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Explain the role of various leaders in transforming the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe


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Topics on the Page

Mikhail Gorbachev
  • Raisa Gorbachev
Vaclau Havel
Andrei Sakharov
Alekander Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago
Lech Walesa
Women's Hiistory
LGBTQ History


Focus Question: What were the roles of Gorbachev, Havel, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Walesa in transforming the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?


Multimedia.pngOnline audio archive of Soviet and Russian history , including these five leaders.

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Mikhail Gorbachev


Mikhail Gorbachevwas the last politician to govern the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Gorbachev served as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the political body that governed the former Soviet Union) between 1985 and 1991. He enacted an array of policy reforms that sought to democratize the Soviet Union and improve the standard of living. These reforms undermined the power of the Communist Party and opened the door for free enterprise. They would, in part, lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.[1]

Gorbachev was credited as one of the main actors in the deceleration and eventual end to Cold War hostilities between Eastern Bloc and Western European and American sides. He was placed on house arrest in an attempted coup led by hardliners led by Boris Yeltsin in August of 1991, which was a failed coup that only led to the formal disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of that year.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a PBS News Hour video on the 20th anniversary of the failed coup against Gorbachev.
primary_sources.PNGClick here for a text transcript of an interview with Gorbachev on he and Ronald Reagan's roles in peacefully ending the Cold War.

Biography icon for wiki.pngFor more information on Mikhail Gorbachev and his accomplishments here is his biography
book.pngHere is a search of current books on him.
Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a clip of Gorbachev's biography.
Multimedia.pngClick here to watch an interview of Mikhail Gorbachev about the difference of now and the past.

Female_Rose.pngRaisa Gorbachev


external image 1101880606_400.jpgRaisa Gorbachev, wife of Mikhail Gorbachev, helped provide a friendlier image of the Soviet Union to Western eyes.
  • She was well educated and independent, unique qualities for Soviet women, particularly first ladies, which contributed to the United States' favorable opinion of her (and her own country's relatively poor opinion of her). Raisa Gorbachev is known for her philanthropy and her desire to modernize the USSR.

Vaclav Havel

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Vaclav Havel was the president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. He facilitated the transformation of the economy from communism to capitalism. He believed that the ideal economy would be neither full fledged communism nor capitalism, but an economy based on partial government regulation. However, western powers pushed him to champion economic policies based on promoting market capitalism. In 1993, Czechoslovakia was divided into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Havel became the first president of the new nation the Czech Republic.[2]

Havel is well known for his political expostulation in essay form in 1978, The Power of the Powerless, which expanded on ideas of the state and political dissidence. It is often read as a manifesto against the nature of totalitarian systems. Click here for full text of the essay draft from his official website.

Click here for an excellent NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel.

For more information on Havel, see his official website. For an English version, click here.

Click here to read Havel's obituary from The Guardian.


Andrei Sakharovexternal image 120216a.jpg


Andrei Sakharov was a 20th century physicist and political activist in the former Soviet Union. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Sakharov conducted military research for Soviet Union. At the end of the 1950’s, Sakharov began to morally grapple with the role he was playing in helping the Soviets develop weapons of mass destruction. In the 1960s, he became concerned about the arms race developing between the Soviet Union and the United States. He decided to speak out against the creation of weapons of mass destruction. The Soviet Government attempted to silence him through isolation and surveillance. However, he continued speaking out in favor of peace and civil liberties. In 1975, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[3]

Multimedia.pngprimary_sources.PNGThe American Institute of Physics has an excellent exhibit on Andrei Sakharov that details his extraordinary life. Includes audio clips, speech transcripts, and photograph.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to see Andrei Sakharov's archives from Harvard University.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read Sakharov's obituary in the NY Times.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a news clip on the works of Sakharov's.
Multimedia.pngFor more information, check out the PBS special website: American Experience: Race for the Superbomb which includes maps and timelines of the events that his life revolved around.


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Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngAleksander Solzhenitsyn was 20th century Russian writer. He wrote the book The Gulag Archipelago which exposed the horrific system of punishment called the Gulag system. Gulags were concentration camps where prisoners were forced to do back breaking labor. The concentration camps were filled with political prisoners who expressed disagreement with Soviet policies.

How Alexander's Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago Changed the World

In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his book. [4]

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the FBI file on Solzhenitsyn consisting of newspaper clippings describing the Soviet expatriate's travels in America.


Lech Walesalech_Walesa.jpg

Lech Walesa was a 20th century Polish human rights activist. He founded the Soviet bloc’s first independent labor union, which was called Solidarity. The Communist government didn’t like this since it sought to organize all of the workers as a trade union independent of the state. Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. He served as Poland’s President from 1990 – 1995. [5]

Click here for a New York Times op-ed piece on the 60 year anniversary of Stalin's death.



Women's History


Female_Rose.pngWomen leaders in the former USSR.

womens history.jpgClick here to read about the history of abortions in the USSR.
womens history.jpgClick here to read about the history of feminism in the USSR.


external image 200px-Gay_flag.svg.png Here you can find information on LGBT rights in Soviet Russia.

Gay_flag.svg.pngNew York Times article on gay men in the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia's Gay Men Step Out of Soviet-Era Shadows . This article includes a note that there were Soviet laws on the books which delineated a five-year prison sentence for any men known to be in homosexual relations. (Note:link may automatically re-route after a few seconds, try using the "stop page" feature in your chosen internet browser to be able to read).



[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Retrieved March 15, 2007, from CNN.COM Web site: [1]
[[#_ftnref2|[2]]] Václav Havel. Retrieved March 15, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: [2]
[[#_ftnref3|[3]]]Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Retrieved March 15, 2007, from TheAndrei Sakharov Foundation Web site: [3]
[[#_ftnref4|[4]]] Alexandr Solzhenitsyn The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970. Retrieved March 15, 2007, from Nobelprize.org Web site: [4]
[[#_ftnref5|[5]]] Lech Walesa: The Nobel Peace Prize 1983. Retrieved March 15, 2007, from Nobelprize.org Web site: [5]