For decades, the Berlin Wall, built to keep East Germans from escaping to the West, was a major symbol of the oppressive “Iron Curtain” that kept billions of people in bondage. The Soviet Union, where Communism had begun 70-plus years ago, was locked in a “Cold War” with the world's other superpower, the United States. The Wall marked the edge of Communist-controlled territory, with missiles lined up on both sides, aimed at each other.
Actually, however, the “mighty” Soviet regime was barely hanging on. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken power in 1985, had instituted some desperately needed changes, but he was reluctant to go too far for the hardliners in his party. U.S. President Reagan insisted that halfway was not enough. “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, open this gate,” he urged in a 1987 speech at Berlin. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Amazingly, just three years later, not only had the Berlin Wall been opened, but Communism had fallen in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Hungary. Parts of the Soviet Union had broken away, too. The next year, East and West Germany were reunited. Gorbachev's new policies certainly helped bring these events about, but the speed at which things were happening made him a little uncomfortable.
However, the situation turned out to be way beyond Gorbachev's control. Or anyone else's, for that matter. In 1991, Communist hardliners attempted an armed takeover of the Russian government, placing Gorbachev and others under house arrest and cutting all their communications. Tanks rolled into Moscow; the KGB (the Russian secret police) was placed on high alert; and Moscow's infamous prison was emptied as preparations were made for the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people. But soon things turned sour for the plotters: Boris Yeltsin, Russia's president, barely escaping arrest, established his headquarters in the "White House," the center of Russian government. Massive protests against the coup erupted in Red Square, and Yeltsin demanded Gorbachev's release. When soldiers were ordered to attack demonstrators, they joined them instead. Next thing the coup plotters knew, they were the ones under arrest!
Meanwhile, President George Bush, who had succeeded Reagan, anxiously awaited the outcome. After days of waiting, he finally received a call from Gorbachev. “There is a God!” the Soviet leader exclaimed. “I've been four days in a fortress. You can't believe what it was like here; I was completely blocked.”
Instead of saving Communism, the coup plotters had delivered the final blow against it. The Soviet Union collapsed virtually overnight as first the smaller republics, then Russia itself, left the Union. The regime that had lasted 75 years and killed hundreds of millions was gone.