It started with a man setting himself on fire in protest. The outpouring of grief created a groundswell of angry demonstration. The movement grew until suddenly a dictator and a system that seemed so immovable toppled so easily. And after one nation fell, citizens of other nations began to rise up and overthrow their leaders…

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen. 480 pages. Pantheon. $30.

“The people’s will had triumphed over tyranny in a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions which changed the world… a point of bright hopes, intelligent optimism, sincere thanksgiving…” This may sound like a report from the Middle East, but it is actually Victor Sebestyen writing about Central and Eastern Europe.

The pattern is familiar. It’s shocking how easily revolutions in different places in the world are built… More…

He can be very funny. Sometimes intentionally so, other times not. He once said, “I cannot recognize either the Palestinian state or the Israeli state. The Palestinians are idiots and the Israelis are idiots.” His sense of fashion is completely his own. He’ll wear a pure white suit one day and then robes and animal skins the next. His military outfits sometimes seem like an outright parody of the military, as if he may, even, be trying out for the Village People. But one can never be sure how to take Colonel Muammar Qaddafi when it comes to clothing, or anything else.

 

The laughter sticks in the throat though when one thinks of the suffering. Qaddafi has been a dictator for a long time — 42 years, ever since he led a coup against King Idris in 1969…. More…

Some dictators don’t know how to talk. They know how to speak, of course. They are able to use language. They utter words, but they don’t say anything. Hosni Mubarak, the current president of Egypt (at least at the time of this writing) recently made a speech in an attempt to quell the street protests and demands for an end to his despotic regime.

 

You might say it was an airy speech, draped in the finery of general principles, wafting lightly on the breeze of abstraction. He uttered sentences such as, “There is a fine line between freedom and chaos and I lean toward freedom for the people in expressing their opinions as much as I hold on to the need to maintain Egypt’s safety and stability.” That’s a truly amazing sentence. My favorite part is when Mubarak… More…

They dug up the body of Nicolae Ceausescu. Or did they? The Romanian dictator and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas, 1989. But there are those who still won’t believe it. So last month, Romania dug up the body in Ceausescu’s grave to perform DNA tests on it, and to pronounce Nicolae Ceausescu dead, once and for all.

 

In “The Great Christmas Killing,” Hungarian author Peter Nadas wrote about the Ceausescus’ execution as he saw it on television, 10 years after the fact. He describes in stark detail the scenes before the killing and after, from the hasty trial to the hurried postmortem examination. “The captors of the dreaded Ceausescu couple…forced them into a space between the wall and the two steel-legged tables. Either it was cold in the room, or the uniformed members of the summary… More…