Padraic Kenney

The heroes of 1989

One year in Eastern Europe shaped the way a generation sees the world

East German demonstrators raise their hands in a victory sign during a demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, Sept. 4, 1989.
East German demonstrators raise their hands in a victory sign during a demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, Sept. 4, 1989.(AP Photo/Rainer Klostermeier)

On Jan. 15, 1989, demonstrations broke out in both Prague and Leipzig. The wire stories the next day told of riot police and water cannons deployed and of mass detentions. Twenty-five years ago, the communists of Eastern Europe certainly seemed to have a strong if nervous hold on power.

Of course, that year turned out a little differently. There never was a dull moment in 1989 for fans of democracy and popular protest. From January, when the communist leaders in Poland agreed to sit down to round table talks with Solidarity, the opposition they had once reviled, through Vaclav Havel’s election as president of Czechoslovakia as the year closed, every week brought images of peaceful rebellion and of powerful leaders agreeing to cede at least some of their power. More than once that summer and fall, as I walked through Warsaw with a newspaper under my arm, a passerby would stop me: At which kiosk had I bought it, and were there any left? The world seemed charmed, and in a great hurry toward something better.


The year brought horrific moments, too, in Romania in particular. But after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia a few years later, it was obvious that things could have been much worse in Eastern Europe. More than anything, that golden year gave us a feeling of limitless possibility.

That legacy, often unspoken, has shaped the way we — the generation that came of age in the late 1980s, whether East or West — interpret the world. Nelson Mandela’s triumphant emergence from prison at nearly the same time or the peaceful end to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule — in a vote so much like that in Poland — felt similar, and made it seem as if the entire world was shifting toward democracy. The OTPOR Revolution in Serbia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Arab Spring, and a dozen other upheavals in Burma, Iran, Moldova, Lebanon . . . each time 1989 has been a key reference point.

As the 25th anniversary of those first democratic revolutions gets under way, though, what exactly should we remember? More often than not, the story we recall is distorted, with consequences for how we understand and respond to political change around the world.


Above all, the story of 1989 stresses the spontaneous — that citizens suddenly gathered in the streets to vent their anger and that only the regime had premeditated power. But it didn’t happen that way. In those crowds in every city were dozens of what we might call microleaders, local figures who had gained some authority by sticking their necks out in small ways, like collecting signatures on a petition or speaking out aginst regime abuses. For example, the Leipzig protesters in January, led by theology student Thomas Rudolph and a few others, timed their march to coincide with the one in Prague, thanks to friendships forged in clandestine cross-border visits. And the Prague protest was the first in a week’s campaign, the brainchild of performance artist Petr Placak who realized that daily protests could unsettle the regime and maybe draw new people in to demand change. The idea came to him in a jail cell after one protest; he passed a note around to his fellow detainees.

Why does our misunderstanding of crowds and leadership matter? It leads to the temptation to create spontaneity, as when US Marines stage-managed the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in May 2003, making it seem as if Iraqis had streamed unprompted to Firdus Square in Baghdad. That moment came straight out of a 1989 playbook, but read upside down. And a crowd we think is spontaneous looks dangerous. But within an organized crowd, like those on Kiev’s Maidan in December, people can learn how to cooperate with one another, how to trust each other, and how to mistrust (sometimes) those who would lead them. These skills pay off: The victorious crowds that filled the streets of Prague and Leipzig in the fall of 1989 would have been much, much smaller without the lessons earned the previous winter.


We’ll hear a lot this year about the world leaders who set the stage for 1989: Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl. And they deserve some measure of acknowledgement, but only for the way they responded to crises, not for what they created. Not one single person in Eastern Europe joined a demonstration or voted because she or he was encouraged by some foreign leader. That would have been foolish. It was easy to recall times when encouragement or promises from abroad had led the gullible to stick their necks out.

For me, the heroes of 1989 are people like Rudolph, Placak, or dozens of others in cities from Gdansk to Lviv to Budapest who believed that if they stood a little taller their fellow citizens might feel a little braver. It’s hard, these microleaders knew, to step out of one’s private space into public danger; it’s much easier if you can see or hear about people who have lost that fear. It’s hard even to cast a vote for the opposition and against a dictator, no matter what world opinion urges you to do, unless you know already that you are one of many. The lesson of 1989, far below the centers of power and well before the big headlines, is that microleadership is contagious. That’s the democracy I’ll be celebrating all this year.


Padraic Kenney is a history professor at Indiana University.