The Fall of Stalin
In March of 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Once the great dictator of the Soviet Union who hastened its industrialization, his legacy of death (holodomor), oppression (secret police), and industrialization were quick to be forgotten by his successor. Stalin had left the Soviet Union in a less than terrific state, but he was still revered by communists at home and abroad.
Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, immediately began the process of de-stalinization along with Lavrentiy Beria and Georgi Malikov despite dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s rule in a “secret speech” and attempted to remove any aspect of Stalin’s ideas from the Soviet Union. These would include renaming Stalingrad to Volgograd, removing the cult of personality around Stalin, and ending gulags.
Khrushchev’s de-stalinization also had the unintended consequences of stagnating economic growths. His new reforms did not have the intended effects which led to other countries under the Soviet Union feeling the aftereffects. Along with general discontent, this would give rise to the revolts of the time in other countries (see 9.4!). He would eventually be deposed by his political opponents in 1964.
The Rise of Brezhnev
Brezhnev quickly replaced Khrushchev as the leader of the USSR. His reign was regarded as largely stabilizing the Soviet Union and its ruling party due to his conservative, pragmatic nature. He did his best to minimize dissent amongst the party, unlike Khrushchev, and pushed for a detente between Russia and the U.S. He also tightened the hold the USSR held over Eastern Europe during this time.
However, Brezhnev despised political reform which led to a period known as the Brezhnev Stagnation. The technological gap between the U.S. and Russia was increasing but the economy of the Soviet Union was falling.
Gorbachev the Reformer
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and brought a wave of reform with him as the eighth and last president of the USSR. First, Gorbachev withdrew from the Soviet-Afghan War and met with Ronald Reagan at a summit to limit nuclear weapons and end the Cold War. Formerly committed to preserving the Soviet Union’s socialist ideas, Gorbachev slowly moved to become a social-democrat.
His most important reforms are glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). In these, Gorbachev allowed for greater freedom of speech and press and decentralized economic decision making, respectively. When Eastern Bloc nations began abandoning the influence of the USSR, Gorbachev tolerated it.
After an unsuccessful coup by party members unhappy with Gorbachev’s reforms, the Soviet Union dissolved against Gorbachev’s wishes, and he resigned. The end of the Soviet Union would bring about a decline in Russia's global influence and an economic crisis.
The End of the USSR
The dissolving of the Soviet Union in 1991 would lead to an impending economic crisis as Russia lost a hold on the Eastern Bloc. Czechoslovakia split in half, Yugoslavia dissolved, and the European Union grew by admitting former Eastern bloc countries. The Berlin Wall fell after 30 years, a symbol of the the collapse of the USSR. That would be the end of communism… in Europe, at least.