Revolutions of 1989

1989 will be a year forever etched in history. It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union as revolutions in their sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe became widespread. How did this happen? And why weren't they stopped? Read on to find out!

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Revolutions of 1989


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1989 will be a year forever etched in history. It was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union as revolutions in their sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe became widespread. How did this happen? And why weren't they stopped? Read on to find out!

Mikhail Gorbachev

The final leader of the Soviet Union was Mikhail Gorbachev. He took power in 1985 after the death of his predecessor Konstantin Chernenko.

Revolutions of 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mikhail Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985.

Chernenko and the two other leaders before Gorbachev (Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov) were hardline communists, conservatives who toed the party line. This led to a period of stagnation for the economy during the 1970s and 1980s. However, Gorbachev was different. He was a socialist but saw the value of reform, and these following policies made the climate ripe for revolution.

  • "Glasnost" or "openness" allowed for increased discussion about new methods of governance. Rather than being closed off, this encouraged trade with other nations. This introspection led to an awareness of the atrocities of the dictators of the Soviet Union. It resulted in a calling for democratic elections in 1988.
  • "Perestroika" or "restructuring" was the result of this. A campaign for a new Congress led to exiled men of yesteryear from all ends of the political spectrum ending up in parliament. Debates were televised thanks to "glasnost", and the country became fixated with political conversation. Gorbachev became the only president under this brief system in 1990.
  • The most important aspect of Gorbachev's policies for the 1989 revolutions was his abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Central and Eastern European countries saw this as the green light to manage their political affairs. This became known as the "Sinatra Doctrine", named after Frank Sinatra's famous song "I did it my way".

Brezhnev Doctrine

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev vowed to intervene with military force should socialism or communism be threatened in any state in eastern Europe or around the world.

Along with the economic stagnation, the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 severely damaged the Soviet people's faith in their government. The biggest nuclear disaster in history showed the true colours of the regime: it was more willing to ensure their self-preservation than the safety of their citizens. Their incompetence and dishonesty highlighted the flaws of a decaying system. It took two weeks for them to admit the disaster even happened.

Revolutions of 1989: Timeline

Whilst the events of 1989 accelerated into a revolution in several countries, for others, the signs were not present as dissent was not permitted in any shape or form. For Poland, however, there had been real opposition to communism since the early 1980s.

End of Communism in Poland

The stagnation of the Brezhnev era was not confined to the Soviet Union. It spread to many of the states under their sphere of influence. In Poland, shortages led to a country queuing for food and basic items they could not afford in the 1970s. Opposition sprang up in a Gdansk shipyard in 1980 when a trade union, known as Solidarity, was founded by Lech Walesa. By 1981, most of the Polish workforce were members, numbering around 10 million. They fought for economic and electoral reforms, more rights, and freedom of expression. In 1982 the organisation, perceived as a threat by the Soviet Union, was made illegal.

Revolutions of 1989 Solidarity magazine before it was made illegal in 1982 StudySmarterFig. 2 - Solidarity magazine from before it was made illegal in 1982.

When more protests occurred in 1988, they asked for recognition of Solidarity, and by 1989 the government allowed them to participate in democratic elections. A coalition government was initially formed in 1989 and then Lech Walesa became president in 1990. Solidarity's legacy was to achieve concessions from the government and help topple communism in Poland. With the floodgates open for a free market, new parties emerged and took power, limiting their impact.


A ruling government of two or more parties.

Trade union

An organisation comprised of workers to protect their rights and ensure a certain level of working conditions.

Now let's look at a timeline of the 1989 Revolutions before examining a couple of them in more detail.

4th June 1989After being in talks since February, Poland authorised Solidarity and allowed them to compete in an election. In August, they won 99/100 seats in the Senate and 161/460 in parliament, forming a coalition government.
11th September 1989Hungary, which was also undergoing liberal reforms, cut a hole through the barbed wire that prevented East Germans from going to West Germany via Austria. 13,000 East Germans fled using this method. Just over a month later, Hungary declared its independence from the Soviet Union on the anniversary of the failed 1956 Revolution.
6th October 1989Gorbachev visited repressive East German leader Erich Honecker urging him to reform. Honecker, who had been keen to cling onto power, despite considerable protests in East German cities such as Leipzig on 9th October, resigned two weeks later.
9th November 1989As protestors gathered in East and West Berlin, the government announced free movement. Finally, at around midnight, protestors flooded through the checkpoint, dismantling the Berlin Wall in the coming days and having a massive street party. This proved the catalyst for the rest of the revolutions of 1989.
10th November 1989Just a day after the Berlin Wall fell, Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov was deposed. Although there were public protests, this revolution was centred more around reforms within socialism. After a democratic election the following year, a non-communist, Zhelyu Zhelev, became president.
17th November 1989In Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, riot police crushed a student protest, killing a student. This sparked more protests. Finally, on 28th November, the communist government conceded power and announced they would have elections.
2nd December 1989The United States president George H W Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev participated in the Malta Summit, formally ended the Cold War, and ushered in a new period of coexistence and collaboration.
16th December 1989The only bloody revolution of 1989 began in Timosaura, Romania, for the wrongful conviction of a reverend. After large-scale protests, the military reacted violently with tear gas and opened fire, killing many. This caused general strikes in major cities. Out-of-touch leader Nicolae Ceausescu organised a rally to quash the unrest on 21st December. The crowd of protestors responded angrily. As unrest continued, Ceausescu attempted to escape by private helicopter with his wife. He was caught and executed, with a new Prime Minister installed on Christmas Day.

Velvet Revolution of 1989

Opposition in Czechoslovakia, like in Poland, was not something unique to 1989. As far back as 1968, protests during the "Prague Spring" forced the government into liberal concessions. However, the Soviet Union intervened militarily under the Brezhnev Doctrine, seeing the reforms as a threat to communist rule. The future president and playwright Vaclav Havel was a prominent voice in the protests. His imprisonment was emblematic of the ruthless Soviet response.

Revolutions of 1989 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia Prague Spring StudySmarterFig. 3 - In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to successfully quell the Prague Spring. However, the Czechs were successful with the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The purges in the 1970s and increased censorship meant that there was still work to be done when Havel was released. By 1989, after the protests in 1988, the communist leader Milos Jakes signalled that his government would make concessions to buy time. However, with the revolutions and unrest in other Warsaw Pact countries, he was powerless to stop the same in Czechoslovakia.

Warsaw Pact

A 1955 defence treaty organised by the Soviet Union with countries within its sphere of influence to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) from Western powers headed by the United States.

At a student protest to commemorate the death of a student the Nazis had killed during their occupation of Prague, the protestors began chanting slogans against communism. After another student was killed, thousands more joined the protests by striking. Havel seized his opportunity and formed the Civic Forum to overthrow the government. He then pardoned all political prisoners and was elected president in 1990.

The Romanian Revolution of 1989

Romania, the last country behind the Iron Curtain to fall in 1989, had always been a notable exception within the Soviet sphere of influence. Their brand of "National Communism" fused national identity with communist dogma and meant that they were largely left to their own devices by the Soviets.

Nicolae Ceausescu was the leader of the Romanian regime. He was head of state and president from 1974. His rule was a dictatorship marked by Soviet-style repression, particularly against free speech by the Securitate secret police, a fearsome organisation built to squash opposition. However, Ceausescu became increasingly unpopular as the population starved whilst he attempted his grand architectural plans. 1989 proved to be the end after communism collapsed in other European nations.

Revolutions of 1989 Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu StudySmarterFig. 4 - Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu

After the murder of protestors in Timosaura in December 1989, Ceausescu, who had begun to believe in his cult of personality, thought he could restore order. In Bucharest, the capital city, he gave a speech but was roundly booed by crowds. As this was televised, the nation finally saw the truth and surrounded the main government building.

Ceausescu and his wife attempted to escape by helicopter, but on Christmas Eve they were caught, quickly trialled with a kangaroo court, and executed by a firing squad. Romanians overthrew other communists and created a free market economy, though some communist party members remained, just as in Bulgaria.

Cult of personality

The creation of a heroic or god-like image by a leader so that they are worshipped and idolised by their population.


A country ruled without a democracy by one person, known as a dictator.

Kangaroo Court

An unofficial court that gives a short trial or reads a sentence which has usually already been decided.

Revolutions of 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

Many issues found in Warsaw Pact countries, such as food shortages and economic stagnation, were also evident in the Soviet Union. The policies of Gorbachev and the European revolutions ultimately led to the end of the USSR. In February 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. The Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) were the first to declare their independence in 1991.

In an attempt during the summer to halt the seismic changes, a group of military and staunch communists surrounded Gorbachev, confining him to his house. Attempting to seize Moscow, they were blocked by a human barricade and head of parliament Boris Yeltsin, who stood heroically on a tank. This coup had failed.

Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan followed in declaring their independence. By December, Yeltsin had replaced Gorbachev as the dominant political force. He established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), sounding the death knell for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned, and on the 25th December 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced by that of the Russian Federation.

Revolutions of 1989: Summary

Since 1989, the former Soviet-controlled countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had varying destinies. Some have embraced capitalism, and experienced substantial economic growth, such as Poland and Estonia, whilst others have continued to be under the Russian spell, notably Belarus. Most recently, Ukraine has been resisting Russian control, which has continued to this day. Whatever their outcome, the revolutions were a watershed moment in history, remarkably without much violence besides Romania. As historian Tismaneanu asserts:

The revolutions have succeeded in their most important task: disbanding the Leninist regimes and permitting the citizens of these countries to engage fully in the shaping of their own destinies.1

- Vladimir Tismaneanu

Revolutions of 1989 - Key takeaways

  • The reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, including the abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine, gave Warsaw Pact countries the chance to manage their affairs without Soviet interference.
  • Protests erupted in many Central and Eastern European countries, with Poland the first to have a peaceful revolution in July 1989, thanks to the Solidarity movement.
  • When Hungary opened their border, many East Germans fled to West Germany. Protests in East Germany continued until the Berlin Wall collapsed on 9th November 1989. This proved the catalyst for further revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
  • The revolution in Czechoslovakia is known as the "Velvet Revolution" because it was peaceful, as was the one in Bulgaria.
  • In Romania, the military murdered protestors, but they continued to fight. Their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day, 1989.
  • Two years later, the Soviet Union disbanded under Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the new Russian Federation.


  1. Vladimir Tismaneanu, "The Revolutions of 1989: Causes, Meanings, Consequences", Contemporary European History, Vol. 18, No. 3, Revisiting 1989: Causes, Course and Consequences 271 - 288 (Aug 2009).

Frequently Asked Questions about Revolutions of 1989

A stagnating economy, immense repression from dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling Soviet Union all contributed to the Romanian Revolution.

The fall of communism was a series of mostly peaceful revolutions in various central and eastern European countries that opened the possibilities of new types of governance without the shadow of the communist Soviet Union.

The last revolution of 1989 was the Romanian Revolution which was completed on December 25th 1989.

The 1989 revolutions occurred for various reasons. The removal of Soviet military interference in Warsaw Pact countries, the economic situation, the revolutions in other countries and finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the relaxation of the Brezhnev Doctrine gave Warsaw Pact countries in the eastern bloc the green light for revolution.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What was going on in 1989 before the Revolutions began?

What did the Revolutions become known to represent?

Which tragic event is seen as a major catalyst for the Revolutions?


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