On the 14th August 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in the Polish city of Gdańsk led by electrician Lech Wałęsa began a strike that led to the formation of the Solidarity labour movement.
A decade of economic and political crises preceded the 1980 strike, but the Gdańsk strike spread throughout Poland and galvanised various other strike committees to join together for a common goal.
The trigger for the strike was the firing of a popular worker at the shipyard, a female crane operator and activist called Anna Walentynowicz. Just 5 months before her planned retirement, she was sacked for being a member of an illegal trade union. This move proved highly unpopular with the shipyard workforce, who demanded that she be reinstated.
Just a week after beginning the strike a governmental commission began negotiations with the strikers and, on the 30th August, they and representatives of the Gdańsk workers signed an agreement in which many of the strikers’ demands were met. The fact that political change, including the resignation of the Polish Communist Party’s General Secretary, had come from the workers’ action emboldened the people of Poland and fuelled the formation of the national labour union Solidarity.
Within two years up to 80% of the entire Polish workforce had joined Solidarity or one of its suborganisations, and they continued to use strikes to achieve political change. In March 1981, the crippling effects of 12 million people going on a four-hour warning strike demonstrated that the Communist Party was no longer the most powerful force in the country.
This is the final revision episode (for now!) in the series examining the Cold War for GCSE and IGCSE students. Focusing on the collapse of communism in eastern Europe it assesses the effect of the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the role of Gorbachev, in bringing about the end of Soviet dominance in the region. The second part of the podcast goes on to explore the specific experiences of major eastern European countries in the lat 1980s and early 1990s.
The podcast begins with Poland, where massive popular opposition to the government led to the establishment of the Solidarity trade union in the Gdansk shipyards. The rise of Solidarity is described, along with the subsequent government clampdown under the government of Jaruzelski. The impact of Solidarity is considered.
The second section looks at the USSR under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. His two key policies of perestroika and glasnost are explained, and their impact of Soviet foreign policy is assessed.
In the final section of the podcast, I describe the process through which the states of eastern Europe freed themselves from communist rule. The most popular exam questions on the collapse of communism focus on asking WHY a certain event contributed to the end of the system, or ask to what extent a particular event was responsible. Remember that to answer any of these questions you need to support your reason with solid evidence, and explain exactly WHY it contributed to the collapse of communism.
On the 28th May 1987, an eighteen year-old amateur pilot from Hamburg in West Germany illegally landed a private aircraft near Moscow’s Red Square. Mathias Rust had clocked up only 50 hours of flying time before commencing his journey that took in the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Bergen and Helsinki before flying to Moscow.
Rust’s flight was risky. Just five years earlier a South Korean commercial plane had been shot down after it strayed into Soviet airspace. Rust himself was tracked by three separate surface-to-air missile units and a total of four fighter planes were sent to monitor him, but none of them were given permission to attack.
Rust approached Moscow in the early evening, and after passing the “Ring of Steel” anti-aircraft defences continued towards the city centre. Abandoning his idea of landing in the Kremlin, he instead touched down on a bridge next to St Basil’s Cathedral and taxied into Red Square. Within two hours he had been arrested. He was sentenced to four years in a labour camp for violating international flight rules and illegally entering the Soviet Union, but was released after serving 14 months in jail.
In a 2007 interview, Rust claimed that he hoped his flight would build an ‘imaginary bridge’ between east and west. What it actually did was massively damage the reputation of the Soviet military for failing to stop him. This in turn led to the largest dismissal of Soviet military personnel since Stalin’s purges, and allowed Gorbachev to push ahead with his reforms.
On the 10th September 1989, the Hungarian government announced the opening of the border with Austria to allow thousands of East Germans to leave the Communist Bloc. Met with incredible anger from the East German government, Hungary’s decision was a major step on the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Hungary had been inundated with East Germans since the government began removing the border fence in May that year. Inspired by the Hungarian government’s moves towards a more democratic political system, East Germans had travelled to Hungary as tourists but then sought refuge in the West German embassy. A ‘friendship picnic’ held on the Austrian-Hungarian border on the 19th August had already seen East Germans using the border as a way to escape and, before long, thousands of East Germans refugees were living in Hungary.
Unwilling to “become a country of refugee camps”, Hungarian Foreign Ministrer Gyula Horn made the announcement that the East Germans would be permitted to enter Austria. As well as allowing the refugees to cross the border, the announcement led to an exodus of an estimated 70,000 more East Germans who made their way to Hungary.
The first of what were to become weekly ‘Monday demonstrations’ had started in the East German city of Leipzig earlier that week, and the Hungarian announcement encouraged others to begin protesting in favour of democracy. Within a month up to 70,000 people a week were making their way to the Leipzig protest, and by the end of October over 300,000 were taking part. The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th November.
In the evening of the 9th November 1989, the East German government opened the Berlin Wall after central committee spokesman Guenter Schabowski mistakenly announced that GDR citizens could cross into West Berlin with immediate effect.
Surprised border guards, who had been given no information about the new rules, were overwhelmed by the appearance of thousands of East Germans who wanted to cross. Although the border remained closed for around three hours, by 11pm the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse had been opened. Others followed soon after.
Communist Hungary had opened its Austrian border in September, which had encouraged East Germans to push for reform in their own country. Eventually, the weekly ‘Monday protests’ that attracted hundreds of thousands of people forced the government to prepare the new travel policy.
Although the new policy had been agreed by the Politburo on the afternoon of the 9th November, their intention was to implement the policy the next day so that border guards could be briefed and crossings managed in a controlled manner. However, Schabowski had not been at the Politburo meeting and so was only able to base his announcement on notes from a piece of paper handed to him shortly before the press conference. This explains his mistake over the timing of its introduction.
The announcement led huge crowds to begin gathering at the checkpoints, with thousands pouring through the border after the guards finally relented. Ironically, West Berliners still had to have a visa in order to cross to the East. Therefore, for a few weeks after the Wall was opened, East Berliners actually had greater freedom of movement than Westerners.
On the 22nd December 1989, Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown. He and his wife fled the capital Bucharest in a helicopter, but after landing in a field were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
Five days before his overthrow, on the 17th December, Nicolae Ceaușescu had ordered the military to put down a revolt in the western Romanian city of Timișoara. Triggered by government’s attempt to evict an ethnic Hungarian pastor who they accused of inciting ethnic hatred, the Timișoara uprising quickly became a broader anti-government demonstration. News of the government’s crackdown was not shared in the heavily-censored press, but quickly spread through western radio stations such as Radio Free Europe.
With unrest spreading, Ceaușescu addressed a staged demonstration from a balcony in Bucharest on the 21st December. However, despite the presence of the brutal secret police known as the Securitate, the crowd began to heckle him and Ceaușescu was hustled back inside the building by his bodyguards. With the speech being televised around Romania, and the video feed only being cut after the start of the crowd’s protest, it was clear that something monumental was unfolding.
Having failed to regain control by the following morning, the 22nd December, Ceaușescu and his wife fled the Central Committee building by helicopter. However, their pilot faked a threat of anti-aircraft fire and landed. The Ceaușescus were later arrested and subjected to a show trial on Christmas Day. Found guilty of genocide and other crimes including illegally gathering wealth, they were sentenced to death. They were taken outside and shot within minutes of the trial ending.
On the 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified when the territory of the communist German Democratic Republic joined with the Federal Republic of Germany to create a single, united Germany.
Cracks had begun to show in East Germany’s communist regime from the middle of 1989, which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November that year. This encouraged the ongoing Peaceful Revolution in the East, which succeeded in bringing about free elections in March the following year.
The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had already called for greater cooperation between West and East in November 1989. The election of the new East German parliament – known as the Volkskammer – in March 1990 ensured that both sides now had governments that had their eye on reunification. The GDR’s economy had already begun to collapse as the structures of communist control were removed, so the replacement of the East German mark with West Germany’s Deutsche Mark as the official currency of East Germany in June ensured a secure economic framework for political union.
By the end of August the Volkskammer had passed a resolution in favour of reunification, with the German Reunification Treaty signed at the end of August. This was approved by large majorities in the legislative chambers of each country on the 20th September, and at midnight on the 3rd October the black, red and gold flag of West Germany was raised above the Brandenburg Gate which until the fall of the Berlin Wall had been inaccessible to both sides.
Known as The Day of German Unity, the 3rd October is now a public holiday in Germany.
On the 31st January 1990, fast food chain McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in the Soviet Union on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Rather than the expected 1,000 customers on the first day, some news outlets estimated that 30,000 people passed through the doors. Even Boris Yeltsin visited the store on the opening day.
By 1990 the Iron Curtain was in tatters. The Berlin Wall – the very symbol of the East-West divide – had fallen in November the previous year, and the communist governments of other eastern European countries had fallen. McDonald’s had already opened restaurants in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and the Hungarian capital Budapest in 1988. However, the expansion into the Soviet Union was evidence of the enormous changes taking place within the USSR itself. Glasnost and perestroika had already brought about enormous changes, and the Soviet government even owned a 51% stake in the new McDonald’s venture.
Interestingly, however, McDonald’s in the USSR was developed by the Canadian branch of the company, independent of the chain’s American headquarters. To keep the supply chain separate, completely separate farms and factories were developed to provide the ingredients: by the end of 1989 a reported 50 million Canadian dollars had been invested in the infrastructure.
At the time, the average monthly wage for a Russian worker was 150 roubles. When McDonald’s opened, a standard hamburger cost 1.50 roubles – the price of ten loaves of bread. Despite this, thousands of people walked through the doors of what remained the largest McDonald’s restaurant in the world until a new restaurant on the London 2012 Olympic Park opened 22 years later.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup.
Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
On the 26th December 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union met for the last time to formally dissolve itself and the Soviet Union. This followed declaration no. 142-Н in which the Supreme Soviet announced that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a state and subject of international law. The declaration recognised that the former Soviet republics were independent, and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place.
The origins of the dissolution of the Soviet Union can be traced back to the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. He came to office intending to revive the USSR’s economy, but his reforms – most famously the policies of glasnost and perestroika – laid the foundations for the enormous popular demands for change that were to follow.
By August 1991, the Iron Curtain had fallen as a result of the toppling of Communist governments in former satellite states. This increased the pressure on Gorbachev to grant greater autonomy for republics within the Soviet Union. A failed coup by hardline members of the government who wanted to oust Gorbachev and reverse his reforms failed to derail the independence movements within the republics.
With some having already declared their independence from the USSR, a further 10 republics did so between August and December. As it became obvious that the USSR was falling apart, on the 25th December Gorbachev resigned as President. That evening the Soviet flag on the Kremlin was replaced by the Russian tricolour. The USSR was formally dissolved the next day.