In this lesson, we explore the fall and breakup of the Warsaw Pact and Eastern Bloc of communist countries allied with, and client states of, the Soviet Union from after World War II until the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Collapse of Communist Bloc
Most of us can remember the 2008 economic collapse affecting us at least a little bit. Even if you were still an adolescent, you likely knew someone's parent who lost their job or had their hours cut. It was proof that even the biggest things in the world (in this case, a global economic powerhouse) could falter and possibly fail. The same is true for the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Arguably the largest superpower of the second half of the 20th century, the Warsaw Pact broke apart a mere half century after its inception.
Cold War and Warsaw Pact
When World War II (WWII) ended, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union largely decided what post-war Europe would look like. At numerous conferences, the most important of which was the Yalta Conference, the three countries hammered out an agreement that essentially ceded control and influence over most of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Not only did all parties agree to recognize the pre-war and wartime Soviet annexations of states like Lithuania and Latvia, but the Soviet Union was further given influence over a series of Eastern European states, like Czechoslovakia and Poland, creating a series of buffer states which the Soviet Union claimed it required as protection against Western aggression.
In reality, many of these countries quickly became client states of the Soviet Union, with their internal politics and economies directly controlled by the Soviet government in Moscow. When any of these states attempted to scale back communist measures, such as Czechoslovakia did in 1968, the Soviet Union violently suppressed the agents of change to preserve the Eastern Bloc, which is a term often used in the West to refer to this group of communist, Eastern European countries.
Only ten years after the end of WWII, the Soviet Union further solidified its bond with these countries with the creation of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was a 1955 agreement between the Soviet Union and the leaders of several Eastern Bloc states, including Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Albania (though Albania was kicked out in 1962) for mutual military protection.
With Soviet influence already pervasive throughout the region, the treaty substantively changed little; it merely made public a situation that already existed. The reason for the pomp and circumstance of signing the treaty was a display of power in response to the United States, the UK, and several other Western countries' creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
End of Soviet Union
Throughout the following decades, the Soviet Union continued to maintain a firm grip on the government and economy of Warsaw Pact countries. However, in the 1980s the failing Soviet economy neared its breaking point and the Soviet government was too stilted and hierarchical to properly react. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he attempted to save the Union through reforms such as perestroika and glasnost.
Perestroika implemented a series of economic reforms meant to introduce a modicum of free trade and scale back the harshest measures of the state-controlled Soviet economy. Similarly, glasnost sought to establish some political and civic freedoms where there had previously been none. Warsaw Pact states were now allowed to have political parties other than the Communist Party, and some freedom of the press was introduced.
While both sets of reforms were made with good intentions, they had detrimental effects for both the Soviet economy and its people. After decades of a centrally-controlled command economy, the fledgling Soviet markets were slow to take off, and food shortages were worse than they had been previously. Additionally, these new frustrations were coupled with decades of pent up political dissension that previously had been violently suppressed. Glasnost gave avenues for these strong feelings of political dissonance to be voiced.
As political opposition in the Soviet Union grew louder and louder in the late 1980s, client states began clamoring for political autonomy, or declaring outright independence. Estonia was the first to state its claim for political independence in 1987, and it was quickly followed by the other two Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia. Independence movements then sprang up in central Asia, in modern-day Georgia, Kazakhstan, and even in Europe in the Ukraine.
In 1989, Polish trade unionists in the solidarity movement secured a free and open election for Poland, essentially making the country independent in all but name. The Berlin Wall, which separated the Soviet-controlled half of Berlin from the Western-controlled half of Berlin, fell later that year. In December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union dissolved.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact irrevocably changed the nature of European and global politics. The tightly-controlled coalition of countries that had opposed the capitalist West for almost a half century vanished in only a few short years. Though Gorbachev's reforms were meant to help improve conditions inside the Soviet Union and hopefully save the ailing superpower, in reality they merely gave multiple avenues for the frustrations of people in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to be voiced. The nationalism and independence movements that blossomed in the peripheries of the Soviet Union and its client states only hastened the end of the Soviet era.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Detail the early history of the Soviet Bloc and Warsaw Pact after WWII
- Explain the hold the Soviet Union had on its citizens and the Eastern European satellites
- Describe the fall of the Soviet Union due to economic setbacks in the 1980s