Sarotte on the Factors of the Soviet Union’s Collapse

In “1989”, Mary Elise Sarotte questions the factors at play in the fall of the Soviet Union. In her first chapter, she discusses the changes that occurred in 1989 and argues that the Soviet Union’s collapse was propelled as a result of changes within the Soviet Union’s internal status quo, unstable relations with between Americans and Soviet politicians, and changing international relations in Europe. She also points to the looming fear of nuclear warfare that characterized the Cold War and defined the era in general. She argues that “technology of both weapons and surveillance [as a result of constant threat of nuclear war]…created a unique era” (Sarotte 13). This fear led to both the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate arms treaties and nuclear disarmament programs. These discussions were led by Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s and was considered internationally to be a step towards better cooperation between the two superpowers. However, despite these advances in foreign policy and relations, “the [American] public wanted more” (Sarotte 15). Sarotte argues that this step towards nuclear disarmament was perceived by subsequent president Bush as a policy in the United States’ foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, thus leading bush to refocus his political aggression back on the Soviet Union. However, Sarotte goes on to show that a European stance towards non-violence had cultivated by 1989, and thus the fear of nuclear warfare was dissipated.

In her analysis of the factors that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, Sarotte paints Gorbachev as a progressive leader trying to “producing a better socialism, not an imitation of social democracy” (Sarotte 14) whose reforms were stalled by Bush’s shift in his policy towards the USSR. She also claimed that Gorbachev’s new thinking policy, well-intentioned as it was, was not able to withstand the demands that it set upon itself. She claims that this policy “raised expectations among the broader population that he could not fulfill” (Sarotte 15). Openness, the opportunity to voice concerns and the doors to opposition were opened. This led to a rise of opposition parties throughout Eastern Europe, and this newly harnessed freedom gave rise to a national self-confidence (in East Germany and Eastern Europe) that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Is Sarotte implying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable? How instrumental was Gorbachev in this collapse and how much of it was due to the underlying problems that had been stacked on top of each other for the preceding 60 years?

Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin

Substantive Points

  1. United States President Ronald Reagan gave this speech on June 12, 1987 in West Berlin. The speech was televised globally (including East Berlin) with the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin wall as a key backdrop. President Reagan announced to the German people that he joined them as their fellow countrymen and firmly believed that there is only one Berlin. He stated, “as long as this gate is closed, as long as this scare of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.” The President saw the Berlin wall essential to the future of not only Berlin, but also Europe as a whole.
  2. President Reagan denounced the communist world for its failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, and starvation. He then compared the failures of communism to the successes of the Western world. Reagan concluded, “freedom leads to prosperity,” and that the West welcomes change and openness of the East to progress toward world peace.
  3. Reagan acknowledged the rapid economic growth and progress happening in Europe. He saw the Soviet Union needed to decide whether to join in on the prosperity or remain isolated and become obsolete. President Reagan ultimately demanded General Secretary Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin wall and join the West in their hopes of advancement of world freedom and peace.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is President Reagan approaching Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in this speech?
  2. What do you think would have happened if the wall did not come down? How would this have affected the outcomes of the Cold War?


  1. It is interesting to note that while Reagan proposed trust between the Soviet Union and the United States, we seem to be at a crossroads on this issue today.