Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Victor Sebestyen, tells the story of the fall of the Soviet Empire in each European Warsaw Pact nation. The story is told in in a personal way, focusing on particular individuals from chapter to chapter. It mostly covers the period of 1980-1989. Although the Russian heads of state are including in these chapters, the book does not seek to address how the Soviet Union itself was ended, but how Communism ended in Europe. Most of the focus is anchored to specific individuals such as Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel, although the story strays into a more historical view when necessary. Wałęsa and Havel, of course, went on to be heads of state in their own respective countries as a direct result of their anti-Communist action, so it is quite appropriate to tell the story through them and their movements.
The first rumblings that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union were labor strikes for better working conditions and wages. In response to some of these protest movements, the Communist regimes in the countries they occurred in did on occasion inflict mass-murder and arrests on protestors; however, the Russians themselves were unable to act with force as they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Poland was the confluence of a number of forces that posed the first serious threat to Soviet cohesion. First, the election of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, provided Poles with a religious foundation from which to stand against Communism. The Pope made an early visit to Poland that attracted mass crowds of Catholics. Soviet media tried to downplay the impact of his visit, but the reception by the Polish people was too much for them to cover up.
Only a little more than a year after the Pope’s visit, a workers’ movement called Solidarity won a great victory against Communism—namely the right to exist at all. The free workers union achieved the legal right to exist at the twilight of Brezhnev’s health, and was able to negotiate better terms for workers in Poland. The end of Communism was hastened by the poor Soviet leadership. Brezhnev’s ailing health and death, followed by the brief leadership of the elderly Andropov and Chernenko, allowed protest movements to gain ground in their respective nations. However, before Gorbachev came to power, the Soviets still attempted to interfere in the governments of the SSRs in the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviets demanded the the Poles act to reverse the legal victories of the “counter-revolutionary” forces. The Polish leader Edward Gierek was replaced by the more Party-compliant Stanisław Kania, who was also unwilling to crush the organized workers’ movement. The Soviets staged war games and attempted to deceive the Polish government into believing that the Russians and Germans were both going to invade to put the country back in order—but Kania did not destroy Solidarity and was again replaced by Wojciech Jaruzelski only a little after a year after the KGB discovered him making criticisms of the USSR through their bugs.
It’s clear that victories were scored against Communism so easily in Poland because the Poles believed in something higher (God) and they didn’t really believe in Communism at all. The political leadership was more interested in maintaining their own positions whether that had to do with preserving Communism or not. They were also dealing with real economic problems and real threats of revolt if they were not dealt with. The victories were also possible because the leader of Solidarity, Lech Wałęsa, insisted that the movement did not attempt to overthrow Communism but make realistic demands that the government would give in to but not trigger a full-scale crackdown. The circumstances in Poland were perfect for revolution, and Solidarity had an excellent leader that organized and coordinated the workers toward ends that were possible and non-violent. Without the leadership of Wałęsa, there could have been no circulation of the elite:
“Solidarity was under the Microscope as never before and Wałęsa became, in effect, the first Leader of the Opposition in the Communist world. He showed great skill as a negotiator but was soon being criticised for an overbearing manner. He did not operate openly or democratically. He infuriated the more radical wing of Solidarity by constantly urging compromise with the regime. During 1981 he stopped far more strikes than he started, repeatedly persuading workers to moderate their demands lest Solidarity risk a crackdown by the Russians.”