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Communist Eastern Europe After Stalin. 1953-1992. Where We Left Off. All six countries to the right  became Communist dictatorships after WWII, with their leaders hand-picked by Stalin to do the bidding of the USSR.

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Where we left off
Where We Left Off

All six countries to the right  became Communist dictatorships after WWII, with their leaders hand-picked by Stalin to do the bidding of the USSR.

Please note that although Communist and subservient to the Soviets, these remained independent countries and were NOT considered part of the Soviet Union (USSR).

Note that Yugolslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Slovenia) and Albania are not considered part of the “Communist Bloc” on this map.

This is because, although both countries were Communist, they were not controlled by the Soviet Union and created their own versions of Communism.

Eastern europe under stalin
Eastern Europe under Stalin

The “satellite states” of Eastern Europe had to:

  • Accept Communist rule with no compromise,

  • Trade only with other Communist countries—always to the advantage of the USSR,

  • Have Soviet-style planned economies and few freedoms,

  • Host Soviet military troops

1953 the death of stalin
1953: The Death of Stalin

With EVERYTHING controlled by Stalin, not much happened for three years after his death from natural causes.

There were anti-Communist demonstrations and riots in East Germany and Poland (which were as much about frustration about the lack of food and consumer goods as they were about politics), but these countries’ Communist governments and Soviet troops stationed there put down the riots.

1956 the khrushchev era begins
1956: The Khrushchev Era Begins

By early 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had become the undisputed leader of the USSR.

Without the fear of Stalin, he shocked his own Communist Party with his February 1956 Secret Speech in which he spoke openly about Stalin’s unnecessary crimes against humanity and promised a new course of Destalinization.

Nikita Khrushchev

1956 khrushchev s secret speech
1956: Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”


Results in ussr

  • Stalin’s Great Purges, labor camps, fear and terror, and lack of concern for his citizens’ wellbeing went way too far,

  • Communist economies should study the capitalist West to see what they do well and see if it could be used in the USSR,

  • The now-deceased Stalin was the problem, so the Soviet one-party system and planned economy are not to be questioned.

  • Most labor camps closed and people had normal jobs,

  • The fear of being dragged away without actually committing a crime went away,

  • Non-Russians who had been exiled for supporting the White Army in the Russian Civil War were allowed to return home,

  • For the first time since the 1920s, the USSR began to produce consumer goods and tried to improve people’s lives,

  • The statues of Stalin—but not Lenin—were torn down.

1956 1964 khrushchev s record
1956-1964: Khrushchev’s Record

Good for the ussr

Bad for the ussr

  • “Destalinized” the USSR, getting rid of most of the terror, but not “purging” the Stalin-era party leaders,

  • Increased the amount of consumer goods and housing available, as the people could finally stop sacrificing for the future,

  • Improved relations with the West, as it became more of a rivalry than a constant threat of nuclear war.

  • “Hare-brained” economic schemes such as growing corn in Central Asia wasted a lot of resources and money,

  • Constant foreign-policy embarrassments (Hungary, Cuban Missile Crisis, UN debacle…)

  • The aging members of the Communist Party began grow corrupt and kept all the best apartments, food, clothes, etc. for themselves.

1956 eastern europe responds to the secret speech
1956: Eastern Europe Responds to the Secret Speech

Some East European country’s leaders—installed by Stalin—pretended the Secret Speech never happened, and others replaced their Stalinist leaders. But the Secret Speech helped create crises in East Germany, Poland, and especially Hungary.

Riots over poor living conditions broke out in East Germany. These were quickly extinguished.

Poland’s riots over low pay and the lack of consumer goods in a so-called workers’ paradise caused Khrushchev to engineer the replacement of Poland’s Stalinist leader. The Soviets then “bought peace” by dropping plans for further collectivization of agriculture, allowing the Catholic Church to continue with few restrictions, and by making sure Polish store shelves remained full—even at an economic loss to the Soviet Union.

1956 hungary
1956: Hungary

In Hungary, factory workers sick of Communism and especially angry at their own brutal secret police held a spontaneous demonstration that quickly turned into a revolution. Arms-producing factories gave guns to the people, who chased out the Soviets. Hungary was free!...

…for four days until the Soviet Army regrouped, invaded Hungary, retook the city, shot the new Hungarian leaders, and re-imposed Communist rule. This was the Soviet Invasion of Hungary.


Results of 1956 soviet invasion of hungary
Results of 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary

  • Other East European countries got the message of what would happen if they did not accept Communist rule and “friendship” with the USSR,

  • Over 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West in the brief period the Soviets allowed it. Hungary lost many of its best and brightest young minds,

  • As with Poland, the Soviets “bought peace” with Hungary. Unlike anywhere else in the Communist Bloc, Hungary was allowed to have a NEP-like economy that allowed private farming and small private businesses. This “Goulash Communism” gave Hungary the highest standard of living in the region. The Soviets pretended not to notice that the Communist countries with the best economies were those not forced to copy the Soviet Stalinist model,

  • The chances of any European country voluntarily choosing Communism over a Western-style government dropped to zero.

1964 1982 brezhnev s era of stagnation
1964-1982:Brezhnev’s Era of Stagnation

Frightened by Khrushchev’s failures and his willingness to experiment, the aging Stalinists replaced him in 1964 with one of their own.

Leonid Brezhnev had few plans and few ideas, and just wanted everything to keep going as it was. The Party members were thrilled by this, for they had given themselves all of the advantages in society.

Thus, the Era of Stagnation began, as did the long, slow decline of the Soviet economy.

Life in brezhnev s ussr
Life in Brezhnev’s USSR

In a recent poll, the Brezhnev years are the ones Russians remember most fondly. The secret police (the KGB) generally left people alone, there was more food than ever in the stores, and the population was educated. Soviet scientists were the envy of the world. Families could go on vacation and send their kids to summer camp, and the government-run economy ensured that everyone’s basic needs were met—a first for Russia’s history.

The downside to stagnation
The Downside to Stagnation

  • Unfortunately, the party grew more and more corrupt, the people saw little reason to work hard, and the infrastructure built just after World War II began to deteriorate. As the West entered the computer age, the Soviet economy was stuck in the early 1950s.

  • The system slowly broke down, as there was no incentive for anyone in the Party to speak up, make changes, or fix anything. Shortages became common.

Brezhnev s foreign policy problems i czechoslovakia 1968
Brezhnev’s Foreign Policy Problems I: Czechoslovakia 1968

Czechoslovakia’s Stalinist leader lived until 1968, so the country never “Destalinized”. That would change with the new man in charge, the Slovakian Alexander Dubcek.

He started the Prague Spring movement in which the actions on the next slide became not only allowed, but encouraged by Czechoslovakia’s Communist government as a means of bringing about “Socialism with a Human Face”.

Charles Bridge, Prague

Alexander Dubcek

The prague spring allowed
The Prague Spring Allowed…

To the delight of the people, Dubcek allowed Czechoslovaks unthinkable freedoms such as:

  • Absolute free speech and a free press,

  • Listening to foreign radio broadcasts and music,

  • Criticizing corrupt or incompetent Party members,

  • Socializing freely with Westerners,

  • Art and culture not having to glorify Socialism at all times,

  • Introducing ideas for fixing the economy, even if they were not “Communist”.

1968 invasion of czechoslovakia
1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia

The “Era of Stagnation” dinosaurs leading other Communist states feared similar movements in their own countries. They knew that their own power and privileges would be threatened by allowing criticism and change.

When Dubcek and the Czecholsovak Communists refused to stop the reforms, Brezhnev engineered a surprise invasion in August 1968.

The normalization of czechoslovakia
The “Normalization” of Czechoslovakia

As in 1938, the Czechs and Slovaks responded with passive resistance against a much stronger invader.

Thousands seen as involved with the Prague Spring movement were jailed or demoted from positions of leadership, leaving only corrupt, cynical yes-men in the Party.

The invasion of Hungary 12 years earlier showed that the Soviets would not allow countries behind the Iron Curtain to reject being ruled by the Communist Party. The 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia showed that the Soviets would not permit these countries from choosing their own definition of Socialism.


Brezhnev s foreign policy problems ii afghanistan
Brezhnev’s Foreign Policy Problems II: Afghanistan

In the late 1970s, the Soviets tried to install a Communist government in the neighboring (yet notoriously unstable) country of Afghanistan.

When the Afghan people (including US-backed fundamentalist Muslims called the Mujahideen) fought against this unpopular government, the Soviets invaded it to keep the Afghani Communists in power.

Known as “Russia’s Vietnam”, this unwinnable war lasted nine years.

Brezhnev s foreign policy problems iii poland
Brezhnev’s Foreign Policy Problems III: Poland

In 1980, An unassuming Polish electrician named Lech Walesa helped to start a non-Communist trade union in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk which led a strike to demand better working conditions, a higher standard of living and more freedoms—all items that in theory a “Worker’s Socialist Republic” should have been giving in the first place.

Since non-Communist organizations and strikes were banned, this Solidarity union was a big deal; it gained global attention, greatly embarrassed the Communists as their low standard of living and worker dissatisfaction was laid bare for the world to see. And (just like the Prague Spring), the movement could spread throughout the Communist Bloc.

Brezhnev s poland dilemma
Brezhnev’s Poland Dilemma

Reasons to Invade

Reasons not to invade

  • Soviet policy was to not allow any threats to the Communist system,

  • Workers’ strikes could spread, threatening both the economy and the peace,

  • The striking workers might begin to call for more political change.

  • World opinion of Soviet-style Communism was already so low that “making us look bad” was no longer an issue.

  • Poland has 4X the population of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and might choose to fight back,

  • The Soviet Army was already tied down in Afghanistan,

  • The Soviet economy—already worsening with shortages increasing—could not support a large army fighting abroad,

  • Brezhnev did not know how the new US President (fiercely anticommunist Ronald Reagan) might react. WWIII could ensue,

  • There was no direct threat to the Communist system.

Poland crisis averted
Poland Crisis Averted

Poland’s Communists faced a dilemma. If the government cracked down on Solidarity, it could mean a revolution or civil war with the Soviets almost certain to get involved like in Hungary. But if they did not stop Solidarity, Communism as a whole might be threatened and the Soviets would likely invade as they did in Czechoslovakia.

In 1981, Poland found a unique solution to the dilemma.

The country “invaded itself” by declaring Martial Law (rule by the military) under the leadership of General W. Jaruzelski. The Communist Party was still in control, Solidarity was banned and its leaders were jailed (but treated well), and the Soviets spent even more “buying off” Poland with increased cheap consumer goods and allowing it to keep most of the food it produced.

The rise of gorbachev
The Rise of Gorbachev

The economy continued to stagnate and slowly fall apart under Brezhnev, who died in 1982. Two elderly, close-to-death leaders served short terms, but in 1985 the Soviets turned to a young dynamic reformer named Mikhail Gorbachev, who would be named Time Magazine’s Man of the Decade for the 1980s.

Glasnost and perestroika
Glasnost and Perestroika

“Gorby” stunned the world by shaking the Soviet Union out of stagnation and telling the truth that great changes were needed.

He called for two main goals: Glasnost (Openness), and Perestroika(Restructuring).

(“Restructuring, Openness, Transparency, Democratization”)


Like Dubcek a generation before, Gorbachev reasoned that no problems would be solved if they were able to be covered up by the Party. The Soviets also believed they had a lot they could learn from the West, especially economically, and that better relations could lessen the need for crippling military spending or a devastating nuclear war.

In practice, Glasnost meant:

  • Better relations with the West, especially the US

  • Encouragement of cultural exchanges with Westerners

  • Free Speech

  • (Almost) Free Press

  • Willingness to discuss, rather than ignore economic and social problems

  • Acceptance and encouragement of Western culture, dress, music, movies, TV, etc.

Results of glasnost
Results of Glasnost

In many ways, Glasnost was too successful. People became aware of the extent of economic and social problems in the USSR, how far they were behind the West in material gains, and to the level of corruption in the Party. Free speech also unleashed calls for democratization, independence for the non-Russian republics, and faster economic reform—none of which the Party was ready or able to provide.


Gorbachev knew change could not be delayed, as it was obvious how far behind the Soviet Union was economically than the West. With the crumbling infrastructure, rampant alcoholism, shortages of basic goods, no one taking care of many public spaces, corruption, and no incentive for anyone to work hard, fundamental reforms had to be made.

However, the goals and specifics were never really created. The Party was to be restructured, and elements of market economics and incentives for hard work were never introduced.

Aside from allowing some small-scale

businesses to operate, the Party refused to

allow significant changes. Stagnation continued.

Results of perestroika
Results of Perestroika

Aside from allowing some private farming and small-scale shops to open (which only served to lessen the amount and quality of goods available for those dependent on the state-run economy), no major changes were made as Gorbachev faced more and more resistance to change from an increasingly hostile and threatened Party apparatus.

For the average Soviet citizen, life took a turn for the worse in the 1980s. One critic of Gorbachev complained the Soviets “can’t eat freedom.”

The fall of communism in eastern europe
The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe

It must be remembered that Gorbachev not only allowed freedom and self-determination for the countries Stalin had made Communist against their will after WWII, but he wanted it to happen for the following reasons:

  • The Soviets were losing money keeping their armies in these countries and giving them free oil and gas,

  • Gorbachev could see no moral reason or military necessity to keep them Communist against their will,

  • These countries could serve as test cases for how to (and how not to) transition from dictatorship and a planned economy to democracy and market economics.

  • It was the right thing to do.

1989 poland
1989 Poland

Poland was the first to challenge Communism, with the blessings of both Gorbachev and Jaruzelski (the General who had imposed Martial Law in ‘81 and really wanted to finally retire).

The Poles allowed free elections in which the Communists were assured of a majority, but non-Communists including Solidarity could participate.

In the elections—with the people finally having a real choice—the Communists fared so poorly that they sped up the transition from Communist rule. Solidarity leader Walesa became President. Ten years earlier he had been just a bitter, common electrician in a shipyard.

1989 h ungary and bulgaria
1989 Hungary and Bulgaria

Both countries’ Communist governments realized how unpopular they were, and (before the people could remove them by force) agreed to participate in free and fair elections they knew they would lose.

In both countries, the former Communists won elections in the early 1990s.

1989 east germany
1989 East Germany

On November 9, 1989, with its citizens once again fleeing en masse to the West through Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Gorbachev urged the East Germans to open the Berlin Wall and let East Germans travel freely to West Berlin.

A giant party ensued, and East and West Berliners who had been kept apart for 28 years worked together to dismantle the wall.

East Germany’s Communist government stepped down a week later, and Germany reunited with the world’s approval in October, 1990.


1989 czechoslovakia
1989 Czechoslovakia

In Czechoslovakia, the Brezhnev-era government refused to make any changes or acknowledge Glasnost and Perestroika.

After peaceful demonstrators were beaten by police, the people took to the streets to demand a new government. With the entire country poised to go on strike, the government stepped down in the “Velvet Revolution” and playwright Vaclav Havel became President.

The country peacefully “divorced” into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.


1989 romania
1989 Romania

The only violent revolution in 1989 was in Romania.

Brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu firmly believed that his people loved him, and no reform was necessary. In December 1989 he was shouted down during a speech, and had to flee by helicopter as the Romanian Army (which had joined the spontaneous revolution) fought it out in the streets with Ceausescu’s dreaded secret police (the Securitate). He and his wife were captured, and on Christmas morning were executed by firing squad. A new government was formed, but firmly under the leadership of the “reformed” Communists.