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Collapse of Communism

The founders of communism promised a new kind of state based on fairness and equality.

Under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet communism moved a long way from these ideals and became more corrupt. As a result, ordinary people had less respect for communism.

It was widely known that the family of Brezhnev was corrupt. Leading communists had luxurious country houses or ”dachas” built for themselves.

According to one joke that circulated in the Soviet Union at the time, Brezhnev showed his own mother round a new luxury house that he had just had built: his mother commented “It’s wonderful, Leonid. But what happens if the communists come back to power?”.

With the communist economies in trouble, the cost of the Cold War became more and more unbearable.

The price of weapons was constantly increasing (by the 1980s a single bomber cost the same as 200 bombers built during the Second World War) and America and its allies could afford these higher costs because their economies were doing well.

The Soviet Union could only keep up with the USA by diverting a huge proportion of its national income to defence, with the result that people suffered even lower living standards as tanks were built instead of cars and televisions.

The cost of the Cold War began to increase when the US President, Ronald Reagan, came to power in 1981. He rejected the idea of detente and encouraged a policy of confrontation with the Soviets, taking the view that communism was wicked and needed to be approached with great firmness.

Reagan increased military spending and challenged the USSR to join a new arms race.

The early 1980s have been called the ”Second Cold War” because there was heightened tension between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition between the superpowers was symbolized by Reagan”s ”Star Wars” project (officially known as SDI: the Strategic Defense Initiative). This project involved research into ways of giving America nuclear superiority by destroying Soviet missiles in space.

The beginning of the end for Communism came in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after a period of great uncertainty and confusion.

Much younger than his predecessors, he embarked on a program of domestic reforms and a drive to end the Cold War confrontation with the USA. The portents for the surge of freedom that swept across Eastern Europe towards the end of 1989 had been evident for nearly two years.

As the Soviet leadership, under the enlightened and charismatic Gorbachev, tolerated the ethnic disturbances within its borders and reached out for conciliation with the West, it became apparent that the old, dark order of totalitarian communism was undergoing a change.

We looked forward to an advance in the area of human rights, of stronger trade and cultural links, of a dismantling of the expensive armouries that tinged the Cold War rhetoric with a nightmare vision of the final holocaust.

But we thought it would still be East and West, with the communist regimes of Europe doling out a bit of liberalism without disturbing their monopoly of power. The bloody oppression of the people’s uprising in China gave little hope that the old regimes would truly loosen their bonds.

Even the chipping away within the Communist bloc that we had watched with growing wonder early in 1989 could not prepare us for the fearful and wonderful events of the northern autumn, as the ordinary people of nation after nation rose up to claim their freedom.

By April it became clear that Poland – the most advanced country in the process of emancipation and also the most economically devastated of the generally impoverished communist states – was on the brink of a conversion to its old democratic processes

In May 1989 the Hungarian government opened their frontier with Austria – there was now a gap in the Iron Curtain.

In June free elections were held in Poland. The once-outlawed opposition movement Solidarity won and in August Tadeusz Mazowiecki led a new non-communist government.

Gorbachev expressed support for a peaceful handover of power. The rolling back of communism in Eastern Europe had begun.

Many young East Germans made their way to Hungary and passed through Austria into West Germany, effectively now making a nonsense of the Berlin Wall.

In October 1989 Gorbachev visited East Germany for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the state. Behind the scenes, Gorbachev explained to East German leaders that he had no intention of using Russian force to stop reform.

A month later, on 9 November, the Berlin Wall was torn down. The most famous symbol of the Cold War had been destroyed.

On 17 November a series of massive anti-communist demonstrations took place in Czechoslovakia. By early December the Czechoslovak communist government had collapsed.

On 21 December a revolution began in Romania. The Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day.

In 1990 the two halves of Germany were reunited and a single pro-Western state was established.

In August 1991, hardliners within the Communist Party tried to depose Gorbachev and restore Soviet control, but the attempted coup was defeated by reformists led by Boris Yeltsin, who thought that Gorbachev wasn’t being radical enough in his reforms.

They reinstated Gorbachev but seized the opportunity to take things a step further by founding the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), effectively dissolving the USSR and bringing an end to Communist rule in the former Soviet bloc.