Mikhail Gorbachev and the Cold War – a brief summary

Born 2 March 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union. 

The Youngest First Secretary

Mikhail Gorbachev was an up and coming star in the Communist Party and, following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, became a protégé of the new Party leader, Yuri Andropov. But on Andropov’s death in February 1984, the post of First Secretary fell, not to Gorbachev, but to the ageing Konstantin Chernenko. However, Gorbachev spread his influence further so when Chernenko died after only thirteen months as leader, the post finally fell to him. Aged 54, Gorbachev was the youngest First Secretary in Soviet history, and the first to be born after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

His youth and progressive ideas alarmed the Communist hardliners and traditionalists, whose fears were confirmed when Gorbachev ushered in a reformist programme, and introduced into the political lexicon the words perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness). The Soviet’s system inept handling of the Chernobyl crisis highlighted the need for reform.

“I like Mr Gorbachev”

The international community welcomed the appointment of a man who seemed open and not ruled by cloak and dagger diplomacy and mistrust. Margaret Thatcher said of him, “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”

Immediately on coming to power Gorbachev was proposing a reduction in the number of nuclear arms held between the superpowers. In November 1985 Gorbachev met US president, Ronald Reagan, for the first time. Reagan, who had referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”, was also impressed by the new man in the Kremlin.

In January 1986 Gorbachev made what is known as his ‘January Proposal’ by proposing a radical strategy for removing all nuclear weapons by 2000. Another meeting with Reagan in October 1986 brought this deadline forward to 1996.

Through their several meetings Reagan and Gorbachev helped ease international tension. Despite their ideological and cultural differences, the two men build a rapport that was to have a real and lasting effect on the ending of the Cold War.

“We can’t go on living like this”

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The Kitchen Debate – a summary

The Cold War and its ongoing ideological, political, cultural battle was encapsulated by two men, both seemingly polite, arguing in a showroom kitchen in what has become known as the ‘Kitchen Debate’.

The two men were Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, and Richard Nixon, the US Vice President. The occasion, on 24 July 1959, was the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange between the two superpowers. Although in Moscow, this was an American exhibition and Nixon, for the benefit of Khrushchev, was its proud host.

Communism v. Capitalism

At times polite, at times restrained, mocking, jibing, or heated, the two men debated the relative merits of communism and capitalism, from nuclear weapons to washing machines, over several hours across many venues. At one point Nixon makes his point by jabbing his finger into Khrushchev’s chest whilst the Soviet leader listens, his bottom lip jutting out in anger.

But it was the image of Nixon and Khrushchev leaning on the railing in front of the model General Electric kitchen, surrounded by interpreters and reporters that captured the moment. The Cold War in a make-believe kitchen. Standing behind Nixon, looking somewhat distracted, is future Soviet premier and Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev.

The make-believe kitchen

The kitchen was part of a showroom house which, according to Nixon, almost any worker in America could afford. “We have such things,” said Khrushchev, adding that they had much the same for the Russian worker, but better built.

Nixon boasted of the processes and appliances available to the modern American housewife, “In America, we like to make life easier for women”. Khrushchev shot back, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism”.

Khrushchev, exasperated and perhaps intimidated by the display of modernity, asked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”

“We will wave to you.”

In one notable exchange Khrushchev asks Nixon how long America had been in existence, “Three hundred years?” he asks, making the mistake to emphasis a point. 150 years, Nixon corrects him.

Khrushchev’s answer captured the essence of the Soviet Union’s paranoia and jealousy of the USA: “One hundred and fifty years? Well then, we will say America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.”

Of course it didn’t quite work out that way.

Rupert Colley.

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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Walter Ulbricht – a brief biography

Most leaders possess a strength of character, charisma even, for which they are either admired or disliked, loved or loathed, but always acknowledged. Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s head of state from 1950 to 1973, was an unusually dull man, devoid of personality, devoted to the socialist cause, but with no empathy for the working masses, the very people he was supposedly fighting for.

Born 30 June 1893 in Leipzig, Walter Ulbricht left school after only eight years and became a cabinet maker.

Early Days

Walter UlbrichtJoining the German army in 1915, during the First World War, Walter Ulbricht served in both the Balkans and the Eastern Front but deserted towards the end of the war. Imprisoned in Belgium, he was released during the chaotic days of the German Revolution.

In 1920, he became a member of the German Communist Party, the KDP, and quickly rose through its ranks. He studied in the Soviet Union at the International Lenin School, a secretive school in Moscow that taught foreign communists how to be perfect Leninists and Marxists. In 1928, back in Germany, Ulbricht was elected into the Reichstag. It was a time of violent clashes between the communists and Nazis. Once Hitler assumed power as chancellor in January 1933, opposition parties were soon outlawed by his Enabling Act, and communists all over Germany fled or went into hiding. Ulbricht was one of them – fleeing first to France and Czechoslovakia, and then Spain during the Civil War of 1936-39 where he sided with the republicans in the International Brigades. He later received a medal for his time in Spain, angering fellow recipients, as Ulbricht never saw active service, preferring instead to hunt out Trotskyites and other unreliable elements within the KDP.

He returned to Moscow in 1937, and actively supported Stalin’s show trials and purges. Ulbricht watched as many of his superiors were purged, allowing him to rise further up the KDP ladder. It was almost as if this blandness helped him survive while his more charismatic colleagues fell. As a non-entity, no one really noticed Walter Ubricht. During the war, he was let loose on German prisoners of war in order to ‘convert’ them to communism. Continue reading

The East German Uprising – an outline

The East German Uprising, 16-17 June 1953. Stalin had died three months before, and a new post-Stalinist era beckoned for those trapped behind the Iron Curtain. But if the workers of East Germany thought that Stalin’s death meant change, they were soon disabused as the East German premier, Walter Ulbricht, strove to increase industrial output.

Walter Ulbricht’s plan

East Germany’s economy was stagnating and Ulbricht (pictured), a Stalinist to the core, proposed a range of measures to pump-up the economy – increase taxes, increase prices and increase production by 10% – but with no corresponding increase in wages. If the new quotas were not met, workers were told, wages would be cut by a third. The Kremlin viewed these proposals with concern, advising Ulbricht to tone down the measures and slow down the intense pace of industrialisation that the East German leader insisted was necessary. For the workers of the German Democratic Republic this was a lose-lose scenario.

Citizens of post-war Eastern Europe did as their governments ordered, any protest was silent, whispered in dark corners. But these measures were too much; Ulbricht had gone too far.


On 16 June 1953, East Berlin construction workers downed tools. The following morning, 17 June, the strike had spread with over 40,000 demonstrators marching through the capital. Their demands at first focussed on the economic – a return to the old work quotas. But then as the strike spread to other cities – Leipzig, Dresden and some 400 cities and towns throughout East Germany, their voices gained strength and their hearts courage. They demanded increasingly more – free elections, a new government, democracy. Meetings were held; workers’ councils elected. In the East German town of Merseburg, workers stormed the police station and released prisoners from the jails.

Protestors tore down communists flags and carried banners proclaiming, ‘We want free elections; we are not slaves’, ‘Death to communism’ and ‘Long Live Eisenhower‘. This was no longer a strike but an uprising.

Soviet intervention

Est German UprisingUlbricht turned to the Kremlin. Laventry Beria, Stalin’s former Chief of Secret Police and the man poised to take over now that that Stalin was dead, sent in the tanks. The crews, 20,000 troops based in East Germany, were told by Beria not to “spare bullets”. This was a revolution and it needed crushing. (Six months later Beria was dead – executed by his Kremlin colleagues. One of the supposed reasons for his arrest was his heavy-handed dealing with the East German Uprising).

Martial law was declared while, on the afternoon of the 17th, the tanks moved in and, alongside the East German police, opened fire. Down the Unter den Linden, people, demonstrators, civilians fell. How many were killed no one knows for sure. The figures vary considerably between sources based in the West and those of the East. But at least 40 were killed, possibly up to 260, and 400 wounded.

The West

If the East German protestors hoped for assistance from the West, they, like their counterparts during the Hungarian Revolution three years later, were to be disappointed. The US were not prepared to risk war over such an issue. But it did start a food aid programme, distributing over 5 million food parcels during July and August. Winston Churchill‘s response, at the time prime minister, was also muted. According to German historian, Hubertus Knabe, Churchill feared the resurgence of a united Germany so soon after the Second World War. While publicly supporting a united Germany, a divided one, he felt, was more secure. Churchill considered the regime’s response to the uprising as ‘restrained’.

Thus without the West’s intervention, pockets of resistance continued for a few weeks but the main thrust of the East German Uprising had been crushed within just 24 hours of starting.

And then started the reprisals – thousands arrested, perhaps up to 6,000, tortured and interned. Six ringleaders were executed. Walter Ulbricht took the opportunity of purging his party of seventy per cent of its members.

During the Cold War, the human face of socialism only went so far and today, six decades on, Germany still remembers the uprising of 1953.

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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Imre Nagy – a brief biography

Imre Nagy is remembered with great affection in today’s Hungary. Although a communist leader during its years of one-party rule, Nagy was the voice of liberalism and reform, advocating national communism, free from the shackles of the Soviet Union. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Nagy was arrested, tried in secret and executed. His rehabilitation and reburial in 1989 played a significant and symbolic role in ending communist rule in Hungary.

Imre Nagy plaqueImre Nagy was born 7 June 1896 in the town of Kaposvár in southern Hungary. He worked as a locksmith before joining the Austrian-Hungary army during the First World War. In 1915, he was captured and spent much of the war as a prisoner-of-war in Russia. He escaped and having converted to communism, joined the Red Army and fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917.


In 1918, Nagy returned to Hungary as a committed communist and served the short-lived Soviet Republic established by Bela Kun in Hungary. Following its collapse in August 1919, after only five months, Nagy, as with other former members of Kun’s regime, lived underground, liable to arrest. Eventually, in 1928, he fled to Austria and from there, in 1930, to the Soviet Union, where he spent the next fourteen years studying agriculture.

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The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift – a brief summary

24 June 1948 saw the start of the Berlin Blockade, which, as a direct consequence, led to the Berlin Airlift. But what were these two events that were so pivotal in the early post-war years of the Cold War?

Misery and want

“The seeds of totalitarian regimes,” said US president, Harry S. Truman, a year earlier in March 1947, “are nurtured by misery and want.” In other words, communism appealed to those suffering from hardship. Remove the hardship; you remove the appeal of communism.

Known as the Truman Doctrine, the President believed that communism had to be contained, and that America could not, as it did after the First World War, turn its back on Europe – isolationism was no longer an option. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which brought America into the war, was proof that physical distance was no longer a guarantee of safety. In the post-war era a stable Europe and the future of the ‘free world’ was a necessity.

The Marshall Plan

To alleviate the hardship, and to deprive communism its foothold, the US introduced the Marshall Plan, named after its originator, George C. Marshall, a huge package of economic aid offered to all nations of Europe. Sixteen nations of Western Europe accepted the offer, which by 1951 had amounted to $13 billion. Although offered also to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, Stalin was never going to allow American / capitalist interference with the Soviet economy, and nor would he permit his satellites. Continue reading

Cardinal Mindszenty – a brief biography

Hungarian cardinal, Joseph Mindszenty, came to symbolise the church’s opposition to tyranny and totalitarianism.

Born Joseph Pehm on 29 March 1892 in the Hungarian village of Csehi-Mindszent (the name which, in 1941, later Pehm adopted), Mindszenty was ordained a priest in 1915 at the age of 23. He spoke out against Hungary’s short-lived Soviet Republic and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned until its collapse in August 1919.

In March 1944, during the Second World War, he was consecrated as a bishop but later the same year was again imprisoned, this time by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross government, for protesting against Hungary’s treatment and oppression of its Jewish population.

I stand for God

Following the war, he was appointed Primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Esztergom, and in 1946 was made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII. But by now, the Hungarian communist party was looking to take over power, intimidating and silencing all opposition.

Mindszenty opposed the Hungarian communist regime of Matyas Rakosi and was known for his vocal criticism. The cardinal toured the country, urging people to resist the government’s plan to nationalise the church’s land and property and Hungary’s 4,813 Catholic schools. In a letter published written in November 1948 and broadcast on the Voice of America radio station, the cardinal said, ‘I stand for God, for the Church and for Hungary. . . . Compared with the sufferings of my people, my own fate is of no importance. I do not accuse my accusers. …I pray for those who, in the words of Our Lord, ‘know not what they do.’ I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.’

On 26 December 1948, Mindszenty was arrested. Stripped naked or dressed as a clown, Mindszenty was tortured, methods that included sleep deprivation, beatings, intense and incessant noise, and forced fed mind-altering drugs. Finally, after over forty days and nights of continuous torture, the cardinal signed his confession.

A blot upon the nation

Mindszenty appeared at his show trial washed, shaved and dressed up in a new suit. He was accused of over forty farcical wrongdoings, such as planning to steal the Hungarian crown jewels and, according to the prosecution, of inciting the ‘American imperialists to declare war on our country’. ‘I am guilty on principle and in detail of most of the accusations made,’ he said, but denied that he was trying to topple the government. The verdict, of course, was a foregone conclusion, and after the six-day trial, on 8 February 1949, Cardinal Mindszenty was found guilty of treason. Escaping the death sentence (the communists wanted to avoid having a dead martyr on their hands), he was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Four days later, the Pope excommunicated all those involved in the cardinal’s trial.

The verdict outraged the free world. Pius XII called the outcome a ‘serious outrage which inflicts a deep wound . . . on every upholder of the dignity and liberty of man.’ US president, Harry S Truman, said it was ‘one of the black spots on Hungary’s history and a blot upon the nation.’

The Cardinal is free

During the chaotic days of the Hungarian Revolution, 23 October to 4 November 1956, Hungary’s new leader, Imre Nagy, appointed by the Soviet politburo, sanctioned Mindszenty’s release, stating, ‘the measures depriving Cardinal Primate Joseph Mindszenty of his rights are invalid and that the Cardinal is free to exercise without restriction all his civil and ecclesiastical rights.’

Mindszenty lived under voluntary house arrest within Budapest’s US embassy and stayed there for fifteen years. When the communists, again worried lest he should die and attain national martyrdom, offered him safe passage to Austria, he refused. Finally, in 1971, on the urging of both Pope Paul VI and US president, Richard Nixon, Mindszenty left Hungary and moved briefly into the Vatican before settling in Vienna.

Cardinal Mindszenty died in Vienna on 6 May 1975, aged 83. He was buried in the city but, following the fall of communism in Hungary, was reinterred in the Hungarian town of Esztergom.

Rupert Colley

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Joseph McCarthy – a brief biography

Aggressive, intimidating, and unfazed by the truth, Joe McCarthy single-handedly whipped 1950s USA into a frenzy of anti-communist fear and paranoia.

It was near the beginning of the Cold War: the Soviet Union had surged ahead of America in the arms race, Chairman Mao had not long come to power in China, and Americans everywhere feared the presence of ‘Reds Under the Beds’ within their own communities. In stepped Joseph McCarthy to shock the nation with a sensational announcement that confirmed their worst fears.

McCarthy exposes the Reds

It was the evening of February 9, 1950, at a Republican Women’s Club meeting in West Virginia, when 41-year-old McCarthy declared that he had in his hand a list of 205 names of State Department employees known to be members of the American Communist Party. (A month later, McCarthy had reduced the figure to fifty-seven.)

These informants, said McCarthy, were passing on information to the Soviet Union: “The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer.”

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Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech – a summary

On 25 February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of party leaders in which he dismantled the legend of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin and, over four hours, criticized almost every aspect of Stalin’s method of rule. The speech entitled On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences would become known as simply Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’.

‘Why stir up the past?’

Joseph Stalin had died three years earlier, on 5 March 1953. In late 1955, Nikita Khrushchev had been mulling over the idea of ‘investigating Stalin’s activities’ for some months. It was a momentous prospect – Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for the best part of three decades; he had taken the nation to victory over the fascist Germans; and his legacy was still everywhere to be seen.

Stalin with Molotov and VoroshilovKhrushchev’s colleagues were aghast at his proposal, especially the ones who had served in senior positions under Stalin, men like Kliment Voroshilov and Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (both pictured here with Stalin). These were men with blood on their hands, who, under Stalin’s orders, had facilitated and organised the liquidation of tens or hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women. Not surprisingly they asked, ‘Why stir up the past?’

And Khrushchev himself was far from blameless, having been the regional boss in the Ukraine during the mid-1930s, a time of mass terror, liquidations and deportations. But, as Khrushchev pointed out, ‘if we don’t tell the truth at the Congress, we’ll be forced to tell the truth some time in the future. And then we won’t be the people making the speeches; no, then we’ll be the people under investigation.’

Khrushchev ordered a report on Stalin and his activities. The investigative team, headed by one Comrade Pospelov, spent months shifting through huge amounts of files and paperwork. Khrushchev knew what he wanted to say – that Vladimir Lenin, the first Bolshevik leader, had used terror but had employed it in an legitimate manner – against class enemies and to safeguard the progress of the October Revolution; whereas, as his successor, Joseph Stalin had misused his power, employing terror in an arbitrary and illegitimate manner. Pospelov’s report, when finally it came, provided him with the ammunition.

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Ping Pong Diplomacy – a summary

On 10 April 1971, the simple game of table tennis marked the beginning of a thaw in the diplomatic freeze that had existed between the US and China for over 20 years. The occasion became known as ping-pong diplomacy.

The US ping-pong team was in Nagoya, Japan, for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, and following a team practice 19-year-old Californian student, Glenn Cowan, missed the team bus. Zhuang Zedong, a Chinese player and three times world champion, on seeing Cowan’s plight, offered the American a seat on the Chinese team bus.

“The ping heard round the world”

Mao ZedongAlthough talking to a foreigner was deemed a crime in China, the two men, chatting through an interpreter, found a rapport. Zedong gave the American a silk gown by way of a present, and invited the American team to play a friendly championship in China. This seemingly innocuous invitation has to be seen in the context of the time – no American had stepped on Chinese soil since Chairman Mao (pictured) had come to power 22 years earlier in 1949. Time magazine called it “The ping heard round the world.”

By the time they had got off the bus the Chinese team and their American passenger were surrounded by press. Within hours, Zedong’s informal invitation had been endorsed by Mao and been made official.

Thus, on 10 April 1971 nine US players, four officials, two spouses and five US journalists crossed a bridge from Hong Kong onto Chinese soil,.

‘Friendship First Competition Second’

Under the slogan ‘Friendship First Competition Second’, the Chinese men’s team won 5-3, and the women’s team 5-4; the Chinese politely refraining from inflicting a white-wash on the Americans. Glen Cowan, with this American long hair and red hair band, was clearly the crowd’s favourite.

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