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Soviet Empire 1948-91


The split with Tito

The Yugoslav communist leader, Tito, liberated Yugoslavia from German control without help from Moscow. He argued with Stalin and refused to take orders from Moscow. In 1948 Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform, the international grouping of communist parties.


The Soviet Union imposed a trade ban on Yugoslavia but they survived due to support from the USA. Stalin dealt ruthlessly with other East European countries between 1949 and 1953. He was worried that they might try to copy Tito. Leading communists with independent ideas were imprisoned or executed.


Turmoil in the Communist World after Stalin

After Stalin's death in 1953 people in Eastern Europe hoped for more freedom from Soviet control.


The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, established friendly relations with Yugoslavia in 1955. Hungarians hoped to copy Yugoslav independence.


In 1956 unrest in Poland led to reforms and concessions by the communist government. This encouraged Hungarians to demand reforms.


The Hungarian Uprising

In October 1956 unrest in Hungary led to the appointment of a new Prime Minister, the communist reformer, Imre Nagy. People demanded that Hungary should leave the Warsaw Pact and become neutral. Nagy agreed but in November 1956 Soviet troops invaded Hungary and imposed a new pro-Soviet government. There was fierce street fighting in which thousands of people were killed. Nagy was arrested and later executed. The USA did nothing to help the Hungarians: people in the West were preoccupied with the Suez crisis.


The Prague Spring


Economic problems caused unrest in Czechoslovakia in 1967. A new communist leader, Dubcek, took power in January 1968. He introduced democratic reforms while remaining communist. In August 1968 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to end the reforms. Dubcek lost his job in 1969 and a pro-Soviet government was put in place. Afterwards the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, announced the Brezhnev Doctrine: the Soviet Union would use force to keep communists in power in any country.


1956 and 1968 compared

In both cases the Soviet Union used force to end reforms in East European countries. New pro-Soviet governments were imposed.


The Hungarian government wanted to break with the Soviet Union, leave the Warsaw Pact and become neutral. The Czechoslovak government wanted much more democracy at home but promised to stay in the Warsaw Pact.


In both cases the USA did nothing to help. The West was preoccupied with Suez in 1956 and Vietnam in 1968.


The Hungarians fought against the Soviet invasion thousands were killed. The Czechoslovak people offered non-violent resistance. The Hungarian leader, Nagy, was executed; the Czechoslovak leader, Dubcek, lost his job, but remained alive and free.


The Berlin Wall

Between 1958 and 1961 there was a dispute between the Soviet Union and the USA over Berlin. The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, said that Western forces should leave the city and that it should become neutral. The US president, Eisenhower, was prepared to compromise but he was replaced in 1961 by President Kennedy.


Kennedy refused to compromise and both leaders publicly threatened war over Berlin. In 1961 the crisis was resolved. and the threat of immediate war disappeared, when a wall was built around West Berlin to stop East Germans fleeing the communist state.


Poland and the rise of Solidarity

Shipyard workers in Gdansk went on strike in 1980 in protest against rising prices. They were led by Lech Walesa and formed a new non-communist trade union called Solidarity. Millions of workers joined Solidarity. The Soviet government considered invading Poland in order to crush the union.


To avoid this the Polish communist leader, Jaruzelski, banned Solidarity in December 1981. He declared martial law and imprisoned Solidarity leaders without trial but failed to destroy the union. Solidarity did well in elections in 1989 and formed a non-communist government.


Soviet Communism in decline

The Soviet Union was in crisis by the early 1980s:

The economy had failed to match the economies of America and Western Europe.


The arms race further reduced living standards.


There was widespread corruption.


The Soviet Union was fighting a disastrous war in Afghanistan.


The second Cold War

After the Vietnam War the USA pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union. This involved peaceful co-existence and some arms reductions. Ronald Reagan became president of the USA in 1981 and he ended detente and began a new arms race with the USSR.



Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformist communist, took control in the Soviet Union in 1985. He wanted to improve the Soviet Union by 'perestroika' - 'restructuring' or reforming the economy and 'glasnost' - greater 'openness' and freedom of speech. His reforms undermined the position of old-style pro-Soviet leaders in other countries. He renounced the 'Brezhnev Doctrine' of interference in other countries.


The whole of communist Europe was swept with revolution in 1989. One by one, the communist authorities were overthrown. The Soviet Union led by Gorbachev did nothing to stop this process. The Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989. In 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart. After a failed communist coup in August, the republics that made up the USSR declared their independence. Gorbachev resigned. Russia became a separate state ruled over by Boris Yeltsin.