Stalin was one of the great monsters of the 20th Century, and his death in 1953 briefly brightened Soviet political life. His surviving henchmen went through a few years of intrigues and maneuvering until the most malignant of them, Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police, was arrested and executed, and the least malignant, Nikita Khrushchev, finally emerged as new dictator of the Soviet Union. He denounced Stalin's memory to a secret party congress in 1956 and began dismantling the worst aspects of the Stalinist state. As Soviet society loosened up, it became safer for some writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch) to publish honest social commentary in novels, although others, like Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), were still banned and persecuted.
Khrushchev continued to push Soviet influence abroad until he overreached by trying to plant nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962. After American stubbornness forced him to back down, disappointed Communist hardliners found growing support to remove him from power. Khrushchev had been growing increasingly strange and unpredictable. In October 1964, his second-in-command, a grim, gray and awesomely eyebrowed functionary named Leonid Brezhnev, summoned Khrushchev back from vacation and told him that everyone had talked it over and decided it was time for Khrushchev to retire. Brezhnev then moved into the big office.
Although the deadly purges and famines of Stalin’s day were safely in the past, the Soviet system turned stale during the two decades of Brezhnev’s rule. The system was corrupt rather than actually dangerous. Consumer goods and housing were scarce and shoddy. Families lived packed together in soulless concrete apartment blocks. Although no one was actually starving, people queued for food because the distribution system never worked smoothly. Although the vast Gulag system was thinning out, an unwise word, outburst or association could still subject a person to a jail term, expulsion from school or the loss of jobs and benefits. Because wealth was doled out by the government according to cronyism, joining the Communist party might open up opportunities, but so many people tried this route that it still took many years of patient obedience to reap a little benefit. Few Russians had an interest in keeping the system intact.
The head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov was perfectly positioned to take over after Brezhnev died in November 1982. He had been in charge of crushing both the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian rebellions, and he was merciless on dissidents at home; however, being head of the secret police also meant Andropov had an unfiltered view of both East and West, so he could see firsthand how rotten the system had become. Smuggling and black market were rampant. The war in Afghanistan was going nowhere. The arms race with the US was draining the economy.
Andropov tried to systematically root out and eliminate all the corruption from his government. During his 15 months in charge, Andropov frequently dismissed ministers and brought criminal cases against party bosses and state officials. He promoted reformers to replace them. Economic stagnation and technological incompetence were openly discussed in public forums.
Andropov died after barely a year in office, and the conservatives elevated Konstantin Chernenko, an elderly Brezhnev clone, to put the brakes on the reform movement. Chernenko died within a year, and one of Andropov’s protégés, Mikhail Gorbachev, took over as Soviet leader in March 1985. Being young by the standards of the Soviet leadership, a mere 54, Gorbachev survived long enough to get some work done.
As a bright, ambitious agriculture student in the 1950s, Gorbachev had come of age during the Khrushchev rejuvenation and had absorbed much of the liberal-ish optimism of that era. Rather than settling into the drudge work of ordinary government service, Gorbachev entered the hierarchy of the Communist Party where the important decisions were made. He rose steadily over the next 20 years, chairing increasingly important committees and finally becoming the youngest member of the Politburo in 1980.
As leader of Russia, Gorbachev publicly instituted the twin policies of Glasnost (Openness, meaning political reform) and Perestroika (Restructuring, meaning economic reform) to encourage Soviets of all walks of life to expose and fix problems throughout society. In the old days, the Soviet news would not even report ordinary plane crashes for fear of breeding pessimism and discouraging the people’s faith in the system. Under Glasnost, the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in April 1986 was widely reported both inside and outside the Soviet Union, as was the mass destruction of shoddy buildings in the December 1988 Armenian earthquake. These twin disasters highlighted just how badly the physical infrastructure of the Soviet Union had deteriorated – and how much work was needed to restore Russia’s former glory.
Gorbachev clearly wanted to tweak the system to make it more adaptable and dynamic without actually doing away with it. To that end, Gorbachev pushed through constitutional amendments that created the new Congress of People's Deputies as the highest legislative authority in the USSR. He hoped to bring new ideas into the government and shake up the complacency of the entrenched bureaucracy. The Congress of People’s Deputies was more directly responsible to the people than the longtime legislature, the Supreme Soviet, was. Although a certain percentage of the body was reserved for representatives of the Communist party, free and competitive elections filled the rest of the seats in March 1989.
Something similar seemed to be brewing in the other Communist giant. When Mao Zedong died in 1976, hardcore Communism in China died with him. During the brief power struggle following his death, the hardcore radical Communists - personified as the infamous Gang of Four - were isolated and purged, and the moderates took over.
Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China’s economy was opened to foreign investment and private enterprise, but the Communist Party kept political power on a tight leash. Political prisons remained well-stocked. Among Deng’s advisors, the one who pushed most ardently for more political change was Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Communist Party. Hu had served alongside Mao in the Chinese Civil War and was one of the youngest surviving veterans of the legendary Long March that had saved Communism when the war temporarily turned against them. Like Deng Xiaoping, Hu had been purged and imprisoned as a moderate during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and rehabilitated after Mao’s death. For many years, the outspoken Hu had been irritating his more orthodox colleagues with irreverent snipes at Mao’s legacy. He was one of the first Chinese leaders to trade his drab, baggy Mao uniform for a Western business suit. He showed hospitality to foreigners and a relaxed attitude towards dissent. In speeches he would sometimes let slip an inappropriate hope for freedom, which he would then be forced to take back. Naturally, his colleagues began looking for a way to get rid of this crazy old man.
December 1986 and January 1987 saw a smattering of student protests in favor of liberalization in several cities across China. Hu Yaobang avoided cracking down on the protesters, much to the annoyance of hardliners in the government. Accused of being weak, he was stripped of all but ceremonial duties and pushed into semi-retirement.
Now very old, Hu Yaobang died on April 15, 1989. Much to the horror of China’s leaders, Hu did not pass unmourned. He had been one of the few Chinese in the public eye to say more than the usual reassuring Communist platitudes, and the people hadn’t forgotten that. His funeral became a perfectly legal excuse for reform-minded Chinese to gather in public and annoy the government. Thousands lined up to view his body and pay their respects. Students were especially likely to come out. Within a few days, 50,000 of Hu’s admirers had gathered in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to honor his memory. They settled in for a long stay. Posters supporting reform were slapped up all over the country, and petitions in favor of more political freedom were offered to the government. By May 13, around 300,000 protesters were camped out in Tienanmen Square.
A couple of complications kept the Chinese leadership from cracking down on the protests right away. Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in China on May 15 for a scheduled state visit, and it is widely considered bad manners in diplomatic circles to launch a massacre in front of company. Then the commander of the 38th Army, the main unit recruited and stationed in Beijing, openly refused to use force against the students because his troops had too many friends and family among them. This delayed action for another week as less sentimental army units were brought in from the outer provinces. An estimated million protesters were now in Beijing.
Finally, on June 4, 1989 the government had enough troops gathered outside Beijing to start clearing Tienanmen Square. As soldiers moved in, they fired into the crowds and toward windows overlooking the square. They demolished the makeshift encampments of the protesters. The students tried to drive the soldiers away by throwing rocks, bottles and insults. Army tanks and armored cars plowed ahead. By the end of the day, the protesters were defeated, battered and scattered. Hundreds were dead, and the rest had been dispersed.
Symbolically, however, they were still standing. We’ve all seen the strange, inspiring video of tanks rolling toward Tiananmen Square on the next day of the crackdown. A lone Chinese dissident stood defiantly in the path of the oncoming column of tanks. Rather than roll over him, the tanks stopped, hesitated and tried to go around him. He sidestepped and got in their way again. They hesitated. He started climbing on the lead tank to talk the drivers into leaving, but now bystanders intervened and pulled him away to either safety or jail – no one knows where.
Several foreign photographers caught the scene and managed to smuggle the images out of the country at personal risk. Charlie Cole of Newsweek quickly hid the undeveloped film in a plastic bag in the toilet tank of his hotel room, just before Chinese security officers arrived. They ripped all the undeveloped film out of his cameras and confiscated his passport, but they didn’t find the hidden photograph. Jeff Widener of the Associated Press gave his photograph to a scruffy, inconspicuous assistant to smuggle to the AP office in his underwear. Stuart Franklin of Magnum had his photograph smuggled back to Paris in a packet of tea by a French student. There were dangers everywhere. Two nights before Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters photographed Tank Man in Tienanmen Square, he was beaten by students who thought he was a spy.
It’s one of those weird moments from history that would probably have faded away if it hadn’t been captured on film. No one knows who this dissident was. He himself probably doesn’t even know how famous he is, but anonymous Tank Man has become the iconic symbol of all protesters across history. It was, however, the last stand for the students. Mass arrests and mopping up followed.
The most immediately successful transitions from Communism to freedom happened in the smaller nations of Eastern Europe. As the Soviet Union loosened up, the puppet regimes that held power in the satellite nations were starting to worry that they might be left to fend for themselves.
In April 1988, Polish workers started scattered strikes for better pay. From the shipyard in Gdansk and the steelworks in Krakow, the strikes spread to coal mines and transport systems all over the country. By the end of August, the Polish economy was frozen, and the government was finally willing to talk with Lech Walesa, leader of the independent (and illegal) worker’s union Solidarity. The government stalled as long as possible but eventually gave in to the workers’ demands. They even scheduled new parliamentary elections for June 1989 and agreed to allow one-third of the seats to be openly contested; however, they insisted on keeping all the other seats set aside for Communist appointees, as usual. As it turned out, that was a wise decision. Solidarity won 99 of 100 contested seats, and it was only the reserved seating that kept the Communists in power. The Communists faced reality and invited Solidarity to join them in a coalition government.
At the time, it was an unprecedented defeat for communism. This was the first crack in their monopoly of power anywhere in the Soviet satellite nations. By the end of the year, however, it was looking like the Polish Communist Party had made a pretty good deal after all. At least they got to share power. Elsewhere, they were being completely swept away.
Hungary was already one of the most relaxed communist regimes, so when street demonstrations in favor of democracy broke out in Budapest in March 1989, it wasn’t long before the Communist leadership agreed to talk. In June 1989, facing up to the brutality of their Communist past, the government allowed the rehabilitation and reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which drew a crowd of 100,000. Patient negotiation overhauled the entire political system by September, with free elections scheduled for May 1990. On October 23, 1989, the People’s Republic of Hungary dropped “People’s” from its title and dissolved its Presidential Council, effectively renouncing Communism.
On the same day that the People’s Republic of Hungary went away, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze publicly renounced force as a tool of foreign policy. The Soviets promised hereafter to respect the right of self-determination in the satellite nations, so East Europeans immediately put it to the test. Within a few days East Germans and Czechs took to the streets of their capitals, demanding political freedoms. Previous outbursts like this had been squashed under the treads of Soviet tanks, but now the Russians just stayed home and let history unfold without interference.
In May 1989, the Hungarian government dismantled the barbed wire and electric fencing along the Austrian border that they had installed to keep their people locked in. Almost immediately, thousands of disgruntled East Germans, forbidden to travel anywhere but the Communist bloc, arranged vacations in Hungary so they could escape into the West before their government took Hungary off the approved list of destinations.
At times it almost seemed like the collapse of communism was accidental. As tens of thousands of East Germans abandoned their country through the newly opened borders of Hungary, the government in Berlin scrambled to stop them. Hoping to calm the exodus, the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, their intention to open their own borders to unrestricted crossing. The rulers meant this as “eventually” and “at some point in the vague and distant future” and “don’t be in such a hurry to sneak out through Hungary”, but they failed to include a timetable in the announcement, so a when a spokesman for the government was asked to clarify, he guessed they meant “right away”. Before the day was over, a happy festival of Berliners from both east and west had swarmed over the Berlin Wall, singing, dancing, greeting their long-lost neighbors from the other side, and jointly knocking apart the Wall with sledge hammers. The East German border guards were too confused to shoot them.
On November 17, Czech students were rallying in Prague to celebrate International Students' Day when the police stepped in and started clubbing them brutally. Protests against the attack quickly swelled to a half million marchers. Within a few days, the top Communist Party leadership resigned, but that didn’t make the protests go away. The legislature rewrote the constitution, crossing out all the paragraphs that gave the Communist party special powers. Strikes and protests continued without letup. Finally, on December 10, the president appointed a non-communist transitional government and resigned. Free elections at the end of December put two former political prisoners in charge, the activist playwright Václav Havel as president and the former reformist leader Alexander Dubček as chairman of parliament. The whole process went so smoothly it was called the Velvet Revolution.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, on the other hand, wasn’t going down without a fight. In December 1989 in the western city of Timişoara, government harassment of a popular priest sparked mass protests. Under orders, soldiers fired on the crowd and killed dozens. Daily protests spread to the capital at Bucharest. As more protesters were shot, beaten to death and crushed with tanks, riots erupted. Hundreds of Romanians were quickly killed in what started to look like a civil war. Finally, after a few days of this, the military got tired of killing protesters and switched sides. Ceausescu and his wife were caught trying to escape and dragged into court where they were quickly found guilty of genocide. Their firing squad was so eager to get at them that on Christmas Day the Ceausescus were taken away as soon as they were sentenced and shot dead without much ado, even before the official cameras started rolling to record it for history. Romanian state television broadcast a live video feed all day of their dead bodies lying on the ground to prove they were really dead, and more importantly -- this being Romania after all -- not coming back.
The first big street protests in Bulgaria erupted November 1989 with as many as 50,000 demonstrating against the Communists. The ruling circle tried to defuse the situation by pushing their long-time dictator into retirement and replacing him with someone less hated, but this ruse didn’t quiet the country down. In the face of endless protesting, the Communists finally admitted defeat in February 1990. In June Bulgaria held its first free election, which the Communists won anyway under a new name. Even so, later elections would shuffle the deck and deal out new parliaments with democratic regularity.
A continent away, the second oldest Communist country was cutting loose as well. Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj (No, my cat did not walk across the keyboard. It’s a person's name, pronounced sort of like Sah-yahg-in Ill-big-dotch.) learned about glasnost while studying military journalism in Moscow. He brought the idea home to Mongolia after graduation in 1988. While working for the Mongolian armed forces newspaper, he organized an underground democracy movement. By December 1989, the movement was popular enough to gather 100,000 protesters in the streets over and over again, until finally in March the communist government of Mongolia agreed to go away.
The new openness in the Soviet Union had the unfortunate side effect of uncorking a brewing ethnic war in the Caucasus Mountains between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The two groups were widely intermingled and the border between the two Soviet Socialist Republics could only approximate the ethnic distribution. The border as drawn left a large enclave of Armenians inside Azerbaijan in a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. Demonstrations in favor of annexing Nagorno-Karabakh started in the Armenian capital in February 1988. Dissent escalated, and by summer protesters were occasionally getting shot in the streets. Both republics began to expel residents of the opposite ethnicity. Gorbachev fired, replaced or arrested as many local leaders as he could in hopes of smothering the civil war in its infancy – but without success.
Meanwhile, at the epicenter of Glasnost was a new rising star: Boris Yeltsin, a white-haired, hard-drinking former construction engineer from the industrial city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) in the Ural Mountains, who was appointed by Gorbachev in 1986 to be party boss of Moscow – essentially, the mayor. Earthy, jovial and unpredictable, Yeltsin was popular with the people of Moscow. He used public transportation, accepted public petitions and cheerfully fired corrupt officials wherever he found them. Then he got in trouble with hard-liners in Soviet government for refusing to crack down on unlicensed political demonstrations in the city. Irritated that Mikhail Gorbachev failed to rush in and take his side in this dispute, Yeltsin very publicly criticized Gorbachev and resigned all his positions.
The way the Soviet Union traditionally worked, this doomed Yeltsin to aimless, alcoholic obscurity, so he sank into deep depression that included either a clumsy accident (his story) or a failed suicide (a former bodyguard’s story) that sent him rushing to the emergency room bleeding from chest wounds; however, while recovering from his mysterious injuries, Yeltsin was summoned from his sickbed by Gorbachev to be questioned before a government committee about his rude behavior. Now more annoyed than depressed, Yeltsin entered the March 1989 elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies and won a seat. He quickly became the beefy red face of the movement to turn Russia into a proper European democracy. As events spiraled out of control, Mikhail Gorbachev, who just a few years earlier had been ahead of the reform movement, now fell farther behind.
The rest of the world was also having trouble keeping up with events in the Soviet Union. In the West, the dominant political theory at this stage in the Cold War was the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, named after Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American scholar and ambassador to the United Nations. It held that totalitarian governments controlled their people too tightly for dissent to ever boil over. The United States assumed that Communist regimes would never go away once they got established, so it put all its effort into stopping new ones from taking root, without even considering the possibility that some nations might willingly abandon Communism in the near future. Although the United States had been the sworn enemy of the Soviet Union for forty years, the American leadership still preferred the devil they knew.
Bill Keller, who covered the Soviet Union for The New York Times from 1986 to 1991… observed that when “Yeltsin emerged in the mid-1980s as the Communist Party boss of Moscow, a rambunctious, crowd-pleasing reformer, Western officials viewed him as an uninvited guest at the Gorbachev honeymoon.”
“What a flake!” Secretary of State James A. Baker III was said to have remarked after meeting Mr. Yeltsin. “He sure makes Gorbachev look good by comparison.” [n.1]
Although Gorbachev held the reins of the federal government tightly in his own hands, it proved to be a mistake allowing competitive elections to fill lesser positions such as the leadership of the 15 pseudo-sovereign Soviet Socialist Republics that made up the Union. It gave the individual republics more popular legitimacy than the Soviet Union as a whole. In June 1991 Gorbachev’s former ally and present nuisance, Boris Yeltsin, was elected president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Russian nation at the core of the Soviet Union.
In August 1991, conservatives in the Soviet military drove up to Gorbachev’s country vacation home and arrested him as the first step in an army coup. They had expected that this would be enough to crush reform and therefore had not planned much beyond this, but Boris Yeltsin stepped up to rally the Russian people in support of democracy. Mobs of Muscovites rallied around the White House, the RSFSR’s executive center in Moscow, to stare down the tanks sent to arrest Yeltsin. The tank crews sided with the people, and the coup collapsed.
The attempted coup scared the republics into getting out of the Soviet Union before the window of opportunity slammed shut and locked them in. Within a few weeks, they had all declared their independence and jointly agreed to abolish the Union at the end of the year. Freed from his house arrest, Gorbachev reluctantly agreed to let this happen, and his job ceased to exist with the new year.
[n.1] Marilyn Berger, “Boris N. Yeltsin, Reformer Who Broke Up the U.S.S.R., Dies at 76”, New York Times, April 24, 2007
Copyright © November 2016 by Matthew White