The Gorbachev initiative that had the most far-reaching effects was his decision to abandon Soviet control of the Communist nations of Eastern Europe. Since World War II, leaders of the USSR had viewed the maintenance of these states as essential to their nation’s security, and they had crushed anti-Soviet uprisings in Warsaw Pact countries (a group of eight Communist nations in Eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary) that sought greater independence. However, just a year after taking power, Gorbachev oversaw reforms that loosened the Soviet grip on these states. Then, in a landmark December 1988 speech at the United Nations, he declared that all nations should be free to choose their own course without outside interference. To the amazement of millions, he capped this speech by announcing that the USSR would significantly reduce the number of troops and tanks that were based in the Eastern Bloc countries.
Gorbachev’s move had unintended consequences. He had hoped that his reforms would revitalize and modernize the Soviet Union. Instead, they unleashed social forces that brought about the dissolution of the USSR (which had been in existence since 1922). In 1989, Communist regimes fell in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. By the end of that year, the Berlin Wall had been dismantled and discussions were under way that would result in the reunification of Germany in October 1990.
Gorbachev did not watch passively as these events unfolded. To the contrary, he adopted more conservative policies in 1990–the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his willingness to try new approaches, Gorbachev remained committed to the principles of socialism and determined to maintain the Soviet republics as one nation. In the end, however, his efforts to rein in the reform spirit he had turned loose were ineffective.
Angry hard-line Communists attempted to remove Gorbachev from power in August 1991 by staging a coup. The revolt failed due to the efforts of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), president of the Russian Republic, who emerged as the country’s most powerful political figure. However, before the end of the year, Yeltsin and other reformers succeeded in completely undoing the old order. The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 individual republics, and on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned from the presidency of a nation that no longer existed.