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The Cold War lasted from 1945 through the early 1990s. Very few areas of the globe were unaffected. The two superpowers that emerged after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, not only vied for global domination, but also tried to pull the rest of the world into their standoff. Every time a government in any country across the globe changed hands, the Americans and Soviets evaluated it based on its leanings toward one side or the other, and in many cases actually tried to militarily influence the position it would take. All of this took place in the context of an arms race between the two superpowers in which nuclear arsenals became so massive that global holocaust became possible at the touch of a button.

In 1945, no one would have predicted how polarized the world would become during the Cold War, or even that a cold war would develop in the first place.

Power Grab: Soviets and Americans Want Everyone to Take Sides

After Germany was defeated, the U.S.-Soviet struggle immediately influenced the chain of events. The biggest conflict was over future security. Both superpowers wanted arrangements in Europe that made it more likely for their worldview to dominate. The U.S. promoted capitalism and variations on democracy. The Soviet Union promoted communism, which, as practiced by the Soviets at the time, also meant totalitarianism. A good chunk of Western Europe was solidly in the American camp, but the bigger question was Germany and parts of Eastern Europe.

According to plans drawn up by the Allies during conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, in February and July 1945 respectively, Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe were divided into temporary “spheres of influence,” each to be occupied and rebuilt by respective members of the Allied forces. Germany was divided into four regions, each under the influence of one of four Allies: France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Determined to protect its borders and ideology, the Soviet Union demanded that its neighboring states, places like Poland,Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, be under its influence as well. The United States wanted those nations to have free elections. The Soviet Union refused and simply set up puppet states in those countries. This was the first hint of the beginning of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, in Germany in 1948, the French, British, and American regions merged into one, forming a democratic West Germany, while the Soviet Union’s region became East Germany. The capital, Berlin, was on the eastern side, and within that city, an eastern and western zone were created. The Soviets wanted all of Berlin to be within its control, so they cut off land access to Berlin from the west, an action known as the Berlin Blockade. The West retaliated by flying in food and fuel to the “trapped” western half of the city, an action known as the Berlin Airlift. Eventually, the Soviets relented and Berlin was divided in half. In 1961, the Soviets built a wall between the two halves, preventing East Berliners access to the West until the wall fell in 1989 (more on that later).

East versus West: Let’s Point Our Weapons at Each Other

By the late 1940s, Europe was clearly divided into East and West, each under the influence of their respective superpowers.

East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary became part of the Eastern bloc, also called the Soviet bloc or Soviet satellites. Yugoslavia was communist as well, but established its own path, having testy relations with Moscow. Western Europe, including Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, West Germany, and eventually Greece and Turkey, became part of the Western bloc.

Under the Truman Doctrine of 1947, the United States explicitly stated that it would aid countries threatened by communist takeovers. This policy is known as containment, as in “containing” your enemy. To this end, the Western bloc formed a military alliance of mutual defense calledNATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). In response, the Eastern bloc formed a military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact. For more than 40 years, the two alliances loaded their borders with weapons, first conventional, then nuclear, and dared the other to strike first. Churchill called the line between East and West the Iron Curtain because Western influence couldn’t penetrate it and Easterners were rarely allowed to go to the Western bloc.

As for the rest of the world, the two superpowers quickly tried to influence developments to tip the balance of world power in their favor. Some countries allied with one side or the other (more on this later), but other countries, such as India, refused to take sides and sometimes accepted investment from both, a policy known as nonalignment.

Focus on: Nuclear Proliferation

Ever improving weapons technology was the force behind political strength in the twentieth century. This was true from the devastated battlefields of World War I to the hot spots and standoffs of the Cold War. Beginning with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, the Eastern and Western superpowers raced to develop superior weapons and defensive technologies. Despite attempts to limit nuclear technology to just five powers (China, Russia, U.S.A., Great Britain, and France) through the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1968) and the watchdogInternational Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA (1957), weapons development continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Israel, India, and Pakistan chose not to participate in the treaty and now each has some nuclear weapons capacity. North Korea has continued to develop nuclear material in violation of treaty terms and both Iraq and Iran have attempted to build uranium enrichment programs. Only South Africa has voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons program.

The Cold War affected different countries in different ways. On the next several pages, you’ll review how it impacted China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Europe.

China: Communists Make Huge Gains

China changed a lot after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. Under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, who led the Chinese Revolution of 1911, China became more Westernized in an effort to gain power and boot out the Europeans and Japanese, who had established spheres of influence in the country. Sun Yat-sen promoted his Three Principles of the People—nationalism, socialism, and democracy. It was hoped that nationalism would unite the people against foreign interests and give them a Chinese identity; socialism would lead to greater economic equality, especially land redistribution; and democracy would lead to the ability of the Chinese people to chart their own future. Although he advocated for a democratic system, Sun Yat-sen established a political party, the Kuomindang (or KMT), which was dedicated to his own goals.

Sun Yat-sen didn’t live long enough to see his plans implemented. His successor, however, Chiang Kai-shek, established the KMT as the ruling party of China, but only for a while. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, two forces wreaked havoc on Chiang’s plans. The Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria and made an effort to take over all of China in the late 1930s. Meanwhile, the communists, allied with the Soviet Union, were building strength in northern China. The communists joined the KMT in its fight against the Japanese, but at the same time were bitter rivals of the Kuomindang in the struggle to control the future of China.

During World War II, the United States pumped money into the KMT’s efforts against Japan, while the Soviets weren’t as active in their support for the communists’ efforts against Japan, partly because they were focused on Germany. As you know, Japan was defeated. As in Europe, after the war, the powers of democracy and communism clashed, and the KMT and communists continued to fight the Chinese Civil War for the next four years.

By 1949, the communists under Mao Zedong had rallied millions of peasants in northern China and swept southward toward the Kuomindang strongholds, driving the Kuomindang farther and farther south until they finally fled to the island of Taiwan, where they established the Republic of China. The impact for mainland China was enormous. It became the People’s Republic of China, the largest communist nation in the world under the leadership of Mao Zedong. The two Chinas have been separate ever since, and both claim to be the “real” China. Taiwan eventually developed into an economic powerhouse, but it lost its credibility as the true China when the United Nations and eventually the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China as China in 1973. Taiwan has rejected China’s efforts toward reunification, but nevertheless the two nations have grown close together, especially as the economies of both nations have grown stronger and stronger.

Mao Zedong: His Own Way

After the success of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, its leader, Mao Zedong, collectivized agriculture and industry, and instituted sweeping social reform using policies that were not unlike Stalin’s five-year plans. Most of these plans were relatively successful, and China greatly increased its productivity, especially in the steel industry. By the late 1950s, Mao implemented his Great Leap Forward, in which huge communes were created as a way of catapulting the revolution toward its goal of a true Marxist state. In reality however, the local governments that ran the communes couldn’t produce the ridiculously high agricultural quotas demanded by the central government. So they did what any fearful local government would—they lied about their production, leading to the starvation deaths of nearly 30 million Chinese people. By all accounts, it was more like a Great Stumble Backward. The successes of Mao’s initiatives in the early 1950s were erased, and agriculture and industry failed to produce results. Part of the problem was that the Soviet Union, up until that time the only foreign supporter of China, pulled away and eventually withdrew its support. The Soviet Union not only wanted the world to become communist, but it wanted the world to be communist under its control. China wasn’t following orders, so Soviet support for China cooled. The Sino-Soviet split left China on its own with its communal system in disarray.

Mao stepped back to focus on building the military—something that was essential if the country couldn’t rely on Soviet support—while more moderate reformers tried to turn the country around. The progress was quick and substantial; elements of capitalism were introduced into the economy and, in 1964, China tested its first atomic bomb, adding to the global arms race that was quickly building around the world. Mao was unimpressed, however. A purist, Mao was upset that the country was straying from its communist path, and so, in 1966, he jumped back to the forefront of his government and promoted his most significant domestic policy, the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s goal in the Cultural Revolution was to discourage anything approaching a privileged ruling class, as it existed in the West as well as among the Soviet communist elite. To accomplish this, Mao instituted reforms meant to erase all traces of a Western-influenced intelligentsia. Many universities were shut down for four years. The students and faculty, along with other “elites” including doctors, lawyers, and classically trained musicians, were sent to work on collective farms for “cultural retraining.” In addition, many political dissidents were either imprisoned or killed. When the universities were reopened, the curriculum was reorganized to include only communist studies and vocational training. During this time, Mao’s Little Red Book, a collection of his teachings on communism, became a popular symbol of the forced egalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution.

The whole plan failed miserably in advancing China economically or socially. By the early 1970s, China realized it needed to open itself up to Western ideas. In 1976, the new leadership under Deng Xiaoping quickly changed the education policy and began to focus on restructuring the economic policies.

Note the Change: Dynastic China to Communist China

For more than 2,000 years, Confucianism and a class structure dominated China. With the Communist Revolution, however, all traces of a class-based system were nearly erased. Traditional Chinese society valued large families, both because children were able to help on the farm and because Confucian philosophy gave identity to people based on their relationships—the parent/child relationship was one of the most important. When the communists took over, however, their program of collectivization made family farms obsolete. In addition, communists were not sympathetic to traditional values based on religious or philosophical beliefs that competed with the authority of the state. As the population of China continued to grow dramatically through the late twentieth century, the communists took a practical approach to the overpopulation problem and began a propaganda campaign aimed at the use of contraception and abortion. By the late 1980s, faced with ever-increasing population figures, the Chinese government instituted a one-child-per-family policy. Reactions to the policy were severe. Many refused to abide by the policy in the first place. Others followed the law, but some of them killed their firstborn female infants in the hope of getting a male child the second time around. Opposition became more widespread and the government relaxed its policy.

   The equality demanded in a classless society resulted in considerable advances for women. Husbands and wives were treated equally, at least as far as the law was concerned. Women gained the right to divorce their husbands. They obtained property rights. They received equal pay for equal work and were encouraged to pursue professional and vocational careers.

China Looks West: Likes the Money, Not So Sure About the Freedom

More recently, China’s economy has been transformed from a strict communist command economy to one that includes elements of free-market capitalism. Deng Xiaoping’s government entered into joint ventures with foreign companies in which the profits and business decisions were shared. In addition, Deng allowed for limited business and property ownership to stimulate hard work and innovation. The reforms have been wildly successful. China’s economy is expanding faster than most of the economies of the world and reforms continue to be introduced slowly, which gives the economy time to adjust to the changes. However, despite the economic reforms, the government continues to remain strictly communist in the political sense, and has frequently resisted government and social reforms. In 1989, one million demonstrators converged on Tiananmen Square, calling for democratic reform. In an event known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the government sent troops and opened fire. Hundreds were killed. Today, while China continues to reform its economy and is rapidly becoming a major economic powerhouse, the possibility for democratic reforms is still unknown.

Division of Korea: The Cold War Turns Hot and Now Possibly Nuclear

Prior to World War II, Korea was invaded by Japan and annexed as part of the expanding Japanese Empire. After Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea was supposed to be re-established as an independent nation, but until stability could be achieved and elections held, it was occupied by the Soviet Union and the United States in two separate pieces—the Soviet Union north of the 38th parallel and the United States south of it. This was very much like the way that Germany was split, and, just like in Germany, the two superpowers couldn’t agree on the terms of a unitedKorea.

In 1948, two separate governments were established—a Soviet-backed communist regime in North Korea and a U.S.-backed democracy in South Korea. Both superpowers withdrew their troops in 1949, but in 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea in an attempt to unite the two nations under a single communist government. The United Nations condemned the action and soon a multinational force, largely consisting of U.S. and British troops, went to the aid of the South Koreans. The UN forces made tremendous headway under General MacArthur, nearly reaching the Chinese border, but when it looked as if the North Koreans would be defeated, China entered the war on behalf of the communist North. The two sides battled it out along the 38th parallel, eventually leading to an armistice in 1953.

Today, the two nations remain separate and true to the political philosophies under which they were formed 50 years ago. The United States maintains a large military presence in South Korea, which has become an economic powerhouse. North Korea, meanwhile, has suffered through isolationist and just plain nutty rulers and massive food shortages, but has built up a huge military and acquired the technology to develop a nuclear bomb. It has already developed missiles capable of delivering those bombs to South Korea, Japan, China, or possibly even as far as the west coast of the United States. In October 2006, North Korea declared its first nuclear weapons test a success. Western scientists doubted their claims of success, but did confirm that some type of test had taken place. In response, the United Nations imposed additional, but largely symbolic, sanctions on North Korean imports (though China and Russia disagreed with the policy). Six Party Talks (including the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan) resumed, for the fifth time, and concluded with the agreement that North Korea was to shut down its reactor in July 2007 in return for extensive fuel aid. As of 2009, North Korea pulled out of the Six Party Talks for good, and has continued its nuclear enrichment program. The failure of the international community to reach a resolution on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s has created a modern-day crisis of nuclear proportions. The secretive nature of the North Korean regime has made it harder for international observers to gauge the communist nation’s intentions, and after the death of Kim Jong-il and ascension of his son, Kim Jong-un, in December 2011, it remains to be seen what direction North Korea will take under its new leadership.

Vietnam: The Cold War Turns Ugly

After World War II, the French tried to hold on to their colony of Indochina, but nationalists known as the Vietminh fought them back. By 1954, the Vietminh’s guerilla warfare techniques succeeded in frustrating the French, and an accord was signed in Geneva dividing the nation—you guessed it—into two pieces. The communists, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, gained control of the land north of the 17th parallel while Ngo Dihn Diem became the president of the democratic south. Under its new constitution, North Vietnam supported reunification of Vietnam as a communist state. Ho Chi Minh supported communist guerrillas in the south, and soon war broke out. France and the United States came to the aid of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh prevented them from taking over the north, but not before years of fighting led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. As United States forces finally withdrew in 1975, North Vietnamese Army and communist Viet Cong fighters took control throughout South Vietnam. A peace agreement eventually led to the reunification of Vietnam as a communist state under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The long-range impact was significant for the region, the world, and the United States. The world witnessed the defeat of a superpower by a small but determined nation. Communism took a major step forward in the region. And for the United States, the defeat affected foreign policy for decades, as the American public remained fearful of involving itself in “another Vietnam.”

Contrast Them: High-Tech Warfare and Guerilla Warfare

High-tech warfare, such as fighter jets, missiles, and tanks, are not only sophisticated and effective, but also costly and logistically complicated. Generally, nations that have mastered high-tech warfare, like the United States, take months to position their weaponry and put together a war plan. Once implemented, high-tech warfare can be devastatingly efficient. Guerilla warfare, on the other hand, is behind the scenes, stealthy, and much lower tech. Individuals or small groups fight site-to-site, disrupting their enemies’ supply chains, or targeting seemingly random sites with small bombs and munitions. Each individual attack is generally less deadly, but since the attacks are flexible, random, and hard to predict, they can be very effective against a cumbersome, less flexible, high-tech opponent.

The Cuban Revolution: Communism on the American Doorstep

After Cuba won its independence from Spain during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States remained involved in Cuban affairs under the terms of the Platt Amendment, which also provided for the presence of U.S. military bases. During the following decades, the Americans invested heavily in Cuban businesses and plantations, but those investments generally only made the wealthy very rich with little or no benefit for the masses of peasants. From 1939 to 1959, the United States supported theBatista Dictatorship in Cuba, which continued the policies that benefited the wealthy landowners. In 1956, the peasants began a revolt under the leadership of Fidel Castro. Even the United States eventually withdrew its support of Fulgencio Batista. Using guerilla warfare techniques, the revolutionaries made tremendous advances, and by 1959, Batista fled. The Cuban Revolution was hailed as a great success against a dictator.

But then, Castro, the great promoter of democracy, took control of the government, suspended plans for an election, and established a communist dictatorship. By 1961, he had seized the industries and nationalized them, and executed his rivals. The United States, concerned about the communist dictatorship on its borders, freaked, especially when Castro established strong ties with the Soviet Union after the United States imposed an economic embargo on Cuba. In an attempt to overthrow Castro, the United States trained and supported a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles living in the United States. The U.S. was convinced that an invasion by these exiles would lead to a popular revolt against Castro. But it didn’t work out that way. In 1961, President Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs Invasion, not with the full force of the mighty U.S. military, but with the small force of Cuban exiles, who were quickly captured after they landed, their revolt over before it began.

After the Bay of Pigs debacle, Cuba and the Soviet Union realized the United States might try something bigger next time around, so they mobilized. In 1962, U.S. spy planes detected the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and Kennedy immediately established a naval blockade around the island, refusing to allow any more shipments from the Soviet Union. Kennedy made it clear to the world that if missiles were launched from Cuba, the United States would retaliate against the Soviet Union itself. The standoff became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For three months the world waited to see who would back down, and on October 28, the Soviets said that they would remove the missiles in exchange for a promise from the Americans that they would not invade Cuba. The Americans agreed to the settlement. This was the closest brush the world has had with full-out nuclear war.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the Cubans lost their main financial backer. This was a huge loss because it amounted to billions of dollars of aid. Still, Castro managed to hang on to his power, but economic conditions in Cuba deteriorated sharply after the fall of communism in Europe. From 2006 to 2011, Fidel Castro transferred his powers and responsibilities to his younger brother, Raúl, in stages, handing over first the presidency and then his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, which he had held since 1965. The elder Castro stepped down due to illness but has periodically resurfaced in videos demonstrating his continued presence as a political force in his brother’s regime.

Conflicts with “Good Neighbors:” Cold War Tensions and Democratization in Latin America

Despite independence movements, democratic elections, and developing economies, the United States maintained a heavy hand in Latin America whenever possible (remember the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine?). But some of this was also the product of Cold War tensions. Marxism’s anti-capitalist message had great appeal in less-developed countries and increased as U.S. investment in copper-mining and oil-drilling in the region intensified in the 1920s. Radical political parties developed in Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, and much of Central America as complaints about imperial policies of the “Good Neighbor” to the north increased. As the U.S. confronted two world wars and the Great Depression, however, and Latin America became less of a priority, the region’s nations took the opportunity to explore alternative paths to economic development. These took various forms: the stability of single-party rule (Mexico’s PRI), the brutality of militaristic leaders (Argentina’s Juan Peron) or the development of socialist democracies (Nicaragua and Guatemala). It was the latter that garnered the most attention from the United States—still in the midst of an ideological war with the Soviet Union—resulting in U.S.-backed coups, the use of Nicaragua as a staging ground for the Bays of Pigs invasion, and the targeting of the Sandinista guerillas in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1980s.

Perhaps the biggest issues Latin America continues to face are their export economies. Reliance on products such as coffee, fruit, sugar, and oil has resulted in weak domestic economies and tremendous debt. So while there is a long history of democracy throughout the region, the lag in economic development, increasing debt payments from loans dating back to 1970s and 1980s, and out-migration continue to challenge the region. However, in the first years of the twenty-first century, there has been tremendous growth throughout Latin America. Some is based on rising oil prices, but much can also be attributed to the development of new industries and trade agreements, both within Latin America and with the U.S. and Canada. Both Chile and Brazil are among the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Democracy has also taken interesting turns in Mexico and Venezuela in the last decade. The year 2000 was the first time a true multi-party election was held in Mexico since the formation of the state under the 1917 Constitution. The opposition, PAN orNational Action Party candidate won the presidency. Mexico has since had a second national election with an opposition slate and again, the PAN candidate won! Venezuela, on the other hand, has amended its constitution to allow its Socialist president Hugo Chavez a third term as the country has nationalized a number of industries including telephone and steel.

Europe: The Cold War Finally Ends

During the Cold War, the standard of living in Western Europe improved dramatically, despite economic swings. In Eastern Europe, behind the iron curtain, the massive state-run industries couldn’t keep up with the innovations in the West. A growing divide between the “rich” West and the “poor” East was becoming obvious, and as it became obvious to the people who lived within the Eastern bloc, they began to revolt.

The revolt was as much about democracy and self-determination as it was about the economy. The Soviet Union was a huge patchwork of many different nationalities, many of which wanted to control their own destinies. What’s more, an increasing number of people in the Eastern bloc countries that were controlled by the Soviet Union, such as Poland, were also itching for democratic and economic reform. By the 1980s, groups of reform-minded individuals began scratching that itch.

Poland: Solidarity Grows in Popularity

The decline of communism brought sweeping reform to Poland and its government, which had been trying for years to prevent the spread of anticommunist sentiment. In 1980, more than a decade before the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, a group of workers began the Solidaritymovement under the leadership of Lech Walesa. Thousands of workers joined a strike for reform of the communist economic system. The government reacted by imposing martial law and arresting Lech Walesa, as well as other Solidarity leaders. Throughout the early- and mid-1980s, the government tried to suppress Solidarity. But in 1988, the reform-minded Rakowski became the Premier of Poland. Solidarity was legalized and in 1989, a member of Solidarity, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became Prime Minister in the first open elections since the end of World War II. In 1990, the Communist Party fell apart in Poland, just as it was falling apart throughout Eastern Europe, and Lech Walesa was elected president. During the 1990s, the economy improved swiftly as Poland introduced market-based reforms and a new democratic constitution. Poland formally completed its integration into the West by joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. Quite a change.

German Reunification: All This, Just to Be Back Where It Started

The decline of communism in the Soviet bloc directly led to the reunification of Germany as a free market democracy. East Germany cut ties with the Soviet Union and began negotiations with West Germany. Many Western nations feared that a united Germany would lead once again to a nationalistic regime, but the prospect for peace, economic and political reform, and an improved standard of living for the people of East Germany outweighed the concerns. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, signaling the fall of East Germany, a mass exodus of East Germans fled to the West. Businesses in East Germany continued to struggle because their outdated corporate structures, equipment, and machinery could not compete with the more efficient businesses in the western half of the nation. Unemployment was high in both halves of the newly united nation. Yet, the government did not abandon its ambitious reconstruction program aimed at the modernization of the former East Germany and the establishment of nationwide communication and transportation lines. Germany has therefore continued to press forward and has since emerged as a leading economy in Europe.

Just in case you haven’t been keeping track, in the last 90 years Germany went from being crushed in World War I, to being built up under fascist Nazis, to being crushed in World War II, to being occupied by four former enemies, to being divided in two, to being at the epicenter of the Cold War, to being reunified as a modern, capitalist-leaning, democratic nation. That’s some pretty extreme historical whiplash!

The Soviet Union Collapses: Glasnost, Perestroika, Kaput

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he instituted policies of glasnost (openness) and urged a perestroika (restructuring) of the Soviet economy. He may not have realized it at the time, but he set in motion a tidal wave of change that he wouldn’t be able to reverse. Legislation was passed to add elements of private enterprise to the economy. Nuclear arms treaties were signed with the United States. Gorbachev publicly and officially denounced the Great Purge, a huge deal because it showed that the Soviet Union was re-evaluating itself. The list of reforms and changes goes on and on, but the bottom line is that within six years, Poland and other former Soviet satellites declared their separation from the USSR. The Soviet Union itself disintegrated in 1991. Russia became its own country again, while the other parts of the old Soviet Empire, such as the Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, became independent nations.

Some observers were shocked by the degree to which so many different nationalities within the former Soviet Union wanted to form their own countries, and further shocked that most of the shifts in power happened relatively peacefully. But there were exceptions. In the same region that sparked World War I 80 years prior—the Balkans—nationalistic movements within the former Yugoslavia led to “ethnic cleansing” in which Bosnian and Albanian Muslims were raped and slaughtered by Christian Serbians in what was simply the latest horrific chapter in a centuries-long regional and ethnic conflict. The violence eventually led to the involvement of UN troops during much of the 1990s. Even in Russia itself, nationalists in different regions, especially in Muslim-dominated Chechnya, want to break away, and have used guerilla warfare and terrorist methods to advance their cause.

During the 1990s, most of the new countries in the former Soviet bloc, especially those in Eastern Europe, created constitutional democracies with economic systems based on variations of capitalism. While the reform movements have been faster in some countries than in others, and while believers in communism make themselves heard and the transition from state-owned industries to privately owned industries has caused high unemployment and corruption in many countries, democracy seems to be taking a foothold in the region. Though much is uncertain about the future of the former Soviet bloc, a few things can be said for sure: by the end of 1991, the Cold War was over, the Warsaw Pact had disbanded, and the United States found itself as the world’s only superpower.

Democracy and Authoritarian Rule in Russia (yes, it’s Russia again!)

The new (old) country of Russia was (re)formed under a 1993 Constitution. Although, it had lost its Soviet satellite countries, this new Russian Federation was formidable in size, plentiful in natural resources, and full of corrupt Soviet bureaucrats looking to get rich under the new rules. On paper, the new Russia looks very much like a perfect Federal state with three branches, checks and balances and an independent court. But in reality, Russia’s abrupt introduction to both democracy and capitalism resulted in a ten-year period of corruption, high-unemployment, deep poverty, wide-spread crime and a nostalgia for Soviet-style control and discipline. The challenge for Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, was to reform the structures of both state and society. This is an enormous task, requiring completely new systems of government and trade.

Yeltsin actually resigned in 1999 and for the next eight years, former K.G.B. agent Vladimir Putin, headed the Russian state. He was elected president twice, in 2000 and 2004, and was appointed Prime Minister in 2008 by the newly elected president Dmitry Medvedev. This new style of Russian democracy has been marked by corruption and an authoritarian strengthening of the executive branch, limits on opposition candidates, and a crackdown on a free press. In a move that alarmed international observers, Putin announced in 2011 that he would run for a third presidential term in 2012, stretching his leadership to 16 years (and perhaps beyond?). Despite some protests in Russia, Putin defeated several challengers in March 2012 to return to the presidency. Russia’s twenty-first-century economic growth has been considerable, helped by the rising price of oil (sold at great profit to western Europe), but old habits die hard and conflicts with the U.S. continue over plans for expansion of NATO, the placement of missiles in eastern Europe, and the sale of technology to Iran.

Contrast Them: “West” and “East”

During the Cold War, the two terms were frequently used to describe much of the world, especially the northern hemisphere. The “West,” led by the United States, was generally democratic, generally capitalist, and generally prosperous. The “East,” led by the Soviet Union, was communist, generally totalitarian, and generally substantially less prosperous in terms of per capita standard of living. Japan, incidentally, was part of the “West,” because after World War II it developed along pro-Western, capitalist, generally pro-democracy lines. After the fall of communism in most of the world in the early 1990s, the terms began to lose their relevance. A bipolar description no longer seemed to fit the complexities. The West grew dramatically, but should Russia be considered part of the “West”? Clearly, most of its former satellites wanted to be considered as such. What’s more, China, still communist, is transforming its economy and possibly irrevocably opening up its doors to the world, a movement called “Westernizing” but so far not leading to democratic reforms. As for the “East,” nobody’s sure what that refers to any more. Today, a new, perhaps overly general division between the “Western World” and the “Islamic World” is being used to describe world relations.

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