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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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.
The “satellite states” of Eastern Europe had to:
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.
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.
Results in ussr
Good for the ussr
Bad for the ussr
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
To the delight of the people, Dubcek allowed Czechoslovaks unthinkable freedoms such as:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reasons to Invade
Reasons not to invade
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 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.
“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:
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.