How did the USSR lose control of the satellite states?

The introduction of Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ had dramatic and far-reaching implications for the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. What affect did it have, and why did it create such a rapid change within these countries?

You can download the worksheet here. If you are unable to download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes on this webpage.

Perestroika = The policy of reconstructing the Soviet state and economy so that it includes some capitalist elements.
Glasnost = The policy of openness within government. This means allowing formal opposition and free elections.
Solidarity (Poland) = A popular and powerful Trade Union in Poland that fought for workers’ rights. It was banned under Brezhnev.


What was life like in the satellite states? Create a spider diagram outlining what life was like in the Eastern Bloc. What do you remember about life in the following?
– Hungary
– Czechoslovakia
– Poland

TASK ONE: What key events occurred in the satellite states in 1989?

Watch the following video on the fall of communism in the satellite states. As you watch the video, answer the following questions:

1) Who did the Polish government hold talks with in 1989?
2) What were this group allowed to do in June 1989?
3) Where did thousands of East Germans queue up to try to gain visas to access West Germany?
4) How many Germans emigrated from Budapest in just three days?
5) When were they allowed to gain access to West Germany and how?
6) When and why did Gorbachev go to East Germany?
7) What happened on 9th November 1989 that was significant?
8) On the 17th November 1989, a peaceful protest is aggressively put down by Police. What does this lead to?
9) What was the peaceful end of Communism called in Czechoslovakia?
10) What happened to the Romanian dictator when he fled Romania?

CHALLENGE: Notice that the video has been made by Radio Free Europe. When have we seen this radio station before? Why are they significant to the Cold War?

Gorbachev and Eastern Europe

Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ was central to the sweeping changes that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989 and onward. After breaking from the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1988, this allowed countries in the Eastern Bloc to feel more comfortable about introducing reform without fearing a Soviet Invasion. Gorbachev jokingly called this the Sinatra Doctrine after American singer Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way”: it meant that countries in the Soviet Union could go their own way without Soviet interference.

Gorbachev even went as far as to remove Soviet troops from the satellite states. He was hoping that allowing countries to reform their communist systems he was strengthening the communism in Eastern Europe. He was hoping that people would see the benefits in communism after its reform and in turn strengthen the Soviet Union.

Instead, Gorbachev’s new thinking led to the exact opposite.

The dismantling of communism in the Eastern Bloc began in Poland. Solidarity, the popular Trade Union, was banned under Brezhnev as it stood up for workers’ rights and argued against the methods used by the Soviet Union. In February 1989, the movement was legalised by the Polish government. The Trade Union decided to stand in the June 1989 general election in Poland, and proceeded to win a landslide victory. The Party won every seat except one in the Polish parliament. The Party went on to liberalise its country’s economy without any resistance over the following decade.

Solidarity won almost every seat in the Polish election of 1989. The communists were removed from power almost instantly.

Following Poland’s lead, Hungary was the next country to dismiss Soviet communism. Round-table talks were put together to bring all political parties together. A ‘democracy package’ was discussed, which included bringing freedom to the press, allowing trade unions to be formed and a new Hungarian constitution. Although the fall of the Berlin Wall is often credited as being the first East-West border to be removed, it was actually Hungary’s border with non-communist Austria that was the first to be dismantled. The 150-mile long fence began to be removed by the Hungarian army, allowing people to travel from the East to the West freely for the first time in decades.

A Hungarian solider removing the fence border between Hungary and Austria, May 2nd 1989.

East Germans began to use Hungary’s removal of the its border fence in their droves. It is estimated that around 30,000 East German’s had crossed in to the West via this crossing between May and September 1989. Eventually, by the end of September 1989, the East German government banned travel to Hungary to prevent this.

People in East Germany began demonstrating against their government. Tens of thousands began flooding the embassies in East Germany hoping to gain a visa to travel in order to make it to Western Europe. The East German government requested that the Soviet Union assist and help put the demonstrations down, but Gorbachev refused. By November 1989 the East German government had no choice but to open the border between East and West Germany. In response, people on both sides of the Berlin Wall began pulling it down, producing some of the most incredible and uplifting news images of the modern world.

Not long after, the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia. This saw 800,000 peaceful protesters flood Letna Square on the 25th November 1989. Witnessing the sheer number of people demonstrating against it, the entire Communist leadership in Czechoslovakia resigned the following day. The new leaders announced that the single-party system would be removed, and the barbed-wire border would be removed between the country and West Germany.

The sheer numbers at Letna Square were simply staggering. The Revolution was named the Velvet Revolution due to it being ‘soft’ – nobody was killed, and no violence occurred.

Bulgaria followed with its announcement of the removal of its one-party system in the country, and free elections were held in the country for the first time since 1931.

Romania was the only Warsaw Pact country to have broken from a communist regime by force. The Romanian Revolution broke out against its leader Ceauşescu. After ordering the army to put down the demonstration, Ceauşescu was shocked to find that the army had decided to switch allegiances on the morning of 22nd December and instead work with the people to bring down the government. Ceauşescu managed to escape via helicopter, but was soon found, tried and shot by Revolutionary forces.

A Romanian civilian aims a sniper rifle. Notice how the army behind him sports the Romanian flag, showing that they are working to bring down the communist government.

Finally, Yugoslavia dissolved in to a multitude of nations following a free referendum in December 1990. The country breaks itself into Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia: all of these countries declare their independence.

Within just 12 months of his break from the Brezhnev Doctrine, the communist system was dismantled in Eastern Europe. 12 months later, the Soviet Union in turn would be disbanded.

TASK TWO: How did the Soviet Union lost control of the satellite states?

Create a poster that details how the Soviet Union lost control of the satellite states.
Use the image below as a template for you to work on.
Include key dates, names and events that all led to the end of communism in the countries discussed.
Include sketches to show what happened within these countries and at their borders.

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