There had been uprisings against socialist rule in Eastern Europe before 1989. However, when things threatened to get out of hand, the Soviet Union would send tanks to quell the revolts (most famously in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968). 1989 was different. The Soviet forces remained in their barracks as the wave of revolution washed all Communist governments in Eastern Europe away. How did that happen? Why did the Soviet Union just watch while their Eastern European empire slipped away? After having previously examined the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Western governments in 1989, this article will deal with the role of the Eastern European leaders (especially in the Soviet Union) in 1989. First, we’ll look at the remarkable changes Mikhail Gorbachev brought to the Soviet Union, and then at the erosion of Communism under the economic circumstances of the late 1980s.
The Gorbachev Factor
Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet General Secretary like no other – so dynamic, reform-minded and bold that he has been personally singled out as the most important reason for the end of the Cold War (the historian Archie Brown aptly named his book on the matter “The Gorbachev Factor”). When he took power in 1985, he introduced a flurry of new policies – intended to help the fledgling Soviet economy, to improve the relationship with the United States and Western Europe, to introduce more political freedom and openness in the USSR. Among this buzz of activity, Gorbachev’s most important action during the 1989 revolutions was – inaction. He left the Soviet satellite countries, long accustomed to being in turn supported and patronized by Moscow, simply to their own designs. That did not go well for them. Gorbachev, however, was more than just a reformer. He redefined the very goals of the USSR. The Eastern European empire, always the Soviet Union’s highest prized asset since World War II as a buffer against any new aggression, was no priority to Gorbachev. Instead of empire, he embraced a pan-European peace order he called the “Common European Home”. And instead of winning the Cold War, he wanted to overcome it together with the West. That also meant letting the peoples of Eastern Europe decide their own fates. Therefore, Gorbachev remained adamant about not intervening in the revolutions in 1989, despite the increasingly desperate pleas for help he received from the hard-pressed Communist governments in Eastern Europe. In a game of 1989, the players know that the Soviet Union will never send tanks to help their struggling comrades. But during the tumultuous year of 1989, it took everyone by surprise.
Not all assessments of Gorbachev are so positive. Intentions and results are rarely the same, but the gap between them is particularly wide for Gorbachev. While he wanted to transform the Soviet Union in order to preserve it, his radical policies contributed to the breakdown of the country. Gorbachev’s economic reforms led to chaos in the already fragile Soviet economy. His political liberalization empowered dissidents (especially the nationalists in the individual Soviet republics), while he neutralized the traditional institutions of union-wide integration like the Communist Party and the Soviet Army because they were reluctant to embrace his reformist course. These domestic troubles hindered the Soviet Union’s ability to influence the events in Eastern Europe. In 1989, there are various cards referring to intra-Soviet events, but the most iconic representation of Soviet domestic troubles are the Baltic independence movements that affect the USSR stability track. If the Democrat player can get the centrifugal forces in the Baltic rolling, she’ll reap a handsome number of VPs during the game as reward. Careful, however – too much of a push, and the Communist might be able to bring the hardliners back to power in Moscow via Kremlin Coup!
As we’ve seen, Gorbachev’s role in the great changes of 1989 was ambivalent. On the one hand, he undermined the traditional power bases and support structures of the socialist countries, on the other, he used his great international standing to gather support for his transformative policies. 1989 captures this ambivalence well: Some of the many events that refer to him are associated with the Communist player, some with the Democrat, and some with both.
The Erosion of the Eastern Economy and Ideology
However, the changed policies in Moscow as well as the Eastern European countries need not be attributed to one person alone. A more structural approach would look at the economic woes of the East in the 1980s and how they led to an erosion of the Communist ideology. The charms of Communism always rested on its economic promise: A non-capitalist way of production would be more efficient and greatly improve the material wealth of the common people. Once full Communism was achieved, people would live in a land of plenty. And indeed, from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, the socialist economies outclassed the Western countries in terms of economic growth. However, this growth did not come from a sustainable base – rather from a lack of it. The Russian Civil War had disrupted the functionality the Soviet economy in the 1920s. Similarly, Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union) was incredibly ravaged in World War II. Both events led to a sharp decline in economic output that were merely undone in the “socialist economic miracle” of the mid-20th century, yet this economic success story formed the core of socialism’s legitimacy. When growth rates began to stagnate, it became apparent that that socialism was not bound to catch up with capitalism anytime soon – indeed, it was falling further behind. This broken promise of economic plenty undermined socialism’s credibility not only with the common people who dreamed of owning a car or a TV, but also with the party elite. Especially those privileged cadres who had been on business or political missions to the West and seen the wealth there became disillusioned with Communism’s ability to wage a Cold War against a so much more powerful system. Ironically, this was a genuine Marxist end to the Cold War: The economic basis determined the change of the ideological superstructure.
This process was not the same in all Eastern European countries. In fact, the perceptions of the Communist elites regarding the necessity of economic reform varied widely, as did their assessments how well they could survive in a climate of reform. Accordingly, the country with the biggest economic problems (Poland) and the country with the Communist party most confident it could navigate the eddies of reform (Hungary) were the first to undertake the transformation, and they will also be the first countries to be scored in 1989. On the other hand Romania under its paranoid leader Ceausescu, the only Eastern European country without any foreign debt in 1989, was the last one to be swept away in the waves of reform and revolution and only scores in the Late Year.
A Change of Beliefs
The leadership of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites played a major role in the revolutions of 1989 and the end of the Cold War. No matter if you ascribe this to Gorbachev as an individual or the Communist elite as a group, their beliefs were not the same as those of socialist leaders of earlier decades. Therefore, they were not willing anymore to use all means at their disposal to defend the rule of orthodox Communism (different from the Chinese Communists who were challenged at the same time, but felt secure in their ideology and their newly found economic success). Instead, they realized that the times had changed and attempted to change within them – with mixed success. All of them were swept out of power, and some of their countries even broke apart along ethnic lines. However, the Communist parties of Eastern Europe – usually reformed into democratic socialist parties – survived and remain a political factor until today.
Now that we’ve explored the role of the populations of Eastern Europe as well as the governments in the West and the East, we’ll look at some other aspects of the revolutions in 1989, beginning with the space of the revolutions – how the map and the positional play of 1989 reflect history.
On Gorbachev’s role in the end of the Cold War, read Brown, Archie: The Gorbachev Factor, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996.
The view that Gorbachev unintentionally hastened the demise of the Soviet Union is concisely put forward in Kotkin, Stephen: Armageddon Averted. The Soviet Collapse, 1970—2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.
Vladislav Zubok is the leading proponent of the argument that the economic downturn of the East led to the erosion of its ideology as well, as expressed in Zubok, Vladislav M.: Why did the Cold War End in 1989?, in: Westad, Odd Arne: Reviewing the Cold War. Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, Cass, London 2000, p. 343—389.
Finally, the linkage between the perception of economic troubles and the chances of their own survival by the Communist parties on the one hand and their willingness to engage in reforms on the other comes not from a historian, but a political scientist: De Nevers, Renée: Comrades No More. The Seeds of Political Change in Eastern Europe, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2003.