Gorbachev’s Moscow Spring & the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe

The Moscow Spring was made possible by Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reforms, which contributed to the revolutionary changes spreading across the Eastern Bloc. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mar 12, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
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We Support Perestroika. The Revolution Continues in the Soviet Union by B. Yavin, 1989, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Before the revolutionary fall of 1989, when Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians installed non-communist regimes, Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, and Czechoslovakia launched its nonviolent Velvet Revolution, there was the Moscow Spring in Soviet Russia. As a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms, the spring marked the beginning of a new era within the Soviet Union. Competitive elections, tremendous public rallies, heated discussion, and boundless enthusiasm towards democracy were the main characteristics of the Moscow Spring. The wind of change swept across the continent, bringing positive outcomes in the rest of Eastern Europe, leading to the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

The Moscow Spring in the Soviet Union

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In Moscow, pro-democracy demonstrators try to turn the army by Dima Tanin, via the Guardian

 

At the beginning of the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced two sets of reforms: Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) to achieve economic efficacy and political stability within the Soviet Union.

 

Perestroika’s main goal was to restructure the Soviet economy and politics. Command economy was replaced by demand economy, which paved the way to the capitalist market and political reforms. New policy removed trade barriers, promoted western investment, and established limited cooperative firms in 1988. Glasnost aimed to loosen the control of the communist party of the Soviet Union. Liberalization of politics included fewer regulations on the media, press, and information sharing that paved the way to open debate, criticism, and civil activism.

 

As the Soviets became politically more active, so did cries for democracy, which resulted in the urge to restructure the Union politically. In 1987, the Communist Party Central Planning Committee accepted Gorbachev’s proposal to enable voters to select candidates in local elections. By 1989, the Congress of People’s Deputies, the new national legislature, held the first free elections in almost 70 years.

 

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To Gorbachev’s surprise, even though the majority of seats in the new legislature were allocated for communist party members, pro-democracy candidates won the large majority of the seats. New members represented the diverse group of intellectuals, ex-dissidents, and reformist communists who were not content with Gorbachev’s rule. The new force was not loyal to Gorbachev’s vision of communist change; they were eager to put a stop to it. The Moscow Spring had begun.

 

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Glasnost: Turn Words into Action by Arseenkov, 1989, via the International Poster Gallery

 

The most prominent representatives of the new force called the Inter-Regional Deputies’ Group were human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin, the future and first post-Soviet president of the Russian Federation. Mikhail Gorbachev released Sakharov from his seven-year punishment for criticizing the Soviet Union. Sakharov advocated multiparty democracy and the end to the communist party’s monopoly.

 

The general public, especially in Moscow, and the newly freed Soviet media quickly became strong advocates of Sakharov’s ideas. Newspapers and television shows publicly criticized Joseph Stalin’s approaches and analyzed political developments with unusual independence, a reality that Gorbachev made possible.

 

This civic enlightenment was not restricted to Moscow. After the Moscow Spring, the Autumn of Nations began in Eastern Europe, paving the way to the Revolutions of 1989 end eventually the fall of communism in Europe.

 

Impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms On Eastern Europe After the Moscow Spring 

 

Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, growing independence, and transparency inspired similar developments throughout Eastern Europe during 1989. The majority of these revolutionary events shared the same traits of widespread civil resistance movements: public opposition to the Soviet one-party rule and push for change.

 

Hungary

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Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Freedom Fighter. Budapest, Hungary by David Hurn, via National Museum Wales

 

Due to its politically rebellious attitude (see: Hungarian Revolution of 1956), resource-poor Hungary was extremely reliant on the Soviet Union. Hungary experienced inflation, had foreign debt, and by the 1980s, poverty had spread across the country. Economic and political hardships put pressure on Hungarian socialism. The public demanded radical reforms. Radical reformers called for a multi-party system and the right to national self-determination, something that was impossible to achieve under the Soviet regime.

 

To address the challenge, in December 1988, Prime Minister Miklós Németh explicitly said that “the market economy is the only way to avoid a social catastrophe or a long, slow death.”

 

Janos Kadar, General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, was compelled to resign in 1988. The next year, the Parliament enacted a “democracy package” that included trade pluralism, freedom of association, assembly, the press, as well as new election legislation and a fundamental revision of the constitution.

 

The Hungarian Communist Party had its last congress in October 1989. In a crucial session from October 16 to October 20, the parliament adopted over 100 amendments to the constitution that allowed multiparty parliamentary and direct presidential elections. The legislation changed Hungary from a People’s Republic to the Republic of Hungary, recognized human and civil rights, and established an institutional structure that enforced the separation of powers in the government.

 

Poland

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Poland, Lech Walesa, 1980, via Associated Press Images

 

Solidarity was the first independent labor movement in Soviet Poland. It was formed in 1980 in Gdańsk, Poland, in response to poor living conditions. Since 1970, Polish workers have been revolting and striking in response to rising food prices and economic stagnation, so mass protest and strikes were inevitable. Solidarity members and the Soviet government bargained for a year before General Wojciech Jaruzelski, first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, launched an attack on the protests and jailed its leaders. As a result of a growing number of strikes, protests, and widespread economic instability, the Polish communist government was willing to re-engage with Solidarity by the end of 1988.

 

Because of rising public discontent, the Polish government asked the Solidarity movement to join roundtable discussions in 1989. The three conclusions agreed upon by the participants represented significant changes for the Polish government and people. The Round Table Agreement recognized autonomous labor unions, established the Presidency (which abolished the power of the communist party’s general secretary), and formed a Senate. Solidarity became a legally recognized political party and defeated the communist party in the first truly free Senate elections in 1989, obtaining 99 percent of the seats. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the region’s first non-communist prime minister, was elected by the Polish parliament in August 1989.

 

German Democratic Republic

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The opening of the Berlin Wall by British Army official photographer, 1990, via Imperial War Museums, London

 

Due to poor economic conditions and growing political discontent with the repressive Soviet regime, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) citizens’ anger and frustration grew dramatically in 1988. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost (openness) policy allowed opposition and compelled GDR’s citizenry to confront long-hidden communist atrocities. Activists began to demonstrate against the first secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party, Erich Honecker’s hardline rule. Mass demonstrations were not the only tool for protest. Filing in more applications for permission to travel outside of the GDR was a primary option as Hungary had lifted barricades along its border with capitalist Austria in the summer of 1989, opening up a path to freedom for East Germans.

 

When communist Honecker ordered troops to open fire on protestors, the military refrained from shooting at their own citizens. As part of his Glasnost policy, Gorbachev declined to send soldiers to support Honecker’s dictatorship. On October 7, Gorbachev visited East Berlin for the GDR’s 40th anniversary and urged Mr. Honecker to begin reforms, saying “life punishes those who arrive too late.” Eventually, East German officials diffused increasing demonstrations by relaxing borders and allowing East Germans to travel more freely.

 

The Berlin Wall, which separated communist East Germany from West Germany, fell on November 9, 1989, five days after 500,000 people assembled in East Berlin in a huge protest. Germany was reunited in 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall sped up the change across Eastern Europe.

 

Czechoslovakia

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An estimated 800,000 people gather for a demonstration in Prague’s Letná park, by Bohumil Eichler, 1989 via The Guardian

 

Just eight days after the Berlin Wall was demolished, on 17 November 1989, the streets of Prague, the Czech capital, were filled with student protesters. This demonstration was a prerequisite of the Velvet Revolution, representing the collapse of the Soviet government by non-violent means. The stagnant economy, poor living conditions, and growing democratic movements in Eastern Bloc countries (Poland, Hungary) impacted the underground anti-government movements in Czechoslovakia that grew and developed underground for years even when Communist rule continued.

 

Within a few days of the initial demonstrations, the mass protest grew dramatically. Writer and playwright Václav Havel was the most prominent dissident and driving force of civil activism against communism. Ultimately, the communist party was forced to resign on November 18, 1989. By December 10, the anti-communist party took power, and Václav Havel was elected as president, becoming the last president of Czechoslovakia. In 1990, Czechoslovakia’s first open and free national elections were held.

 

Romania

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Romanian demonstrators sit on top of a tank as it passes in front of a burning building, December 22, 1989, via Rare Historical Photos

 

The Wave of protest reached Romania in December 1989, in response to poor economic conditions and one of Europe’s most repressive communist regimes under General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu.

 

On December 15, 1989, local protesters gathered around the home of a popular pastor who had been a harsh critic of the Ceaușescu regime. The act of solidarity quickly transformed into a social movement against the Soviet regime in light of similar revolutionary events in neighboring nations, leading to a clash with the armed forces of Ceaușescu. For decades, Romania’s secret police, the Securitate, had been suppressing civil unrest in Romania but was ultimately unable to prevent this tragic but successful revolution. The protest grew tremendously, and thousands of civil activists took to the streets, leading the military personnel to withdraw. By December 22, 1989, the communist leader was forced to leave the capital city of Bucharest with his family.

 

However, the civil unrest culminated in a show arrest of Ceaușescu and his wife, who were accused of crimes against humanity and were executed on Christmas Day. The 42 year-long rule of the communist party in Romania was finally abolished. It was the last communist government to be overthrown in a Warsaw Pact country during the 1989 Revolutions and the first revolution that ended by publicly executing its communist leader.

 

Aftermath of the Moscow Spring: The Fall of Communism in the Soviet Union

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Mikhail Gorbachev is booed during the May Day parade by Andre Durand, 1990, via the Guardian

 

When reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, it signaled greater liberalization of the Soviet regime, especially after launching his revolutionary reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika.

 

Following the Moscow Spring of 1989 and the first competitive elections in Soviet Russia, the revolutionary wave spread first across the Eastern Bloc and later across the entire territory of the Soviet Union. All the constituent republics of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Central Asia, held competitive parliamentary elections for the first time in years between June 1989 and April 1991. The Soviet Union had a multiparty semi-presidential regime from March 1990 until its collapse in December 1991.



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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.