What caused the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, October 1997





This paper shall be concentrating on some of the long-term factors which during the communist regime in the Soviet Union could be seen as primary causes to the breakdown of communism, as well as looking at how short-term events such as the introduction of glasnost and perestroyka turned out to be the final blow.


Europe, Russia, Communism, perestroyka, glasnost, Soviet Union



We have made one important contribution – we have taught the world what not to do. (Yuriy Afanasyev)[1]

The fall of communist regimes in East European countries in 1989-90 marked a sudden and, for many, unexpected end of a century dominated by two completely different political, economic and ethic ideologies – capitalism and communism. Few, if any, countries have been untouched by the tensions and clashes between these two since the Russian revolution in 1917, and the world, especially Europe, suddenly found itself waking up to a new dawn – unknown, and for many, so unforeseen.

Explaining how and why the communism in Eastern Europe failed in its objectives cannot be done properly in a short paper like this. Thus I will be concentrating on some of the long-term factors which during the communist regime in the Soviet Union could be seen as primary causes to the breakdown, as well as looking at how short-term events such as the introduction of glasnost and perestroyka turned out to be the final blow.

It is not too hard to understand why Marxism became the ideology believed to be the only one that could lead Russia into the future in the beginning of this century. A big country with a big population and a growing working class needed a strong state to lead them into the right direction. Russia was also on a virtue to an economic collapse with food shortages, layoffs and factory closures as part of the national misery. The increased state control and the development of the authoritarian and bureaucratic communist party were the Bolsheviks way to prepare for a society without classes or state[2]. But it was principally Stalin who started the entire process that eventually would lead to the economic and political collapse in the 1980’s with his ‘revolution’ including the forcibly collectivizing of agriculture.[3]

Between 1929 and 1935 some 85% of Russian peasant households were herded into collective farms, obliged to turn over to the regime a fixed quantity of their production. This caused resistance which led to that the totalitarian policies held by the Party were put into practice and started the big purge which supposedly killed between 6 and 11 million peasants in the late 1930’s.[4]  Systematic coercion involved an enormous enhancement in the powers of the secret police that would continue to haunt the population until the last days of communist regime.[5]  As the anonymous author “Z” notices, this was rone reason for the transformation of the Russian peasantry into a “demoralized, listless, and often alcoholic work force, suspicious of state power and unwilling to take any initiative on its own”.[6] According to “Z”, Gorbachev thus could not reach out with his reforms to the Soviet population in the era of perestroyka. They simply could or would not respond to them[7]. Sixty years of collectivization destroyed the USSR’s chances of restructuring and change as its most important resource, the population, for mentioned reasons were not part of the progress.

The regimes’ policies of rapid industrialization also became an important factor for the economic breakdown. As Callinicos argues[8], military rivalry made the USSR give priority to investments in defense-related heavy industry. Also, military investments outside the USSR, for example in Afghanistan, helped the decline of the economy. All this had as purpose to establish Soviet Union as a militant super-nation. Hobsbawm sees this, together with an inefficient and inflexible system within the USSR, as two main reasons for the collapse.[9]

He further argues that even though the USSR could cope with their internal problems with the economy in the first couple of decades of communist rule, it became in the 1970’s increasingly involved in the global market and thus made the problems worse. He illustrates this with the international oil crisis in 1973 when the USSR as an oil-producing country gained millions of dollars without much effort. This, paradoxically, led to a negative impact on its economy as when oil fields in the 1980’s began to dry up, oil production costs increased sharply and Eastern Europe found itself in an acute energy crisis. Shortages of food and manufactured goods became the result, and this, according to Hobsbawm, was the situation in which communism in Europe entered what proved to be its final decade.[10]

“Z” also acknowledges the faults with the production in the USSR, arguing that it never was a great industrial power although it looked like one for the West during the 60’s and 70’s. Nothing the USSR produced, except for military hardware, was competitive on the international market, and thus it was not able to put up with the new direction of market in the 1980’s.[11]  Petrakov blames all this on the centralized planning system based on the coercive character of the distribution of resources, demonstrating its incapacity and ineffectiveness.[12]

I believe these above-mentioned long-term factors are of most importance when looking at what led to the final breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe. Collectivization and coercion created an uninspired and suspicious workforce, and an ineffective and inefficient central planning system with industrialization, focused mainly on military means, created an economic climate in the USSR which needed dramatic changes in the late 1980’s. This was when Gorbachev entered the scene with the introduction of perestroyka and glasnost that I will argue became the final blow.

The introduction of perestroyka (restructuring) was not an attempt to abolish the Soviet system, but to implement some capitalistic ideas into it in order to solve the present crisis. Hobsbawm[13] argues that this together with the introduction of glasnost (openness) drove Soviet Union towards the collapse. Abandoning the very foundations of the Soviet system that was built on authority and a centralized planning system, and opening up the horror, injustice and corruption of the past for the population to scrutinize, was a combination that only could lead to a disaster. “Z”’s opinion of the purpose of glasnost was that it would energize the nation. Instead, the society could now use media to convey decades of frustration that had been built up since the era of Stalin.[14]  The population, especially in Eastern European countries, could now see all the ills with the communist system and how their neighbours in the West had a much higher living standard. Decades of living under the ‘Lie’, as “Z” states it, have had a “morally debilitating effect on the national culture and the population, among ruled and rulers alike”.[15]  Thus, it is understandable that Gorbachev had to concentrate on two things: fixing the bad economy, and if not defending, then in some way apologizing for the treatment in the past. This led to that Soviet Union lost its grip on the East European countries, as it was acute to first solve these issues.

We have no right, moral or political right, to interfere in events happening there.[16]

This extract from Gorbachev’s speech in Finland in 1989 shows his attitude towards the at that time raised voices for liberation from communism among the Eastern European populations. Glasnost and perestroyka has been shown to be two short term factors which finally led to the liberation, but some other factors specifically related to these countries and not Soviet Union itself also greatly impacted, as will be shown.

Gitelman[17] mentions three crucial factors that were decisive for the liberation process that would lead to the fall of communist regimes in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany in 1989 and 1990. First, she argues that the USSR had failed to establish or retain political authority there when the countries were annexed after World War II. The regimes ruled only with power and never won the acknowledgement of the populations that they had a right to rule. Secondly, these political failures were compounded by their economic failures. The people in these countries were more aware of the gap between their standards of living and of their Western neighbours as a result of increased tourism and the introduction of videos and computers. The third reason was that they had been persuaded by the regimes that they needed to sacrifice for the future and that consumerism was shallow and decadent. But seeing no hope for a prosperous future and watching the high living standard among the elite made the preachments against consumerism sound very hollow. Thus, when Gorbachev and the Soviet Union indicated that they had a right to go their own way, they did. Hungary started off a domino effect with its opening the border to Austria so that Germans living there could flee to West Germany. When the other countries saw that the communist regimes surprisingly did not do much effort to stop the liberation, they immediately followed after.

Hobsbawm also argues that these East European regimes had lost faith in their own systems, or had never had it. When it was obvious that the communist system had failed, they did nothing to prevent the development towards liberation.[18]  Thus, as Callinicos concludes, people in East Europe took the streets in a great act of self-liberation with the growing sense of autonomy, of the ability to finally remake their own lives.[19]

I have shown some of the factors that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Much more can be brought up, for example environmental negligence, the Nomenclatura system with rewarding good communists, the rise of nationalism, and cultural pressures within the different communist states. But I believe the reforms initiated by Gorbachev are mostly to be blamed for the collapse. In early 1989, China proved to the world with the massacre in Beijing that communism can work. But it only works with authority, power and force, and when Gorbachev abandoned this, nothing could stop everything from falling apart. Although long-term effects had an impact, it was the events and the democratization during the late 1980’s which was supposed to save communism that became its fall. Raeff has a similar view, stating that perestroyka and glasnost changed communism’s face in the world and demystified the very myth upon which it was based, namely the necessity of the leading role of the party, the superiority of communist ideas, and the meaning of Leninism.[20]

Obviously, Soviet communism failed in these objectives, but an interesting question is whether the communist way for the USSR was unavoidable. I believe there could have been other ways, but understand why people at that time saw it as the only solution to their problems. Hobsbawm concludes with his view of how the history has unfolded:

And yet, as I think back, I ask myself, again and again: was there an alternative to the indiscriminate, brutal, basically unplanned rush forward of the first Five-Year Plan? I wish I could say there was, but I cannot.
I cannot find an answer.[21]


Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.



Books and journals:

Callinicos, A., The Revenge of History, (Cambridge, 1991).

Gitelman, Z., ‘The Roots of East Europe’s revolution’, Problems of Communism, 39 (1990).

Hobsbawm, E., Age of Extremes, (London, 1994).

Petrakov, N., “The Socialist Idea and the Economic Failure of Real Socialism”, Problems of economic transition, 36:2 (1993).

Raeff, M., ‘Consequences of Glasnost’, Problems of Communism, 39 (1990).

Stokes, G., ‘Lessons of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989’, in Problems of Communism, 40 (1991).

“Z” (anonymous author), ‘To the Stalin Mausoleum’, in Brinton, W. and Rinzler, A., Without force or lies, (San Fransisco, 1990).


Other literature used (not refered to in paper):

Lasky, M. J., Voices in a revolution, (Southwick, 1991).

Rakitov, A. I., ‘Civilization, Culture, Technology, and the Market’, Problems of economic transition, 35:11 (1993).

Prior, S., ‘Perestroika and the new Europe’, in Ricketts, R., The New Europe, (Wellington, 1990).



[1] G. Stokes, ‘Lessons of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989’, in Problems of Communism, 40 (1991), p.    .

[2] A. Callinicos, The Revenge of History, (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 22-26.

[3] Callinicos, The Revenge of History, p. 29.

[4] “Z”, ‘To the Stalin Mausoleum’, in W. Brinton and A. Rinzler, Without force or lies, (San Fransisco, 1990), pp. 396-97.

[5] Callinicos, The Revenge of History, p. 33.

[6] “Z”, ‘To the Stalin Mausoleum’, p. 397.

[7] Ibid., pp. 418-19.

[8] Callinicos, The Revenge of History, pp. 39-40.

[9] E. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, (London, 1994), p. 479.

[10] Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, pp. 473-74.

[11] “Z”, ‘To the Stalin Mausoleum’, pp. 398-99.

[12] N. Petrakov, “The Socialist Idea and the Economic Failure of Real Socialism”, Problems of economic transition, 36:2 (1993), pp. 20-22.

[13] Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, p. 483.

[14] “Z”, ‘To the Stalin Mausoleum’, p. 412.

[15] Ibid., p. 403.

[16] Z. Gitelman, ‘The Roots of East Europe’s revolution’, Problems of Communism, 39 (1990), p. 89.

[17] Gitelman, ‘The Roots of East Europe’s revolution’, pp. 89-92.

[18] Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, p. 489.

[19] Callinicos, The Revenge of History, pp. 58-59.

[20] M. Raeff, ‘Consequences of Glasnost’, Problems of Communism, 39 (1990), pp. 109-10.

[21] Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, p.499