as their then leaders now tell it, united in their refusal to send East German refugees back – a legacy perhaps of their compatriots' experience of German and Austrian hospitality in 1956. Individuals on the front line played their part, too. When hundreds of East Germans appeared at the border, on foot and in their ancient cars, border guards and police essentially disobeyed standing instructions and let them through. Many now claim they acted according to their moral lights. But there was surely another dimension, too: at this moment officials' fear of the people outweighed their fear of established authority: the centre of power had tipped.

Iran's opposition cannot but be demoralised by its defeat. Whatever the real result of the election, though, the protests, like the vigorous campaigning, demonstrated that Iran has such a thing as civil society. From today's perspective, the uprising of June 2009 was a failure. But if and when Iran's theocracy is toppled, it will be seen as a crucial landmark along the way.