The Fall of the Evil Empire and the Peace that Wasn’t Obvious

Amid constant tension and nuclear fears at the height of the Cold War in the early ’80s, nobody imagined the Soviet Union’s utter collapse within a decade. More so, nobody imagined the peaceful dissolution of the entire Eastern Bloc. And yet it happened.

Berlin Wall — Checkpoint Charlie

I recently finished listening to The End of the Cold War: 1985–1991 by Robert Service and really felt a connection with the story.

Eastern Europe: History with a Personal Touch

This is not just another history book for me. This is very recent and very personal history. I lived through the ’80s as a child and then as a teenager in a bleak Socialist Romania ruled by Ceausescu, more deeply entrenched in totalitarianism than any of its Eastern Bloc neighbours, with the exception maybe of Albania. Romania was last to reform, it took a bloody revolution in 1989 to overthrow the regime and former Communists continued to keep the power in the early ’90s through a grueling transition.

While we were trudging along the grimm ’80s in penury, enclosed in an Orwellian universe insulated from outside information, unbeknown to us great changes awaited the Eastern Bloc.

The Begining of the End

The Big Brother was faltering. We couldn’t sense it at that time, but the Soviet Union was starting to loose its grip on Eastern Europe because of deep internal economic troubles. It was also rapidly loosing its superpower status as it was mired in the Afghan war and couldn’t continue to support anymore its dependent allies like Cuba, North Korea and several Arab and African states.

The Soviets were struggling to keep the economy afloat while maintaining the immense military-industrial complex required to fuel their superpower ambitions. The hard truth was that the Socialist economy was in free fall, invalidating seven decades of the painful experiment that was Marxim-Leninism. It may have been so, but it wasn’t easy to accept. Not by an empire paranoid about its security and status.

Nuclear Armageddon a Push of a Button Away

The Soviet Union was a military superpower maintaining parity of nuclear weapons with United States and enjoying vast superiority of conventional forces on the European mainland. Nobody expected it to quietly accept its demise and fade away.

In mid ’80s, both the Warsaw Pact and NATO fielded so many nuclear weapons that they could wipe Earth over several times. Beside intercontinental ballistic missiles and medium range ones, both sides had deployed tactical nuclear weapons literally facing each other in East and West Germany respectively. Mutual assured destruction was the term coined to disguise this sheer madness into the respectable military doctrine of the day.

The Kind Emperor of the Evil Empire

Given its military dominance, the Soviet Union was clearly not expected to relinquish its power over Eastern Europe for many more years. And yet it did quite suddenly in late ’80s. How was that even imaginable? Enter the protagonists.

Gorbachev came to power as Secretary General in 1985 and changed the face of Europe in the next 5 years. Starting with glasnost and perestroika he unleashed a chain of events that led to demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent dismantling of the the Easter Bloc. I still don’t know if he was a true visionary intent on bringing freedom to the world or a polical leader enamored of his external image that didn’t fully calculate his moves and ultimately lost control of internal events. Either way, he was the paramount agent of change and I’m grateful for his actions that allowed Eastern Europe to return to democracy after four decades of Communist oppression.

Reagan more or less played his role as leader of the Western World pushing the Soviets to the limit until they broke. He did so not without panache worthy of his Hollywood years: calling Soviet Union the Evil Empire or standing in front of Berliners at the Branderburg Gate demanding Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”.

All this and more in Robert Service’s superb account of a transformational era in world politics that put an end to the Cold War and saved our world. At least for a while.

My rating: 5/5.