While the USSR itself ceased to exist, many communist politicians either remained in power or continued to play an active role in their country’s politics. The revolutions were made possible not because of external forces (the US didn’t defeat communism, as it is often claimed) but because the communist party began to lose faith in itself.
Anti-communist and anti-party movements were not entirely uncommon in the USSR, but engaging in public demonstrations carried with it severe risks. In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to crush the opposition movement when it became clear that Imre Nagy, a communist himself, could no longer be trusted to rule the communist party. When he declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union mercilessly crushed the Hungarian dissidents. Mass bloodshed was avoided at Nagy’s insistence that the Hungarian people not fight their invaders, knowing perfectly well that there was little chance of victory. Similar events were to be repeated in Prague in 1968 when Alexander Dubček sought to relax party control over public life through democratic reforms including freedom of press. While more successful than the Hungarian revolution, the Prague Spring, ultimately met the same fate as the Warsaw Pact invaded in August. Similarly, bloodshed was spared only through the insistence by Dubček that Czechoslovaks not resist their invaders.
Although the revolutions in each country of Eastern Europe took on a different quality, there was one characteristic that defined them all: they were all non-violent. Beginning with the Polish workers’ union Solidarity and later emulated by Civic Forum (Czech) and Public Against Violence (Slovak) all communist opposition from then on took a strictly non-violent approach believing that, and with good reason, any violence committed by the opposition movements would only play into the communists’ party’s hands. On the other hand, any violent response to the democratic movements now sweeping Eastern Europe would only serve to discredit the communist parties further. Had the Soviets wanted to crush these democratic movements, there is little doubt as to whether they would be successful or not. The violent repression of the Prague Spring was still vivid in the minds of many.
There are two significant differences in the political climate within which the democratic movements of the 1980s were taking place and between those that took place before them and both had to do with the communist parties themselves. Faced with unprecedented protests and a call for democracy, communist officials simply did not understand how to address the protestors. That the revolutions were successful at all, ironically, can be attributed to a series of political and strategic blunders made by communist party officials. In Poland, for example, to address a series of devastating labour strikes, the Polish communist party, for the first time in the history of the USSR, formally recognized Solidarity (the Polish workers’ union mentioned earlier). In the span of just one year, Solidarity membership had reached 9.5 million members. Witnessing its popularity and fearing for its hold on power, the polish communist party attempted to outlaw Solidarity in the 1980s through the declaration of martial law. This would be characteristic of all revolutions in Eastern Europe: the communist party would relax their control over public life only to try and regain that same control later on through greater oppression which only served to discredit further still the communist regimes.
By the late 1980s it was clear in Poland and elsewhere that the communist party had no real sense of how to address their countries’ increasingly unsustainable economic situation or the growing public unrest. In 1989, the communist party having lost all credibility agreed to sit down with Solidarity to discuss the problems now facing Poland.
Among the agreements reached at the negotiations between the communist party and Solidarity was the creation of a new elected assembly. Elections were held just two months after the round-table talks between Solidarity and the party. Although the elections to the Parliamentary Assembly were rigged to retain a communist majority, the Senate elections were to untouched. Surprisingly, though in retrospect not unexpected, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 seats in the senate and all the seats it was allowed to the Parliamentary Assembly. The communist party itself was left in an impossible situation with the only options being to accept the vote and lose power, or to ignore the vote and resign. They chose the latter, at Gorbachev’s insistence, and communist rule in Poland officially ended.
That Gorbachev himself made clear that the Polish communist party had to accept the vote is significant. It was clear that Gorbachev had no intention of upholding the USSR’s official doctrine of quelling opposition through military intervention. Indeed, stating that the growing democratic movements in Eastern Europe were “a matter for the people themselves” signified to the protestors that Russia would not intervene. This minor and seemingly innocuous remark gave the democratic movements the confidence they needed to effectively bring communist rule to an end.
Judt, T. (2005). Postwar: A history of europe since 1945. London, England: Penguin Group.
Goldgeiger, J., & McFaul, M. (2003). Power and purpose: U.S. policy toward Russia after the cold war. Washington, D.C. : The Brookings Institution.