BECK index

Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War

Nonviolently Resisting Tyranny
Rebelling Against Soviet Domination
Gorbachev's Reforms and Arms Race Reversal
Liberation of Eastern Europe 1989-1991
Gorbachev and the Earth Charter

This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Click below to see and hear the two articles from this chapter.

Never before has so terrible a threat hung over mankind as now.
The only reasonable way out of the existing situation
is the reaching of an agreement by the opposing forces
on the immediate termination of the arms race,
the nuclear arms race on earth
and the prevention of arms in space.
We need an agreement on an honest and equitable basis
without attempts at "outplaying" the other side
and dictating terms to it.
We need an agreement which would help all
to advance toward the cherished goal:
the complete elimination and prohibition
of nuclear weapons for all time,
toward the complete removal of the threat of nuclear war.
This is our firm conviction.
Mikhail Gorbachev, March 11, 1985

We want freedom to reign supreme
in the coming century everywhere in the world.
We want peaceful competition between different social systems
to develop unimpeded,
to encourage mutually advantageous cooperation
rather than confrontation and an arms race.
We want people of every country
to enjoy prosperity, welfare and happiness.
The road to this lies through proceeding
to a nuclear-free, nonviolent world.
We have embarked on this road,
and call on other countries and nations to follow suit.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika

Freedom and democracy, after all,
mean joint participation and shared responsibility.
Your government, my people, has returned to you.
Vaclav Havel, January 1, 1990

We need a new system of values,
a system of the organic unity between mankind and nature
and the ethic of global responsibility
Mikhail Gorbachev

Nonviolently Resisting Tyranny

Modern history has many examples of people resisting imperial domination by using more or less nonviolent methods. Between 1567 and 1579 Dutch Protestants revolted against the Catholic Spanish imperialism of Philip II and established a republic governed by States-General. American colonists nonviolently refused to cooperate with the British Stamp Act of 1765 until it was repealed. Another tax imposed without representation was resisted by the "Boston tea party" in 1773 when merchants dressed as Mohawks threw imported tea into the harbor. John Adams later wrote that the real American revolution was nonviolent and had occurred between 1760 and 1775, when the colonists had essentially become independent. This was followed by a war between the newly independent republic and British imperialism. Hungarians resisted domination by Austria; but the violent revolt led by Kossuth was a failure, while the reformer Ferenc Deak got Austrian emperor Franz Josef to recognize rights of Hungarians in the Compromise of 1867 that made the empire Austro-Hungarian.

The best revolutions are nonviolent. On January 9, 1905 thousands of Russians marched peacefully to the Winter Palace of Czar Nicholas II; but guards mowed down demonstrators with machine guns. Russian sailors on the cruiser Potemkin mutinied in July at Odessa, and in October a general strike was called. On October 17 Nicholas granted a constitution with a parliament (Duma) and civil liberties, but later he withdrew his concessions and repressed dissent.

The 1917 revolution began with marches celebrating International Women's Day on March 8 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar). After two days of strikes and riots, the Russian troops fighting in the Great War mutinied, and on March 15 Czar Nicholas II abdicated. In July, Minister of War Kerensky headed a provisional government. Housewives, who had to wait in long bread lines, began demonstrating, and on November 6 (old October 24) V. I. Lenin ordered the signal that sent soldiers, sailors, and factory workers rushing into government offices and the Winter Palace. Kerensky accepted Bolshevik support to prevent General Kornilov from being dictator, and Bolsheviks led by Leon Trotsky gained a majority of the Petrograd Soviet; but the next day Kerensky fled, and Lenin took control as the Council of People's Commissars with Leon Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs and Stalin as commissar for national minorities. The first reform the Soviets made was to abolish capital punishment. Peasants began seizing fields of the landlords. Lenin kept his promise by withdrawing the Russian army from the war; but they were soon attacked by their former western allies. This is not the place to tell the sad story of how this revolution degenerated into a totalitarian empire, especially after Stalin took power.

After Germany lost the Great War, on March 10, 1920 the right-wing Wolfgang Kapp and top army officers seized the government in Berlin; but the Weimar Republic used nonviolent methods to survive this coup (Putsch). The Ebert government fled Berlin but told people not to cooperate with the new regime. When officers occupied newspaper offices, the Berlin printers went on strike, followed by other workers. A general strike was declared by the Ebert cabinet and the executives of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The Kappist regime had no money and could not make the bureaucrats cooperate. The Ebert government refused to compromise with the Kappists. An airplane dropped leaflets announcing, "The Collapse of the Military Dictatorship." Even threats to shoot people and the shooting of some failed to stop the strike. On March 17 the Berlin Security Police demanded that Kapp resign, and later that day he did resign and fled to Sweden. General Luttwitz remained as Commander-in-Chief, but he resigned that night. The next day the Baltic Brigades marched out of Berlin, shooting some civilians who jeered at them. The Ebert government resumed its functions but still faced some chaos in the country.

The Versailles Treaty had forced Germany to give up the coal-mining Ruhr region to French and Belgian control. By 1923 Germans resented severe French repression and increased their non-cooperation and acts of sabotage. The French realized that they were losing more than they were gaining. They agreed to withdraw French troops, and the Germans ended the passive resistance campaign.

During World War II as Nazi Germany took over countries in Europe, nonviolent resistance gradually developed, especially in Norway and Denmark. The Nordic countries had declared neutrality; but the German invasion in the spring of 1940 defeated the Norwegian defense forces as the cabinet fled to London. Pressure groups tried to influence political decisions under the German occupation. In September all Norwegian political parties were dissolved, and the Parliament was disbanded as German commissioners took control. Radios were confiscated, but a few remained or were built to hear the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) news.

Norwegian teachers were threatened with dismissal if they did not follow the policies of the new government; but instead of signing on to that, teachers signed a counter-declaration saying they would teach according to their own consciences. They refused to teach Nazi propaganda in the schools or cooperate with the Nazi youth organization. In February 1942 the Germans set up the Norwegian Vidkun Quisling as Minister-President but controlled all his decisions. He proclaimed a law creating the Norwegian Teachers' Union. Teachers and parents sent in letters of protest. In March more than a thousand teachers were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In April Quisling allowed the teachers to teach even though they still refused to indoctrinate. Church leaders also criticized the violence of the German occupation and refused to reveal the secrets of the confessional. A pastoral letter was printed and distributed, though the Germans confiscated half of the 50,000 printed. On Easter in 1942 the clergy renounced their state-paid salaries but continued to perform their spiritual duties.

Denmark had also declared neutrality and offered little armed resistance as the Germans invaded their country on April 9, 1940. The Danish government remained in place; although they had to make some concessions to the Germans, they rejected a common currency and customs with Germany and refused to let the Danish Nazis take power. The resistance developed gradually but increased in violence when the Germans were losing the war. The Danes, especially the students, began to wear red, white, and blue caps, and more Danes began giving the German occupiers the "cold shoulder." The BBC broadcasted to Danes in Danish. Sabotage attacks dramatically increased in 1942 to more than a hundred, and in 1943 there were more than a thousand. In August 1943 spontaneous strikes and demonstrations spread. Germans gave the Danish government an ultimatum, which Erik Scavenius refused. The Germans took over the government, but that month the British recognized the Danes' Freedom Council that was trying to coordinate the resistance and would not allow army officers to participate until 1944. In October 1943 Berlin ordered all the 7,000 Jews in Denmark arrested; but the Danes managed to help all but 500 to escape to Sweden. During the occupation 538 illegal newspapers circulated, reaching ten million people in 1944. They effectively counteracted German propaganda.

Rebelling Against Soviet Domination

The Soviet Union used their share of the military victory in World War II to expand their Communist empire into eastern Europe. This turned into a conflict with the western capitalist nations that became known as the Cold War. The United States already had atomic weapons; when the Soviet Union developed them in 1949 and the hydrogen bomb in 1953, these rival nations became known as "super-powers." Yet despite the lack of free elections and civil liberties in Communist nations dominated by the Soviet Union, nonviolent resistance began to develop in certain places.

After Stalin died in March 1953, 250,000 political prisoners at Vorkuta in the Soviet Union were informed that they should not expect amnesty. So they went on strike and were encouraged when the hated head of the secret police, Beria, fell; but strike leaders were removed, and some were shot. After three months lack of food and fuel forced the strikers to go back to work, but they had gained some concessions.

East German workers proclaimed a more liberal course on June 11, 1953 and refused to accept an increase in hours without an increase in pay. Workers marched in Berlin and called for a general strike. About 300,000 workers were on strike in 272 towns by June 17. The demonstrations the day before had been peaceful; but on this day posters and newspaper kiosks were smashed and burned, and scuffling began with the police. Some prisons were stormed, and more than just political prisoners escaped. Crowds even beat to death a few officials and informers. At 1 p.m. the strike committee met and decided to tell workers to go back into the firms but stay on strike. Two hours later a state of emergency was declared, and Soviet tanks rolled in with machine guns to quell the uprising, killing 569 and wounding 1,744. The Red Army took up strategic positions along the border with West Berlin, at post offices, railway stations, and docks. They were ordered to act with restraint, and in the entire country only 21 more people were killed. Later Neues Deutschland portrayed the episode as "Fascism Shows its Ugly Face." Not wanting to start another world war, US President Eisenhower limited his response to sending food aid to the East Germans.

In Poland Cardinal Wyszynski was arrested in 1953 and held in prison. In 1955 the Soviet empire formed the Warsaw Pact to counter the western North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When Nikita Khrushchev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1956, he criticized Stalin and exposed his cruel policies. In June striking workers in Poland gained some concessions although seventy workers were killed in clashes with the Polish army and police.

Stalin had imposed the leader Rakosi on Hungary, and he was forced to resign in July 1956 as a gesture to the Hungarian people. Khrushchev visited Warsaw on October 19, and two days later the Central Committee elected Gomulka first secretary of the Polish Communist Party. The next day demonstrations occurred in Budapest to support the Poles. After a poor harvest and fuel shortages, Hungarian students and workers began demonstrating in the streets for their Sixteen Points, demanding personal freedom, more food, and removal of secret police and Russian domination. Imre Nagy was named prime minister, and Janos Kadar became foreign minister. The Red Army withdrew, and Nagy announced he was allowing political parties. In Poland, Gomulka released Cardinal Wyszynski from prison. When Nagy broadcast on October 31 that Hungary was going to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, Kadar left and formed a government in eastern Hungary supported by Soviet tanks. Four days later Soviet tanks entered Budapest and brutally killed even the wounded, dragging around their bodies with tanks to scare away others. An estimated 30,000 people were killed, and approximately 200,000 fled to the west without their belongings. Nagy was tried and executed, as Kadar took control. These dramatic events coincided with the Suez crisis.

On January 5, 1968 Alexander Dubcek became first secretary of the Czech Communist Party. His liberal policy ended censorship; but in Warsaw on January 30 a play portraying Poland suffering under Russian imperialism in the 19th century was shut down, and student leader Adam Michnik was arrested. On March 8 Polish students began protesting these and shouting that Poland is waiting for a Dubcek. Three days later the police and workers militia were brought in to quell the students in a battle that lasted eight hours. On March 14 students in Krakow began a sympathy strike, and student protests spread throughout Poland. Gomulka blamed Zionists, and Moczar began anti-Semitic purges, causing two-thirds of the 30,000 Polish Jews, who had survived the holocaust, to leave the country. After Kolakowski and five other Jewish professors were dismissed from the University of Warsaw, students demanded that Kolakowski be reinstated; 1,300 students were expelled. That spring major student demonstrations erupted in Paris.

On August 20, 1968 the Soviet Union with its Warsaw allies invaded Czechoslovakia with half a million troops and abducted Dubcek, Prime Minister Cernik, National Assembly President Smrkovsky, and National Front Chairman Kriegel. The popular Czech President Ludvik Svoboda was put under house arrest, but he refused to sign a document for the conservative regime. Czech officials issued emergency orders for all troops to stay in their barracks. The Czech news agency refused to broadcast an announcement that party and government officials had requested Soviet help. The Extraordinary Fourteenth Party Congress, the National Assembly, and remaining government ministers announced that the invasion had begun without their knowledge or consent. The National Assembly also demanded the release of their constitutional representatives and the immediate withdrawal of the Warsaw Pact forces. They called for one-hour general strikes and asked rail workers to slow the trains bringing equipment to jam radio broadcasts.

The Czech police refused to collaborate with the invaders. Radio broadcasts warned that violence was futile and advised nonviolent resistance; students were asked to calm explosive situations. The Soviet empire had militarily occupied Czechoslovakia, but they still faced a political challenge. Svoboda was flown to Moscow but refused to negotiate without Dubcek, Cernik, and Smrkovsky. They agreed on a compromise that retained them in their positions but that gave the party a more leading role and left Russian troops in the country. Many Czechs resented the loss of reforms and would not accept it for a week. Apparently the leaders did not think the people would continue their resistance. The next April, Dubcek was replaced as party leader by Gustav Husak. The lessons of Prague 1968 would not be forgotten.

On December 14, 1970 workers from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk went on strike; but the Polish students, who felt they had been betrayed by the workers in 1968, refused to join them. The next day was called Bloody Tuesday as fighting broke out all over Gdansk, and the following day there were terrible tank and helicopter battles. The strike spread to Gdynia and Szczecin, and the battles shifted there on December 17. Three days later Gomulka resigned and was replaced by Edvard Gierek, and the Christmas season ended the battles. The official report counted 45 dead and 1,165 wounded; but other estimates were much higher. On January 22, 1971 workers went on strike because of a speed-up and demanded to meet with Gierek, who talked with them for nine hours and said he was a worker too. The workers decided to give him a chance, and he developed a revised five-year plan that expanded the consumer sector.

On June 24, 1976 an official announcement that food prices would be raised up to 60% caused sit-down strikes throughout Poland. The price increases were canceled, and the strikes ended; but many labor leaders had been arrested. In September, Kuron, Michnik, and other intellectuals formed the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) to give workers legal advice and inform the public. An underground press spread ideas. Michnik wrote how the bond between force and deception kept people from establishing honest relations with each other as they used deceit for self-preservation in the totalitarian system. The KOR broke through this isolation, and they were wise enough to reject violence and revenge. Now people could gather and look each other in the eye. Michnik gave many writers credit for sacrificing material comforts to do their writing even though it could only be published unofficially on a small scale as samizdat (self-published). On October 16, 1978 Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected Pope John Paul II. His visit to Poland in June 1979 was an inspiration to many. In September KOR's journal published a Charter of Workers' Rights. In December, Lech Walesa and Andrezej Gwiazda organized a memorial service for the 1970 martyrs, and many people were arrested. Walesa warned that if a memorial was not built, in one year 35 million Poles would each bring a brick to build it themselves.

In July 1980 the government nearly doubled meat prices, causing strikes around Poland. Warsaw strikers immediately gained pay increases of ten percent or more, and the strikes spread. On August 14 the dismissed electrician Lech Walesa climbed into the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk and began a sit-down strike over the illegal dismissal of a worker as 16,000 workers demanded an independent union. The sit-ins spread, and an Interfactory Strike Committee was formed. On August 20 Kuron and Michnik were arrested along with twelve other KOR activists. Strike leaders demanded communication lines be restored before continuing talks with the government, and they posted their 21 demands. By the end of August the government had agreed to allow free trade unions, free information and media, and civil rights. The new unions adopted the name Solidarity and soon had more than ten million members. Suddenly a closed society was allowed to exchange information openly, and the effect was euphoric. However, the economy was a mess with a huge foreign debt, and the media was still mostly controlled. A polluted environment and malnutrition caused diseases the health care system could not handle. The Polish Communist Party lost hundreds of thousands of members.

In September 1981 Walesa was elected president of Solidarity but wanted it to stay a trade union and not become a political movement; yet many wanted political reforms. In November, Solidarity insisted on discussing major reforms with the Communist Party, and student strikes spread. In December, Walesa warned that they could not remain passive any longer. The loyal Communist, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, had been made prime minister in February 1981, and on December 13 he declared a state of war and ordered thousands arrested as tanks patrolled the streets. Strikes were crushed one after another. The Solidarity Union was officially dissolved in October 1982, and the next month Walesa was released but kept under surveillance. In December the state of war was suspended. Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but declined to leave Poland lest he not be allowed to return. Martial law was formally lifted in July 1983, but more restrictive laws had been instituted. The economy continued in stagnation. Thirty-three university presidents were removed by authorities in 1985; but the next year they released 20,000 out of 114,000, freeing 225 political prisoners including Michnik. In June 1987 Pope John Paul II made his third pilgrimage to Poland and proclaimed that Solidarity had "eternal significance."

Gorbachev's Reforms and Arms Race Reversal

Mikhail Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931 during a famine on the Stavropol steppe. He was active in the Young Communist League, then in the Komsomol, and joined the Communist Party in 1952. He studied law at Moscow State University, graduating at the same time as his wife Raisa in 1955. The next year Gorbachev became first secretary of the Komsomol in Stavropol, and he continued to rise in the government. In 1964 his mentor Kulakov became head of the agriculture department on the Central Committee, and three years later Gorbachev earned his degree from the Stavropol Agricultural Institute. In 1970 he was elected first secretary of the Stavropol Krai party and was promoted to the Central Committee. Raisa had studied the self-accounting system used in Krasnodar that gave people cash incentives for larger harvests, and her husband gained attention for the success of the new Ipatovsky harvesting methods. When Kulakov died in 1978, Gorbachev became Secretary of Agriculture and moved to Moscow; two years later he became a voting member of the elite Politburo.

In 1982 his patron, KGB Chief Yuri Andropov, became General Secretary. While Andropov was dying, Gorbachev was his main link to the Party elite. When Soviet jets shot down the straying Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Gorbachev headed the crisis-management team. In 1984 Konstantin Chernenko became General Secretary; but he was ailing too, and as his second, Gorbachev presided over meetings. In December 1984 Gorbachev went to England and met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He hoped that with her help he could persuade President Reagan to agree to free western Europe of US missiles and not go forward on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or Star Wars). Gorbachev complained about the folly of the nuclear arms race and challenged Britain's acquiescence to US missiles in Europe. He asked for her suggestions on how he might decentralize the Soviet economy and wanted to learn how Britain had adjusted to the transformation of its empire to a commonwealth. Afterward Thatcher announced, "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together."1

On March 10, 1985 Chernenko died, and Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. The very next day he called for an end to the arms race and for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. He proposed freezing nuclear arsenals and stopping further deployment of missiles as steps leading to a substantial reduction of the stockpiles, and he warned against developing new weapons in space or on Earth.

Gorbachev wanted to improve the inefficient Soviet economy and brought Boris Yeltsin from Sverdlovsk to head the Moscow party. He moved aside the aging foreign minister Andrei Gromyko by giving him a ceremonial position as Soviet president, appointing Eduard Shevardnadze from Georgia. A more hidden adviser was the bold intellectual Alexander Yakovlev. In April, Gorbachev began to discuss restructuring (perestroika) the economy by using flexible cost accounting and retooling. Because the enormous consumption of vodka had been weakening the economy and culture, Gorbachev decreed fines and punishments for being drunk in public, introduced treatment programs, and restricted the sale of alcohol, raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. He courted the intellectuals by encouraging writers, such as Vitaly Korotich, whom he made editor of Ogonyok (Little Flame). Gorbachev and Yakovlev wanted the press and literature to help people to understand they could express their own power.

Gorbachev began cutting back the military by making officers retire, and he was the first Soviet leader to take personal control over the nuclear weapons. In April he announced that he was suspending the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles in Europe. He announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing in July, began making proposals for cutting the large numbers of strategic weapons in half, and for the first time opened Soviet military installations to verification of disarmament treaties. He wanted to keep the commitment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by halting and reversing the nuclear arms race. In September 1985 Gorbachev met with President Ronald Reagan at Geneva. He quoted Reagan's famous statement, "A nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought"2 and then asked why both nations were building new weapons when they were never even going to use the ones they already had.

In January 1986 Gorbachev proposed the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. The next month the political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky was freed and allowed to leave the Soviet Union in a spy exchange. During a satellite broadcast in August 1986 Gorbachev accused Reagan of escalating the arms race in order to exhaust the Soviet economy, imposing hardships on people. He announced that the Soviet Union would extend its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing for another six months. Also in 1986 Gorbachev proposed withdrawing 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, and he planned to start converting defense industries to produce consumer goods.

On April 26, 1986 the worst nuclear power disaster in history so far occurred when the plant at Chernobyl exploded and caused much radioactive poisoning. Gorbachev was troubled by international criticism but took control of the bureaucratic ineptness. He learned that several other plants were also in danger, and he made experts sign papers that they would be responsible for fixing them. As a result he had the plant in Armenia shut down, and five others were ordered to stop operating. Gorbachev urged historians to report on the extensive horrors of the Stalin era so that they could understand their own past and learn.

Gorbachev and Reagan met again in October 1986 at Reykjavik, Iceland. Gorbachev proposed eliminating all strategic nuclear weapons by 1996 and insisted that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) be delayed for ten years. Never before had superpower leaders even discussed reducing their nuclear arsenals. In private he even seems to have persuaded the US President, but Reagan's advisers did not agree because of the Star Wars program. At the press conference Gorbachev said that SDI did not scare them and that their response would be asymmetrical and would not cost as much. He warned that if they attacked the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, they would be worthless politicians.

In December 1986 Gorbachev called Andrei Sakharov to tell him he could return to Moscow. Gorbachev would not immediately agree to free all the prisoners, but in the next three months about three hundred political prisoners were released. He initiated his democratization campaign at the beginning of 1987. He realized that it would be a good and bad process of dialectic, but he declared that is real life; we must learn from the mistakes and go forward. Publication of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was allowed, and Gorbachev had the moving anti-Stalin film Repentance shown on television. Russian broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America were no longer jammed.

In March 1987 Margaret Thatcher visited Gorbachev in Moscow. He asked her what world opinion would think if the Soviets removed their medium-range missiles from Europe and reduced their strategic weapons by half while she continued building up her forces. He condemned the Brezhnev doctrine and called the iron curtain archaic, suggesting that his policy toward eastern Europe would be more liberal. The next month Gorbachev traveled to Prague and began implying that these countries could be independent, indicating his sympathy for the Dubcek reforms. In July, Gorbachev proposed the elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the world.

Gorbachev got his reform program enacted into law by the Supreme Soviet in June 1987 to begin decentralizing the economy by some experimentation with free markets, letting the nation's 50,000 businesses reorganize themselves under their own management and allowing them to make a profit or go out of business. However, the top Party administrators persuaded him to let them have seven years to make the transition, enabling them to get around many of the new laws. Gorbachev went into seclusion for 52 days during the summer of 1987, and in the fall he published his book Perestroika. He called for "new thinking" and tried to find a synthesis of what worked in other countries-production in the United States, labor-management relations in Japan, and the social solutions of Sweden. A totalitarian bureaucracy was falling apart as the democratic politics brought criticisms and reforms. The outspoken Yeltsin became a rival and advocated taking on the bureaucracy directly.

Gorbachev visited Washington in December 1987, and the two superpower leaders agreed on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that would eliminate two categories of nuclear weapons. Reagan lectured the Soviet leader on human rights and challenged him to open up his society to allow free ideas and travel. Gorbachev restrained his temper, but privately he told his advisers to commit the Soviet Union to human rights reform. As in Iceland, greater strategic reductions were blocked at the last moment because of a disagreement on SDI and the interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. In February 1988 Gorbachev announced that all Soviet troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan, and this was completed one year later. In April this process began, and the USSR and the US both pledged not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In March 1988 conservative Communists led by Yegor Ligachev tried to overthrow Gorbachev, who was able to fragment them and isolate Ligachev in order to lessen his power. Generally the Soviet economy was still in a mess although some reforms using private enterprise and cooperatives created more wealth; but these tended to be in services such as restaurants rather than in industry. Glasnost had opened the floodgates on much pent-up criticism. Gorbachev gradually developed perestroika from restructuring of the economy into a larger moral reform and psychological empowerment. At the Party Conference in June, Gorbachev proposed increasing local power and forming a new parliament called the Congress of People's Deputies. In October, Gorbachev was elected to replace Gromyko as president of the Supreme Soviet.

Gorbachev made an important speech to the United Nations in December 1988. He described his vision for a new era that would leave the Cold War behind. As a Christmas gift he announced that the Soviet Union was going to reduce its military forces by a half million men by the end of 1990; six tank divisions would be withdrawn from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany and be disbanded by 1991. He called for a "new world order" and renounced the use of force. The next day he promised that the Soviet Union would reform its laws to conform to the international human rights convention that had been signed at Helsinki in 1975. The Soviet Union had lost more than 50,000 men in the costly Afghanistan war, and for the first time since Soviet troops had left Austria in 1955, they would withdraw from a nation they had conquered. Unlike American presidents in their attitude toward Vietnam, Gorbachev would later admit that the Afghanistan war was morally wrong and a crime against humanity. Polls of Europeans showed that he was twice as popular as Reagan.

Liberation of Eastern Europe 1989-91

The leadership of Janos Kadar allowed some reforms in Hungary and free travel, and as a result living standards in Hungary were rising. In 1987 some young Communist academics wrote Turn and Reform, calling for the government to dialog with the people on reforms, and the following year Kadar and others were replaced by reformers. The Hungarians had learned from their failed uprising of 1956, and the Democratic Forum was committed to nonviolence. In March 1989 at Budapest 75,000 people were allowed to demonstrate without being disrupted by the police.

That month the Soviet Union Army stopped drafting university students. The antireligious edicts of the 1960s were rescinded. In April the Polish government legalized the Solidarity Union and agreed to elections. By staying nonviolent Solidarity could now engage in a dialog with the Communist leaders in a Round Table discussion. After the Soviet Army suppressed a demonstration at Tbilisi, killing at least twenty people and wounding hundreds, the leader of the Communist Party in Georgia was replaced. Seventy-four Communist members of the Soviet Union Central Committee were also removed on the same day Soviet troops began leaving Hungary. In May the Hungarian government gave up Party control of the Interior Ministry for a multi-party system and began removing the electrified fence on its Austrian border; by September the border was opened, and thousands of East Germans started going west.

Gorbachev visited China for five days in May to normalize relations, sparking the students' democracy demonstrations. While he was there, Lithuania and Estonia passed legislation declaring their sovereignty, followed by Latvia in July. The Soviet Union voted to elect 2,250 members of the People's Deputies; though about a third were selected by Party organizations, many new voices were elected directly by the people. On May 25 at the first session of the Congress of People's Deputies, Gorbachev was elected president of the Soviet Union.

On June 4, 1989 Solidarity won every open election in Poland except for one. Meanwhile ethnic riots in Uzbekistan killed scores of people. On the first of July, Gorbachev went on television to warn people about ethnic conflict. Five days later in Strasbourg he pledged that the USSR would not block reforms in eastern Europe, and the next day he announced at Bucharest that the Warsaw Pact nations were free to choose their own paths to socialism. At home Gorbachev's liberalization was doing more for the intelligentsia than for the workers; in July about two million suffering coal miners went on strike all across Siberia, though on television he announced his support of the striking miners. In August, Gorbachev called Rakowski, the leader of Poland's Communist Party, and urged him to let Solidarity help lead the government. Two days later for the first time a Communist party was voted out of power as Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected prime minister of Poland.

By early October people were leaving East Germany at the rate of two hundred per hour. 2,500 East Germans had taken refuge at the West Germany embassy in Prague, and Erich Honecker agreed to let them pass through East Germany to the West; but on October 4 when he directed their train through Dresden, thousands tried to board the train and were brutally beaten by police as 1,300 were arrested. Dresden's Party leader Modrow was soon leading the large demonstrations there. Three days later the visiting "Gorby" was cheered in East Berlin when he announced that political decisions for the German Democratic Republic were decided in Berlin, not in Moscow. The unpopular Honecker had ordered German police to club demonstrators, but a few days later he resigned.

The Hungarian Communist Party changed its name to the Socialist Party, and the Parliament planned multi-party elections. Hungarians rallied on the 23rd anniversary of the 1956 uprising, and on October 24 hundreds of thousands of Hungarians nonviolently overthrew their Communist government and proclaimed a republic. At Warsaw three days later the Warsaw Pact nations announced their decision allowing each nation the right to choose its own course and prohibiting any intervention by one member in the affairs of another. In early November, Honecker's successor Egon Krenz opened the border to the West, and East Germans began rushing through the opening in the Berlin Wall. In Bulgaria hard-line Communist leaders were removed.

In Czechoslovakia in 1977 playwright Vaclav Havel and other intellectuals had formed Charter 77 as an informal community to monitor respect for human rights. They were committed to nonviolent and legal methods and tried to engage the authorities in dialog. Yet in 1979 Havel was imprisoned for four years for having stood with people who laid flowers by a statue in Wenceslas Square. After he was released, Havel inspired many with his long essay, "The Power of the Powerless." Authorities arrested dissidents on October 28, but Gorbachev urged them to allow change. On November 17, 1989 a rally of 15,000 in Prague formed the Civic Forum; but student demonstrators were beaten by police; more than a hundred were arrested, and 561 were injured. Over the weekend the first student strike committee was organized as Havel and other Civic Forum leaders directed a nonviolent revolution. On November 22 leaders of Civic Forum's sister organization, Public Against Violence, spoke to a hundred thousand people in Slovakia's capital at Bratislava. The next day 300,000 people gathered during very cold weather in Wenceslas Square in Prague as Czech television employees voted to give full coverage to the demonstrations. A general strike was called for November 27 and was observed by 80% of the workers. The next day Havel met with Ladislav Adamec, who agreed to a new federal government. The day after that the Federal Assembly ended political domination by the Communist Party. When Alexander Dubcek spoke to a gathering of 250,000 people, the Communist leaders resigned.

Even in Russia the 72nd anniversary of the Soviet Union on November 7 turned into a protest of Communism by 5,000 students. The Supreme Soviet of Georgia declared its sovereignty. Gorbachev loved change and said Europe must advance even faster toward "a commonwealth of sovereign democratic states."3 He visited the Pope in Rome and announced a new law respecting freedom of religion. Old Russian churches became popular again, and in Central Asia mosques began to reopen. The Supreme Soviet passed a law banning censorship of the media and another law that gave the Baltic republics some economic autonomy.

At Malta in early December 1989 Gorbachev met US President George Bush and pledged he would not use force to prop up Communist regimes in eastern Europe. Bush agreed to cancel most prohibitions against US trade with the liberalizing Soviet Union. The Bush administration had been concerned that the charismatic Gorbachev had taken advantage of Reagan, and they had spent a year reviewing their policy. In East Germany the Central Committee, Egon Krenz, and the ruling Politburo all resigned on December 3, and a week later President Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia resigned as non-communists took over the government in Prague. Romania was the only country that used violence to overthrow its Communist rulers. Riots began breaking out, and on December 25 the dictatorial Nicolae Ceauscescu and his wife were convicted by a military tribunal of murdering 60,000 people during their rule; they were executed by a firing squad. Four days later playwright Vaclav Havel was inaugurated as president of Czechoslovakia as Dubcek became chairman of the Czechoslovak parliament. The accelerated pace of these revolutions was indicated by some who said that they took ten years in Poland, ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in East Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia, and ten hours in Romania.

In January 1990 Soviet troops were sent to quell riots in Azerbaijan near the Iranian border. When Gorbachev visited Vilnius, 250,000 Lithuanians rallied for independence on January 11. On the same day Armenia declared its right to veto Soviet laws. After conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan killed thirty people, the Soviet army occupied Baku, taking sixty lives before order was restored. In February, Gorbachev negotiated a deal with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl whereby a reunified Germany could remain in NATO if its united forces were smaller than those of West Germany alone had been. Gorbachev promised to withdraw Soviet troops within three or four years, and he hoped that the United States would withdraw its forces too. In exchange Germany would give the Soviet Union economic assistance and greater cooperation in all areas. The nuclear arms race had also cost the United States, which was suffering a recession and had become the world's largest debtor.

Glasnost had allowed national and ethnic conflicts to be expressed. Gorbachev hoped to keep the union together in a constitutional federation, but secession fever was spreading. He advised the Communist Party to allow multi-party elections, and many opponents won places on local councils (soviets). On February 27 Gorbachev got the Supreme Soviet to increase his presidential powers on the same day the Congress of People's Deputies nullified Article 6 of the Constitution that had given the Communist Party dominant control. On March 11 Lithuania declared its independence and elected Landsbergis president, though Gorbachev called Lithuania's action illegal and invalid. Four days later Gorbachev was re-elected president of the Soviet Union with 59% of the Deputies' votes; the next election in 1995 would be by popular vote. Gorbachev excluded the use of military forces outside of the Soviet Union with the only exception being after a sudden attack from outside. He appointed Yakovlev head of his Presidential Council with authority over the KGB and other security; this ended the investigation whether Gorbachev had taken bribes while he was in Stavropol. Lithuanians were not intimidated by the Soviet Army and refused conscription, holding to their right by international law to secede. In April, Gorbachev shut down oil and gas lines to Lithuania.

In 1990 Gorbachev was being severely criticized by the conservative Communists for destroying the old system and by the liberal progressives like Yeltsin for not freeing the economy and expression even more. Gorbachev still would not allow undesirables to speak on television or radio stations or publish in newspapers he controlled. He had tried to reform much of the corruption but had maintained his luxurious perks. At Party meetings furious debates took place, and Gorbachev often became angry with those he called "adventurers." He was trying to ride the tiger of revolution he had unleashed, and getting the conservatives and progressives to work together became increasingly difficult. Gorbachev still believed in socialism and was not willing to take one side or the other. Under Communism the state socialism had become very corrupt with bribes of bureaucrats and a legal system that seldom provided justice because of organized crime. Ironically freeing the economy tended to increase this corruption as the black market was legalized. Shifting toward a more capitalistic system gave great advantages to those already in positions of power. The gross domestic product of the Soviet Union was now declining ten percent a year, and crime was increasing.

Radicals had won many elections, and at the May Day parade protesters chanted that Gorbachev should resign; he issued a presidential decree banning demonstrations in central Moscow, and he pushed through a law making it a crime to damage the honor and dignity of the newly created Soviet President. At the end of May the price of bread was to be tripled, and panicking buyers emptied the markets. Gorbachev opposed Yeltsin, who won a close vote to become the president of Russia's parliament. In June they proclaimed that Russia's laws were sovereign over those of the Soviet Union. In July, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party, and Gorbachev decreed the end of Party control over the media and approved Yeltsin's 500-day plan for a market economy. The Ukraine and Byelorussia declared their sovereignty, followed in August by Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In September the Soviet Union agreed to friendship treaties recognizing the reunification of Germany, ending the authority by the "four powers" (US, Britain, France, and USSR) in Germany. That month the Supreme Soviet gave Gorbachev special powers for the transition to a market economy.

In October 1990 mass demonstrations in the Ukraine led to the resignation of Prime Minister Vitaly Masol. That month the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a treaty on conventional forces in Europe and for reducing greatly their nuclear arsenals. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He devalued the ruble and announced that foreigners could now own Soviet enterprises. Nationalists defeated the Communists in the republic of Georgia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan declared their sovereignty. In November, Gorbachev promised the military that he would preserve the country's unity and warned that disintegration could mean a bloodbath. Four days later the Supreme Soviet approved a Federation Council that would include the leaders of the fifteen republics. The next week the name of the country was changed to the Union of Sovereign Socialist Republics. Gorbachev barred the republics from controlling nuclear weapons in their territories and authorized soldiers to use force if they were harassed. In December the Russian parliament legalized private ownership of land, and Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland. Fearing a coming dictatorship, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze resigned. Three days later KGB head Kryuchkov warned that violence may be necessary to restore order as he accused the CIA of fomenting dissent in the USSR.

In January 1991 Soviet troops began seizing media outlets in Lithuania and used force to quell demonstrations opposing this. Gorbachev said he had not ordered it but approved nonetheless, causing many intellectuals to withdraw their support from Gorbachev. In response the European Parliament voted to withhold one billion dollars' worth of food aid. In February, Yeltsin called for Gorbachev's resignation, and strikes by coal miners spread. The next month troops were brought into Moscow but were unable to stop a large Yeltsin demonstration. The Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved. The Russian Supreme Soviet gave Yeltsin greater powers. Strikes began in Minsk, and Georgia declared independence. In June, Yeltsin was elected president of Russia with 57% of the votes. In July the USSR Supreme Soviet approved the idea of a union treaty but suggested changes, and Gorbachev was unable to get much economic assistance from the capitalist Group of Seven meeting at London.

On August 17, 1991 Kryuchkov, Pavlov, and Yazov demanded that Gorbachev relinquish power to them. When Gorbachev refused to order a crack-down the next day, Vice President Yanayev claimed presidential powers. The day after that an emergency committee assumed power, but Yeltsin declared the coup illegal. On August 21 the coup failed, and Gorbachev returned to Moscow. No longer believing that the Communist Party could be reformed, three days later he suspended the Communist Party and resigned as general secretary. Now Gorbachev could see no other way but democracy. In the next week the Ukraine, Belarus (Byelorussia), Moldova, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan all proclaimed their independence. On September 6 Georgia broke free of the USSR, whose council that day recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, supporting their membership in the United Nations. Residents of Leningrad voted to change the name of their city back to St. Petersburg, and Tajikistan and Armenia declared their independence.

In October the Russian Congress gave Yeltsin power to implement economic reforms by decree, and the next month he banned the Communist Party. Yeltsin and leaders of the other republics in the USSR State Council agreed on a new confederation. In December the Ukraine voted to be independent and elected Leonid Kravchuk president. A week later Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and the Belarussian chief of state Shushkevish met and decided to replace the Soviet Union with a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Two days later Belarus and the Ukraine ratified the CIS agreement, followed the next day by the Russian parliament. Central Asian leaders met in Ashkhabad the day after that and requested membership in the CIS. By December 22 the leaders of eleven republics (all except Georgia) signed the Commonwealth Declaration, and three days later Gorbachev resigned on television as the Russian flag replaced the Soviet flag over the Kremlin.

Gorbachev and the Earth Charter

On April 20, 1993 at the Global Forum in Kyoto, Gorbachev announced the birth of Green Cross International nine months after it had been conceived at the Rio summit in order to help sustain and manage life on planet Earth. He noted that the environmental movement usually focuses on local threats, but he warned that global problems such as the greenhouse effect required urgent action. He called for the united efforts of natural and social scientists to work for human survival. He suggested that state self-determination needs to be harmonized with the principles of international relations. He noted that the end of the Cold War had not ended the conflicts between nations and that the growth of freedom did not automatically bring a growth in morality. He recommended an "ecology of spirit" and a moral strengthening of humanism. Human pride and passion must be curbed by a philosophy of limits, for plundering Nature is stealing from ourselves. The civilization of the future must be planetary with high diversity. He urged research and international cooperation.

The Earth Charter initiative was begun by Earth Council chairman Maurice Strong and Gorbachev in 1994 in order to implement the action plan of the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. The first international workshop was held at The Hague in May 1995 with representatives from thirty countries and seventy organizations. A commission of 23 people issued a Draft Earth Charter at the Rio+5 Forum in March 1997. The consultation process continued for two more years, and in April 1999 the Earth Charter Benchmark Draft II was issued. The mission of the Earth Charter was officially launched in June 2000 at The Hague "to establish a sound ethical foundation for the emerging global society and to help build a sustainable world based on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace."4 In 2002 the Earth Charter was recognized by the United Nations, and many countries and organizations have adopted it as an educational tool. The main principles of the Earth Charter are the following:

1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
4. Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth's ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
6. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
8. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.

9. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
10. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

13. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
14. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
15. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
16. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.5

Gorbachev attended the third global summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in October 2002, and in their final statement they lamented that the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg the previous month had not addressed such fundamental problems as poverty, environmental degradation, and the increasingly acute energy crisis. The participants declared that unilateral action against Iraq was unacceptable, and they supported the "Water for Peace" initiative of Green Cross International to resolve the global water crisis.


1. Quoted in The Man Who Changed the World by Gail Sheehy, p. 164.
2. Ibid., p. 194.
3. Ibid., p. 219.
4. The Earth Charter brochure of the Earth Charter Commission published in 2002.
5. Ibid.

Copyright © 2003 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Gandhi's Nonviolent Revolution
Wilson and the League of Nations
United Nations and Human Rights
United Nations Peacekeeping
Einstein and Schweitzer on Peace in the Atomic Age
Pacifism of Bertrand Russell and A. J. Muste
Clark-Sohn Plan for World Law and Disarmament
King and the Civil Rights Movement
Lessons of the Vietnam War
Women for Peace
Anti-Nuclear Protests
Resisting Wars in Central America
Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War
Mandela and Freeing South Africa
Chomsky and Zinn on US Imperialism
Protesting the Bush-Iraq Wars
Nonviolent Revolution for Global Justice
Appendix: My Efforts for World Peace


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index