Thursday, April 9, 2009

How Did the Soviet Empire Really Crumble?

Although many credit U.S. policy for eliminating the Soviet threat and breaking up the Soviet Union, it was not the only reason or even the main cause for that. After-all, it's nearly impossible to hold together an empire consisting of over 20 different nationalities and nearly 500 ethnic groups.  This fascinating article by ActionSammy takes a great look into the history of the Soviet Empire and why it broke up. 

Many are quick to credit the United States’ successful foreign policy of containment on communism as leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc. Even many of Russia’s former communist leaders secretly blame the U.S. for the lost of their empire.

While there is definitely some truth to the belief that the United States played a role, it was Moscow’s greed and conceited belief that it could control the lives of nearly a fifth of world’s population spread over an area nearly the size of North America that became its undoing. A look back into history would’ve shown the leaders in the Kremlin that no one has ever been successful in maintaining such a large empire for a sustained period. Trying to hold together an empire with more than 20 different nationalities and nearly 500 ethnic groups could only end in ultimate failure. A look into how the Soviet Union was formed would show that it was destined for disaster from the start. There were deep nationalistic divisions since the beginning.

Ordinary Ukrainians, for instance, did not take it too well when their government agreed to merge with Russia and became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Most Belarussian citizens were similarly disheartened. During World War II, as the German army swept through the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians initially took sides with Germany in hopes that they could regain their independence. After the war, Josef Stalin punished the Ukrainians dearly for their betrayal.

Red Army occupation of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria brought those countries under the Soviet Union’s “sphere of influence” and carefully-rigged elections gave those countries Soviet-styled communist governments, essentially making them puppets of the Soviet Union and became known as Soviet “satellite states”. Despite Moscow’s best attempts to present to the world one great big happy family of Soviet-style communist governments, deep resentment among this family remained. Poland and Czechoslovakia, for instance, having suffered complete occupation under Nazi rule during World War II, maintained deep animosity toward East Germany. Hungary, which had actually aligned itself with Germany during the war in hopes of retaking Transylvania from Romania, remained bitter toward both East Germany and Romania. And centuries-old grudges among Estonians, Latverians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Ukrainians also continued to persist. With so much hate and discontent under one roof it was only a matter of time before some of the members would try to make a quick dash for the front door.

In 1956, Hungary would become the first when its communist leader instituted reforms and began showing signs of cracking. They were not to succeed; Soviet troops and tanks were sent in to restore full communism. Twelve years later, in what became know as the “Prague Spring”, Czechoslovakia made a similar attempt to dislodge communism and met a similar response from Moscow.

It should be noted that while the Soviet Union did draw criticism for its heavy-handed tactics in the domestic affairs of other countries, not once did the United States or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stand ready to send military assistance to these countries trying to breakaway from Soviet control.

Despite Moscow’s frequent intrusion in their affairs and success at ruining any attempt to breakaway from Soviet rule, dissent toward Soviet-style communism not only persisted but actually became stronger and bolder. The late-1970’s saw the creation of the underground opposition Solidarity Movement in Poland which frequently organized workers’ strikes in protest against communist rule.

The 1980’s saw an even greater rise against the system and even the Soviet Union, with all its harshness and restrictions, was no longer safe from the rise of direct criticism from its own citizens. In hopes that more openness would lead to more general satisfaction with the government policies, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev instituted glasnost and prestorika reforms to allow more limited freedom. This move is widely considered to be the first blow that signaled the beginning of the end.

With the Soviet Union now flirting with liberal reforms, the people in the satellite states saw a grand opportunity to seek reforms and it was perhaps moves by the Hungarian government that especially paved the way for the ultimate end of communism in Eastern Europe. In 1988, the Hungarian government lifted all restrictions on foreign travel and a few months later, in a scene that would be played out in the news everywhere, Hungarian troops removed the barbed-wire fence and all checkpoints from its border with Austria.

Soon thereafter, East Germans began arriving in Hungary by the thousands, using the country’s now open border to travel to West Berlin to see relatives they had not seen since the Berlin Wall was erected 28 years earlier. A few months later came perhaps the deadliest blow of all to communism in Eastern Europe – the destruction of the Berlin Wall. And like a domino effect, the communist regimes in all of Eastern Europe fell and by the end of 1989, Eastern Europe was declared a communist-free zone.

And this happened without any prodding by the United States.

But the Soviet Empire’s destruction was far from complete. Two years later, in the summer of 1990, while much of the world’s attention was still focused on tension in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, Lithuania saw the perfect opportunity to become the first Soviet Republic to declare independence. Moscow immediately sent troops in to try to squash Lithuania’s independence but it was perhaps fear of incurring fierce worldwide condemnation that kept Moscow from acting overly aggressive and soon gave up its attempt to regain Lithuania.

Lithuania’s relatively bloodless divorce from the Kremlin inspired the other republics to seek independence. It took only a few months. The Russian Federation held its first democratic election ever, installing Boris Yeltsin as president. Other republics followed suit, holding their own elections and declaring that their own laws took precedence over all laws coming from Moscow. An August coup by hard-line communists failed to stop the inevitable.

As a Christmas present to the rest of the world, on Dec. 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of a country that was now no more. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had ceased as a country.

And it had ceased without any interference or meddling by the United States. The Soviet Empire destroyed itself. It was an empire that had been hastily put together by greed and force and fear. Such an empire never lasts. The United States just so happened to be in the right place at the right time.

And even with the Soviet Union no more, the Russian Federation, widely considered to be the torch-carrier from the Soviet Union since it inherited almost everything left over from the Soviet Union’s disintegration, continues to hold a considerable amount of influence in the region, especially where the former Soviet republics are concerned. Despite independence, many of them remain wary of making any foreign policy decision that could earn them the ire of the Kremlin. And the landlocked former republics in Central Asia still depend heavily on trade and economic ties with Russia to survive.

So, in a manner of speaking, the Soviet Empire is not dead. It just has a new name and new system.

digg this