20 Years from the End of the Cold War
Good intentions scarcely lead to good politics. The great reformers are always working at the brink. Gorbachev’s determination to end the Cold War and restructure the Soviet system appeared to make possible even more dramatic progress across the entire US-Soviet agenda. Although the Stalinist stratocracy was disputable from the very beginning, the global dimension of the duopoly confrontation was identified only retrospectively, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the entirely collapse of the Central and Eastern Europe and Soviet Empire during 1989-1991. This article’s aim is to expose some of the deep political and systemic rifts that led to the collapse of the communist system, emphasizing on the Soviet and other communistic regime’s response against the events of 1989.
Key Words: End of the Cold War, Communism Collapse, Gorbachev, Perestroika, Soviet Union, Eastern Europe.
By the spring of 1989, East Europeans were given more degrees of freedom. Mikhail Gorbachev refused to sanction the use of force to put down demonstrations. By November, the Berlin Wall had fallen. Some of these events stemmed from Gorbachev’s miscalculations. After all, he wanted to reform communism, not replace it. But his reforms snowballed into a revolution driven from below rather than controlled from above. In trying to repair communism, he punched a hole in it. Like a hole in a dam, once pent-up pressure began to escape, it widened the opening and tore apart the system.
This period encompassed events in the USSR and Eastern Europe that transformed the postwar world and much of the 20th century's geopolitical landscape. It was a time when the tempo of history accelerated so rapidly that, as L. Walesa the leader of Polish Solidarity said during a conversation with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “events are moving too fast” and only hours later, the Berlin Wall fell, and Kohl had to cut his Poland visit short to scramble back to Berlin, thus proving Walesa’s fear correct. 1
The last great drama of the Cold War, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the end of the four-decade-old East-West conflict, unfolded in three acts between 1989 and 1991. Even as the story began, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev already had made the largest opening to the outside world in Russian history. To convince the West, and above all the new administration in Washington, of his sincerity, Gorbachev had made major concessions on arms control, withdrawn Soviet troops from Afghanistan, pledged to reduce Soviet ground forces by half a million, and rejected class warfare in favor of "pan-human values" as the basis of Soviet foreign policy.
The second act of the drama began in the summer of 1989 with peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe (except Romania) and the fall of the Soviet “outer empire”. The de facto collapse of the Warsaw Pact (it would formally dissolve itself a year later) plus a new treaty that substantially reduced Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe resulted in a stronger Western alliance, so strong, that the US could redeploy forces from Europe to the Persian Gulf for use against Iraq. East Germany, the USSR’s main prize from World War II, was united with West Germany and integrated into NATO.
The third and final act closed with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. The centrifugal forces in the “outer empire” stimulated and accelerated those in the “inner empire” as the Soviet republics sought sovereignty and then independence from Moscow. At the same time, Gorbachev's domestic reforms ran into serious trouble, and the economy went into a tailspin. Gorbachev's struggle with the old imperial elite in the communist party, the armed forces, and the military-industrial complex culminated in the August 1991 coup, which, when it failed, finished off the USSR and Gorbachev himself. On Christmas Day 1991, at 7:35 p.m., the Soviet flag flying over the Kremlin was lowered and replaced by the new Russian banner. The USSR officially ceased to exist on 31 December. The Cold War was over.
Upheaval behind the Iron Curtain
The Revolutions of 1989 were a revolutionary wave that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in late 1989, ending in the overthrow of Soviet-style communist states within the space of a few months. The largely bloodless political upheaval began in East Germany, continued in Hungary, and then led to a surge of mostly peaceful revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bulgaria. Romania was the only Eastern-bloc country to overthrow its communist regime violently and execute its head of state. Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 failed to end communism in China.
Uprising in East Germany
On June 17, 1953, the German Democratic Republic erupted in a series of worker’s riots and demonstrations the threatened the very existence of the communist regime. The outburst, entirely spontaneous, shocked the GDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and their Kremlin sponsors, who were still reeling from the death of Stalin, three months earlier. 2 Long overlooked by historians, the 1953 worker uprising was the first outbreak of violent discord within the communist block, the so-called “worker’s paradise”, and helped to set the stage for more celebrated rounds of civil unrest in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980) and ultimately the demise of communism itself in Central and Eastern Europe.
Beyond calls for labor reform, demonstrators began to demand more fundamental changes as free elections. As C. Ostermann, Director of the Cold War International History Project (CWHIP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writes, for the first time ever “the ‘proletariat’ had risen against the ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat” 3. The protests, which soon turned violent, were not only more extensive and long-lasting than originally believed, but their impact was significant. In revealing the depth and breadth of social discontent, they shocked the confidence of SED leadership, and especially the authority placed in party boss W. Ulbricht. The Kremlin, too, was stunned by riots. While reacting swiftly, sending in tanks and ordering Red Army troops to open fire on the protestors, the Soviet leadership found its policy debates tied up in the ongoing domestic political struggle to replace Stalin.
The West, too, was divided on how to respond. In Washington, the reaction by proponents of “roll back” in Eastern Europe was to press the psychological advantage against international communism as aggressively as possible. Some officials wanted to go as far as to “encourage elimination of key puppet officials 4, but Eisenhower himself balked at pushing the Soviets too far in an area of such critical importance for fear of touching off another world war. The cautious compromise was to initiate a food distribution program to East Berlin as a way to help those who needed immediate help. The program turned out to be a stunning success, with more than 5.5 million parcels distributed in the course of roughly two months of operations.
The summer crisis had several consequences for Moscow. Neighboring communist party leaders implicitly understood this point, worrying that the spill-over from the GDR might touch off similar outbreaks in their countries. Three years later, on November 4, Soviet forces launched a major attack on Hungary aimed at crushing, once and for all, the spontaneous national uprising that had begun 12 days earlier. The defeat of the Hungarian revolution was one of the darkest moments of the Cold War. At certain points since its outbreak on October 23 the revolt looked like it was on the verge of an amazing triumph. The entire nation appeared to have taken up arms against the regime. Rebels, often armed with nothing more than kitchen implements and gasoline, were disabling Soviet tanks and achieving other victories throughout the country.5
The Hungarian Revolution
On October 31, 1956, the tide seemed to turn overwhelmingly in the revolution’s favor when “Pravda” published a declaration promising greater equality in relations between the USSR and its East European satellites. But tragically, the very day the declaration appeared in “Pravda” the Soviet leadership completely reversed itself and decides to put a final, violent end to the rebellion. From declassified documents, it is now clear that several factors influenced their decision, including: the belief that the rebellion directly threatened Communist rule in Hungary 6; that the West would see a lack of response by Moscow as a sign of weakness, especially after the Anglo-French and Israeli strike against Suez that had begun few days earlier; that the spread of anti-Communist feelings in Hungary threatened the rule of neighboring satellite leaders 7; and that members of the Soviet party would not understand a failure to respond with force in Hungary.
Meanwhile, in Washington, US officials observed the tidal wave of events with shock and no small degree of ambivalence as to how to respond. 8 The main line of Eisenhower’s policy was to promote the independence of the so-called captive nations, but only over the long term. Furthermore, President Eisenhower was determined that there was little the United States could do short of risking global war to help the rebels. And he was not prepared to go that far, nor even, for that matter, to jeopardize the atmosphere of improving relations with Moscow that had characterized the previous period.
Finally, developments within the Hungarian leadership played a part in Moscow’s decision. Imre Nagy, who had suddenly been thrust into the leadership role after he became clear that the old Stalinist leaders had been completely discredited, had stumbled at first. Nagy after the beginning of the revolution apparently underwent a remarkable transformation, from a more or less dutiful pro-Moscow Communist to a politician willing to sanction unprecedented political, economic and social reform, including the establishment of a multi-party state in Hungary, and insisted on the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from the country. On November 4, Nagy himself would seek asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest while his former colleague and imminent replacement, J. Kádár prepared to take power with Moscow’s backing.
The Prague Spring
The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5th January 1968, when reformist Slovak Alexander Dubcek came to power, and continued until 21st August when the Soviet Union and members of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country to halt the reforms. Dubcek tried to grant additional rights to the citizens in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. His reforms included a loosening of restriction in media, speech and travel. The reforms were not received well by the Soviets who, after failed negotiations, sent thousands of Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. While there were many non-violent protests in the country, including the protest-suicide of a student, there was no military resistance.
Leonid Brezhnev and others grew concerned about Dubcek’s reforms, which they feared might weaken the position of the Communist Bloc during the Cold War 9. On August, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the “Bratislava Declaration”. The declaration affirmed unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against “bourgeois” ideology and all “anti-socialist” forces.10 The Soviet Union expressed its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a “bourgeois” system—a pluralist system of several political parties representing different factions of the capitalist class—was ever established. As the talks proved unsatisfactory, the Soviets began to consider a military alternative.
The Soviet Union’s policy of compelling the socialist governments of its satellite states to subordinate their national interests to those of the “Eastern Bloc” (through military force if needed) became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.11 On the night of August 20–21, 1968, Eastern Bloc armies from four Warsaw Pact countries — the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary—invaded Prague. By the morning of August 21, Czechoslovakia was occupied. After the invasion, subsequent leaders tried to restore the political and economic values that have prevailed before Dubcek gained control of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Gustav Husak, who replaced Dubcek and also became president, reversed almost all of Dubcek’s reforms.
A decade later, Charter 77 12 a movement known for human rights, dynamited the political system. Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright, saw the manifest as an embryo of a genuine social tolerance.13 The letter-manifest prior to its presentation to the Federal Assembly was confiscated by the police on 6 January 1977. The report of the police referred to the Charter to “be untrue and grossly slanderous”. Some of the chartists were detained by the police. Between the signators were more than 100 signatures from former communists. Charter 77 became a vital factor working from below in the Helsinki process and towards the democratic revolutions of 1989.
Poland: From Solidarity to Martial Law
Solidarity was the first non communist controlled trade union in a Warsaw Pact country. On 13 December 1981 Polish Prime Minister W. Jaruzelski declared martial law in his country. Thousands members of the Solidarity trade union were rounded up by the police, including its leader Lech Walesa. Martial law suppressed the union and restored communist party control in Poland. However the political movement that was born could not be eradicated. It is necessary to mention that Jaruselski informed the Kremlin about his intentions two days before the imposition of martial law 14. Martial law was lifted in a year. In fact, internal Polish and Soviet records make clear that Jaruzelski and his colleagues were intent on imposing military rule for purposes of reasserting control over society, a goal they fully shared with Kremlin.15
Poland's Solidarity labor union began to rise in power in the late 1970’s. They organized strikes, demanding more pay and changes to the unfair labor practices. Eventually, they won an end to censorship and political repression, religious freedom, and recognition as a labor union. In 1980’s Gorbachev watched Solidarity’s strikes crushed the Polish economy, and finally forced the Polish leaders to allow free elections. The Round Table Talks between the government and the Solidarity-led opposition led to semi-free elections in 1989. As date of the elections was set the 4th June and Polish voters voted overwhelmingly for candidates endorsed by the Solidarity opposition.16 Solidarity won 99% of all the seats in the Senate and 35% of all possible seats in Sejm. Out of 100 seats in the Senate, 99 were won by Solidarity and 1 by an independent candidate. In Sejm, out of 460 seats Solidarity won 162. By the end of August a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed and in December 1990 Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected Prime Minister and Walesa was elected President of Poland.
Poland would be overshadowed by events in Budapest, Prague, and Berlin; however, it was the Poles that led the way for Eastern Europe’s revolutions of 1989.17 We should also mention the role of the U.S. government which worked both publicly and covertly to fund, equip, and morally support Solidarity to insure its continuing viability as a dissident voice.18 Also, the Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, was a very powerful supporter of the union and was greatly responsible for its success.19
As in neighboring countries, by 1989 the bulk of the Romanian population was dissatisfied with the Communist regime. Ceausescu’s economic and development policies 20 were generally blamed for the country’s painful shortages and widespread, increasing poverty. Unlike the other Warsaw Pact leaders, Ceausescu had not been slavishly pro-Soviet, but rather had pursued an “independent” foreign policy based on that of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia.
On December 16th, a protest broke out in Timisoara in response to an attempt by the government to evict a dissident, Hungarian Reformed pastor Laszlo Tokes. The protesters began shouting anti-communist slogans. Ceausescu was out of touch with his people and completely misread the crowd’s mood. The situation was out of control. On December 18, 1989, Ceausescu had departed for a visit to Iran, leaving the duty of crushing the Timisoara revolt to his subordinates and his wife. Upon his return on the evening of December 20, the situation became even more tense, and as a result the revolt had spread to Bucharest. Some days after Ceausescu and his wife were executed after a short trial. 21
Opening the Pandora’s Box
The “new-thinking” was a reality. Upon coming to power, the new Soviet leader initiated a series of reforms, beginning with acceleration of the economy and the new policy of glasnost, which became known later as perestroika. Although, unnoticed by most Western observers, early significant changes were taking place in the internal political discourse of the Communist Party with less ceremony and more open discussion at the sessions of the Politburo and the Central Committee Plenums.22 Mikhail Gorbachev became the Party’s first leader to have been born after the Revolution. As de facto ruler of the USSR, he tried to reform the stagnating Party and the state economy by introducing glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring), demokratizatsiya (democratization), and uskoreniye (acceleration of economic development), which were launched at the 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1985. 23 In the hierarchical Soviet system (nomenclatura), the power of appointment allowed the top leader to build an effective political coalition to implement his new ideas. Gorbachev used his position as General Secretary to bring in officials who shared his worldview as key advisers and promoted to the Central Committee and the Politburo.24
In 1985, two of the most important figures Gorbachev brought into the inner circle were Alexander Yakovlev 25, one of the people history will credit for his role in helping to end the Cold War, and Eduard Shevardnadze. Already by the end of the year, in a memorandum to Gorbachev, Yakovlev proposed democratization of the party, genuine multi-candidate elections to the Supreme Soviet, and even the need to split the party into two parts to introduce competition into political system.26 Also, at 1987-88 Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s aide on foreign policy struggled for freedom of press and proposed radical reforms, including the drastic cuts in Soviet conventional forces in Eastern Europe, making clear that the new Soviet leadership would not resort to force to maintain Communist political control in the region. Chernyaev was the man who realized that the fall of Berlin Wall meant “the end of Yalta” and of the “Stalinist legacy” in Europe, and in a striking statement in his diary on 10 November 1989, welcomed this change writing that the key was Gorbachev’s decision not to stand in the way.27
Furthermore, the democratization of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had irreparably undermined the power of the CPSU and Gorbachev himself. The relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet republics. Calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan.28 In December 1986, the first signs of the nationalities problem that would haunt the later years of the Soviet Union's existence surfaced as riots, named Jeltoqsan, occurred in Alma Ata and other areas of Kazakhstan after Dinmukhamed Kunayev had replaced as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Nationalism would then surface in Russia in May 1987, as 600 members of Pamyat, a nascent Russian nationalist group, demonstrated in Moscow and were becoming increasingly linked to Boris Yeltsin, who received their representatives at a meeting.29 Najibullah regime.30 Also during 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine, and allow the Eastern bloc nations to freely determine their own internal affairs. Jokingly dubbed the “Sinatra Doctrine” by Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, this policy of non-intervention in the affairs of the other Warsaw Pact states proved to be the most momentous of Gorbachev’s foreign policy reforms. In his 6 July 1989 speech arguing for a “Common European Home” before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Gorbachev declared: “The social and political order in some countries changed in the past, and it can change in the future too, but this is entirely a matter for each people to decide. Any interference in the internal affairs, or any attempt to limit the sovereignty of another state, friend, ally or another, would be inadmissible”31.
Moscow’s abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine led to a string of revolutions in Eastern Europe throughout 1989, in which Communism collapsed. By the end of 1989, mass revolts had spread from one Eastern European capital to another, ousting the regimes imposed on Eastern Europe after World War II. With the exception of Romania, the popular upheavals against the pro-Soviet Communist regimes were all peaceful ones. The loosening of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and for this, Gorbachev was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 1989 and the Nobel Peace Prize on 15 October 1990.
The Regime’s response against the events of 1989
Gorbachev wanted to reorganize and revitalize the Soviet system, but to do so he needed to create a favorable international situation that would enable him to relieve the material burden of arms competition with the West. That was his minimum goal. His maximum objective was to win Western- and especially American- diplomatic and economic support for perestroika while trying to maintain- even enhance- the USSR's superpower status. Perestroika, in Gorbachev’s view, was the strategic mission of both foreign and domestic policy.
Gorbachev and Shevardnadze understood that the source of their domestic problems as well as their foreign policy dilemmas was the neo-Stalinist political system and its arsenal state, which had led the USSR into a dead end of low living standards and dangerous military confrontation with the West. Perestroika, glasnost, and “new thinking” put Gorbachev and Shevardnadze on a collision course with diehard supporters of the Soviet political-military empire.
The socialist economies in Eastern Europe had been suffering along with that of the Soviet Union, with Gorbachev looking toward glasnost as a remedy for their economic troubles. In Hungary, one of the more economically advanced satellite nations, twenty-five percent of the population was living in dire poverty. In December 1988, Gorbachev announced in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that by 1991 he intended to pull Soviet tanks and troops out of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For Hungarians this was encouraging news, and the Hungarians demonstrated for the freedom to create a political party, or parties, independent of Hungary’s Communist Party.32
1989 began in Czechoslovakia with the Communist government’s judicial system prosecuting the playwright Vaclav Havel for his having incited illegal protests. The court sentenced Havel to remain in prison until September or October. Others dissidents in Czechoslovakia were also being tried and sentenced. But with the populace restive and in sympathy with the dissidents, the government thought that leniency would be prudent, and in May they released Havel.
In Poland the Communist regime had been compromising with public opinion. Failing to crush the dissident movement of Solidarity, the government tried to absorb the movement into a legitimate part of national affairs. The leaders of Solidarity agreed to cooperate with the Communist regime, and the regime allowed Solidarity to run candidates in coming elections. Some dissidents opposed collaboration with the Communists. They wanted to boycott the elections on the grounds that the elections were not entirely free. But Solidarity argued for participation, and at the polls Solidarity won an overwhelming victory, becoming the first freely elected opposition party in a country with a Communist regime.33
Advances in freedom in Poland and Hungary were encouraging people in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On August 21, the twenty-first anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into that city, people in Prague demonstrated. The former Communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, who in 1968 had led what was called the Prague Spring, spoke encouraging words to the crowd.34
The hope for more freedom had also spread to East Germany. The regime there, led by Eric Honneker, had been appalled by Gorbachev's liberalizations, and since 1988 Soviet publications had been banned in East Germany. But it was no to avail. East Germans had been free to travel within the Warsaw bloc. That is where many of them went for their annual vacation. And with freedom of travel within Hungary, some from East Germany were fleeing across the Hungarian border into Austria - the slow-thinking East German regime having failed to block travel to Hungary. Many Germans wanting to flee to West Germany crowded into the West German embassies in Prague and Hungary, demanding entry to West Germany. The flight of Germans from Hungary into Austria increased to the thousands, and the Communist regime in East Germany panicked as its economy became threatened by the loss of educated and talented young people.
In mid-October 1989, mounting dissent in East Germany was followed by the Politburo there replacing Eric Honneker, hoping this would quiet dissent.35 But Honneker was replaced with another hardliner, and the dissent continued. On October 25, Gorbachev announced that the Warsaw Pact nations “were doing it their way”, described by some as the Sinatra Doctrine - as opposed to the Brezhnev Doctrine. Under pressure from a more rebellious public, the East German regime tried appeasing public opinion. To reduce the “contradiction” between the Party line and public perceptions, and the Party admitted publicly that its regime was not popular.
On November 9, 1989, the Communist regime in East Germany went further in appeasing public opinion by announcing liberalized travel regulations. Inept in its communications, the regime led people in East Berlin to believe that this meant they could journey freely into West Berlin. A hoard of people massed at border crossing points, overwhelming the guards, who let the joyous crowds pass. The happy East Germans flocked to West German stores to make purchases and they rejoiced with West Berliners.
The freedom to cross into West Germany further encouraged people in East Germany, and the Communist regime surrendered to an aroused populace. In November, Berliners began what would become weeks of tearing down the wall that separated East and West Berlin -- to Gorbachev's surprise. President Reagan had called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”, but Gorbachev had left that to the East Germans. The wall was breached on November 9, 1989. Huge crowds surged from the east. Guards on the West Berlin side, at Checkpoint Charlie, did not know what to do and refused at first to let the freedom seekers in. West Berliners chanted, “Come over! Come over!” to the East Berliners. Finally at 11:57 P.M., an American border guard, with a shrug of his shoulders, allowed the gate to open and thousands of people to pour through.
In Prague, the strategy of Communist leaders remained that of repression, despite what was happening in Berlin. On 17 November 1989 the march was commemorated a student leader who was killed by Nazi occupiers 50 years before, turned out to be an anti-regime protest against the communism36. Protestors cried for free elections. What is interesting is that the Velvet Revolution took place without the military intervention of Moscow in order to keep the existing regime. The leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, Milos Jakes, known and ridiculed for his awkward use of language, resigned. Encouraged, an estimated 500,000 people marched for the end of Communist Party rule. And millions of Czechs went out on a two-hour general strike to express solidarity with the demand for political freedom. It was a demonstration too massive for the Communist regime, and it responded with a pledge of free elections within a year.37
In early December, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia declared the Soviet invasion to have been a mistake. And rather than waiting months for elections, the promised elections were held after only a few days. By the end of December, Czechoslovakia had a new parliament. Its president was Vaclav Havel, and the chairman of parliament was Alexander Dubcek.
By the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall had been torn down. A reform-minded communist, Hans Modrow, had risen to power within East Germany's Communist Party, and Party officials continued to appeal to the public. In mid-December marchers in Leipzig held a candlelight vigil commemorating Stalin’s victims. And in a Party Congress, many Communists made speeches of confessions and demanded an absolute break with the Stalinist past. Hans Modrow promised the public multi-party elections for May, and the Communist Party (originally the coalition party, or SED) created by Stalin, changed its name to the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism. Then the elections were moved up to March, and in these elections the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism suffered a crushing defeat. A new government was formed in East Germany, and it began lobbying for unification with West Germany - a move that was to be formally achieved in October, 1990, not with great enthusiasm by the government or people of West Germany.
The communist regime crumbled rapidly. On March 18, 1990, East Germans voted the communists out of office, and in September East Germany became the first member to leave the Warsaw Pact. The USSR’s main prize from World War II was united with West Germany and integrated into NATO. The Cold War was over. The next years are characterized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the ‘inner empire”.
Conclusion: The end of history or the beginning of a new one?
As John Lewis Gaddis said: “For decades we wrote Cold War history pretty much in the way we used to look at the Moon: we could see only one side of it”38. The new archival sources give us, for the first time, a comparable ability to know what was on the “other side” during the Cold War. What used to be thought as new approaches are suddenly showing their age, while what might recently have been regarded as old approaches have taken on a renewed vitality. So, did the end of the Cold War entail the end of the Soviet system? Or was it the other way around? It is possible to imagine a cold war without the USSR, but it is difficult to imagine a Soviet Union without the Cold War. “The Soviet empire was created and built for the arms race, confrontation, and even war with the rest of the world”, according to civilian defense expert and Duma Deputy A. Arbatov.39
The ultimate paradox was that détente rather than confrontation led to the collapse of Soviet power and the breakup of the Soviet Union. As soon as Gorbachev succeeded in gaining the West’s trust in the later 1980s, he began undermining the Soviet system. The Soviet economy’s decline, meanwhile, reflected the diminished ability of central planning to respond to global economic change. Stalin had created a command economy that emphasized heavy manufacturing and smokestack industries, making it highly inflexible; all thumbs and no fingers.
As the economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, capitalism is “creative destruction”, a way of responding flexibly to major waves of technological change.40 At the end of the twentieth century, the major technological change of the third industrial revolution was the growing role of information as the scarcest resource in an economy.41 The Soviet system was particularly inept at handling information. The deep secrecy of its political system meant that the flow of information was slow and cumbersome. Economic globalization created turmoil throughout the world at the end of the twentieth century, but the Western market economies were able to re-allocate labor to services, restructure their heavy industries, and switch to computers. The Soviet Union could not keep up.
The lessons for today are clear. While military power remains important, it is a mistake for any country to discount the role of economic power and soft power.42 But it is also a mistake to discount the importance of leaders with humanitarian values. The Soviet Union may have been doomed, but the world has Gorbachev to thank for the fact that the empire he oversaw ended without a bloody conflagration. Once the perceived Western military threat to Russia was eliminated or redefined out of existence, the USSR’s last remaining state purpose disappeared with it. The Cold War ended when the diehards finally realized that they could not revive it, and the end became irreversible sometime between the August ‘91 coup and the December collapse. If the coup had not failed, or if a subsequent coup- better planned and better executed than the first -had succeeded, the diehards might well have been able to torpedo the new détente and restart the Cold War, as they almost succeeded in doing.43
On 19 April 1989, George Kennan, the doyen of American Soviet-watchers, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the USSR no longer posed a military threat to the United States44. In the end, the cold war was over exactly as G. Kennan had predicted in his exceptional article in 1947 with the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” undersigned as “X”.45
It was not until the summer of 1989, when Francis Fukuyama pointed out that the idea of democracy was about to end Cold- War conflict altogether, and all of history as well. Fukuyama, as it happened, was right about the Cold War, but wrong about history.46 As Professor J. Nye wrote, ultimately, the deepest causes of the Soviet collapse were the decline of communist ideology and economic failure. This would have happened even without Gorbachev. In the early Cold War, communism and the Soviet Union had considerable soft power. Many communists led the resistance against fascism in Europe, and many people believed that communism was the wave for the future. But Soviet soft power was undercut by the exposure of Stalin’s crimes47, and by the repression in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981. Although in theory communism aimed to establish a system of class justice, Lenin’s heirs maintained domestic power through a brutal security apparatus involving lethal purges, gulags, broad censorship, and ubiquitous informants48. The net effect of these brutal measures was a general loss of faith in the system.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev is not popular with the Russian people, who blame him for the loss of Soviet power. But, as Gorbachev has replied to those who shout abuse at him, “Remember, I am the one who gave you the right to shout!”
1. Kusters H.J. & Hofmann D. (eds.), Dokumente zur Deutschland Politik; Deutsche Einheit: Sonderedition aus den Akten des Bundeskanzleramtes 1989/90, Oldenbourg Verlag, no. 76, Munchen 1998, p. 494
2. Byrne M. (ed.), Uprising in East Germany 1953: Shedding Light on a Major Cold War Flashpoint, The National Security Archive, June 2001, p. 1-3, URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB50/
3. Ostermann C., Introduction, in C. Ostermann (ed.), Uprising in East Germany 1953: The Cold War, the German Question, and the First Major Upheaval Behind the Iron Curtain, Central European University Press, Budapest 2001, p. 2-3
4. Psychological Strategy Board Memorandum from J. Anspacher to G. Morgan, 17 June 1953, cited in URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB50/
5. Byrne H., Bekes C. & Rainer J. (eds.), The 1956 Revolution: A History in Documents, Central European University Press, Budapest 2002, p. 38
6. Working Notes and Attached Extract from the Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting, October 31, 1956, p. 2, cited in URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/
7. Jan Svoboda’s Notes on the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting with Satellite Leaders, October 24, 1956, p. 2, cited in URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/
8.The CIA had essentially only one Hungarian-speaking officer, G. Katona, based on Hungary during the 1950-1957 period, and for several years that person spent 95% of his time on cover duties. See: Gati C., Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, Stanford University
9. Press & Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington DC 2006
Williams K., The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics 1968-1970, Cambridge University Press, London 1997, p. 18-22
10. Navrátil J., The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Document Reader, Central European University Press, Budapest 2006, p. 326-327
11. Chafetz G., Gorbachev, Reform and the Brezhnev Doctrine: Soviet Policy Toward Eastern Europe 1985-1990, Praeger Publishers, New York 1993, p. 10
12. Pavel Cohout proposed the name Charter 77
13. Prečan V. (ed.), Charter 77 After 30 Years, The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 213, URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB213/index.htm
14. Byrne M. (ed.), Solidarity and Martial Law in Poland: 25 Years Later, The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 211, URL:http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB211/index.htm
15. Byrne M. & Paczkowski A. (eds.), From Solidarity to Martial Law: The Polish Crisis of 1980-1981, A Documentary History, Central European University Press, Budapest 2006, p. 25
16. “Big Solidarity Victory Seen in Poland”, New York Times, October 18 2009, URL: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/05/world/big-solidarity-victory-seen-in-poland.html
17. Domber G. (ed.), Solidarity’s coming victory: Big or too Big, The National Security Archive, URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB42/
19. Artaud D., The End of the Cold War: A Skeptical View, in Hogan M. (ed.), The End of The Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications, Cambridge University Press, New York 1992, p. 190-191
20. Including grandiose construction projects such as the Palace of Parliament. See: Gallagher T., Modern Romania: The end of communism, the failure of democratic reform, and the theft of a nation, New York University Press, New York 2005, also see: Brown J., Surge to Freedom, The End of Communist Rule in Eastern Europe, Adamantine Press, London 1991, p. 200
21. Fisher G., The Golden Age of Ceausescu, in Fisher G. (ed.), Romania: A Historical Perspective, East European Monographs, Boulder, New York 1998, p. 441-480
22. Hough J., Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985-1991, The Brookings Institution Press, New York 1997
23. Gorbachev M., Perestroika: The New Thinking For Our Country and The World, Harper & Row, New York 1988
Minutes of the Politburo session, 29 June 1985. “Shevardnadze appointment”, doc. 11, in Savranskaya S. & Blanton T. (eds.), To the Geneva Summit:
24. Perestroika and the Transformation of US-Soviet Relations, The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book no. 172, November 2005, URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB172/index.htm
25. Savranskaya S. (ed.), Alexander Yakovlev and the Roots of the Soviet Reforms, The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book no. 168, October 2005, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB168/index.htm
26. Yakovlev A., The Imperative of Political Development, Memorandum to M. Gorbachev, 25 December 1985, cited in URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB168/index.htm
27. Chernyaev A., Notes of Anatoly Chernyaev, The Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation Fond, no. 2
28. Katz Z. (ed.)., Handbook on Major Soviet Nationalities, Free Press, New York 1975
29. Anderson B. & Silver B., Demographic Sources of the Changing Ethnic Composition of the Soviet Union, Population and Development Review, vol. 15, December 1989, p. 609-656
30. Haines G., At Cold War’s End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 1989-1991, CSI Publications, Washington DC 1999
31. See: URL: http://www.ena.lu/gorbachev-s-reforms-in-the-soviet-union-0204973.cfmx
32. Kennedy P., The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, New York 1987, p. 303
33. Blanton T. & Byrne M. (eds.), Poland 1986-1989: The End of the System, The National Security Archive, Washington DC 1999, also see: Bush G. & Scowcroft B., A World Transformed, Knopf, New York 1998, p. 117
34. Havel V., Prague-Washington-Prague: Report from the United States Embassy in Czechoslovakia, November-December 1989, Knihovna Library, Prague 2004
35. Gaddis J. L., The Cold War: A New History, Penguin Press, London 2005, p. 235-236
36. Blanton T. (ed.), Inaugural Volume of the New Václav Havel Library, The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 141, URL: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB141/index.htm
37. Havel V., Prague-Washington-Prague: Report from the United States Embassy in Czechoslovakia, November-December 1989, Knihovna Library, Prague 2004
38. Gaddis J. L., On Moral Equivalency and Cold War History, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 10, 1996
39. Arbatov A., The National Idea and National Security, Mirovaya Ekonomika i Mezhdunarodnyye Otnosheniya, vol. 5, May 1998, p. 8
40. Schumpeter J. A., The Theory of Economic Development, Oxford University Press, New York 1961
41. Toffler A. & H., The Third Wave, Bantanm Books, New York 1980
42. Nye S. J., “Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War”, New Straits Times, April 5, 2006
43. Haines G., At Cold War’s End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 1989-1991, CSI Publications, Washington DC 1999
45. Kennan G. (as “X”), The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, vol. 25, no. 4, 1947, p. 566-582
46. See about: Fukuyama F., The End of History?, National Interest, vol. 16, Summer 1989, p. 3-18
47. Rayfield D., Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed For Him, Random House, New York 2004
48. Nye J. S., “Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War”, New Straits Times, April 5, 2006