Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 12. Our subject is the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.
As a reminder, this is our ONLY video for Week 12. I canceled one “day” of class this week to give you more time to work on your final papers. That means we are not going to study the film Pride together, though you are very welcome to watch it on your own. Speaking of your final papers, thank you to everyone who has submitted an Introduction and Outline. I’m looking forward to discussing those with you on Thursday! One more announcement: Next week, we are reading Timothy Garton Ash’s eyewitness account of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, The Magic Lantern. You can choose to read either “Warsaw” or “Berlin.” You do not need to read both. Please DO read both essays in Slavenka Drakulić’s Café Europa.
Today we are discussing the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. As Mazower points out, these events were entirely contingent—not the inevitable result of the laws of history (there are none!), and not even something that analysts were able to predict. Rather, these events took place because people made particular decisions at particular moments, which then had further effects down the road.
It’s been a few weeks since we thought about Eastern Europe. We left off with the rise of Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and his use of Warsaw Pact troops to crush the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Brezhnev remained in power until 1982. As you read in Dark Continent, he and his fellow hardliners across Eastern Europe—the “little Stalins” who came to power in the 1940s and 1950s—presided over a period of economic decline similar to the one taking place in Western Europe. In the East, worsening conditions led many citizens who had initially embraced communism as an antidote the liberal democracy that had failed them in the interwar period to begin to lose faith in the Communist Party. To be clear, this is not the same thing as losing faith in communism as a political and economic system. Like the supporters of Prague Spring and the intellectual dissidents who began to speak up across the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s and 1970s, most people still believed in communism and hoped that it could be reformed from within. But the general loss of faith in the existing governments posed a growing challenge.
As I mentioned when we read Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir, the Prague Spring invasion was deeply shocking for Soviet citizens, and it had a strong impact on the Soviet dissident movement. Soviet dissidents first became active in the late 1950s, and they were galvanized in the 1960s by a series of trials in which writers who circulated novels, poems, and memoirs that were not officially approved were sentenced to prison for distributing “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Activists protested these events, and by the 1970s they had evolved into a broader Soviet human rights movement, which the Brezhnev government tried to repress.
Protest movements in the Eastern Bloc followed a similar pattern of beginning among intellectuals and focusing on human rights. For example, in Czechoslovakia, a dissident movement coalesced around the writer Vaclav Havel. In 1977, an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe was arrested for giving an unsanctioned performance. Havel wrote a charter demanding their release. State officials ignored it, but the movement, now known as Charter 77, persisted in its activities right up to 1989. In fact, Havel was elected as the first president of the newly independent Czech Republic that year. Poland presents a similar example. As the economy worsened in the late 1970s, workers embarked on a series of illegal strikes. When the state repressed them, a group of intellectuals and students formed the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR), which soon got the support of the Polish-born Pope, John Paul II, who was elected in 1978. A massive strike at the Gdansk Shipyards in 1980 convinced the Polish government of the need to negotiate. In the process they allowed the formation of an official independent trade union, Solidarity, which became a political party in 1989. That year, Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałesa, was elected the first president of independent Poland. These are just two example of a trend that rose in nearly every country in the Eastern Bloc. Mazower is right that these movements were small, and on their own they could not have overthrown their respective governments. But they provided a moral locus and a sense of direction that helped to keep the events of 1989 largely peaceful.
Meanwhile, back in the Soviet Union, things were not looking great. The economy was tanking due to a failure to modernize, subsidies provided to the Eastern Bloc and to emerging global nations as part of Cold War competition, and the expenses of the arms race. Corruption and black marketeering were on the rise, and citizens were losing faith in increasingly geriatric political figures. Brezhnev and most members of the Central Committee had started their careers as members of Stalin’s “new elite” and held on to power as they rose through the ranks. By the early 1980s, their average age was nearly 70, and like many old people, they resisted change. Brezhnev’s military adventures didn’t help, either. In 1979, against advice from military experts, he invaded Afghanistan to support its failing socialist government. In a situation that may sound familiar from our own experience, Soviet troops quickly got bogged down. Thousands of young men were conscripted and catastrophically injured or killed in a war that it seemed to most people the Soviet Union didn’t need to be involved in.
Brezhnev died in 1982, and in a sign of just how much the senior bureaucracy had aged, the next two Soviet leaders each died after about a year in office. Finally, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary. He was considered a young hotshot because he was “only” 54! But Gorbachev’s real significance is that he envisioned himself as forward thinking radical reformer. He was a child of the Khrushchev Thaw, not Stalinism, and he wanted to create a Khrushchev-like revolution that would get the Soviet Union back on track.
Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since the 1920s, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. Glasnost meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present and granting investigative journalists freedom to dig into previously hushed-up stories.
Gorbachev’s tragedy is that he was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perestroika failed to jumpstart Soviet industry and enabled the election of a large number of opposition candidates. For the majority of citizens, glasnost-fueled revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply unsettling and only undermined their faith in the Party further. At the same time, other events demonstrated the limits of Gorbachev’s reformism. His effort to save face in Afghanistan caused the war to drag on until 1989. And the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in April 1986, in which a nuclear power station melted down, had a major environmental and public health consequences, while the state’s bungling of the relief effort further eroded faith in the state. Many citizens learned about the meltdown from Western radio stations like the Voice of America before their own, and the limited, disorganized evacuation left many people vulnerable.
By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while the limits he imposed when things didn’t go his way alienated progressives. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev initially considered Yeltsin an ally and appointed him to the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic SSRs, which had the most developed nationalist movements, declared their independence, which Gorbachev didn’t contest. Yeltsin, seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, declared the sovereignty of the RSFSR. This was enough to freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.
After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed an agreement forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics joined. That left Gorbachev the leader of a Soviet Union that no longer contained any republics. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned, and the Soviet Union came to a surprisingly peaceful end.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Bloc was undergoing its own “carnival of revolution,” as one historian aptly named it. Gorbachev deserves some credit here. His imposition of reformist policies across the Eastern Bloc, while not exactly a democratic maneuver, bolstered the reform movements that had been brewing since the 1970s. And his decision not to use Warsaw Pact troops as Brezhnev had spared Eastern Europe a great deal of potential violence. But of course, these revolutions were made first and foremost at home, and it was activists in each country who liberated themselves from their oppressive governments and ensured that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc proceeded with remarkably little violence. The events of 1989 started with Solidarity activists in Poland, who won a major electoral victory in that country’s first multi-party elections that summer. Hungary soon followed suit and opened up its border with Austria—literally breaching the “Iron Curtain.” At the same time, activists in East Germany began holding weekly protests, and this takes back to our discussion with Serge Schmemann earlier this semester. Czechoslovakia was next, experiencing its “Velvet Revolution” (and the “Velvet Divorce” of its two component states) in November. Revolution quickly spread through the remaining countries of the Eastern Bloc. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, Eastern Europe faced the challenge of completely rebuilding itself for the third time in the 20th century.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In his introduction to Chapter 11, Mazower emphasizes how blindsided everyone was by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and he advises us to be skeptical of “triumphalist explanations” of these events. Thinking over this chapter as a whole and placing it in the context of our study of Western Europe in these same decades, consider your answers to Mazower’s two main questions on p.362: In what sense did the West “win” the Cold War? Or did it? Was this a glorious triumph for “the people” and for the cause of European freedom over tyranny, or not?
2. As you read about the economic problems of the Eastern Bloc, things might have sounded pretty familiar. Economic decline, inflation, and the crisis of industrial manufacturing were common across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. And as we learned last week, the solutions Western Europe tried were painful and not particularly effective. In your analysis, why did the liberal democracies of Western Europe survive this crisis while the communist party-states of Eastern Europe did not? Is the answer economic, political, or both? Was the pain that Western Europeans endured worth it, or would it have been better if they, too, had experienced a major reckoning with their governments?
3. Mazower argues that the withdrawal of Soviet influence from Eastern Europe and the birth of new, post-communist states in the former Eastern Bloc is best understood through the lens of de-colonization. In this model, the Soviet Union is the Metropole (akin to imperial Britain or France), and the Eastern Bloc countries are the imperialized territories (akin to British India, French Algeria, etc.) Based on our study of de-colonization two weeks ago, can you analyze his use of this model? Do you think it fits? Why or why not? What other framework would you propose?
4. After 1989, Eastern Europe found itself in a similar position to where it had been after WWI and again after WWII. One conclusion we might draw from this is that neither the solutions of 1919 nor the solutions of 1945 were viable for this region. On the other hand, the region itself was significantly changed by these wars and by the reconstructions that followed them. Consider the following: What political, social, economic, and cultural differences can we identify between Eastern Europe in 1914 (at the start of WWI) and in 1989? What are some specific ways that both war and peace reshaped this region? How did that make achieving a lasting, stable peace in 1989 both easier and more difficult? Mazower asserts, “In fact the transition after 1989 was smoother than either of those after the First and Second World Wars, a sign perhaps of the growing political sophistication and experience of the region.” (Mazower, 384) Do you agree? Why or why not?
5. Mazower points out that while Western Europe welcomed the revolutions of 1989, it did relatively little to help with the transition to capitalism. In fact, privatization and austerity measures spearheaded by Western economic advisors may have done more harm than good. Yet, many Eastern Europeans even today look to Western Europe for support and even salvation, which is still not forthcoming. How did the events of the 20th century create that mindset in Eastern Europe? Should the West have done more to help the East in the 1990s? Should it do more to intervene in these countries’ politics now that most of them have joined the European Union? Why or why not?
6. Let’s tun to our primary source, “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost).” Gorbachev has a delicate job here. He has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?
7. You may notice that Gorbachev also talks a lot about Lenin in this speech. What role does Lenin play for Gorbachev here? Why do you think he reaches back to Lenin, instead of keeping the focus on himself? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?
9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?
10. This speech was published in newspapers and read by citizens across the Eastern Bloc. Put yourself in the shoes of various actors in the counties of Eastern Europe. How would you respond to this speech if you were a worker? An intellectual human rights activist? A Party leader? How might speeches like this one act as a destabilizing force across the Eastern Bloc?