The history of freedom

After 74 years of authoritarian communist rule, in which ordinary freedoms were denied and dissent was crushed, the Soviet Union fell apart in the course of just one remarkable year – 1989.

Over decades, the people of the USSR had grown disillusioned with a state that not only destroyed their freedoms but also failed to put food on the table. Gradually, they built the courage to rebel, setting in motion a chain of events that would change the world forever.

Cracks in the ice appear

When Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in 1985, the country’s economy was failing, due to a disastrous war in Afghanistan and excessive defence spending. To avoid economic collapse, he promoted the ideas of perestroika – restructuring, primarily of the Soviet economic model, but also political restructuring – and glasnost, or openness.

As part of these reforms, he also abandoned the Soviet Union’s policy of preserving communist rule in Eastern bloc countries by force if necessary. People sensed change was in the air.

People mobilise

Sensing a thaw in attitudes from the very top, people started to organise. They mobilised, realising they could achieve more if they were stood together.

In Poland, workers went on strike in May 1988 in retaliation for massive price hikes imposed by the government, which had led to shortages in the shops and growing public anger. The disruption forced the government to enter discussions with the massive trade union, Solidarity – representing one third of the Polish population – which they had previously attempted to crush.

When Gorbachev announced in December at the United Nations that Soviet troops would withdraw from Eastern Europe, this gave a signal to people living in those countries that their calls for democracy were unlikely to be met with Soviet force.

The house of cards begins to fall

The events in Poland accelerated change that was taking place in nearby Hungary after Károly Grósz became General Secretary of the Communist Party there in May 1988. He initiated a ‘democracy package’ unveiling a raft of new freedoms, which ushered in the end of communist rule in February 1989.

Solidarity was legalised in Poland, paving the way for victory in the country’s elections. The Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia declared themselves sovereign in May, with Gorbachev announcing in July that each former Eastern bloc country could forge its own path to socialism.

 

Revolution is in the air

The Solidarity-led government took power in Poland in September 1989. Sensing change was possible, people in East Germany began protesting for their right to elect their choice of government. President Honecker initially stood firm, but when his request for military intervention to help supress the uprising was denied by Gorbachev, he was unable to quell the growing tide of protest.

Two months later, the Berlin Wall – a potent symbol of the Iron Curtain and Soviet oppression – fell, bringing 30 years of a divided Germany to an end. Finally, East Germans were free to travel to the West and be reunited with their families.

By the end of the year the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia had led to Václav Havel being installed as president, while Romania’s communist president, Ceaușescu, had been deposed and executed in a bloody coup. 

The Cold War is over

It was hard to believe that just three years after the Poles went on strike, the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, and – on 26 December 1991 – the Soviet Union was no more.

This was the biggest political upheaval Europe had witnessed since WWII, and while many celebrated the fall of communism, there were turbulent years ahead. Everyone had to get used to new political systems, market economies, inflation and a complete re-structuring of the job market. The divide between rich and poor grew, and some wanted to return to the comfortable familiarities of the past.

But now, 30 years on, millions of Europeans enjoy the kind of freedoms their parents and grandparents could only have dreamt of under communist rule. We’re free to vote, protest, love and pray. We can think, speak and act without fear. That is why it’s important to remember how those freedoms were won, and make sure we defend them so we and others can enjoy them for many years to come.

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