The Cold War is regarded to have ended in 1989 – 1990, at the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Communism and the U.S.S.R. The Cold War ended after many weeks and months of revolts calling for change, including opening borders and commerce, initiating free elections and dissolving Communist governments into Republics. Most notably the collapse of the U.S.S.R and end of the Cold War happened speedily.
The stagnating economy of the U.S.S.R played a prominent role in the demise of Communism. Technological superiority, including that in the nuclear arms race and Space Race, proved a winning but expensive strategy. Governments needed to recognise, alongside anti-nuclear movements, that investment could be better spent elsewhere than ideological or geopolitical pursuits.
If you were living in the 1980s and 1990s, would you think it reasonable to dedicate government spending towards nuclear armament or the space race above that of say combating poverty, inequality or the provision of welfare of citizens?
Reform or Revolution?
There were a number of protests that spanned the Cold War, and some important ones occurred in Eastern Europe in 1953, 1956 and 1968 that were crushed by Soviet forces.
Mikhail Gorbachev played a significant role on the development and decline of the U.S.S.R. The policies of glasnost (openness) lifted censorship and allowed alternative sources of information. This was aimed at building trust in the system, and aimed to mitigate issues with a corrupted system. The issue with ‘glasnost’ was the interpretation of history, and how Soviet official histories attempted to overwrite truth – such as the popular Hungarian Revolution being described as counter-revolution and Soviet liberation.
Gorbachev also planned perestroika (restructuring) to make the economy more efficient. However, much like a free market and capitalism, businesses and workers were vulnerable to failure. This meant some workers would increase their income and others would lose theirs. Can Communists justify inequality? Can the Communists rule over unsatisfied workers? To counter the decline in living standards, the USSR, Poland and Hungary extended their support, while Czechoslovakia and East Germany remained control of their economies. In contrast, Romania employed economic repression and exploitation in order to pay off foreign debts.
Lastly Gorbachev also wanted to change the U.S.S.R’s attitude to imperial authority, previously expressed in the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’. The Doctrine meant the U.S.S.R had the right to intervene militarily in the affairs of Warsaw Pact member states should state socialism become threatened. This doctrine was set out after the Prague Spring in 1968, and was applied in practise in East Germany in 1953, and later in Hungary in 1956. The Doctrine was lifted during Gorbachev’s time, getting the support of both government and citizens, convincing them of change.
Gorbachev also withdrew from the nuclear arms race, aiming to cut funding to military aspirations. The U.S.S.R’s foreign policy promoted persuasion instead of brute force.
The concept of ‘human rights’ in the 1970s and 1980s was a key factor in the demise of the U.S.S.R. The concept of ‘human rights’ was partly a consequence of the 1975 Helsinki Accords – the high point of the 1970s period of ‘superpower détente’. All European countries signed up to a list of universal human rights for their citizens, though there was no commitment from democratic governments. The Accords however included ‘freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief’ and ‘civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person’ (Helsinki Declaration, 1975).