Three decades ago, the Soviet Union was on life support. The second pole of the Cold War’s vaunted bipolar world was economically sickly, militarily moribund, and politically terminal.
A Third World nation with nuclear weapons, it had murdered its own people, conquered free countries, spread oppression and terror, warred against the human spirit, and become what President Ronald Reagan rightly called an Evil Empire. After taking root amid the chaos and slaughter of World War I 74 years before, the U.S.S.R. was dismembered by committee. (READ MORE: When Ronald Reagan Called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire)
On December 8, 1991, two communist apparatchiks, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk, and relative political neophyte Byelorussian Stanislav Shushkevich, met at a hunting lodge near the Polish border on December 8. They signed the Belavezha Accords, named after the enveloping forest, dissolving the Soviet Union. The pact declared that “the USSR ceases to exist as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality,” replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States, which never became a geopolitical reality. The now 86-year-old Shushkevich, who was soon dismissed from politics by a then unheralded Alexander Lukashenko, observed that “A great empire, a nuclear superpower, split into independent countries that could cooperate with each other as closely as they wanted, and not a single drop of blood was shed.”
Eight more signatures were added to the agreement in the following two weeks. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time. And Mikhail Gorbachev was unemployed.
Gorbachev had been attempting to forge a “union treaty” to hold together a somewhat less evil empire. A reform communist to the end, he sought to save the patient despite a condition both inoperable and incurable. Complained Gorbachev: “What they so hastily and stealthily did in Belavezha was like a plot to kill an injured but still living person by dismembering it.” He blamed base politics: “The striving for power and personal interests prevailed over any legal arguments or doubts.” However, there was little worth saving.
Kravchuk took the lead in pressing for dissolution. On the day he was elected president, Ukrainians also voted to secede. Although the U.S.S.R.’s collapse looks inevitable today, the dissident leaders feared arrest as traitors. Indeed, years later, local KGB head Eduard Shirkovsky said he wished he had done so. Shushkevich dismissed the idea: “I don’t think there was such a threat, given Gorbachev’s cowardice; at least I didn’t feel it.”
Yet Gorbachev’s “cowardice” was the basis of his greatness, flawed though his objectives and rule often were. In explaining his action, he said he recognized that the loyalties of Soviet security forces were divided: “If I decided to rely on some armed structures, it would have inevitably resulted in an acute political conflict fraught with bloodshed.”
Indeed, it was a similar decision, to keep the Red Army in its barracks, that made 1989 possible. Before that, Soviet troops were always the final arbiter of politics in the satellite states: East Germany 1953, Poland 1956, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1980. Party liberalization and public protests ultimately could not match the U.S.S.R.’s military might.
A system many feared would last well into the next century discovered that a burning anger at oppression and restless demand for freedom could be contained no longer.
Gorbachev knew this and nevertheless ended decades of Soviet policy — but not because he feared the response of Red Army soldiers, who almost certainly would have remained loyal. And he understood that the likely result would be the end of Moscow’s “allied” regimes. Rather, his point was moral as well as practical. Indeed, Reagan said he discerned “a moral dimension in Gorbachev.”
First came the withdrawal from Afghanistan, dooming the local communist regime. Next was Gorbachev’s declaration that East European governments had to solve their own problems. On a visit to Finland in late October 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the New York Times reported:
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared today that the Soviet Union has no moral or political right to interfere in the affairs of its East European neighbors, and held up neutral Finland as a model of stability in stormy Europe. His spokesman embroidered the theme jokingly, saying that Moscow had adopted “the Sinatra doctrine” in Eastern Europe. “You know the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I Did It My Way?’” said Gennadi I. Gerasimov to reporters. “Hungary and Poland are doing it their way.”
“I think the Brezhnev doctrine is dead,” he added, using the Western term for the previous Soviet policy of armed intervention to prevent changes in the Communist governments of the Warsaw Pact. In talks with Finland’s President, Mauno Koivisto, at the beginning of a three-day state visit, Mr. Gorbachev was reported to have said that the current political upheavals in the East bloc must be allowed to run their course.
Imagine how Joseph Stalin, the Man of Steel who made the Evil Empire, would have responded.
Under Gorbachev, the wimpy communists in control of such countries as Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia fell early. East German Socialist Unity Party General Secretary Erich Honecker was made of sterner stuff. As the freedom tide rose in November 1989, he drew on his Stalinist core and advocated shooting protestors who were taking to the streets in increasing numbers. His less stalwart Politburo colleagues sent him into hasty retirement, only to see the crowds burgeon and the Berlin Wall fall.
Only in Romania was the leadership willing to kill to stay in power. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were cruel crackpots even by communist standards. Certain in his continued destructive rule — he took over as party general secretary in 1965 — Ceausescu called together demonstrators to celebrate his reign. His face registered shock and horror as the crowd began to shout him down. He and his chief cohort in crime, his wife Elena, fled, only to end up on trial and before a firing squad on Christmas Day. Its enthusiastic members did not wait to begin shooting.
There was more to come in Eastern Europe, but Romania represented the effective coda to the U.S.S.R.’s European empire. More painful for Gorbachev was the impact of the same forces on the Soviet Union. He dismantled the authoritarian institutions and processes which held the artificial system together, seemingly oblivious to the inevitable consequences.
Some of his minions, still believers in a slightly less brutal Evil Empire, staged a coup in August 1991. In times past, the military, party, and KGB were strong individually and unassailable collectively. No longer, and the Soviet people put them to flight. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a hollow shell. Four months later, three men sat down to commit an act of political euthanasia. And Gorbachev was too “cowardly” — no longer believing in the moral or practical mission that he took on as the last successor to perhaps the greatest totalitarian of them all, Joseph Stalin — to stop them.
The Soviet Union was born in war and revolution. It survived conflict and famine. It toughened from purge and repression. It expanded through opportunism and war. It weakened from bureaucracy and stasis. It died of corruption and reform. A system many feared would last well into the next century discovered that a burning anger at oppression and restless demand for freedom could be contained no longer. There is no guarantee that liberty will always triumph. But the end of this monstrous symbol of man’s inhumanity to man will always give hope for the oppressed.
Christmas 1991 delivered an unexpected present to the world: the end of the Soviet Union and Marxist-Leninism. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
Nominal communist regimes still exist, but they are knock-offs, systems determined to survive by being different. There is little Marx in China. Cuba also has gone to market to try to save itself. North Korea has enshrined Asian monarchy rather than European philosophy. But no one has attempted to remake Soviet communism. For this, we should thank Mikhail Gorbachev, inadvertently or not one of freedom’s best friends.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.