The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. A series of largely peaceful revolutions overthrew Soviet-backed communist regimes across Eastern Europe, beginning in Poland and spreading within months to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany and Romania.
The Kremlin’s crucial decision not to intervene to save its Eastern European Communist allies effectively ended the East-West divide that had dominated international relations for much of the twentieth century – a divide symbolised by the Berlin Wall itself.
In December 1989, US President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War over. Two years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and the Soviet Communist Party, established by the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 Revolution, was formally disbanded.
Decades earlier, writer and former Gulag prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had remarked that the Soviet regime could not survive without the prison system which he termed the Gulag Archipelago. If the regime disbanded the Archipelago, he said, it would cease to exist itself. His words proved prophetic. The final camps of the Gulag closed in 1992, having outlived the Soviet Union.
Soviet Communism’s Demise
Reflecting later, Mikhail Gorbachev’s former adviser Alexander Yakovlev identified two reasons for the momentous events of 1989. The most immediate reason, he said, was Gorbachev’s genuine abhorrence of violence – a trait rare in communist leaders. Faced with widespread unrest, both within the USSR and throughout Eastern Europe, Gorbachev knew that the only way of keeping the Soviet empire together was to use the Red Army to suppress the dissent – a move which would have resulted in countless deaths. This is exactly what former Soviet leaders Lenin, Stalin, Kruchschev, Brezhnev and Andropov would have done. It was, in fact, what the Chinese Communist leaders had done in Tiananmen Square just months before. The USSR collapsed in 1989, Yakovlev said, essentially because Gorbachev refused to do so.
The second reason Yakovlev cited for Soviet communism’s demise, however, suggests that communism’s eventual collapse was inevitable, even if Gorbachev had prolonged its life by ordering the Red Army into Eastern Europe. Soviet communism failed, Yakovlev said, simply because it was contrary to human nature. A system based on the values of the psychologically disordered is, by definition, contrary to normal human nature. It is a system that could be maintained only through the use of mass terror and oppression.
In his history of the Soviet slave system The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounts a story that provides a glimpse into life under communist rule . The story concerns a district Party conference in Moscow Province. At the end of the meeting a tribute to Comrade Stalin was proposed. All those present duly stood to applaud. For three, four, five minutes, the thunderous applause continued. Although palms were becoming sore and arms were beginning to ache, every person present was afraid to be the first to stop applauding. For six, seven, eight minutes, the applause continued. Finally, after eleven agonising minutes, one person stopped and sat down. Immediately everyone else followed suit. ‘That, however,’ Solzhenitsyn writes, ‘was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them.’ That night the man was arrested. At his interrogation his police interrogator told him, ‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.’
The end of the monstrous system of Soviet communism came about because Mikhail Gorbachev – to his eternal credit – became the first Soviet leader to stop applauding.
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–56, The Harvill Press, London, 2003:27