Fall of Communism and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe

Events that led to the collapse of USSR’s hold on Eastern Europe in the late 20th century.

The 20th century saw the rise and subsequent disintegration of a number of world economies, the most important being the dissolution of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics-the USSR.  This officially took place on the 26th of December, 1991.

Before seeing what brought about this breakdown, let us first discuss the rise and formation of the USSR.  In the late 19th /early 20th century, the concepts of socialism and communism were gradually sweeping over the Central and Eastern European countries.  These nations, at the time, were largely ruled by monarchs and the so called aristocratic and noble rulers, who tried repressing the spread of the communist ideology.  However, in 1917, the Soviet Union witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution which overthrew the czarism and a communist state was born.  The Central and Eastern Europe nations followed suit and adopted communism, with their leaders directly under the command and control of the Soviet Union.

Reasons for the downfall of the Communist Bloc:

Soon after World War II, the people of these countries started realizing and experiencing the pitfalls of the communist form of governance.  There were a number of unsuccessful uprisings during the 1950s & the 1960s (viz. The Hungarian Revolution of 1954; The Prague Spring of 1968).  The Soviet Union under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev largely managed to contain and repress these putsches.  In fact, Brezhnev’s period of rule is referred to as ‘The Era of Stagnation’.   His successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko also continued in the same vein.  It was only in the year 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union that things began to change.  Gorbachev realized that if the communist bloc had to keep pace with the development seen in the western countries, reforms was the only way to go.  The Iron Curtain was the clear divide between progress and backwardness.  Various causes and events led to the disintegration of the communist bloc.

• Equitable distribution of resources and production, which was considered one of the main tenets of communism, was totally mismanaged and corrupt.  The entire public distribution system was in a mess. This was the fall out of the distribution system being vested in the hands of one central government. 

• The leaders of these nations were amassing unjustifiably large wealth and power. All this was at the expense of the mass civilian population.  The economic divide between the mass workers and the ruling class was getting wider and wider.

• The disparity between the developed western world and the tightly controlled underdeveloped eastern bloc was felt.  The advantages of capitalism and a free market economy were strongly being recognized by the working masses of these countries. They came to realize that they were getting little or nothing for all their sweat and toil and were losing out on all the niceties that came with development.  The people were beginning to resent the fact that they were not partaking in the profits in an oppressive regime which they would have otherwise enjoyed in a free market economy.

• Maintaining the KGB and Police which largely interfered in the day to day living of the common man was also one of the major factors contributing to the economic regression.

Abject poverty, mass oppression, incompetent governance, misuse of resources, corruption – all of these led to the fall of communism.  Gorbachev introduced several fundamental liberal reforms to undo the economic and political harm caused by the earlier leaders.  He introduced ‘Glasnost’ meaning openness and ‘Perestroika’ meaning economic restructuring.  He not only brought about these changes in the Soviet Union but also encouraged the eastern bloc countries to do so.  He withdrew Soviet powers and subsidies from these Eastern European countries.  This was by no means an easy task and was met by a lot of opposition from a few megalomaniac communist leaders such as Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Erich Honecker of East Germany, Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria and Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia.

Reforms seen in Europe(1980-1990):

In 1989 thousands of East Germans managed to escape to the west via the destroyed barricades between Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the western bloc countries. There were huge demonstrations every Monday in September and October, 1989 in Leipzig, East Germany notwithstanding the shoot and kill orders of Honecker.  These later came to be known as ‘The Monday Demonstrations’.  Gorbachev visited the GDR in the month of October 1989 and tried convincing the powers to switch over to a more liberal economy and form of governance.   After much civil unrest and change in the seat of power, the Berlin Wall was demolished on 9th November, 1989, paving the way for the integration of West and East Germany into a united Germany which finally came into being on 03rd October, 1990.

At the same time the Bulgarian capital, Sofia witnessed similar large demonstrations which were quelled by the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.   However, Zhivkov could not hold fort for long, and soon after the Berlin wall demolition he was ousted.  Bulgaria gradually decided to do away with communism and change over to a democratic model and it had its first multi-party elections in June 1990.

Czechoslovakia was swept by huge non-violent peaceful demonstrations which were later termed as ‘The Velvet Revolution’.  The communist leader Husack resigned making way for a more reformist leader in December 1989 and by June 1990 it had its first fair democratic elections.

Unlike Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, Romania went through a bloodier revolution to throw off the communist regime.  Its leader Nicolae Ceausescu not only managed to survive the Brasov Rebellion of 1987, but also managed to get re-elected for 5 years in 1989.  However at the same time, the wave of civil unrest which was sweeping over the entire Eastern bloc also took over the streets of Romania and there was mass rioting.   A vast number of people laid down their lives in this bloody revolution which finally culminated in the military joining hands with the rioters forcing Ceausescu to escape briefly before being captured and put to death along with his wife. Romania had its first fair & free elections in May 1990.

The Warsaw Pact:

The Warsaw Pact initiated by the Soviet Union in 1955 consisting of the 8 Eastern –Europe communist nations was meaningless with the fall of communism and was dissolved in February, 1991.  The Malta Summit in December 1989 between President George Bush of the USA and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union officially declared the end of The Cold War between the Western and Eastern Blocs.

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