Anna M. Cienciala (
The Rise and Fall of Communist Nations
Spring 2002 (Revised Jan. '04, Sept. '07))
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Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at

The Rise and Fall of Communist Nations
(with postscripts until 2010)


Anna M. Cienciala
Department of History
University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
Fall 1996/Spring 2010


This work was completed in fall 1996 and I did not intend to do more than revise it when I had the time, expected after retirement in summer 2002. As it turned out, however, most of my time was then taken up with work on editing a selection of translated Russian documents on the massacre of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn, Kharkov (now Kharkiv) and Kalinin (now again Tver), on the order of Joseph Stalin and members of his Politburo signed March 5, 1940, and carried out by the NKVD in spring of that year. The book was published in 2007.. *

*[See Anna M. Cienciala, U.S.A., Natalia S. Lebedeva, The Russian Federation, Wojciech Materski,Poland, eds., KATYN. A Crime Without Punishment, Yale University Press, New Haven Conn., and London, 2007; reprint 2009.]


In 1988, communist states made up about one-third of the world. Of these, the Soviet Union, or USSR, constituted one-sixth of the global land area; it also controlled most of Eastern Europe. The USSR finally collapsed after the failed Moscow coup against Gorbachev of August 19-21, 1991. It was fortunate that the coup failed. The organizers, who proclaimed a state of emergency, had prepared to arrest at least two hundred thousand people (this was the number of handcuffs ordered), but they did not have the support of the armed forces and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev -- isolated with his family in presidential vacation home on the Black Sea --refused to cooperate. When the coup failed, he ordered the arrest of the conspirators and returned to Moscow.

However, it was soon very clear that power in the Russian Federal Republic had passed to its elected President, Boris N. Yeltsin, who had rallied military and popular opposition to the coup in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Gorbachev resigned as president in late December 1991 and Yeltsin, who succeeded to power, proceeded to try to work within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose community of former Soviet republics. However, despite the signing of several agreements, the CIS existed more on paper than in reality. Meanwhile, the economy of the largest state in, the Russian Federal Republic, went into decline. There was also a continuing power struggle between Yeltsin and the Russian Duma (parliament). Both communists and right-wing deputies opposed radical moves toward a free market economy. The stand-off between parliament and president led to a referendum in spring 1993, which, in turn, decided that there would be elections to a new parliament later that year. There was a revolt against Yeltsin in October, which he put down by fore. The elections, held on December 12, 1993, produced another oppositional parliament, in which, moreover, the "Liberal-Democratic Party" led by the extreme nationalist, Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, won about 23% of the seats. Yeltsin countered by holding a referendum on a new constitution which gave power to the President and made Duma resolutions non-binding.

In February 1994, the new parliament granted an amnesty to the leaders of the October 1993 revolt against Yeltsin, a revolt headed by Aleksandr V. Rutskoi, former Vice-President of Russia, and Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the former Speaker of parliament. A new government was formed under Premier Chernomyrdin, which promised to slow down reforms, and dismissed the reformist ministers. However, Chernomyrdin also proved reluctant to hand out automatic subsidies to Russia's giant industries. Russia's GNP continued to fall and people continued to suffer, while hundreds of Mafias terrorized private businessmen and even assassinated Russian parliamentarians. In the elections of June 16, 1996, Yeltsin was only a few percentage points ahead of the leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennadi Zuyganov. However, in the run-off elections held on July 3, 1996, Yeltsin, having co-opted the popular General Aleksandr Lebed into his government, won the run-off presidential election against Zyuganov by some 10%. Yeltsin's election was financed by business men who bought up lucrative state industries for pennies, creating a new super wealthy class, the "oligarchs."

In the meanwhile ,fighting continued on the fringes of the former empire. In Georgia, Russian troops first helped Abkhazians against the Georgians, then switched sides when Premier Edward Shevardnadze -- former Soviet Foreign Minister --agreed that Georgia would join the CIS. (A short war would take place between Russia and Georgia in 2008.) Fighting continued between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh; between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and in Moldova, which lost its eastern part to Russian-dominated Transdniestria (Across the Dnieper River). In December 1994, Russian forces invaded the autonomous republic of Chechnya, a moslem country conqured by Russia in the 19th century, which had declared independence from the Russian Federation. Barring a short interval, fighting has been raging there ever since.

Although we know a great deal more about the USSR than we did a few years ago, new information on its past is now appearing in such quantities that even specialists find it hard to keep up. Far from being a "dead" discipline, history is very much alive in this part of the world. Indeed, the publication of some of the archival material that had been closed for years ended the "big lie" by giving people back some of their history. This history had to be learned in order for reforms to proceed. The Stalinist version of Soviet history, which prevailed in the USSR until 1988, was discarded, along with the Stalinist political-economic system, but it has been revamped and re-issued in a patriotic form in school textbooks in 2008 under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia from end December 1999 to 2007 and Premier in 2008 when Dmitri Medvedev was elected president.

Western interest in smaller communist statest was for a long time overshadowed by interest in the USSR. This was due to U.S. - Soviet rivalry during the Cold War, so it was natural for Western scholars to focus on the Soviet Union. Many of them at first saw other communist states as carbon copies of the USSR. This was particularly the case with the so-called Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, which had come under Soviet domination and had communism thrust on them by Moscow after World War II. However, apart from Tito's Yugoslavia which broke away from the Soviet Bloc in 1948, the change of leadership in Poland in late October 1956, the Hungarian revolution of October-November that year, and later Alexander Dubcek's reforms in Czechoslovakia, 1968 -- stymied by the Warsaw Pact invasion in August that year -- showed that East European countries could develop their own versions of the Communist system, even if they remained under overall Soviet domination.. Therefore, the number of Western historians specializing in these countries steadily increased. This meant an increasing number of books and articles, although always fewer than those published on the USSR and then the Russian Federal Republic.

There has been a growing awareness of the fact that the pre-communist history of all communist states, their national cultures and traditions, exerted a major influence on their development. Indeed, without a knowledge of Russian history, we could not possibly understand how Vladimir Il'ich Lenin came to power in Moscow in November 1917, how the Bolsheviks managed to stay in power, and how one of the greatest tyrants the world has ever seen, Joseph S. Stalin, managed to reign as the absolute ruler of the USSR for twenty-five years (1928-1953), as well as expand its territories and domination over most of Eastern Europe. Likewise, without some knowledge of the history of the Russian and non-Russian peoples of the former USSR, we could not understand the problems that Mikhail S. Gorbachev faced in trying to reform that huge empire, and its final disintegration in late 1991. In the same way, without a knowledge of the history of East European states, we could not understand their peoples' revolts against the Stalinist system and Soviet domination. These began with the June 1953 workers' revolt in East Berlin, which was crushed by Soviet tanks. It was followed by Polish and Hungarian revolts in 1956, the Dubcek experiment in democratic Czechoslovak communism, Polish revolts in 1970, 1976 and 1980, until finally, the people of Eastern Europe threw off communism in 1989.

Here we should note that the rejection of the Stalinist political-economic-social model began outside the USSR. It started in Yugoslavia when Josip Broz Tito broke with Moscow. Yugoslavia was expelled from the Soviet Bloc in 1948. It thus became the first independent communist state, i.e., outside the Soviet bloc. Within the bloc itself, the process of change was, of course, connected with leadership and policy changes in the USSR, but often went far beyond them. This can certainly be said of the "New Course" in Hungary in 1953-55, under Imre Nagy, which was the prelude to the revolution of October-November 1956, crushed by Soviet military intervention. The process advanced a little in Poland under Wladyslaw Gomulka after October 1956, but then came to a stop. However, the "New Economic Mechanism," introduced in Hungary by Janos Kadar in the late 1960s, again went far beyond the timid reform experiments in the USSR. Similar economic reform plans were drawn up in Czechoslovakia in 1968, but there was no chance to implement them. In any case, they had to be preceded by political liberalization, which took place under Alexander Dubcek. The "Prague Spring" was crushed in late August of that year by the Warsaw Pact invasion, spearheaded by the USSR, but dissent soon raised its head in Czechoslovakia and produced some of the leaders of the new democratic state which emerged in late 1989.

In the meanwhile, Poland led the fight with workers' revolts in December 1970, June 1976, and July-August 1980. The last revolt led to the extraordinary coexistence of the party state with the national "Solidarity" movement, led by Lech Walesa from September 1980 to early December 1981. Although the movement was crushed with the imposition of martial law by General Wociech Jaruzelski in December 1981, its ideas and leaders survived to win the elections of June 4, 1989, and then establish the first majority non-communist government in Eastern Europe in September that year. Meanwhile, in Hungary, communist leaders agreed to the establishment of a multiparty system, rehabilitated Imre Nagy and the revolution of 1956, and then dissolved their party, transforming it into a democratic one. These developments were the signal for the rest of Eastern Europe; they led to the mass flight of East Germans to West Germany through Hungary, to demonstrations against the East German government, changes in that government and finally to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in early November, which opened the way to the reunification of Germany, as well as to the "velvet" revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the old communist leaders in Bulgaria and a violent revolution in Romania. In 1990-91, the last Stalinist stronghold in Eastern Europe, Albania, also began to crumble. We should note that all these dramatic events took place without armed Soviet intervention. This was due probably to Gorbachev's pressing need to continue building detente with the United States, thus reducing sovietmilitary spending and opening the way for economic reform. slo

Privtization has not made much headway in Russia, while it has been progressing in the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary and the Czechoslovak Republic -- which broke up into the Czech and Slovak Republics in early 1993. Poland led the way since January 1990, when the new, mainly non-communist government, launched a radical economic reform program designed by the economist Leszek Balcerowicz to lead the country back to capitalism as fast as possible. Still, the problems are great and it is likely that state capitalism will continue to play a role both in the new Russia and in Eastern Europe -- as it did to some extent in the USSR under the New Economic Policy (NEP 1924-28) and in Eastern Europe throughout the interwar period (1919-39). Finally, two of the former multinational East European states have disintegrated. Yugoslavia split up into its component parts and was embroiled in a bloody civil wa in 1991-96, in which the Serbs tried to make their country as large as possible at the expense of Bosnia and Croatia. This was was ended by the Dayton , Ohio, Peace Accords mediated by the United States in December 1995, after which a NATO force entered some of these territories. The future of Bosnia, is, however, still somewhat uncertain although Slovenia and Croatia are doing very well. As mentioned earlier, in 1993 Czechoslovakia split peacefully into two states: the Czech and Slovak Republics, of which the first is doing extremely well but no the second, which was always economically far behind. Germany is still experiencing some difficulties. Germany -- united in October 1990 -- is still financing the economic transformation of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The task is far more expensive than expected and will take much longer to complete than assumed. Meanwhile, periods of economic recession strengthened German dislike of foreigners, along with the appearance of some virulent anti-Semitism and other latent Nazi characteristics. Similar economic circumstances have been accompanied the reappearance of anti-Semitism in parts of Eastern Europe.

Unlike Eastern Europe -- where, except for Yugoslavia, communism was imposed from the outside by the Soviet Union -- Third World communism was originally fused with the struggle for independence and thus the struggle against foreign domination. Communism appealed to Third World leaders not only because the European colonial powers they fought were capitalist, but also because communism appeared to them as the best path to swift modernization. Their inspiration was Stalin's transformation of the USSR into an industrial power in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the deep flaws of this model were not obvious either to Third World or East European communist leaders, so it brought great suffering to their peoples.

Despite their nationalistic appeal, the native communist regimes of the Third World encountered various degrees of opposition. As in Eastern Europe, this opposition came from all directions: conservatives, liberals, democratic socialists, the churches, artists, writers and students. Most of these opposition groups were very small and did not develop into mass movements. Nevertheless, signs of relaxation led to demands for change. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping loosened the reins in his drive to modernize China, students demonstrated in their thousands in Beijing and other cities. But when the hardliners won an inner-party struggle, they sent army units to massacre the students in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 - the very day on which elections overthrew communism in Poland. The massacre of June 4th can be seen as a victory for the ancient Chinese tradition of treating all dissent as a prelude to anarchy, over the almost equally ancient tradition of intellectual protest against obvious misrule and corruption. This time, the Chinese hardliners saw the student protest as much more dangerous than in previous years, because of the evident weakening of orthodox communists in both the USSR and Eastern Europe. They crushed the opposition ; the question is - for how long?
Collectivization of the land was abandoned by Deng Xiaoping in China (1904-97) Chinese leader 1978-9, and it seems on the way out in Vietnam, which shows increasing signs of small scale capitalism and has, for some years, accepted western investment.. While the Chinese Communist Party still holds power, it is being challenged by regionalism, and the Communist leadership has allowed some economic reform in Vietnam The old communist leadership is still in power in North Korea, although the country is experiencing great economic problems and has not produced enough food to feed its people for many years.

Meanwhile, the decline of communism is highly visible in the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. In February 1990, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas lost a free election to their liberal opponents, led by Violetta Chamorro, but former Sandinista Jose Daniel Ortega Savedra returned to power as president in the elections of 2006. In Cuba, Fidel Castro was felled by gastro-intestinal illness in 2006 and handed power to his brother Raul. The end of Soviet economic aid, especially oil, has led to a drastic decline of industrial production, more shortages, and thus some experiments with a limited free market, also acceptance of western investment (except U.S). In 2010 the government controls the economy, but tolerages some private businessmen and private ownership n the tourist industry. Remittances from Cubans living and working in the U.S. play an imporant part in the Cuban economy.

In Africa, the long civil war between communists and anti-communists in Angola ended in 1990,but a bloody civil war broke out between rival, mostly tribal-based factions. Colonel Mengistu Meriam, the communist dictator of Ethiopia since 1977, fled the country in May 1991, leaving a terrible legacy of famine and civil war in Somalia, which led to U.S. and U.N. intervention, but the country is still suffering from fighting between rivals for power. Meanwhile, however,. Eritrea, once part of Ethiopia, seems to be well on the way to recovery.

In the Middle East, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen collapsed and united in May 1990 with South Yemen in the Republic of Yemen. However, after four years of unification, a civil war has broken out between the north and the south, with the latter receiving support from Saudi Arabia. The communist regime of Najibullah collapsed in Afganistan in spring 1992, but the new government was opposed by Islamic fundamentalists who shellied the capital, Kabul. As we know, the Karzai government in Afghanistan is weak and the U.S. is shouldering most of the fighting against the Taliban. As of this writing, the remaining communist states are Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos and China.


This text is not intended to provide a detailed history of each communist or former communist state, but to give a historical background of communist states before 1917, and then survey their development from that time to their collapse or survival at present.

The present work developed out of lecture outlines written for students in this course over the years. It has been revised several times on the basis of extensive, ongoing reading.

Of course, one person cannot be an expert on all the countries involved. I am, therefore, most grateful to my colleagues in the History Department for the comments and suggestions they made on previous editions. Here I wish to thank Professor Norman Saul for his comments on the chapters on Russia and the Soviet Union; Professor Daniel Bays for his guidance to the chapters on China; Professor Cameron Hurst - now elsewhere -, for help on Korea; Professor Emeritus Grant Goodman and Professor Chester J. Pach Jr. (left 1993) for help on Vietnam; Professors Emeriti William Griffith and Robert Gilmore, also Professor Charles Stansifer, for help on the Caribbean and Central America; and Professor Rose Louise Greaves for help with Afghanistan. My principal responsibility is for chapters 1 through 8, but any errors both here and elsewhere are my responsibility, as is the presentation of key leaders and events.

I would also like to thank Jan Emerson and Terri Rockhold of the History Department, Pam LeRow, Paula Courtney and Lynn Porter of the Word Processing Center , also Janet Crow of the Hall Center for the Humanities of the University of Kansas, for their technical help with the various editions of this text. My thanks also go to Bill Drummond for his careful editing and corrections of the 1994 edition. Finally, I would like to thank Professor Lynn Nelson for his help in penetrating the mysteries of Word Perfect and Windows, as well as his most valuable aid in putting this text on-line, as well as John Rinnert of Instructional Development and Support, University of Kansas..

March 16, 2010

Anna M. Cienciala
Lawrence, Kansas


Preface ......................................... pp. i-viii.

chapter 1. Marx and the Marxists. The Origins and Development of Marxism in Western Europe; Russian History: Key Problems and Revolutionary Traditions; Russian Marxism before 1914, pp. 1-42.

chapter 2. The Russian Revolutions of 1917. The Russian Civil War; Revolutions in Finland, Germany, and Hungary; The Polish-Soviet War, pp. 43-95.

chapter 3. Russia under Lenin and Stalin, 1921-1939, pp. 96-132.

chapter 4. Soviet Russia and the Western World, 1921-1941, pp. 134-183.

chapter 5. Soviet Aims and Gains in World War II and the Soviet Takeover of Eastern Europe, 1939-45, pp. 184-256.

ch. 6. The Cold War Begins. The USSR, the USA, Eastern Europe, Germany, 1945-56, pp. 257-293.

ch. 7. Politics, Economics, Foreign Policy and Dissent in the USSR and Eastern Europe, 1957-1970, pp. 294-334.

ch. 8. Eastern Europe and the USSR, 1980-1994, pp. 335-443.

ch. 9. The Chinese Revolution and Chinese Communism to 1949, pp. 442-462.

ch. 10. China Since 1949, pp. 463-501.

ch. 11. Nationalism and Communism in Korea, pp. 502-531.

ch. 12. Indochina and the Vietnam War: Cambodia and Laos, pp. 532-570.

ch. 13. Nationalism and Communism in the Caribbean and Central America, pp. 571-615.

ch. 14. Nationalism and Communism in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, pp. 616-646.

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