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In this lesson, you will learn about the satellite nations of the Cold War. Explore how they became satellites, how the Soviet Unions kept its control over them during the Cold War, and how they eventually regained independence.


When you think of a satellite, you might think about the structure that beams down signals from space to help you get all the TV channels you want.

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Satellites are launched into orbit over Earth, and held in place by the earth’s gravity. So, how can a nation be like a satellite? When we talk about a satellite nation, we are talking about a nation that is aligned with and under the influence of another nation. It is caught in the orbit of the other country, just like a satellite is caught in the orbit of a planet.The term satellite nation was first used to describe certain nations in the Cold War. These were nations that were aligned with, but also under the influence and pressure of, the Soviet Union. The satellite nations of the Cold War were Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany.

Countries in the West (like the U.S.) began using the term ‘satellite nation’ to describe these countries, because they were held in the orbit by the gravitational pull of the Soviet Union.

The Road to Satellite Nation

So, how did these countries come to be satellites of the Soviet Union? Many of them had long historical relations with Russia due to their geographical proximity and were established well before World War II. Worried about aggressive German expansion, many Eastern European countries looked to their bigger neighbor, the Soviet Union, to protect them.It wasn’t until WWII that the satellites drew closer to the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany swept through Eastern Europe, conquering every country in their path before trying to defeat the Soviet Union. At the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to stop the Germans, eventually pushing them all the way back to Berlin.

Soviet forces liberated Eastern Europe along the way, and kept troops stationed in these countries. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union controlled most of Eastern Europe.At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the leaders of the United States, England, and the USSR discussed what the post-war world should look like. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, argued that the Soviet Union should take the lead in rebuilding and assisting Eastern European countries like Poland.

He promised to honor free elections and to let these countries determine their own futures. In reality, though, Stalin intended to maintain control over the Eastern European countries to create a kind of protective zone against future invasions from the west.The Allies agreed to Stalin’s plan, unaware of his true intentions. With Soviet troops still occupying these Eastern European countries, Moscow sent in agents with instructions to rig elections to ensure that pro-Soviet communist governments won. These countries would look independent, but would be totally tied to the Soviet Union.

Satellite Nations During the Cold War

Very soon after WWII, it became clear that the communist Soviet Union and capitalist United States would clash.

Each side wanted to show strength and power. It became more important for the Soviet Union to keep its satellite nations under its control, so it created three organizations to bind the satellites together politically, economically, and militarily.In 1947, the Soviet Union organized Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau. Cominform enforced ideological and political conformity under the direction of Moscow. As Europe struggled toward economic recovery after the war, the United States initiated the Marshall Plan, which promised aid to any country that applied for help.

Worried that some Eastern European countries might look to the U.S. for help, the Soviet Union responded by creating Comecon in 1949. Comecon promised economic aid to its members and kept the economies of the satellites tied to the command economy of the Soviet Union.In that same year, the West introduced a military alliance called NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

NATO was essentially an agreement that the U.S. would defend the Western European countries militarily. Naturally, the Soviet Union was threatened, and it responded. In 1955, the Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Warsaw Pact.

Like NATO, the Pact pledged each nation to defend the others in the alliance. However, the Soviet Union also used the pact to keep control over its satellites. For example, in 1956, Hungary rebelled against the USSR and attempted to leave the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union used the Pact to justify a full scale invasion to crush the rebellion and keep Hungary under its control.

Through the Cominform, Comecon, and Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union kept its satellites in orbit through the Cold War.

The End of Satellites

The satellite countries remained tied to the Soviet Union through most of the Cold War. For a long time, the communist way of life;with free health care and jobs for everyone;seemed great, even if Soviet-trained secret police stalked the streets. However, by the late 1980s, the Soviet economy could not support itself, let alone its many satellite nations.

Many of the satellites had accrued huge debts, and the people in these countries hoped for more freedoms. By 1989, the stage was set for a wave of revolutions. Starting in Poland, then Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the satellites held strikes, demonstrations, and elections that finally kicked out their communist leaders.Unlike years past, the Soviet Union no longer tried to intervene and stop the rebellion. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, could see that his country was too weak, and he allowed the satellites to regain their independence and choose their own destinies. In just a couple of years, the remaining satellites would emancipate, and the Soviet Union would fall. However, some of these countries still retain strong ties with Russia.

Ukraine, for example, is still debating whether to forge a more independent Western identity or retain its loyalty and alliance with Russia.

Lesson Summary

Satellite nations are those Eastern European nations that were allied with and under the control of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The satellites had long historical relations with Russia but forged their alliance with the Soviet Union during and after WWII. The Soviet Union occupied these countries after liberating them from the Nazis and ensured that communist governments loyal to the Soviets came to power in each of them. After the war, the Soviet Union created three organizations to bind the satellites to its will as a counterbalance against the U.

S. For ideological conformity there was the Cominform, for economics there was the Comecon, and for military alliance there was the Warsaw Pact. These organizations kept the satellite nations tied to the Soviet Union through the Cold War until 1989, when the satellites revolted, and a weak Soviet Union decided not to interfere.

Learning Outcomes

After viewing the lesson, you should make a goal to:

  • Explain what is meant by ‘satellite nation’
  • Describe how countries became satellites of the Soviet Union
  • Consider the impact of satellite nations
  • Acknowledge the events that led to the end of satellite nations

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