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Gorbachev and the fall of the Iron Curtain


The end of the Brezhnev Doctrine

Another foreign policy breakthrough came in December 1988, when Gorbachev spoke at the United Nations. He announced huge cuts in the Soviet armed forces. Gorbachev also made it clear that the Brezhnev Doctrine was now abandoned: the countries of Eastern Europe could do what they liked. There would be no more Soviet tanks rolling into Prague or Budapest.


1989: year of revolution

When it became clear that the Soviet Union was no longer ready to use force to control its Empire, there was rapid change. In May 1989 the Hungarian government opened the frontier with Austria; there was now a gap in the Iron Curtain. In June free elections were held in Poland. Solidarity won and in August 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 though Austria into West Germany. This made a nonsense of the Berlin Wall.


In October 1989 Gorbachev visited East Germany for the celebration of the fortieth 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 10 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, Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day.


Throughout Eastern Europe there was no popular support for communism and, without the threat of Soviet tanks, Communism fell apart. In 1990 the two halves of Germany were re-united and a single pro-Western state was established.


The last days of the USSR

After 1989 Gorbachev was in a difficult position. His plan to reform communism had failed. Communism had been rejected by Eastern Europe and different nationalities demanded independence from the Soviet Union. The call for independence was strongest in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In Russia itself, the heart of the USSR, many people demanded an end to communism. On 4 February l990, 250,000 people demonstrated in Moscow against communism.


With his plans in ruins Gorbachev responded by drawing back from reform and trying to make an alliance with old style, hard-line communists. On May Day 1990, demonstrators humiliated Gorbachev by shouting at him in public during the traditional communist march.


The rise of Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin became the leader of the reformists. He had been a communist boss in the city of Moscow until he was dismissed in 1987 by Gorbachev because of his radical views. In May 1990 Yeltsin was elected President of Russia. The USSR was divided into separate republics and Russia was the largest of them. A month later Yeltsin left the communist party and joined forces with those who wanted to destroy Soviet communism. Gorbachev was losing control of events.


In the autumn of 1990 Gorbachev tried to stop the disintegration of the USSR by using force against nationalists in the Baltic republics At the same time Gorbachev appointed more old-style communists to key positions of government. This new hard line from Gorbachev was not a success. He began to lose many of his long-standing friends and supporters.


In December 1990 the Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned and complained of a move towards dictatorship. This was a great blow - Shevardnadze had been one of Gorbachev's allies for many years.


The fall of Gorbachev

The struggle for control of the USSR came to a head in 1991. Yeltsin attacked the power of the communist party in the daily life of Russian people. He banned the party from operating at all places of work. The Russian Parliament that Yeltsin controlled became more powerful and challenged the central government of Gorbachev. Gorbachev did not know which way to turn.


In August 1991 a group of hard-line communists tried to seize power. They arrested Gorbachev and declared a state of emergency. The coup was opposed by Boris Yeltsin and it soon collapsed. After the coup, the authority of Gorbachev was damaged. In December 1991 the individual Soviet republics became independent and Gorbachev resigned as Soviet leader. The Soviet state, born in the 1917 revolution, no longer existed.