The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe

Communism bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Nationalist sentiments and ethnic tensions had largely been suppressed during the Cold War as the Soviet Union attempted to realize Marx’s dream of an international worker’s revolution; however with the end of the Cold War Civil War nationalist sentiments again developed, and discontent with Communist rule soon led to the collapse of the entire bloc. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to liberalize Soviet political and cultural practices; however in doing so, he unleashed forces which forever transformed Eastern Europe.

The Soviet administrative system consisted of centralized administrative control which stretched downward from central committees to state committees and from there to provincial cities, even to factories, neighborhoods and villages. All was under the umbrella control of the Communist Party. While this system protected the status of the elite within the party system, the mass of citizens within the Soviet bloc were largely apathetic.  Leonid Brezhnev’s short-lived successor, Yuri Andropov, attempted to re-invigorate the system, but did not succeed. At the same time, the economy worsened, leading to unrest. Andropov’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, considered himself a reformer. While he believed in communism, (his wife, Raisa, was a professor of Marxist-Leninist thought) he realized it had not kept up with Western capitalism and technology, which had caused the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower to erode.  He therefore initiated a series of fundamental reforms to revitalize the Soviet system.

Gorbachev began his reforms by criticizing incompetence and corruption in the governmental bureaucracy. He also attacked alcoholism and drunkenness, which were endemic problems in traditional Russian society. Most importantly, he began a series of programs to restructure the Soviet economy to see that it met the needs of the populace. This program, known as perestroika (“restructuring”) provided for easing of government controlled price controls on some goods; more independence for state enterprises; and allowed private cooperatives to provide consumer services at a profit; a notably capitalist arrangement. The reforms had only limited success; and by 1988, widespread shortages of consumer goods threatened Gorbachev’s reform program.

More successful was Gorbachev’s program of Glasnost, or “openness,” a complete break with the past which had included censorship, uniformity, and occasionally fabrications designed by the government for public consumption. Under Glasnost, the works of writers previously banned were published and sold millions of copies. Denunciations of Joseph Stalin became commonplace in plays and movies. Unwittingly, however, Gorbachev had unleashed a force which could not be easily contained. A veritable cultural revolution with freedom of expression was on the horizon, despite Gorbachev’s intention of providing only limited personal freedoms.

Democratization was a third element of Gorbachev’s reforms, and also (perhaps unintentionally) further undercut support for the old Soviet system. The first free elections since 1917 were held in April, 1989; and although Gorbachev intended for him and his party to remain in control of the government, a minority of independents critical of his government were elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies. Gorbachev and his deputies were forced to watch as the new Congress rejected many communist programs. The end result was a new political culture which was completely alien to and at odds with the old Communist system of power and control by a single party.

In foreign affairs, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan (often dubbed the “Soviet Viet Nam”) promised to respect the political choices of the people of Eastern Europe, thereby repudiating the “Brezhnev Doctrine.”  He also moved to end the Cold War arms race with the United States. In December, 1987, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement in Washington to remove all land-based intermediate range missiles in Europe. This move set the stage for more arms reductions and eased the burden of military buildup for both countries.

The Revolutions of 1989:  Gorbachev’s attempts at reform in the Soviet Union were complemented by insurgent movements in Eastern Europe which saw the Communist bloc collapse in a domino effect. The insurgency first appeared in Poland, a country where attempts to impose collectivization as in Russia and to break the power of the Catholic Church had failed. (Joseph Stalin had once commented that imposing communism on Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow.) A number of popular protests broke out from time to time in the 1960’s and1970’s; and attempts to bring in Western capital and technology (particularly from West Germany which was friendly to the Polish Communist government) failed because of bureaucratic incompetence and the oil embargoes of 1973 imposed because of the Arab Israeli  War. The old system was  doomed with the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow,  as Pope John Paul II in 1978—the  first non-Italian Pope in almost 600 years, and the first ever from a communist country. In 1979, he delivered a speech in Poland in which he spoke of the “inalienable rights of man.” His leadership and the burgeoning economic crisis led to a moral and spiritual crisis.

August, 1980, sixteen thousand workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, (formerly the German city of Danzig) led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, struck and occupied the plant. They were soon joined by other workers “in solidarity” as well as intellectuals, and had the support of the Catholic Church. The Solidarity Movement was thus born. The workers demanded free trade unions, freedom of speech, release of political prisoners and economic reforms. Poland’s Communist leader, Wajciech Januzelski responded by proclaiming martial law, arresting the leaders of Solidarity, and thereby “saving the nation.”  He was unable to stop the movement, however, because the government was unwilling (and perhaps unable) to impose a full scale reign of terror. Solidarity continued to grow as an underground movement, and the Polish people began acting as if they lived in a free state, even though they did not. In 1989 with the country on the brink of economic collapse, Solidarity convinced Poland’s communist leaders into legalizing the movement and to allow free elections to Poland’s Parliament. The Communists expected to win most contested seats, and still controlled a majority in the Parliament, but were roundly defeated in the election. Most of the contested seats were won by Solidarity leaders. Many angry voters crossed off the names of unopposed Communist candidates and wrote in the names of Solidarity candidates. The result was the Communist Party did not achieve the majority it had anticipated. By forming a coalition with two minority anti-communist parties, Solidarity took control of the Government and the editor of Solidarity’s weekly newspaper was sworn in as Poland’s leader. The new government slowly eliminated the Secret Police, Communist government ministers, and other officials; but did so at a deliberate pace so as not to invite military intervention from the Soviet Union. A free market system was introduced, and Poland became the first Soviet Bloc country to experience revolution.

Poland was followed by Hungary. Communist leaders there granted modest reforms and some political concessions, hoping to prevent a groundswell of popular opposition as had occurred in Poland. The opposite happened. The government was forced to hold free elections in 1990. In an attempt to preserve their position, and put pressure on the hard line East German government, Hungary’s leaders allowed free emigration from East Germany, and tens of thousands of East Germans crossed over. This led to widespread protests in East Germany, often led by intellectuals, environmentalists and Protestant ministers. In an attempt to stabilize the country, East Germany’s leaders opened the Berlin Wall in November, 1989. By so doing, they opened the flood gates:  East Germany’s leaders were swept aside and a reform government formed which scheduled free elections. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, in summer, 1990, Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed an agreement by which Germany solemnly affirmed its peaceful intentions and pledged never to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were united once more into a single Nation, the Federal Republic of Germany.

Communism died swiftly in ten days in Czechoslovakia as a result of the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel, a playwright and moral revolutionary led protest which took control of the streets and forced the communist government to form a power-sharing government. This was soon followed by the resignation of the entire Czech government, and Havel was elected President. Mindful of ethnic differences, the country later resolved itself into two separate nations: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

All the revolutions noted above were accomplished by peaceful means. This was not to be the case in Romania, the only country in which violence accompanied political change. Romania’s leader, Nicholae Ceauşescu, had ruled with iron fisted Stalinist style while maintaining independence from Moscow. He and his wife lived in abject luxury while many in the country starved. When protests broke out in December, 1989, Ceauşescu alone among Eastern communist bosses ordered his security forces to slaughter the protesters. The end result was the defeat of the security forces (the uprising was simply too powerful and had gone too far. Ceauşescu and his wife were captured, held briefly in a tank, and were shot on Christmas day by military forces. His bloody body and that of his wife were broadcast across the world lying dead in a parking lot. He was still wearing the suit he had worn when he was arrested.

In November, 1990, delegates from twenty two European countries as well as the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Paris Accords which affirmed that all existing borders in Europe (including those of the new Federal Republic of Germany) were legal and valid. The Paris Accords were in effect a Peace Treaty which marked an end to both World War II and the Cold War.  The U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to scrap significant amounts of nuclear weapons and in September, 1991, leaders of both countries cancelled round-the –clock alert status for bombers armed with nuclear weapons. Soviet and American forces for the first time in forty years no longer stood ready to destroy life itself.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union:  With the collapse of communist regimes in Europe, the handwriting was on the wall for the Soviet government. Anticommunists and Democratic supporters won majorities in a number of cities in the Russian Federation and in Lithuania; an anti-communist nationalist won the election for President. Lithuania’s Parliament declared itself an independent state, no longer part of the U.S.S.R. Gorbachev responded by imposing an economic  embargo on Lithuania; but he refused to send in troops to crush the new government—the very thing most of his predecessors would have done. As his support at home weakened, Gorbachev called for the ratification of a new constitution which eliminated the monopoly of the Communist Party on the government and expanded the powers of the Congress of People’s Deputies. He retained his post as Party Secretary and also had himself elected to the new post of President of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s loss of power and unwillingness to risk an unencumbered general election played well into the hands of his rival, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was a radical reformer who had been expelled from the Communist party because of his ideas. He was elected President of the Russian Parliament, and at once declared that Russia would declare itself independent from the Soviet Union. In a last minute attempt to save the Union, Gorbachev proposed a treaty which would link the Soviet Republics in a loose confederation; however six of the fifteen Soviet Republics rejected the plan. Old Guard communists attempted to save the regime by kidnapping Gorbachev and his family while they vacationed in the Caucasus, and planned to take over the government and re-impose strict controls. The coop collapsed in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Yeltsin, standing atop a stalled tank, proclaimed the “rebirth of Russia.” The army supported Yeltsin, and Gorbachev was returned as head of the government.

The leaders of the coup had hoped to preserve Communist power, state ownership, and the Soviet Union itself. Instead, they destroyed all three. Anti-communist movements swept through the Russian Revolution; Yeltsin and his supporters declared the Communist Party outlawed, and the party’s property was seized. Yeltsin declared Russia independent and withdrew it from the Soviet Union. All other Soviet republics left the union, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 25, 1991. The old Hammer and Sickle flag which had flown over Moscow was replaced by the tri-colored flag of the Russian Federation.