The End of the Cold War

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13465

The Soviet economy was never going to catch up to the US. But without a flawed new vision for the future, the USSR would likely have continued on just slowly deteriorating for decades to come.


United States, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


With the introduction of a new leader in 1985, the Soviet Union set out on a decidedly different path.

  • Mikhail Gorbachev sought to reform his what went wrong?

It was not until the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev as the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 that the country began to change. However, his goal was not to destroy the USSR; his goal was to save it.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, he did not want to see his country and the government system he believed in crumble.

  • So how did he attempt to change the country?
  • And how did it end up leading to the destruction of the Soviet Communist state?

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1986

Image [cropped] by The Official CTBTO Photostream, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

After he became premier of the Soviet Union, he set out on two initiatives to rejuvenate the nation for the coming 21st century.


reform sign

Glasnost was a policy of opening political discourse.

For decades, any criticism of the government could be punished. This did not serve to help Gorbachev because, if he sought to fix what was wrong with the country, he had to learn what was wrong with it.

Watch this 1987 news report on glasnost where Russian citizens are interviewed.

Glasnost's Impact on Freedom of Speech & Protest in the USSR - 10/12/1987 - ABC World News Tonight from Shatner Method:

  • Although this policy clearly did not grant freedom of speech, how different did the reporters say this was in comparison to before Gorbachev took office?



Perestroika represented Gorbachev's recognition that capitalism had made western nations very wealthy. While he did not plan on transitioning the nation to capitalism, this policy eased the planning of the government.

Traditionally in this communist society, the government planned every aspect of the economy. If an item became trendy or people needed more of some product, the government was the only force that determined if more of it would be made.

While this worked fine for decades, it did not bring the incredible growth seen in the west. Perestroika allowed people to begin profiting from goods they chose to sell.

While both of these policies were not very well designed, the idea of opening up both public opinion and the economy had very substantial effects.

  • How do you think these policies affected the Soviet Union?

  • Do you think Gorbachev believed his policies would work because he was out of touch with the common Russian people?

We will consider this question more in the Got It? section!

Weapons Reduction

As Gorbachev worked to identify how to best fix the Soviet Union, he came to believe self-defense was the most important subject on the minds of the common man in the country.

Watch Gorbachev himself in 2019 describe his encounter with common Russians in a portion of The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev full interview - BBC News from BBC News:

After determining this was the most important issue for Russians, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

It is traditionally thought that the US drove the USSR to bankruptcy by outspending them militarily. This competition is considered to be the major factor in crippling the Soviet economy. To this end, Gorbachev's goal to get rid of all nuclear weapons and eliminate much of the arms race would have freed the budget up for domestic issues.

Sadly, however, the negotiations only resulted in the elimination of intermediate range ballistic missiles.

The Berlin Wall

After all these reforms, Gorbachev thought that the communist state could survive. However, after less than five years of his leadership, the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

By 1989, the Soviet Union was losing a grip on its interests. The beginning of the end of Soviet control occurred in East Berlin, when the Berlin Wall came down.

Watch The fall of the Berlin Wall, from The Guardian, to see what it was like for the East Berliners who crossed over for the first time in their lives:

This revolution fever spread across the whole of eastern Europe.

For a summary on the collection of events that occurred all over Europe at the time, watch End of Communism: How 1989 Changed Europe from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

As we move onto the Got It? section, think about how all these changes could have happened so quickly.

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.