Mary Dejevsky: The revolutions of 1989 will shape the leaders of tomorrow

China's students found inspiration in Russia, but also closer to home
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Between now and the end of the year, few weeks will pass without the 20th anniversary of a revolution being commemorated somewhere. On Thursday, even as Poland celebrates two decades since the elections that brought Solidarity to power, so vigils will be held around the world to remember the victims of Tiananmen Square.

China's frustrated students failed in their efforts to end the Communist Party's monopoly on power; many died, many more left the country as Beijing turned back in on itself. Mostly, though, the anniversaries – like Poland's – will be joyful; for 1989 was truly a year of revolutions, most of them not only successful, but peaceful.

From Poland the caravan will move on to Hungary; thence to Germany to relive the night Berliners demolished the Wall. Via Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, the commemorations will come to rest in Romania, where the Ceausescus and their peculiarly eclectic and vicious brand of communism were overthrown on the Western calendar's Christmas Day.

The Soviet Union was to stagger on for two more years. But the seeds of its downfall had already been sown in Mikhail Gorbachev's decision not to use force to prolong the life of the sickly empire.

Which raises a fundamental question: how come someone so steeped in the ways and thought processes of Soviet communism embarked on political reform? Where does belief in the possibility of change come from in those who have reached the pinnacle of power only by conforming?

A short answer might be survival. The Soviet system was tottering, with manufacturing stagnating and food shortages threatening unrest. Other solutions – from penalties and incentives to anti-corruption drives – had been exhausted. There was nowhere else to go; the only alternative to cracking down was easing up.

But there is a longer, more interesting, answer, with more hopeful implications. Gorbachev made his way in the structure as it was, but his formative years coincided with Nikita Khrushchev's ideological Thaw. Born in 1931, Gorbachev was at university when Stalin died. He was 25, and a graduate student with a Czech room-mate, when Soviet troops crushed Hungary's Uprising. And he was 31 when Khrushchev allowed Solzhenitsyn's account of prison camp life, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to see the light of day.

Comparatively young when elected head of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev was a child of the Thaw. A generation on, those now reaching leadership positions in Russia and other post-Soviet states are as accurately described as the children of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost (change and openness).

One of these is Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev. He differs from his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, not only in his middle-class background, but because – unlike Putin – he spent his formative years with the hopes generated by Gorbachev's reforms and without the shadows of either war or fear. We are still waiting to see what Medvedev will do, but he is already creating a new climate.

Putin was too young to benefit from Khrushchev's Thaw and already entrenched in his KGB career when Gorbachev began his reforms. He was doubtless aware of the need for change – his mentor was the long-time KGB chief and briefly Soviet leader, Yury Andropov, whose penetrating analysis of Soviet failure proved to Gorbachev how bad things were. But his experience was of the benefits not of risk-taking, but conforming.

Many of those East and Central Europeans who led their countries out of communism were, like Gorbachev, children of Khrushchev's Thaw and the disappointment that set in when it ended. They sensed that something else was possible and fought, in their different ways, to make it happen.

China's 1989 students failed, but not before exposing a fierce debate in the party leadership about liberalisation. Where did the students find their inspiration? Not just in Gorbachev's Russia, but also closer to home. Their parents would have experienced both China's brief Thaw, in the 1950s, when Mao Zedong "let a hundred flowers bloom", and the crudely anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution that followed. Educated families kept the memory of freer and more stable times. But China's leaders were children of those same trends and some had drawn a different lesson – about the perils of chaos across the land.

A generation on, the world has yet to discover how the hushed-up legacy of Tiananmen, the expectations raised by the economic miracle, or the experience of studying in the West, will influence China's next generation. We can be sure, though, that such profound change has already helped shape those who will lead China tomorrow.