Sixty years ago, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China to a jubilant crowd of 300,000 gathered on Beijing's sprawling Tiananmen Square.
China's new strongman formally put an end to a devastating civil war and took the helm of the republic, which he would lead until his death in 1976.
Li Inna was only six years old, but she clearly remembers that historic day. As the daughter of a high-ranking Mao aide, she was able to witness the founding ceremony up close.
"My father was in the main tribune, my mother stood in the guest tribune. My Russian grandmother and I had been taken the day before to the Peking Hotel, which still stands on the main street,” Li recalls. “When I woke up early in the morning, I remember that soldiers had already gathered and were sitting on their heels in neat square formations. I even remember the voice of Mao Zedong. Being born and having grown up in such a politicized environment, I obviously understood the importance of this moment, because I can still hear his voice today."
This was not the first encounter of Li, whose mother was Russian, with the man who would become known as Chairman Mao.
"I first met Mao Zedong before the republic was founded, in 1949 in the Tian-Shan mountains,” Li told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “That's where the leaders of the Central Committee were based at the time. They lived in very simple wooden houses. My father took my mother there to introduce her to Mao Zedong, and they took me along with them."
Brief Era Of Hope
Li says the years that followed the republic's founding were marked by general euphoria as the nation, exhausted by years of civil war and a long war with Japan, placed high hopes on its new leadership.
She describes these times as some of the happiest of her life.
"For me and my generation in China, the 1950s were the years of childhood, of youth, of hope. They have stayed that way, bathed in romanticism and euphoria," she said.
This initial euphoria began wearing out with the first large-scale persecutions of dissidents in the mid-1950s and the Great Leap Forward, a five-year agricultural and industrial plan that resulted in a famine that killed millions.
Troubles for the Li family began with the chaotic Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966 to restore his fading clout.
In May 1967, Li's father, Li Lisian, who had served as labor minister and first deputy head of the trade unions' federation, was accused of spying for the Soviet Union.
Persecutions against his relatives quickly ensued, including troubles at university for Li Inna.
Li Lisian sealed his family's downfall by committing suicide, after which his wife and daughter were thrown into jail.
"I was jailed in Qincheng prison, which has been described as the 'Bastille of the 20th century,'” Li said. “Thankfully, if I can use that word, I stayed there only about two years; my mother spent eight years in prison.”
“Looking back at my detention, it feels as though it happened to someone else. It's an experience that enriched my life and gave me an opportunity to understand many things," she said.
Li spent the years that followed her release being "re-educated" through hard physical labor in the countryside.
Now in her sixties, Li has become a respected Russian language professor at Beijing University.
Li says she often wonders whether the brutality that marked the first half of the republic's existence was a necessary stage in China's evolution to what she describes as a "more or less peaceful life."
Despite the millions of lives claimed under Mao Zedong’s rule, she says, most Chinese continue to admire him as the founder of their now booming nation.
"Now he's a historical figure whom people don't challenge,” Li said. “Most people understand that he did a lot for the founding of the republic but that he was also responsible for much else, including the Cultural Revolution. But the Chinese are a very pragmatic people, they live in the present. If life is good, why argue? Why stir all this up and pour over the past?"