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The Collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe Essay

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Analyses of the collapse of communism have followed a dialectical path since the early 1990s, explaining the implosion first as the direct result of US pressure, then as the inevitable fall of a flawed system, and finally, as a combination of the two. This fluctuation has occurred as national archives from both the East and the West have become increasingly accessible, giving historians a more complete picture of trends that may have contributed to the climate within the Eastern bloc at the beginning of the relevant period. Indeed, such documents have been instrumental in dispelling the view that the pivotal events of 1989 had relatively short-term roots.

Some analysts have developed reasonable arguments tracing the fall of the Warsaw Pact back only as far as 1985, but for the most part, these are unsatisfying, ignoring critical factors such as the rise of the hawkists in America, and the role of world-wide peace movements. In addition, the release of top secret CIA files has shed interesting light on the under-rated Afghan conflict. These suggest that far from being yet another target for moralistic US containment, Afghanistan was set up by the Americans as an attempt to trap the Soviets in an exhausting Third World contest- to “give them their own Vietnam.”

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This discovery, and others relating to the nuclear arms race, technology, the media, and human rights debates, indicates that while not as active as initially supposed, the US was highly instrumental in bringing down European communism. At the same time, however, evidence of a self-perpetuating economic crisis, a crisis which was to spawn the powerful dissident movements in Eastern Europe, can be seen in Soviet archives as early as 1960. It could thus be argued that communism was, as an impractical, unpopular system, doomed to eventual failure. That this occurred on such a grand scale, however, and as early as 1989, must be attributed to Gorbachev’s dramatic reform policies; these were in turn shaped by both external and internal pressures, as well as the particular political matrix, formulated under Khrushchev, in which Gorbachev’s career began.

In order to fully understand the forces that pushed Moscow towards such reforms, it is necessary to begin with the 1970s and the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. This was a period that left a strong legacy economically and thus shaped the local and international environments to a significant degree. A time of superpower d�tente, both East and West were feeling the strain of Cold War competition- President Nixon of the U.S. looking for a way to liquidate the Vietnam War, and Brezhnev beginning to find the arms race excessively expensive.

Trade between the two sides increased, and the common goal of nuclear non-proliferation led to various limitation agreements, such as the ABM Treaty of 1972. It was within this context, as Brezhnev was finally able to turn his attention to the process of “catching up” with the West financially and technologically, that the extent of the economic crisis in the communist states first became apparent. Dissent in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, East Germany, had rung the alarm bells frequently throughout the preceding two decades, but the dilemma had never really absorbed much of the leadership’s notice until now.

Due to poor management of state funds, corruption within the system- granting party officials special luxuries, and an unbalanced emphasis on industrial manufacture, living standards within the Eastern camp were at a universal low. This was despite successful oil and steel production, the proceeds from which went to the maintenance of the KGB and the military presence in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Commodities were difficult to obtain, having been sacrificed for power plants that were needed to support industry, and, as a result, labour productivity and life expectancy were on the decline. In addition, government subsidies ate up such a large portion of the state budget that foreign trade had to be restricted, and importing rationed.

These conditions had long been the fuel for various dissident undercurrents, which were intensified by strict censorship; as Timothy Sowula puts it, “nothing nurtures dissent like the inability to express it.”1 Although not anti-communist in essence, being rather concerned with democratizing socialism than with implementing Western ideology, these movements, particularly in Hungary and Poland, called for a reduction in state control, and promoted pluralism, and were thus clearly founded on a lack of faith in communism as an economic mechanism. These groups would later develop into powerful policy-setting factions. That they should be given more freedom to express their views first dawned upon the Soviet leadership during Brezhnev’s tenure, as the intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the crushing of Solidarity in 1981 proved destructively expensive both financially and in terms of propaganda.

These trends- of economic decline and accompanying dissent- were clearly of predominantly internal beginnings. Basic faults in the system, such as excessive state control, corruption, over-emphasis on industry and the military, in addition to the characteristically repressive environment, caused the crisis situation to emerge as rampant by the 1970s. As recently upgraded spy systems relayed, irregularly it is true, updates on these problems to the West, they were picked up by hawkists within America and taken into careful consideration by those in charge of developing foreign policy. D�tente had, once again, lost its luster in the eyes of many instrumental figures, and was viewed “not merely as an expression of America’s weakness but also as a cause of it.”

2 In addition, U.S. failures such as Vietnam and Watergate had damaged Western morale, and President Jimmy Carter was under pressure to make a strong reinstatement of American prestige. The main source of this pressure, a new political branch later branded “neo-conservative,” became prominent in the late 1970s, and followed Richard Piper in stating that: “The notion that through accommodation you could change (the Soviets) was faulty. To change them you needed a very hard line policy.”3 It was this branch, in control of perhaps the majority of the votes in the Senate by 1979, that formulated the adjusted US line: the exploitation of Soviet weaknesses in several different forums.

The first arm of this strategy was clandestine support for the existing dissident movements in Eastern Europe. Solidarity, for instance, was largely dependent on printing equipment smuggled in from the U.S, using it to put out regular bulletins coordinating strikes, presenting political advice, and informing members of trade union meetings. The same equipment was also used to publish forbidden books and essays for Solidarity’s extensive underground education system. This was not exclusive to Poland, either- evidence suggests that Washington furnished insurrectionist organizations in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany with similar printing machinery.

This sponsorship effectively laid the platform for the reform campaigns that were launched both subversively and in the main-stream political arena. In addition, there are numerous records of visits by American politicians to pro-Western officials in Eastern Europe, encouraging them in their resistance, and helping them to develop the petitions that they placed before the leadership in their respective countries. Thus, it is clear that the U.S. did play a relatively influential role in developing the capacity of these movements, although they were, as already stated, self creating and sustaining. In other words, it would be fair to say that while it did not incite their sentiments, the U.S. did equip those who fought for the fatal reforms that would bring down communism.

Another important forum of U.S. pressure was the human rights debate. This had begun in 1975 with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, but had not really evoked wide interest until approximately five years later, as a strong realpolitik contingent in the West had spurned the human rights issue as an unnecessary ideological digression. It was only as Jimmy Carter’s public promotion of humanitarianism, a tactic which had been rarely used since Vietnam, succeeded in gaining popular support, that U.S. policy makers reincorporated the human rights line into their scheme. And, indeed, this proved a worthwhile investment. Inciting peace movements across the West, and providing the dissident factions in the East with a weapon with which to fight oppression, the Helsinki Final Act, when brought to life, became a powerful document in the context of Cold War competition.

It provided a frame of reference by which the peoples of the world could judge both domestic conditions and superpower behaviour in the various conquests of the 1980s. It formed the foundation for reformist debates behind the Iron Curtain, particularly on the subjects of state sovereignty and d�tente. While it gained great public acclaim as a rare superpower agreement to play by the same rules, however, the Helsinki process was in fact treated with little respect by its signatories.

That the U.S. valued it as something that the media could use to bring out Soviet atrocities, both within its own quarters and in places like Afghanistan, more than as a genuine moral code, was evident in Washington’s ongoing support of brutal military dictatorships in Central America, and its collaboration with apartheid South Africa. Likewise, the Soviet Union ignored the terms of the act, which were not legally binding, and opposed the freedom of traffic and of the press that it stipulated. Ultimately, although thus under-rated by the Kremlin, the Helsinki Final Act was to facilitate one of the major expos�s of the communist system, officially dissolving the myth that communism was “socialism with a human face.”4

Of course, the success of this human rights operation depended largely on the media. In fact, it was as coverage of peace demonstrations in the West reached the East that an echo effect began to occur, winning support for the dissident movements and dividing central party regimes- a crucial hollowing process that would set up the later implosion. With the tight censorship exercised by Eastern regimes during this period, it may seem surprising that Western media so dramatically influenced areas such as Poland and Hungary, but highly developed technology had basically put an end to the shielding and isolating of peoples in communist countries.

This was particularly true in East Germany- the normalization of relations with West Germany in August 1972 and resulted in East Germans being allowed to watch West German T.V. As had been the case throughout the Cold War, what happened in Germany set the tone for the rest of Europe. Combined with Washington’s equipping of Solidarity, this media traffic had under-estimated ramifications. Not only did it expose the peoples of the communist world to the human rights debate, it also, and perhaps more importantly, allowed them to experience the full extent of the disparity between living conditions in the East and living conditions in the West. This, a tribute to the merits of capitalism, and a tool for awakening civilians to their own economic repression, mobilized reformist movements in a way that even Washington, responsible for developing the technology for this project, had never anticipated.

Running parallel to these subtler channels of pressure was the typically forefront issue of nuclear arms. And, indeed, a dramatic shift in U.S. nuclear policy around 1978-79 can be discerned, although demand for a “zero option” in Europe was a consistent theme throughout the relevant period. To return briefly to the 1970s and d�tente, we see the nuclear arms race denounced as pointless- “a vicious circle.”5 Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union made marked steps during this passage of the Cold War towards the dissolution of the contest- with the partial test ban treaty of 1968, and the ABM treaty of 1972. Approximately mid-way through Jimmy Carter’s term, however, the soft-line policy was reversed, and the U.S. began to pressurize the Soviets by developing MRVs, and escalating the production of unlimited weapons.

In addition, NATO formulated a tough response to the previously unanswered SS 20 missiles, which allegedly targeted Western Europe. The proposed introduction of the Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles in West Germany and the Netherlands was a new approach, replacing the former agreement to engage in talks on the matter. That this shift coincided with the realization that the nuclear arms race was exhausting dwindling Soviet resources and morale, suggests that it was the direct result of new insights into Soviet behaviour. As American pressure in this arena continued to rise with the development of SDI, the reality that the USSR lacked the power to retaliate began to dawn upon those in charge of foreign policy.

One would think, with the traditional gauge of Cold War tensions- the nuclear contest, in such a unilateral state, that superpower relations were becoming progressively peaceful. The irony that summit talks consistently coincided with outbreaks or accelerations in external conflicts demonstrated, however, that this was not the case. In fact, if the impression that the Soviets were suddenly more pro-d�tente than the U.S. in the nuclear sense even emerged, Washington quickly eradicated it by turning the world’s attention to ‘undoubtedly aggressive’ Soviet behaviour in the Middle East and Angola. Exploitation of the Soviet tendency to get involved in Third World conflicts became perhaps the focus of U.S. foreign policy during the late 1970s and early 80s, as can be seen in the most obvious and important example: Afghanistan.

The superpower-funded war in Afghanistan was, as stated earlier, misunderstood until perhaps a few years ago. At the time of its occurrence, and during its immediate aftermath, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was generally defined as an extension of containment, justified with the characteristic moral charge and talk of liberating Afghan captives from an unwanted regime. According to this view, the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan to suppress popular sentiments that threatened their dominance, prompting an objection and military response from the U.S.

New evidence suggests, however, that the launch of the covert CIA operation in Afghanistan was hardly a reaction to Soviet movements. On the contrary, substantial U.S. activity was recorded in the area as early as 6 months before the deployment of the Red Army, as officials stirred up opposition to the government, promising military support for an insurrection. Mr. Brezezinksi, adviser to Carter at the time, sums this up, saying: “According to the official version of history, aid to the moujahideen began during 1980…after the Soviet army invaded…But the reality…secretly guarded…is completely otherwise.”6

Having established this, we can see that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan had a far from peaceable source; quite the opposite, the plan of action was “to induce a Soviet military intervention.”7 The purposes of this operation were multiple, but are encapsulated in Brezezinksi’s statement, quoted earlier, that this was “the (Soviets’) own Vietnam”8- in other words, a conflict designed to exhaust economically, raise disputes at home, and as a touch-point for propaganda.

And it worked, too. Domestically, by the time the conquest was five years old, and had claimed thousands of Soviet lives, it had become extremely unpopular, fuelling dissent, and disillusioning even faithful communists. Economically, a battle fought in the mountains with helicopters against the powerful US FIM-92 Stingers was expensive, and, in addition, created a rift between the Red Army and the Soviet leadership as the fighting went on past the desired date of departure. Further, since the West controlled the international media, it was able to present coverage of the exchange with a prejudice, emphasizing the Soviet atrocities and the number of civilian deaths. Human rights were, as one would expect, a major talking point within this context.

In addition to undermining the Soviet Union in the above ways, Afghanistan was used as a pretext to end every vestige of d�tente. The promising grain trade that had sprung up between the U.S. and the East was abruptly brought to a close. Then, Washington pressured the Saudi Arabian leadership, which was co-operating with the CIA in Afghanistan, to lower oil prices, and thus undercut the Soviet monopoly. Simultaneously, the White House denounced the SALT II Treaty as meaningless, and began inciting people in the West to express their disapproval of Soviet actions by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The result of all these manouevres was a dramatic heightening in temperature in the Soviet Union, as it found itself stretched and tested at numerous points- economic, political, and military.

It is clear, then, that it was a combination of both internal and external forces that shaped the political climate in Moscow in the critical mid-80s period. An additional factor, overlooked in that it is better defined as a context than as a force, was the legacy of d�tente and democratization that Khrushchev had left the communist party. While gradually eradicated from main-stream politics as its negative effects began to emerge in Eastern Europe and China, this remained an important influence in specific circles. It had a particular impact on those whose careers had begun under Khrushchev, as his anti-Stalinism left a lasting imprint on minds trained to worship an infallible Soviet leadership. These politicians, many harbouring inclinations towards democratization and reform despite Brezhnev’s harsh “Sinatra Doctrine,” were to emerge as central figures in the Kremlin by 1985. This created an entirely new environment, uniquely receptive to the heightening pressure for reform that was applied through the previously mentioned channels.

Mikhail Gorbachev, a leading figure within this political contingent, was elected head of the communist party both as a result of the natural process outlined above, and as officials realized that the public would best submit to someone with plans for reform. His policies have been cited as the major cause of the collapse of communism, which is reasonable in a limited sense, but they must be viewed as the product of the existing domestic and international situations rather than as a theoretical digression.

Faced with such economic, political, and military strain, Gorbachev virtually had no other choice than to seek to minimize Soviet expenses. And this meant, of course, reorganizing the empire for efficiency (perestroika). It also entailed pacifying the masses by giving them a voice; the policy of open discussion, known as glasnost, reduced censorship and allowed debates on ideology to take place. This approach was developed with the aim of liquidating factions such as Solidarity, by giving them certain concessions, for example, freedom of speech and of assembly. As later became evident, however, both this policy and perestroika had a far from calming effect in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.

Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms destroyed communist rule because they compromised the central police force and terror necessary to its survival- allowing pluralism, and opening gateways to the West. This took place in both an economic and a political sense, so that capitalist influences infiltrated almost every sphere of Soviet society. The first of Gorbachev’s policies to make an impact was perestroika, which was put before the Kremlin in June 1987, and began to affect the economic structure almost immediately. As early as August, the Soviet Union had begun to make overtures to British prime-minister Margaret Thatcher, arranging for Western businesses to be established on Soviet soil, and opening up the oil trade.

A series of joint ventures were set up the following year, although they were never to achieve the stated goal of helping the USSR to advance technologically. At the same time, petroleum production was restored, state planning diminished, taxes regulated, and a law passed permitting private businesses to operate. These changes were to affect almost everyone- many negatively, as alterations in factory relationships caused workers to lose their jobs. In fact, this economic democratization actually worsened living conditions- that this occurred just as the people were becoming exposed to the comparative wealth of Western nations as traffic flow and the media opened up, ensured that perestroika contributed significantly to the fall of communism.

This exposure came with the policy of glasnost, introduced in the Soviet Union in late 1987, and entailing the open discussion of communist ideology both through the media, and within the Party. Its inception was accompanied by Gorbachev’s declaration before the UN that he would not intervene in the internal affairs of other Warsaw Pact countries. Together, these liberalizations virtually ended communist terror, opening the way for reform. In addition, the new media freedoms enabled programs detailing past Soviet atrocities, such as the gulags and the Great Purges, to be broadcast. At the same time, the inefficiency of Stalin’s mechanisms and the extent of state corruption in the past were made known in full to the public. This greatly undermined the people’s faith in the system- it “eroded the CP’s social power base,” by bringing down its traditional corner stones- the hierarchy of the politburo, and CP dominance.

The effects of these policies were first evident in Eastern Europe, as dissident movements supported by Gorbachev began to gain power. In Poland, for instance, the previously banned Civic Society was able to rise to a position where it could negotiate for economic reforms and other freedoms- freedoms which would eventually lead to pluralism. Hungary followed a similar course, its underground organizations receiving encouragement and inspiration from Gorbachev, and Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, while slower to get started, eventually experienced much the same thing. This process- the rise of dissent and the consequent introduction of non-communist elements into the party- escalated as it became increasing clear that Moscow had no intention of opposing democratization.

It culminated in 1988-89, as a series of insurrections, some violent, some peaceful, brought about the reinstatement of free elections and the overthrow of communist regimes across Eastern Europe. This implosion is perhaps symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred after Gorbachev liscensed Hungary to open its border and thus provide an escape route for East Germans. It was echoed in the Soviet Union two years later- the Red Army had staged a brief coup in the interests of a military intervention in Eastern Europe, and had failed. Gorbachev had tried to regain popular support, and had proposed a new constitution, dismissing the CPCC, but Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus nonetheless declared their independence. By 1991, communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was over, and the world was left to reflect on the “sad, bizarre chapter in human history,”9 that had just been written.

It can thus be confirmed that the decline of communism after 1985 was the direct result of Gorbachev’s policies. And, in this sense, it was an internal force that brought about the actual collapse that occurred, although, as already established, this was shaped both by U.S. pressure and conditions within the Eastern bloc. It is important, in addition, not to overlook the role that American policy played in these latter years.

That Reagan and Thatcher continued to build western economies that far outshone those in the East certainly kept the pressure on the communists. Likewise, Regan constantly challenged Gorbachev’s commitment to peace, demanding that he “open this gate…tear down this wall.”10 For the most part, however, the collapse was self-contained after 1985. It is perhaps best summarized by Erik Chenoweth in his article, Common Elements of Successful Opposition to Communism: “pluralism is an anathema to communism and…can survive communism’s system of terror, where the system’s terror is balanced by society’s opposition.”11

1 Timothy Sowula, The Helsinki Process and the Death of Communism, 2002.

2 Richard Piper, D�tente and Its Demise, 2001.

3 ibid.

4 Timothy Sowula, ibid

5 Colonel-General Nikolai Chervov, as quoted in D�tente And Its Demise, 2001

6 Brezezinksi, The Afghan Caper, 2004

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 Robert Reagan as quoted in Misinterpreting the Cold War- www.foreignaffairs.org/19950/001fareviewessay5008/richard-pipes.html

10 ibid.

11 http://www.idee.org/cubaideas4.html

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