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Although the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was caused by a number of factors, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931– ) introduced policies that triggered the collapse. After taking office in 1985, he proposed economic and social changes in the Soviet Union. Although Gorbachev believed in the Communist system, he recognized that it was inefficient and fraught with corruption. Thus he maintained that the economy would benefit from less government control. Growing social problems, among them widespread alcoholism, threatened the physical and mental health of the Soviet people. Moreover, the ideas and creativity of the best-educated Soviets were being wasted in the inefficient system. Gorbachev planned to rebuild the country through perestroika (restructuring). To obtain financial resources for this restructuring, however, Gorbachev needed to cut military spending, which involved 25 percent of the Soviet economy and the best thinkers in the country, who worked on military programs. In an effort to reach arms-control agreements with the West, he pursued diplomatic relations with the West, which included visits with U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911– ). Although some Soviets criticized Gorbachev's willingness to abandon the Communist goal of one day taking over the world, others supported his policy of glasnost, which held that Communist and capitalist economic systems could coexist peacefully.
People in Eastern European countries (Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania) watched with interest as the Soviet Union moved toward a more democratic system. In 1980 workers in Poland had formed a labor union called Solidarity, which was crushed by the hard-line Polish Communist government. Yet by 1989, in an attempt to win public support, the government allowed Solidarity to reorganize and take part in free elections. After the elections, Solidarity became the first non-Communist government in Eastern Europe. Soon the Soviet regimes in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania were toppled. In East Germany, Communist leader Erich Honecker (1912–1994) opened the Berlin Wall, and in 1990 East and West Germany were reunited as a single country. While a peaceful revolution occurred in Czechoslovakia, in Romania a bloody revolt led to the execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–1989). Gorbachev had wanted Eastern European Communist governments to be reformed—not fall—but once events began, he could not stop them. Finally, he was not willing to sacrifice reforms in the Soviet Union and relations with the West by using military force to save communism in Eastern Europe.
Further Information: Green Cross Family. The Honourable Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. [Online] Available http://www4.gve.ch/gci/GreenCrossFamily/gorby/gorby.html, October 20, 2000; Kallen, Stuart A. Gorbachev–Yeltsin: The Fall of Communism. Minneapolis, Minn.: ABDO Publishing, 1992; Kort, Michael G. The Cold War. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1994; Kort, Michael. Handbook of the Former Soviet Union. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1997.
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