August 15, 2022

A View from My Porch: Great Leaders, Great Speeches; The Finale: Collapse of the Soviet Union.

Editor’s Note: This the sixth and final part of Thomas Gotowka’s series titled “Great Leaders and Great Speeches.’ The previous four parts can be found at these links:

A View from My Porch:  Great Leaders and Great Speeches, Part 1: Washington’s Farewell through Theodore Roosevelt

A View from My Porch:  Great Leaders and Great Speeches, Part 2: Nazi Aggression through “A Rain of Ruin from the Air” on Hiroshima

A View from My Porch:  Great Leaders and Great Speeches, Part 3: The Cold War 

A View from My Porch: Great Leaders and Great Speeches, Part 4: The Cold War Heats Up

A View From My Porch: Great Leaders and Great Speeches. Part 5: Cold War “Visual Aids” 

I will wrap up my Cold War treatise with a review of the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and apparent end of the Cold War.

I think that Madam Editor is cooling on Cold War nostalgia, and my wife, Christina’s, “Sounds great!” is less enthusiastic. So, I am going to lay this out as an annotated timeline of many of the key events that track the Soviet Union’s progression towards its dissolution and get right to a conclusion. 

I change focus in the next column to works by or about the denizens of our waters.

On Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet tanks and troops invaded Budapest to crush a national protest that began a few weeks before. The protesters had demanded a more democratic political system and freedom from Soviet oppression. 

Prime Minister Nagy was arrested and executed two years later. The Soviets put Communist leader, János Kádár, into the “vacated” position, where he remained for 32 years. Nearly 3000 Hungarians were killed or wounded, and 200,000 fled as refugees. 

The West was shocked by these actions. Earlier that year, Nikita Khrushchev had pledged a retreat from the Stalinist policies and repression of the past. 

In August,1961, the German Democratic Republic (i.e., Soviet-occupied East Germany) erected the Berlin Wall to keep “Western fascists from undermining the socialist state.” The wall mainly served to prevent mass emigration from East to West. Note that the Wall was not funded by West Berlin.

In October, 1962, as noted in an earlier essay, the Soviet Union was compelled by President Kennedy and United Nations outrage to remove their missiles and offensive weapons from Cuba. They then began a massive nuclear arms and military buildup to reach parity with the United States. 

On June 26, 1963, JFK spoke in West Berlin in support of West Germany. His “Ich Bin ein Berliner” address is widely regarded as one of the most powerful anti-communist speeches of that Cold War period. “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in; to prevent them from leaving us”. 

“While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, an offense, not only against history, but against humanity.” 

“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin; and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”

On Oct. 15th, 1964, Nikita Krushchev left office, and was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who remained as general secretary for 18 years. In 1968, he introduced a new foreign policy, the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” which asserted that “any threat to socialist rule in any state of the Soviet Bloc was a threat to all, and justifies military intervention.”

During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague. Public domain photo from “CIA Analysis of the Warsaw Pact Forces: The Importance of Clandestine Reporting” For more information, visit the CIA’s Historical Collections page.

On Aug. 20th 1968, Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact military forces invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the “Prague Spring” political reforms initiated by Alexander Dubcek, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He was arrested, and then resigned. The invasion force included 200,000 ground troops and 5,000 tanks. Warsaw Pact troops seized control of television and radio stations.

Journalists at Radio Prague refused to surrender, and more than 20 were killed before it was finally shut down. Some stations went “underground” and succeeded in broadcasting for several days before their locations were discovered and brutally shut down. Much of Czechoslovakia’s intellectual and business elite fled to the West.

On Sept. 7,1978, the Western world witnessed another tool that has been used frequently since then by Soviet successors to stop resistance. 

Georgi Markov was a dissident novelist and playwright in Bulgaria. He had defected to the UK in 1968, and worked as a broadcaster and journalist for the BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe, and “Deutsche Welle.” He used those media to criticize the Bulgarian Communist regime. 

In an incident worthy of a spy thriller, Markov stood waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge in central London, on his way to the BBC. He was stabbed in the back of the leg by a man wielding an umbrella with a sharpened tip, who then ran off. Markov became very sick and was rushed to a hospital, where he died a few days later; the autopsy revealed that the cause of death was poisoning from a tiny pellet filled with ricin, an extremely potent toxin. 

Just recently, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released from a Berlin hospital, where he was being treated for Novichok nerve agent poisoning. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had facilitated Navalny’s transfer to a Berlin hospital for treatment, and stressed, “In view of the findings and his prominent role in the political opposition in Russia, I urgently call upon authorities to investigate this crime in full transparency.” The G-7 countries condemned Navalny’s attack.

Note that this was the same agent used to poison ex-Russian spy (and “double agent”) Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in March 2018. Amazingly, both ultimately survived after extended hospital stays. That attack was actually developed into a BBC thriller “The Salisbury Poisonings.”

On Dec. 24th 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to preserve the collapsing Communist government that had been established there in the early 1970s. 

Soviet Intelligence remarkably under-estimated the fierce resistance they would face from the mujahideen warriors who defended their country.  

The Soviets were ineffective in their use of conventional tactics against the well-trained and highly-motivated Afghan guerillas.  The tide of the war turned against the Soviets when American shoulder-launched infrared-homing missiles were introduced. The Stinger missiles enabled the mujahideen to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters almost at will. The invasion evolved into a war of bloody Soviet attrition, although their military remained there for 10 years.

The United States and many allies boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics in July, 1980 in protest against the Soviet invasion. Some countries, including Great Britain, participated under the Olympic flag rather than their own national flags.

On March 8, 1983, President Reagan, speaking to a religious convention in Orlando, Fla., referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.” He had already alluded to that theme the year before in a speech at the British House of Commons, where he also declared that, “The Soviets must be made to understand that “We will never compromise our principles and standards.” The term “evil empire” was inspired by the movie, “Star Wars”. 

In July, 1984, the Soviets and 13 allied countries retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, which was, of course, in President Reagan’s home state.

Mikhail Gorbachev. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

On March 11th 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, and began a withdrawal from Afghanistan, which then continued through early 1989. More than 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, and about 35,000 wounded. Two million Afghan civilians were killed in that decade-long conflict.

Note that the war also created a breeding-ground for terrorism and the rise of Osama bin Laden, who founded Al Qaeda in 1988.

On April 26th 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history. Scientists have indicated that the disaster was the product of a flawed reactor design that, against Western standards, was both poorly staffed and maintained. 

Almost 80,000 square miles were contaminated; including some 8,000 square miles of Europe. Although Soviet officials initially put the number of fatalities at just 31, the United Nations estimated that several million people were ultimately affected. 

The Chernobyl disaster had other consequences: The disaster has been estimated to have then cost some $235 billion in damages. The economic and political toll hastened the end of the USSR and fueled a global anti-nuclear movement. 

In June, 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention to follow a policy of glasnost – openness, transparency, and freedom of speech; and perestroika, the restructuring of the government and economy. He also advocated free elections and ending the arms race. That same month, President Reagan had called for Gorbachev to open the Berlin Wall: “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Gorbachev’s policies relaxed centralized control of much of the Soviet economy, and farmers and manufacturers could now determine what and how much to produce; and what to charge for products. Although Gorbachev had instituted these reforms to accelerate a sluggish economy, they had the opposite effect. Market prices soared to unaffordable levels, Government spending and Soviet debt skyrocketed, and worker demands for higher wages led to dangerously high inflation. 

In 1988, he announced to the United Nations that Soviet troop levels would be reduced, and that the USSR would no longer interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. 

The Collapse: The Soviet Union was increasingly viewed as a rogue nation by the West. Their economy could not sustain the huge costs of their nuclear weapons buildup, the Afghan Occupation, over 30 years of distant warfare that began in the early 1950s, and Chernobyl. 

President Reagan had actually refused to provide Gorbachev with Marshall Plan-type economic support (similar to the aid provided to rebuild Europe after WW2). 

Then, in the late-1980s, and certainly inspired by the failed perestroika and glasnost reforms, independence movements began to swell in the Soviet sphere; and then, the speed of the collapse of communist rule in Soviet satellite countries stunned the “Free World.” 

On Dec. 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union was dissolved and divided into 15 separate and independent countries. Russia (i.e., formally the “Russian Federation”) was considered the successor state of the Soviet Union, which meant that it kept almost all of their nuclear weapons and the seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. 

The collapse also resulted in the rise of the “Russian Oligarchy”, which, probably too simply, is almost a parallel government of powerful individuals, who accumulated enormous wealth during Gorbachev’s market liberalization and the period of dissolution. 

The failing Soviet state had left ownership of the State’s assets in question, and allowed for “informal” opportunistic deals with former Soviet officials in Russia and Ukraine as a means of “distributing” State property.

The conventional political wisdom (at that time) was that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Some Final Thoughts: Unfortunately, Brunhilde never sang. (i.e. “it ain’t over ‘til …”) 

The Cold War only paused after the 1991 Collapse. The battlefield and rules of engagement changed, but, otherwise, it’s the same thugs under a new flag (I apologize for “thugs”, but it seems appropriate.)

Vladimir Putin has served as either Prime Minister or President since 1999, in both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.  His key cabinet members and senior department heads largely came with him from the Soviet Union. 

A brilliant tactician, the Stalinist Putin is former KGB, and popular with much of the Russian citizenry, many of whom resent the collapse and the apparent change of Russia’s international standing. He has been described as “the Despot’s despot.”

In his annual address to the Russian Federation in 2005, Putin said ,”The collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the past century. Millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots find themselves outside Russian territory.” He pledged to turn the economy around and restore their status in world affairs.

Putin had already “deked” the West in 2003 by allowing Paul McCartney to perform before thousands of Russians in Red Square, his first-ever concert in Russia. The Beatles had been banned in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, declared to be “an enemy of the Soviet people” by Nikita Kruschev; their music “caused delinquency, alcoholism, vandalism, and rape”. 

I am absolutely certain that my eighth-grade math teacher, Sister Thomas Ann, was unaware that she shared Mr. Kruschev’s opinions on rock music. In Sir Paul’s own words: “The Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the west behind; and Moscow girls make me sing and shout, and Georgia, …”.

The Reboot of the Cold War

Hacking and leaking: It is widely accepted and reported by our Intelligence Agencies that Russian agents have interfered in democratic elections across Europe and in the United States. Besides offering assistance to the 2016 campaign of one candidate, they also gained access to voter rolls in two Florida counties. This last breech was revealed by the Florida governor in May, 2019. 

Even more concerning is one conclusion by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee that former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort appears to have been directly connected to the hacking operations conducted by the Russian agents, which exposed large files of internal emails belonging to the DNC.

On Aug. 31, the CIA published an assessment of Russian efforts to interfere in this November’s election in their CIA Worldwide Intelligence Review. CIA analysts compiled the assessment with input from the NSA and the FBI. 

The assessment provides details of the activities of a Ukrainian lawmaker to disseminate disparaging information about candidate Biden to lobbyists, Congress, the media and contacts close to the President. 

Some good, old- fashioned provocation: In late August, USAF  F-22 fighter jets, supported by KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft, intercepted three groups of two Russian Tu-142 patrol jets that entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone.

In early September, two Russian jets flew within 100 feet of a USAF B-52 bomber in an “unsafe and unprofessional manner”, while the pilot was conducting routine training over international waters in the Black Sea. 

In his recent address to the UN’s General assembly, Putin stressed the need for multilateral cooperation against the pandemic. He also argued that ending “illegitimate sanctions” against countries like his could boost the global economy and create jobs.

I am going to conclude with something that might give you some comfort: A short time ago, in a video conference with elected heads of the Russian regions, President Putin called for “an agreement between Russia and the United States to guarantee not to engage in cyber-meddling in each other’s elections. He called for a “reset” between Russia and the United States and said he wanted an agreement between the two countries to prevent incidents in cyberspace”. What’s done is done?

God save the United States of America.

The era did produce a new literary genre; and, if you have the interest to re-visit those years in fiction, I recommend the novels of John LeCarre’. Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, and Nelson DeMille.

This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.


  1. The Cold War was an interesting time of cat vs mouse and international on-upmanship. But at least the enemy was acknowledged, which made it easier to craft foreign policy in an effective manner. These days, it’s tough to know who’s your friend and who’s not, which has enabled the current administration to adopt some policies of questionable intent.