Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies, glasnost and perestroika, had a telling effect not just on the USSR but the rest of the Soviet bloc. By the late 1980s, the winds of change were blowing through eastern Europe. After four decades of life in the iron grip of socialism, the people in Soviet bloc nations were calling for political and economic liberalisation and reform. From Poland to Romania the Soviet bloc was gripped by strikes, protests and public demonstrations, most of them demanding political and economic reforms similar to those enacted in Moscow. The socialist governments in this places had little option but to bow to public pressure. The year 1989 in particular was pivotal, as one by one the former Soviet states transformed into free and democratic republics. For the most part, this wave of revolutions – dubbed the ‘Autumn of Nations’ by some – took place peacefully with little or no bloodshed.
Poland was the first nation divided by the Cold War – and it became the first nation to shrug off communism. But it was a long and protracted struggle, spanning most of the 1980s. At the heart of Polish anti-communism was a trade union called Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’) and its plucky leader, Lech Walesa. In 1981, after years of political repression, food and goods shortages and dire working conditions, Solidarnosc boasted more than nine million members. The communist regime responded by implementing martial law and declaring Solidarnosc an illegal body; its members were thrown into prison or offered emigration to the country of their choice. In mid-1988, Polish workers began a wave of strikes, one of their conditions being the lifting of the ban on Solidarnosc, which continued to work underground through the 1980s. The government finally backed down in April 1989, allowing Solidarnosc to legally reform and agreeing to hold free elections in June. Solidarnosc candidates were swept into power, winning 99 per cent of seats. By August, Poland had a non-communist prime minister; and in December 1990, Solidarnosc leader Walesa was elected as the president of Poland.
Hungary and Czechoslovakia fall
Hungary was the next domino to fall. In the three decades since the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising, Hungary had actually taken a relatively moderate road. The pro-Soviet leader Janos Kadar was brutal in his suppression of political opposition – but he also took steps to improve standards of living, increasing the production of food and consumer goods. Over time, Hungary’s economy diversified and became more liberal, leading some to call it “goulash communism”. Social controls like censorship were also eased. Kadar was replaced as leader in mid-1988, triggering a wave of public demonstrations and internal political reforms. The government began negotiating with non-communist parties, which were re-emerging after years of being banned. In May 1989, the government stunned its Soviet bloc neighbours by tearing down its border fence with Austria and allowing free transit between the two countries. Hungary’s rollback of communism was fulfilled in March 1990, with the country’s first free elections in more than 40 years.
The final months of 1989 also brought political change to Czechoslovakia. In the two decades following the famous Prague Spring of 1968, Czechoslovakia became a place where nobody dared speak against the government or socialism. Those who did were blacklisted, sacked from their jobs or expelled from school or university. The Czechoslovak state security police (StB) kept a close eye on suspected dissidents and silenced troublesome writers. But as Gorbachev’s glasnost rippled into Czechoslovakia, the people grew bolder in their words and actions, while the Husak government became less inclined to suppress its critics. Student demonstrations in Prague in mid-November quickly became public rallies and labour strikes. Within two weeks, the government bowed to pressure and redacted Czechoslovakia’s status as a one-party state. The Velvet Revolution, as it became known, concluded with the release from prison of liberal playwright Vaclav Havel – and Havel’s election to the nation’s presidency on December 29th 1989.
Bulgaria and Romania
A communist regime had governed Bulgaria, largely unchallenged, since 1946. The communists there permitted some economic liberalisation, particularly during the 1960s. Bulgarian farmers and manufacturers, for instance, could sell small amounts of surplus goods for profit. Bulgaria had a diverse economy, with many bars and cafes, and greater emphasis on luxury items like chocolate and cigarettes – even Coca-Cola. All this made it a popular holiday destination for citizens in other Soviet bloc countries. Yet the Bulgarian Communist Party also ruled autocratically, suppressing dissident writers, journalists and academics. Events in Europe in 1989 gave rise to large public demonstrations in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in November 1989. By February 1990 the Communist Party had released its grip on power, leading to Bulgaria’s first free elections four months later.
Romania was home to one of Europe’s worst communist dictators: Nicolae Ceausescu. He came to power there in 1965 and was initially popular for his willingness to work with Western governments. Ceausescu even stood up to Moscow, refusing to participate in the Soviet bloc’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. But Ceausescu was also a tyrant, reliant on a deceitful cult of personality and the 80,000-strong Securitate, arguably Europe’s most brutal secret police force. In the 1980s Ceausescu’s determination to pay off Romania’s foreign debt generated massive domestic food shortages. Through 1988 and 1989, while other communist states were reforming, Ceausescu’s Romania was becoming more oppressive and austere. By mid-December 1989, the Romanian people had had enough. A mass meeting in the capital, Bucharest, soon expanded into a revolution. Ceausescu and his wife fled but were arrested days later, given a hasty show trial and executed, bringing one of Europe’s worst Cold War dictatorships to an undignified end.
The push for democratic and liberal reforms even reached as far as China – but unlike in Europe, there were no happy endings. On April 17th 1989, around five thousand students massed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, calling for political change and greater accountability by the government. By mid-May the square contained around 300,000 protestors, mainly high school and university students. The communist government attempted to bargain with the protestors but to no avail. Meanwhile, their numbers continued to grow, as Beijing civilians, workers, even army personnel joined them in the square. On May 20th the government declared martial law and mobilised tanks and soldiers to clear Tiananmen Square, which was now drastically overcrowded. By June 5th the military had cleared the square of protesters; as many as 2,500 were dead, while others were beaten. The uprising’s student leaders were later hunted down, arrested and probably executed.
1. The late 1980s, and particularly 1989, led to the weakening and abandonment of socialism in eastern Europe.
2. This occurred first in Poland, where union leader Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc led the push for political reform.
3. Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms rippled through eastern European nations like Hungary, which opened its borders.
4. There were also liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, where dictator Ceausescu was overthrown.
5. The push for liberal reforms also reached China, where more than a quarter-million students and civilians massed in protest in Tiananmen Square – however the Chinese government reestablished control by declaring martial law, sending in troops and tanks, and targeting dissidents.