Despite his great contribution, Gorbachev’s policies in themselves did not see the collapse of the Soviet Union but rather allowed opportunistic and ambitious people within Eastern Europe to take advantage of the more liberal stance adopted by Russia and effectively abandon communism. Such individuals as the Polish Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa (co-founder of Polish Trade Union Solidarity) inspired hundreds of thousands not just in Poland but throughout the Soviet sphere to seize the opportunities provided by Gorbachev’s policies and rebel against their oppressive regimes. We will consider the power of the people later in the paper but as previously stated there is no single reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union; though Gorbachev made it possible, milder mannered people might not have capitalised on the opportunity to overthrow Soviet rule. When Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected as Pope John Paul II in 1978 the Soviet Union immediately recognised the threat of the hope of religion and God’s word in a socialist state, particularly that of Poland which held the direst of conditions and had already had to be supressed by force. Ultimately there was little the USSR could do but send a threatening message that religion would not be tolerated in the Eastern bloc. It failed overwhelmingly and ‘a third of the entire population’ of Poland waited in a 40 degree heatwave for hours just to ‘catch a glimpse’ of the Pope when he visited his homeland. It proved that the oppressed people of Poland needed hope and made the decision to confide in religion over communism in an instant. The pope’s visits to Poland and promises of hope made a huge impact and he subtly indicated that the people could overthrow the Soviet reigns upon them when he stated in a sermon that the rights of man which had been abused could be easily regained. When Lech Wałęsa then helped found Solidarity (a trade union symbolising unity against communism) a few years later it received great support but the Soviets again supressed all Polish hope by force and it was not until Gorbachev’s new democratic and non-militaristic policies were implemented that Poland could break free of the chains of oppression. That being said, Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa (as well as many others) played vital roles in keeping the fire of Polish resistance alive and the importance of individuals in the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be understated.
Once again we reiterate that the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union owes to a series of decisions and events working in cognition that might easily have ended differently. Though we have noted that several individuals’ roles in bringing about the collapse cannot be understated, it is necessary next to emphasise the power of ‘the masses’. The sparks of hope which the Pope and Solidarity had given to the Polish people led to more strikes against Jaruzelski’s Communist regime and the Government, encouraged by Gorbachev’s new policies, invited Solidarity to run in fair elections. Taking 99 of 100 seats, Tadeusz Mazowieck became the first Solidarity backed Polish Prime Minister on the 29th December 1989, setting ‘the ball rolling’ for Poland’s fellow Warsaw Pact nations under Soviet rule. Hungary meanwhile saw a peaceful transfer of power from Communists to reformists and Austria and Hungary opened their borders, allowing East Germans to escape Erich Honecker’s oppressive Soviet backed regime through Austria.Perhaps the fatal blow was a miscommunication in which the East German leaders, under pressure by the increasingly motivated protesters, opened the gate at the Berlin Wall and allowed people to pass to Western Germany in the hope that they would return and bring greater finance to the East German economy. What ensued was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and effective uniting of Germany under democratic rule, crippling the Soviet’s control in Europe. Though in hindsight it might seem the logical thing to do, the peoples of Eastern bloc countries had lived in fear of Soviet response to any liberal and revolutionary acts so if they had lost hope and failed to seize upon the opportunities presented in 1989 then the Soviet Union would likely not have collapsed. Although a variety of circumstances made the various revolutions possible it is testimony to the masses of Eastern Europe that they helped to undermine Soviet influence and deal the final blow to the already struggling ‘superpower’ (if that term can still be applied to the USSR by 1989). As Vladimir Tismaneanu notes, the revolutions of 1989 from the peaceful elections in Poland and Hungary to the violent coup in Romania created a clear divide between the world before and after 1989. The sheer ‘breath-taking alacrity’ of the revolutions that destroyed an apparently ‘ostensibly indestructible system’ is key to their success; the people united and caused so much chaos simultaneously that the Soviet Union could do little but watch and despair.