The collapse of the Communist spectre that cast itself over Eastern Europe since the end of World War II was due to a series of events that happened both in and outside of the Soviet Union. The accession to power and subsequent policies of the progressive reformist Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev such as Perestroika and Glasnost began the effective crumbling of the Soviet grip over the East. The desire to reform and greatly modernise the USSR both economically and socially gave way to revolutionary circumstances beyond party control, effectively sealing the fate of Communist Europe and Russia.
Internally we see in the defiance of the many dissident groups that sprung up all over the Soviet Empire, demonstrating for reform. The rise of nationalism in the Soviet “satellite states” such as the Baltic [of which I will focus on in depth], Poland and Azerbaijan saw organised dissent against the Central one-party system, with Lithuania unilaterally declaring independence in 1990. With liberties being conceded by Moscow it soon gave rise unforeseen consequences that could not be stopped without resorting to the old “methods” that had been abandoned.
Outside of the Soviet Union we see pressures exerted by the West to undermine the Soviet Empire, NATO1 would secure the West and provide beacons of hope for those trapped in the Eastern Bloc. Communism’s demise in Eastern Europe and soon after the Russia occurred rapidly after Gorbachev’s somewhat revolutionary reform programmes, giving way relatively peaceful, pent-up revolutionary activity from the masses. During the Mid-Eighties the Soviet monolith that reigned over Eastern Europe and Asia was in considerable crisis.
A declining economy that had suffered chronic illness for many years just could not compete with the Western market economy; failing to meet the needs of the elite and masses. Gorbachev’s economic reforms worked on the premise that the problems hampering the Soviet economy were the bad habits and attitudes of the workforce. He constantly referred to this as “activate the human factor”2, both workers and managers alike needed to be taught and shown that they could no longer carry on in their lax and corrupt ways.
Gorbachev failed to appreciate that the very foundations of the Soviet command economy were outdated and detrimental to promoting and maintaining a successful economy. ‘Perestroika’ (restructuring) is perhaps one of the most important aspects in the disintegration of Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev in his attempted restructuring of economic, social and political life dismantled the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist totalitarian state. By these revolutionary measures implicated at the top he sought to curtail and stem the threat of revolutionary actions from below.
Many people at the time and historians since, perhaps mistakenly, viewed Gorbachev’s actions as nothing but an attempt to rejuvenate and restore the Soviet Union with the socialist traditions of its birth3. Perestroika was the Soviet elite acknowledging the Soviet system had hit a dead end, economic growth had ceased and that popular morale was at a critical low, reform had to be made right across the board so that the elite could still retain their status and control over the creation and disposition of the surplus product. 4
The political liberalisation that Gorbachev entitled the Soviets brought many damaging consequences to the reform process and to the stability of the USSR as a whole. Strikes and workplace protests that were previously dealt with in brutal suppression and legal action by the State were now dealt with by the largely ineffective strike law5. 1989 saw the Soviet economy as a whole lose 7. 3 million6 person-days, this was mostly due to the nationalist unrest in the Caucus and the first mass miner’s strike that broke out in four of the five major coal mining regions.
This strike was caused by decades of pent up frustrations and grievances at the state for their years and years of treating ill treatment of the minors and their needs. Wage increases, more plentiful food and better living/working conditions were all demanded, also they wanted an end to centralized ministerial control7. Gorbachev’s “Democratisation” initiative followed similar lines to those of Glasnost and perestroika. This was to re-invigorate the soviets by the development of a socialist democracy.
Put simply Gorbachev wished to “Spring clean”8 the party, to re-structure and to tackle the fundamental inertia that was undermining the state- system throughout its core. Structurally, the existing powerless parliament9 would be replaced by a two-chamber Supreme Soviet, this was to hold 450 deputies that would be elected from The Congress Of People’s Deputies comprising of 2000 people. For example, Party committees would now have the choice of many candidates when voting in their respective executive officers, before there would be usually one nominee merely towing the party line 10.
Gorbachev held fast to the assumption that by allowing the people “more democracy” he would in turn create “more socialism”. Keep quite rightly states that by giving people more scope and opportunity to act for themselves they will inevitably ask awkward questions, and question their own autonomy11. Nationalistic issues would cause a downward spiral effect on the Soviet economy, national groups would protest against the centre, blaming them for the depravation that was being inflicted.
By means of protest they often disrupted or withheld commodities from circulation, this in turn plunged the economy into deeper recession and contraction. Resentment thus grew and the vicious circle continued12. P. A Goble states that Gorbachev suffered from “ethnic blindness”13, trying to quell any nationalistic animosity with often-ambiguous statements about the socio-economic progress already being achieved. I feel it is useful to parallel the events and experiences faced by communism in the Baltic with that of the rest of the Eastern Europe.
The economic and social problems that faced the Baltic’s indigenous people during Moscow’s reign are easily comparable to those that the rest of Russian absorbed states experienced. The Baltic region would become of great importance to the USSR due to its strategic and economic potential, a valued buffer zone from the West, not to mention Soviet access to the seas. The ruthless and brutal absorption of the Baltic into the Eastern Bloc meant the inevitable loss of freedoms, sovereignty and identity as Moscow sought to industrialise and modernise it’s great mass of “red” territory.
Demographically the Baltic saw huge change as a result of the mass industrial immigration into the Baltic, especially from the Russian republic14. This mass influx of many new cultures and ethnic groups which diluted the nationalities of Estonia et al’ can be seen as deliberate attempts by Moscow to stifle Baltic national identity. P… Zunde claims that Russia used the pre-text of economic immigration to colonise Lithuania15, however Elmar Jarvesoo claims this is a too cynical a perspective, that ‘russification’ was not purposely directed by Moscow.
We can see Russian attempts to stifle Baltic culture and traditions of music and art. Soviet authorities were vigilant in their search for not just open expressions of dissent, but also of matter not towing the party line of social realism16. Estonian composers Arvo Part and Neeme Jarvi were subject to much criticism for their apparent foreign influences and in the case of the latter had restrictions placed on travel17. Such was the vitality of Baltic culture, the respective communist parties of all three Baltic states showed resistance and refused to act as mere agents of the central authorities.
It can be argued that Russian restriction placed upon the Baltic peoples who naturally wanted to express their own identities fearing the consequences drove the need to live and prosper outside of the Soviet sphere. Ecological protest had become something of a tradition in the Baltic States for some years, opposition to the development for more phosphate mines in Estonia, which not only decimated the landscape but also required the immigration of thousands more Russian workers.
Lithuania saw plans by Moscow to expand the republic’s ecologically dangerous chemicals industry; protest to this was instrumental in the formation of Sajudis18 in June 1988. 19 Sajudis would become instrumental in fighting for Lithuanian independence; it also protected against policies detrimental to the environment and demanded the restoration of the Lithuanian language as the “official” language. 20 Although reforms were promised by Moscow, better and more plentiful food and wages failed to materialise and satisfy the great need of the people, nationalist groups within, swelled.
Nationalist demonstrations such as the “The Baltic Way” in 23rd August 198921, helped to inspire and spread the feelings of emancipation and sovereignty. This particular demonstration involved two million Balts (2/5ths of the entire indigenous population) forming a continuous 370-mile chain from Vilinus to Tallin to demand their independence. Gorbachev’s claim of “glasnost” (Openness) would bring about a new honesty about Soviet historiography.
The Baltic experience of the clandestine years since the War was like that of much of the Soviet Empire, based on lies and cover-ups, Soviet rule over the Baltic States was illegitimate. The publication of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact disclosed the truth of how the Baltic became annexed in 1940, out of this revelation sprung the radical Estonian National Independence Party22. This party would be a huge driving force in gaining Estonia independence, by extension it also helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe.
The Slav-republics, such as the Ukraine and Belarus, inspired by the initiatives taken in the Baltic also saw nationalism swell and give rise to “Popular Fronts”23, demanding of their own rights and freedoms and in the extreme, emancipation from Moscow. This situation perfectly sums up Gorbachev’s glasnost dilemma, the truth needs to be told, to wipe the slate clean as it were, but this honesty will help bring down the system that Gorbachev is trying desperately to save. The Cold War somewhat had cooled from the heightened tensions of the Seventies by the time of Gorbachev’s tenure.
However that didn’t stop the arms race between the East and West continuing, draining the Soviet Empire of vast resources she desperately needed. Keeping up with NATO’s increasing military superiority became far too difficult for the Warsaw Pact nations24; the East’s long-standing numerical advantage was being quickly undermined. Some historians have discussed the psychological effects of NATO’s latter dominance of the East, many, especially towards the West, felt inferior and thus resented their own governing bodies. 25
I feel this if of importance when considering outside influences upon the many dissident groups within the Soviet Union and their eventual actions in bringing down the regime. In December 1988, Gorbachev, possibly in response to pressure from the U. S over President Ronald Reagan’s famous “tear down the wall” appeal26, announced at the United Nations that the Soviet Union would no “longer interfere in the internal affairs of any other state”. 27 Gorbachev had overturned the Brezhnev doctrine28; sceptics were silenced by the removal of Red Army troops from the quagmire that was Afghanistan as promised.
Even more dramatically, July 1989 saw Poland vote in the first non-communist government in the Soviet Bloc for four decades; Gorbachev even invited the Polish premiere to Moscow to wish him well. By early 1989, all three Baltic States had achieved the restoration of their pre-soviet national flags, anthems and public holidays29 but due to annulments by Moscow had not yet achieved their much-desired national sovereignty. The climate became more heated, Moscow resorting to the use of the KGB and military to deal with local militia bands, trying to assert their own national law30.
March 1990 saw Lithuania unilaterally declare itself independent, Soviet tanks and troops occupied local government buildings, but due to perestroika, could not resort to outright repression. The Soviet command economy, which by the mid-eighties had become so stagnant and stunted, was in desperate need of reforming. However this centralised economy had created such a system of deep-rooted repression since its inception, that when reform was introduced to tackle this repression and ergo the economy, the whole system began to collapse.
Mikhail Gorbachev had the best intentions in his Perestroika and Glasnost initiatives; he tried to reform a huge entangled centralised system that had been chronically unwell for decades. The boosting of a new more liberal system that would draw and inspire new blood and fresh ideas so as to revive and boost the morale of people of the USSR. People were now encouraged to think for themselves, to worship freely and safely, to take pleasure and pride in their work, things that for so long had been but a distant memory.
Promises of better and more plentiful food and increased wages never materialised, economies, exacerbated by perestroika made food more scare and live even harder. These new freedoms meant that strike action and political and national fronts were set-up, revolutionary activity such as we have seen in the Baltic, from below, could no longer be squashed by force. Thus the death knell of Communism had sounded, Moscow and her diseased centralised system was severed from Eastern Europe.