8HISTORY-Reading: The Cold War Era Ends

Stagnation

In the late 1960s, Leonid Brezhnev emerged as the most powerful politician in the USSR. Little changed under his leadership: those who spoke against the government were imprisoned and there was little economic growth. This period was known as the period of stagnation.

Decline of Communism

Yuri Andropov, who became leader in 1982, introduced a radical plan of reform to make the communist system more efficient. However his reforms ended when he became ill. After his death in 1984, one of Brezhnev's allies, Konstantin Chernenko, was chosen to be his successor. Yet, he died too, after only a year in office. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had worked with Andropov, replaced him and built up support within the party to carry out rapid reforms which changed the world.

The Collapse of Communism

In the 1980s, many countries in the Eastern bloc (formed from the Warsaw Pact) began to reject communism. At the end of the decade, a wave of reforms and democratic revolutions led to the breakdown of the entire Soviet system. In East Germany, pressure form the people forced the old Stalinist government to step down and the new president agreed to hold free elections and on November 9, 1989, he gave orders for the demolition of the Berlin Wall, a long-time manifestation of the Iron Curtain. Soon after, talks began with West Germany which resulted in the unification of Germany on October 23, 1990.

Encouraged by the successful rejection of communist power in Poland, Hungary and East Germany, the other countries in the Eastern bloc overthrew their communist leaders. Then, on New Year's Eve 1991, the USSR itself collapsed.

Since 1988, radical reformers such as Boris Yeltsin had begun to defeat leading communists. When countries in the Baltic such as Lithuania and Latvia began to make moves towards independence, Gorbachev, not wanting the USSR to break up completely, sent troops into these countries to take over parliament and the media. When this happened, prospects for further reform in the USSR looked dismal. Politicians and army leaders were divided between hard-liners who wanted to maintain the union of the USSR and reformers who wanted each state to be more independent. However, both sides criticized Gorbachev and Yeltsin, his main rival, was given more power by being elected president of the Russian Republic.

Soviet coup d'etat

Gorbachev finally negotiated the New Union Treaty, which would allow each republic to be more independent. It was to be signed on August 20, 1991. However, the hard-liners, including the head of the KGB (the Russian secret police) and the head of the armed forces, opposed the treaty and seized power in a coup d'etat while Gorbechev was away from the capital.

But the reformers looked to Yeltsin for action. Yeltsin made a rousing speech in the streets calling for firm resistance to the hard-liners. Many people came out to show their support and troops were unwilling to disperse them with force. Faced with this opposition, the leaders of the coup resigned. Within two hours, Yeltsin had taken over full control of the armed forces.

Yeltsin was now the new hero of democracy. In the central Russian parliament, Yeltsin battled for leadership with Gorbachev and pushed for the break up of the Soviet Union, ending 70 years of communism. Yeltsin proved the stronger of the two and on midnight, 31 December 1991, the USSR ceased to exist. The Russian Federal Republic became a separate state and the other republics became independent.

Russia's Future

Russia was now free of communist rule. But the fate of the country remains uncertain because of chronic economic and social problems such as rising crime rates and rampant corruption in the government. The recent economic woes of the country have also taken their toll on living standards and morale. Today, the lot of the Russian people is better than that of their parents and grandparents, but not by that much.

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://library.thinkquest.org/27629/themes/society/rsstag.html