The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Space Photography Shines a Light on Berlin.

I’ve been following International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter for quite a while now – I enjoy his insights into daily life aboard the ISS and particularly enjoy the photographs he regularly posts. Last week he posted the following photograph of Berlin at night, which generated widespread media interest:

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Chris Hadfield’s recent photograph of Berlin by night, posted to his Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield, clearly highlights the former east-west divide across the city!

Commander Hadfield’s photograph, taken from the ISS, 200 miles above the earth, illustrates that even more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the East-West Berlin divide is still clearly visible from space!

The divide is caused by different methods of streetlighting, a hangover from the Cold War division of the city, with the fluorescent lamps of western Berlin causing a brighter, whiter glow and the sodium-vapour lamps in the eastern part giving off a softer, yellowish hue. Hadfield’s photograph was widely circulated on Twitter, and featured in mainstream media including the Guardian, Telegraph and Spiegel Online, Speaking to The Guardian Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of Berlin’s city government commented that ‘although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city’. City authorities have since confirmed that they plan to replace the old sodium lights with electric lamps as part of a gradual drive to reduce energy consumption.

April 26, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

BASEES ICCEES 2013

Last weekend (6th-7th April) I attended the 2013 BASEES/ICCEES European Congress held at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Unfortunately, teaching responsibilities and other constraints meant I missed the opening afternoon/evening on Friday 5th and the final panels taking place on the morning of Monday 8th. This was my third year as a participant at BASEES (you can see my report on last year’s conference HERE) and it was also my second year live tweeting from my twitter account @kellyhignett using the official conference hashtags: #euroiccees #basees. The annual BASEES conference brings together researchers working on all manner of topics related to Slavonic and East European studies, past and present, and has quickly become one of the highlights of my conference calender! The broad theme of this year’s congress was ‘Europe: Crisis and Renewal’, which encompassed a range of panels covering topics as diverse as cultural conflict in late Imperial Russia, re-thinking Cold War Eastern Europe, contemporary Balkan politics, the economics of Central Asia and the politics of healthcare in the post-Soviet space. As in previous years, the biggest problem I faced was trying to decide which of the intriguingly-titled panels to attend!

 

The first panel I attended on Saturday 6th focused on ‘New Perspectives in Cold War Studies’. In addition to great papers about East-West interaction during the Cold War by Sari Autio-Sarasmo and ‘Interactive Socialism’ by Katalin Miklossy, I particularly enjoyed Melanie Ilic’s paper, discussing her experience of interviewing and recording the life stories of several high profile Soviet women. Melanie’s new book Life Stories of Soviet Women will be published this August, featuring an impressive range of interviewees include one of Khrushchev’s daughters! She is also currently editing a collection relating to the ethics of oral history and memory studies, which I am contributing a chapter to, in relation to my own work on petty criminality in late-socialist East Central Europe.

 

A second panel, ‘New Research on Cold War Eastern Europe’, also contained an interesting mix of papers.Andru Chiorean discussed the ways in which new archival evidence is prompting a re-evaluation of role played by the Romanian censorial agency in regulating the output and content of publications after 1948, highlighting the need for researchers to incorporate the perspectives of both censor and victim. Patrick Hyder Patterson delivered a fascinating paper about socialist brand packaging in the East bloc, followed by an interesting discussion about the ‘afterlives’ of these brands, many of which are remembered fondly today (think Ostalgie and the film Good Bye, Lenin!). I’ve read Patterson’s book Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia and can recommend it. Finally, Kristian Nielsen argued the need to reconsider the economic aspects of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.

 

I particularly enjoyed both keynote speeches on the Saturday evening, given by Sabrina Ramet and Luke Harding. First up was Sabrina Ramet, whose talk ‘Religious Organizations and the Legacy of Communism in East Central Europe’  was insightful and engaging. Ramet began by linking calls for ‘re-evangelisation’ in post-communist east Europe with the popular desire for a return to more conservative social norms including discouraging divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. She also discussed how the post-communist religious resurgence gave rise to a form of ‘gigantomania’ in the former East bloc, with the construction of elaborate places of worship, religious icons and statues (including massive figures of Mother Theresa and Jesus – with three different cities (one in Slovakia, two in Poland) all competing to build the world’s largest statue of Jesus and the world’s tallest cross erected in Macedonia!). The bulk of Ramet’s paper however, focused on the evidence of widespread collaboration between various religious leaders and the secret services that have emerged with the opening of communist-era archives. The available evidence shows numerous instances of Orthodox priests in Romania passing information gleaned from the confessional to the Securitate, while Ramet suggests that 10-25,000 Catholic clergy acted as informants in Poland, while also acknowledging that there were some cases of ‘fake files’, planted to implicate innocent priests. After a quick break for refreshments during the wine reception (always a conference favourite!) and dinner, I returned to listen to Guardian Reporter and former Russian Correspondent Luke Harding discussing the experiences that formed the basis of his book Mafia State, in conversation with Glasgow University’s Stephen White. Harding too, was a very engaging speaker, likening his experiences in Russia to a bad spy thriller, but ‘without the Aston Martin or the beautiful Bond girls’, and describing Putin’s Russia as a ‘clever, adaptive, post-modern autocracy’ where corruption has flourished. The informal conversational style worked well, and was followed by a range of lively, probing questions from the audience.

 

I was up early on the bright and sunny Sunday morning to present my own paper, entitled ‘Doing Drugs Behind the Iron Curtain‘, alongside a fascinating paper about naratives of Kosovan wartime exile and Albanian nationalism, given by Erida Prifti and Nicholas Crowe from the University of Vlore in Albania.  My own paper was taken from a longer article I’m currently working on, which will be completed and submitted for publication this summer. This article explores levels of drug abuse and the development of domestic drug markets in East Central Europe between 1960s-1980s. In a nutshell though, the key points of my BASEES paper were as follows:

 

  • Although the regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland all noted rising levels of drug abuse from the 1960s this was largely denied and downplayed through a campaign of misinformation, censorship and propaganda
  • However, this official policy of ‘silence and inaction’ not only had negative consequences with regards to the lack of information, education, legislation and specialist healthcare available for drug addicts, but in many ways also faciitated the development of a thriving domestic market for the production and supply of illegal drugs.
  • The two main sources of supply were narcotics acquired from state healthcare (either via forged prescriptions or stolen by staff in hospitals, pharmacies and Doctors surgeries)  and domestic production of a range of opium and amphetamine based drugs, including Pervitin (Czechoslovakia) and Kompot (Poland), which were sold on the black market.
  • By the 1980s more organised, professional criminal networks began to operate in the drugs trade, which, according to law enforcement reports, was increasingly dominated by ‘professional manufacturers and pushers’.  I’ve also discovered evidence of international links with the wider global drugs trade, including gangs operating in the Middle East, South America, India, West Africa and Turkey, who were engaged in a range of drug smuggling operations through the East Bloc and across the Iron Curtain, although the domestic market in East Central Europe remained dominated by domestically produced and soirced drugs until the collapse of communism in 1989.

 

Before travelling home late on Sunday afternoon, I was also able to attend panels on ‘History, Narratives and Politics’, comparing contemporary Poland and Russia, and ‘Opposition, Terror and Imprisonment in Interwar Russia’, where I particularly enjoyed Ian Lauchlan’s discussion about the rise and fall of notorious Soviet Security chief Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mark Vincent’s insights into the fascinating subject of  Urki (criminal) courts in the Soviet Gulag camps, as protrayed in memoirs written by former  camp inmates.

 

Finally, I’d like to send a special shout out to the team from online magazine Crossing the Baltic, who I was lucky enough to meet at the conference. Check out their great website HERE, and you can also follow them on Twitter @CrossingBaltic !

 

 

April 12, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘Haplea’ – Vintage Romanian Animation (1927).

This charming little tale is the oldest surviving Romanian animated film, dating from 1927. ‘Haplea’ loosely translates as ‘Simpleton’. H/T to Alex Drace-Francis and Darren Reid for drawing my attention to this, via Twitter!

 

 

 

 

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Dave Brubeck – Fighting Communism with Jazz

Renowned American jazz musician Dave Brubeck talks about his experiences of performing in the communist block in this excerpt from a previously unreleased interview in 2008. Accompanied by a charming animation by Patrick Smith.

January 31, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

2012 in review

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

 

 

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 120,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

In 2012, there were 27 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 80 posts. There were 85 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 55 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was September 7th with 48,406 views. The most popular post that day was The Curious Case of the Poisoned Umbrella: The Murder of Georgi Markov.

Visitors to The View East came from 184 countries in all! Most visitors came from The United States. The United Kingdom & Canada were not far behind.

Click here to see the complete report.

 

THANK YOU & HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM THE VIEW EAST! We’ll be back with many more blog posts in 2013.

 

New-Year-2013-Celebration-Wallpaper-600x450

 

 

December 31, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Communist Christmas Carol

 

As 2012 draws near a close, the global economic downturn continues to cast a long shadow, and in recent weeks I have seen a number of media reports discussing ways in which the current austerity measures are impacting on this year’s festive celebrations. During the 1980s, communist Romania were undergoing their own enforced ‘age of austerity’, as  leader Nicolae Ceausescu sought to pay off Romania’s foreign debts. While shortages were commonplace across the Soviet bloc throughout the 1980s, in Romania the situation was particularly bad, with strict rationing of even the most basic foodstuffs, electricty and gasoline enforced from 1981. By April 1989, Ceausescu announced that Romanian foreign debt had been repaid, but this had come at the cost of enormous deprivation for the Romanian people. Rising popular discontent meant that by Christmas 1989 the Romanian Revolution was in full swing: Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power and on Christmas day 1989, Nicolae and his wife Elena were both executed after a military tribunal found them guilty of crimes against the state.

 

The following song, a christmas carol parody, was popular amongst Romanian children during these hard times:

 

A Romanian Christmas Carol (1980):

 

Father Christmas we do beg

Bring us butter, bring us egg.

If you ever come on foot

Bring some cabbage, or beetroot

If your bag is large enough

Add some maize and garlic cloves.

Christmas Father don’t miss either

The potatoes and the flour.

Should you come, though, in a sleigh

Don’t forget for the New Year

Toilet paper that’s so sparse,

To wipe at least our arse!

(From: Centre For Romania Studies)

Merry Christmas & Seasons Greetings from The View East!

Soviet Santa Claus - old christmas postcard from the USSR.

Soviet Santa Claus – old christmas postcard from the USSR.

 

 

 

December 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Gdansk

 

From 7 – 10 November I visited Gdansk, at the kind invitation of the European Solidarity Centre. I was participating in a conference, ‘Europe with a View to the Future‘, which was organised by the ESC in collaboration with the journals New Eastern Europe and Nowa Europa Wschodnia (both of which I’ve previously contributed articles to), the Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Unfortunately I arrived too late to attend the welcome reception on 7 November, which included the launch of Professor Jeffrey Goldfarb’s new book ‘Reinventing Political Culture‘, however I was up bright and early the following morning to join my fellow conference delegates! The second day of the conference opened with a short talk and a film showing about the European Solidarity Centre, which was founded in 2007 with a focus on preserving the heritage of the Solidarity movement and promoting its relevance for future generations. Rather fittingly, this session took place in the historic BHP Hall at the Gdansk shipyards – in the same room where, following the strike action of August 1980, the Gdansk Agreements (which led to the establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity) were signed, and since August 2010 the site of an exhibition about the Solidarity movement. From 2014 however, the ESC will be based at a new site nearby and so conference delegates were treated to a tour of the new building, which is still very much under construction – this was the first conference I’ve attended where I’ve been asked to don a hard hat and tour a construction site!

 

Opening conference presentation by the European Solidarity Centre, in the BHP Hall at Gdansk Shipyards. Photograph taken by me.

‘Europe with a View to the Future’ conference delegates touring the new European Solidarity Centre site – still under construction, due to open in June 2014! Photograph taken by Grzegorz Mehring, posted here with permission from the European Solidarity Centre.

 

The new Centre sounds like a fantastic project – designed to function as a cultural and educational hub (the conference organisers spoke of their desire for the new ESC to act as a ‘Gdansk agora’), the new building will house an interactive museum about the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe, a multimedia archive and library and will organise and promote cultural and educational initiatives including exhibitions, concerts,  conferences, workshops and seminars. I’d certainly like to visit again when it opens in 2014! You can read more about it HERE.

 

We then moved to the Old Town Hall for the main conference discussion which consisted of two panels, the first on the theme of ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, the second debating ‘Europe as Seen from the East’. The panels were delivered in a ’round table’ setting, which was a nice touch, providing another nod to the legacy of Solidarity and the famous round table talks that led to the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989.  I participated in the first session, ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’, which related to the likely future of the European Union, in light of the current Eurozone crisis, the ongoing ‘bailout’ negotiations and mounting questions about European integration. I spoke about the historical evolution of the European project and also discussed British attitudes towards the EU –  a hot topic coming at a time when all three of the major UK political parties are publicly  seeking to ‘reposition‘ their policies regarding Britain’s place in the EU, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently claimed that the British publics’ disillusionment with the EU is ‘the deepest its ever been’ and Prime Minister David Cameron has emphasised the need for  reform, renegotiation and the increasing likelihood of some kind of referendum on  Britain’s future in Europe. Other panel participants also provided interesting insights from German, Polish and US perspectives on European integration and our panel was followed by a lively question and answer session!

 

Roundtable panel discussion: ‘Solidarity in a Contemporary Europe’. Photograph taken by Grzegorz Mehring, posted here with permission from the European Solidarity Centre.

My contribution – discussing British attitudes towards the European Union. Photograph taken by Grzegorz Mehring, posted here with permission from the European Solidarity Centre.

 

The afternoon panel, ‘Europe as Viewed from the East’ was equally interesting, with panelists discussing contemporary Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian perceptions of ‘Europe’ and debating the extent to which EU membership is still viewed as an attractive prospects by its eastern neighbours today. We ended the day with a well earned drinks reception hosted by a local art gallery, perusing a photographic exhibition documenting last years Moscow protests and listening to Tatiana Kosinova discussing her new book ‘Polish Myth’, which explores links between communist-era dissident movements in Poland and the USSR, drawing on information taken from interviews conducted with several former dissidents, before enjoying dinner in a waterfront restaurant in the old town. This was an interesting and stimulating conference, and I’d like to take the opportunity here to thank the European Solidarity Centre for their hospitality.

 

After the conference, I had a day free to see some of Gdansk before flying home. I began by heading back to the shipyard, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, where I visited the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Also built as part of the 1980 Gdansk Agreement, to serve as a memorial to the 42 shipyard workers killed during the protests that took place in December 1970, this was the first monument to the victims of oppression to be erected in a communist country. I passed through the famous shipyard Gate no. 2 (still displaying a replica copy of the ’21 demands’ hung on the gate by the striking workers in 1980 – the original boards are UNESCO protected – combined with the addition of a Solidarity-themed souvenir kiosk!) and revisted the BHP Hall to take a more leisurely look at the Solidarity exhibition there. I also visited the Roads to Freedom Exhibition (dedicated to the history of the Solidarity movement and the collapse of communism), housed in an underground bunker! After lunch I visited the Amber museum which is housed in a beautiful fourteenth century gothic building on Ul. Dluga, wandered through the centre of the Old Town (past Lech Walesa’s office in Zielona Brama), strolled along the waterfront and enjoyed browsing the amber stalls set up on the charming Ul. Mariacka as dusk fell, stopping only to refuel with some pierogi ruskie and a beer!

 

Gdansk old town is utterly charming, a peaceful and picturesque space which belies the cities’ turbulent recent history. Virtually destroyed during WWII, the medieval buildings were painstakingly restored and rebuilt during the 1950s and 1960s (with similar post-war urban restoration projects undertaken in other Polish cities, including the capital Warsaw). Even today, just a few steps out of Zielona Brama, the remaining ruins of the old Granaries visible just across the river on Spichlerze illustrate the level of destruction wrought here less than seventy years ago.

 

A few photos follow, for those who are interested.

 

Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers, with the entrance to the Gdansk shipyard (Gate no 2) in the background.

Gate no 2 – Gdansk Shipyard, home of the Solidarity movement.

Outside the Amber Museum – medieval manacles hanging as a warning to potential thieves?!

The centre of the old town.

Lech Walesa’s office, in Zielona Brama.

Browsing amber stalls on Mariacka.

Waterfront

Granary Ruins.

Pierogi Ruskie!

Gdansk old town by night.

 

 

 

November 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Visit to Vilnius

 

Earlier this month I visited Vilnius, to participate in a conference, ‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’, organised by Melanie Ilic (University of Gloucestershire) and Dalia Leinarte (Vilnius University). The conference centred around exploring the implications of using oral testimony, memory studies and life writing when researching aspects of everyday life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The two day conference comprised a fantastic mixture of interesting and thought-provoking presentations on a diverse range of research projects relating to broader themes including identity construction, gender, nostalgia and trauma studies. I delivered a paper entitled ‘Conversations about Crime in Communist East Central Europe’, focusing on my own use of oral testimony during my research into crime in late-socialist era East Central Europe, and the resulting question and answer session was pretty lively, giving me lots of food for thought about popular perceptions of morality and criminality under communism! In addition to a series of 20 minute papers delivered in the ‘traditional’ conference style, we were also treated to a reading from the transcript of an interview-style conversation between Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya, two scholars who conducted several interviews for their seminal study A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, Colorado, 1998). This was followed by a question and answer session with Barbara Engel herself, who joined us live via Skype.

 

‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’ – conferencing in Vilnius.

Melanie’s toast at the conference dinner.

 

I stayed on for an extra day to explore Vilnius after the conference ended –  as I only had 24 hours there I confined myself to exploring the Old Town and surrounding areas, but still found plenty to see and do and I’d certainly recommend visiting if you have the chance! Vilnius itself was lovely, thoroughly charming and quietly cultivating a relaxed ‘shabby chic’ feel as the post-communist renovation of the city’s stunning architecture gradually continues (Vilnius Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004), combined with more modern developments. The contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Vilnius was particularly apparent when looking out across the city from the top of Gediminas Castle:

 

‘Old Vilnius’ – the Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994.

‘New Vilnius’ – view across Šnipiškės, the principal business district.

 

This contrast was also visible when wandering around the city, as the more ‘modern’ feel of the broad streets and designer fronted stores along Gedimo prospect juxtaposed with the more traditional narrow, winding, cobbled roads leading past the smaller souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants snaking down Pilles Street and throughout the University quarter.

 

Souvenir shopping on Pilles

 

Of course, I visited several of the main tourist attractions including the Cathedral, the remains of Gediminas Castle, St Annes Church (along with several other beautiful churches) and the Dawn Gate. I also enjoyed sampling some traditional Lithuanian cuisine!

 

Cepelini (Zeppelins!) – traditional Lithuanian dumplings with pork mince, sour cream and crackling.

 

Vilnius also had a very ‘arty’ feel to it, something that was particularly apparent as I wandered through Uzupis, a bohemian city district that declared itself an independent republic in 1997! However, I also enjoyed stumbling upon the street art dotted around the old town, and was intrigued to spot several trees that appeared to be ‘dressed’ in brightly knitted jumpers. I know we’re heading into autumn and that the Baltic winter is notoriously cold, but do the trees really need cosy knitwear?! A quick enquiry on Twitter when I returned informed me that the tree jumpers were an example of ‘yarn bombing’ or ‘guerilla knitting’ a form of urban art that I hadn’t seen before!

 

Tree Jumpers – yarn bombing in Vilnius!

Teapots on Bernardinu

Open Air Gallery – street art on display on Literatu.

 

The quiet, relaxed feel to Vilnius belies its turbulent recent history, however. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the visit for me was exploring some of the lingering traces of Soviet occupation. This was most evident in the Soviet-era kitsch on sale in the many flea markets and souvenir stalls set out (similar to that I’ve seen elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc) and the tall Soviet statues which remain proudly standing at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green Bridge), over  the river Neris.

 

Goodbye Lenin! A portrait of Lenin for sale at a small flea market in Vilnius

“Welcome to Vilnius, Comrade!” – Soviet-era statues still stand at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green bridge)

 

However, there is an argument to be made that the brutal nature of Soviet occupation means that the psychological legacy rather than the physical traces of communism lingers longest for many Lithuanians. With that in mind, one particularly striking aspect of my time in Vilnius was my visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, an extensive exhibition housed in the former KGB headquarters on Gedimo prospect, which charts the oppression and suffering of the Lithuanian people under successive foreign occupations between 1939-1991. The exhibition takes you through periods of successive Soviet (1940-1941), German (1941-1944) and Soviet again (1944-1991) occupations, although the Nazi occupation receives a lot less attention that the years of Soviet domination –  this is a sobering tale of suffering and oppression, charting partisan warfare, collaboration, opposition, dissent, imprisonment and mass deportation.

 

Letters written by Lithuanian citizens who were interred in prison camps during the Stalinist era. The letter on the left has been censored by the camp authorities.

Old KGB-branded stationary, on display in the Museum of Genocide.

“How to be a spy” – illustrations from an old KGB manual.

“How to be a spy” – illustrations from an old KGB manual.

 

The final part of the exhibition guides visitors down into the basement, formerly used as a prison by the KGB, where visitors can tour the cells, prison exercise yards and even visit the former ‘execution room’. By now, I think of myself as something of a veteran visitor to such sites – I regularly read and teach about the ‘darker aspects’ of totalitarian regimes, and have visited Auschwitz, the Stasi Headquarters in Berlin and Budapest’s ‘Museum of Terror’ in recent years. However, the tour of the former prison still affected me on a personal level (more so, I found, than similar visits in Berlin and Budapest, but less than my visit to Auschwitz , which was emotionally draining, an experience I previously blogged about HERE). There was something about the heavy feeling that settled in my stomach while my footsteps echoed down the dark, dank, narrow corridors (the fact that I was entirely alone in an otherwise deserted basement prison probably contributed to this!). I felt increasingly unnerved and unsettled as I peered through the cell doors to view the ‘punishment cells’ set up to demonstrate how prisoners would be forced to stand on narrow platforms surrounded by  icy water for hours on end (inevitably to plunge into the freezing water when they lost their balance or lost consciousness); illustrating how prisoners condemned to isolation were incarcerated alone in cramped, dark boxes for days (and sometimes weeks) on end and how padded walls were installed in some cells to block out the sound of cries of pain from prisoners subjected to physical torture. All of this was accompanied with information about various individuals who had spent time (and sometimes even died) whilst in the prison.  I’d certainly recommend visiting the museum if you are in Vilnius, but I must confess that I was glad to escape out into the fresh air and the sunshine when my tour ended.

 

A sense of dark foreboding pervades the former KGB prison in the Museum of Genocide, Vilnius.

Sacks of torn KGB files – when Lithuania declared independence from Soviet rule and communism crumbled, the KGB attempted to hide their worst ‘crimes’ by destroying incriminating evidence.

In Memoriam – names inscribed into the walls of the Museum of Genocide.

A monument to victims of Genocide, outside the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius.

 

 

 

September 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’

 

Today Katyn remains a contentious and highly emotive issue, one that casts a long shadow over Russian-Polish relations. In recent years, some important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Katyn massacres – the mass execution of over 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite and their burial in mass graves in the forests around Smolensk during April-May 1940 – have been plugged. Developments in the post-Cold War period have tended to focus upon the information that has slowly (and often reluctantly) trickled out from the Russian archives, particularly in April 2010, when publication of key documents confirmed beyond any doubt that the mass executions had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD, acting on the direct orders of leader Josef Stalin. It is generally accepted that Stalin approved the massacre to ensure there would be no organised domestic resistance to the extension of Soviet control over Poland after World War II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives has focused attention on a new and previously under-discussed perspective of this tragedy; assessing the extent of US and UK complicity in hiding the truth about Katyn.

 

The newly declassified documents, released on 10th September 2012, confirm that both the US and UK authorities were aware of strong evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for Katyn soon after the initial German discovery of the forest graves in 1943, but deliberately chose not to question Soviet claims that it was the Germans who were responsible for the slaughter, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, due to the importance of maintaining good wartime relations with Stalin. Even after the end of World War II, they chose to remain silent about much of what they knew. Several years later, after the wartime alliance had irretrievably broken down and Cold War battle lines had been drawn, a Congressional Committee (‘The Madden Committee’) was established to review the available evidence relating to Katyn. Their official report revised the US stance, determining after a series of hearings held 1951-52 that the NKVD had been responsible for the executions, which the report described as ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’ However, the material indicating the full extent of western wartime knowledge of Soviet involvement in Katyn was concealed, and although the committee recommended that the Soviets face trial at the International World Court of Justice, this was never pursued. The Soviets continued to deny any responsibility until the dying days of the USSR, and as recently as 1992, the US State Department maintained that prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s official admission of Soviet guilt in 1990, they had ‘lacked irrefutable evidence’ to substantiate claims that it was the Soviets rather than Nazi Germany who had carried out the massacre.

 

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, pictured at the Yalta conference in 1945. By this point, the western leaders knew that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn massacres, but chose to ignore the evidence and focus on attempting to maintain good relations with Stalin.

 

The documents released yesterday tell a very different story: comprised of detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government; reports from U.S. diplomats; US army intelligence and testimony from two American Prisoners of War – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr – all of whom provided strong evidence suggesting Soviet culpability. The testimonies provided by Stewart and Van Vilet Jr are particularly compelling. Theit accounts describe how they were taken to Katyn (which had recently passed from Soviet to German control) by their Nazi captors in May 1943. The bodies they viewed were all already in an advanced stage of decay, indicating that they had been killed prior to the recent Nazi occupation of the area. This was further supported by the good state of the men’s boots and clothing (suggesting they had not remained alive long after their initial capture by the Soviets) and the fact that none of the personal items found on the corpses  – including letters and diaries – were dated beyond the spring of 1940. The two men reported all of this in coded messages which were sent back to Washington, expressing their conviction that the evidence of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was ‘irrefutable’. However, their testimony was supressed. At a time when the allies remained desperate for Soviet military assistance, neither Roosevelt or Churchill were willing to risk confronting Stalin. Realpolitik took precedence over any sense of moral responsibility, as illustrated by one telegram Roosevelt sent to Churchill in June 1943, where he  strongly urged suppression of any evidence suggesting Soviet complicity at Katyn because ‘The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary’.

 

Thus, when the Polish government in exile in London called for an investigation into the Katyn massacres, Roosevelt advised Churchill to ‘find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London … to act with more common sense’. In a letter dated May 1943, British Ambassador Owen O’Malley explained how ‘We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom’ and acknowledged that ‘We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre’.

 

Image

A memorial inWarsaw, commemorating the 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite who were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

 

The US documents do not contain any radically new information or earth shattering revelations about Katyn. Rather, they simply confirm what most historians have long suspected. However, they do add to our knowledge of events, suggesting that both British and American administrations were aware of the truth about Katyn at an early stage (from at least mid-1943) but chose to conceal the truth, in a deception that extended up into the highest political levels. For this reason, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth’ believes that the information revealed in the US documents is ‘potentially explosive’, suggesting that the US decision to cover-up the truth delayed a full understanding about the true nature of Stalinism in America, while George Sanford, author of ‘Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory’  compared western attitudes towards Katyn to their unwillingness to accept or act on early information received about the killing of Jews in Auschwitz in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.

 

As Dmitry Babich, a commentator for the Voice of Russia surmised in respnse to the latest findings, ‘No one looks particularly pretty … the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically’. The information contained in the US documents could be used to support those who argue that it was Western ‘abandonment’ of the East European countries that left them helpless to resist Soviet expansion after World War II, condemning them to fifty years of enforced communist rule. There have also been suggestions that the new documentary evidence has the potential to  negatively influence contemporary Polish relations with the US and UK, although any serious ‘cooling’ in relations seems unlikely.

 

The documentation released by the US National Archives can be viewed online HERE.

The final report from the Madden Committee (dated 22 December 1952) can be viewed HERE.

 

September 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Among all these crooks, I am the one to be here today!” – A Czechoslovakian Corruption Scandal.

 

Prior to the recent ‘student showcase’, my last blog post discussed the privileged position enjoyed by the political elite in communist Eastern Europe. This is a subject that relates to my own research into criminal networks during the communist era, as the desire for various luxury goods and services encouraged widespread corruption and the development of extensive illegal supply networks. I’ve recently been reading about one such illegal ‘supply chain’ established in Czechoslovakia and overseen by Stanislav Babinsky. In 1987, Babinsky, the manager of a catering and supply company who was locally known as the ‘King of Oravia’, was tried and convicted on charges including theft of socialist property worth $382,000 and the unlawful handling of state funds.

 

As corruption was so pervasive among the communist elite, high profile trials and convictions such as this were rare. On those occasions when high-ranking individuals were held to account for economic crimes, ‘justice’ tended to be politically motivated. Those unlucky enough to find themselves on the stand were generally targeted for one of three reasons: because they had fallen out of political favour (with corruption charges a useful way to remove someone from power); because they had lost their political protection, or because they were unlucky enough to be scapegoated for propaganda purposes, with convictions generally corresponding with the launch of a new ‘anti-corruption drive’. This was particularly true during the 1980s, following the launch of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s initial anti-corruption drive in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s later policies of encouraging perestroika and glasnost across the communist bloc, including well-publicised campaigns to ‘clean up’ corruption and economic crime. Even within the context of the changing political climate of the 1980s the Babinsky case is unusual, because of the high levels of media coverage it received. Developments were widely reported by both the Czechoslovakian media and in the international press, after a 15 page transcript of the trial was secretly smuggled out of the country.

 

The Babinsky trial was held at the Palace of Justice in Bratislava, where over the course of a three month period between 23 March and 30 June 1987, 800 witnesses were interrogated and 34,000 pages of documentary evidence were submitted. The trial involved a number of state officials who were accused of theft of state property, embezzlement, unlawful handling of state funds and gross negligence, to the cost of 2.2 million CZK.[i] Twelve individuals (all of whom held positions of varying political and economic importance) were formally charged and ten of these were convicted.[ii] However a much wider network of party and government officials were also implicated during the trial. High profile officials linked to the Babinsky scandal included Bohuslav Chnoupek, former foreign minister of Czechoslovakia; Peter Colotka, Slovak Prime Minister; Frantisek Miseje, Slovak Minister of Finance and General Kovak, head of Slovakian National Security – all of whom were named in testimony given during the trial.

 

Most of the attention at the trial centred around the testimony of chief defendant Stanislav Babninsky, the 59 year old director of Jednota, a stat­­­e ­­owned catering and supply business based in Dolny Kubin, a mountainous and predominantly agricultural region located about 120 miles north east of Bratislava. Known as ‘Kmotr’ (‘Godfather’) and nicknamed ‘The King of Oravia’ Babinsky had placed Jednota firmly at the heart of an extensive web of corruption and illegal trading, supplying money, luxury goods, services and entertainment to members of the political elite.[iii]

 

 

Evidence given at the trial revealed that between 1975 and his arrest in 1984, Babinsky had regularly supplied his various ‘connections’ with luxury items including ‘the best salami, smoked ham and whisky smuggled from Vienna and chocolates from Switzerland’.[iv] A second report detailed how:

 

“Babinsky and his accomplices delivered, free of charge, or at ridiculously low prices, consumer durables and fine foods to members of the political elite {including] … furniture (handmade and of special quality), artwork, watches, hunting rifles, a stereo system, gasoline vouchers, heating oil, electrical cable, beer, vodka, brandy and vast quantities of food, all from a special ‘diplomatic warehouse’”.[v]

 

Babinsky also detailed how he had organised construction of an elite holiday complex, Myln (‘The Mill’) in the nearby town of Brezovci, at a cost of nearly 4.5 million CZK, money which was all illegally sourced from state funds. Described as a ‘government rest home’ Myln was regularly used to host exclusive hunting parties, where guests could shoot at game from helicopters. Babinsky claimed that on one occasion 36,000 CZK had been spent on refreshments at a special bear shoot arranged for General Jan Kovac, Head of the Slovak Secret Police. Babinsky also revealed how he satisfied the seedier desires of his guests, who could ‘order’ prostitutes by calling the hotel reception and using the code word ‘Russian Reader’ – then, when asked if they required a particular volume, the numbers ordered would refer to the bust size favoured by the client! Babinsky claimed that Myln was the venue for wild sex parties and that ‘the immoralities that took place there made me want to throw up’, although he also claimed that the girls he employed were well treated, ‘rewarded handsomely [and] paid 1,500 koruny a night’, money that had been siphoned off from a fund designed to finance bonuses for ‘exceptional development of consumer cooperatives’ in the area.[vi]

 

Although Babinsky was referred to as a ‘power broker’ and a criminal ‘godfather’ by state media, during the trial he presented himself as victim rather than villain. Describing himself as ‘a man co-opted by the system to administer the ‘fringe benefits’ that those in power demanded’, Babinsky also perceived himself as a modern-day ‘Robin Hood’, insisting that he had never used his position for personal gain, but was motivated by the opportunity to secure higher levels of industrial investment and regional development from corrupt officials.[vii] He also claimed that he was merely a scapegoat for the crimes committed by those in power. Towards the end of the trial proceedings Babinsky openly wept, proclaiming ‘Among all these crooks, I am the one to be here today! And I had nothing out of it but hard work…’, and lamenting the fact that the crooked officials were the real criminals, for ‘enriching themselves at the expense of society’. Babinsky’s pleas were in vain however, and at the end of the trial he was sentenced to a total of 14.5 years imprisonment, along with nine other individuals.[viii]

 

So, what can the Babinsky case tell us? Firstly, the details which emerged during the trial testimony effectively demonstrate how deeply established corrupt networks had become by the final years of communism, illustrating the levels of privilege enjoyed by members of the political elite in Eastern Europe. Secondly, while the Babinsky case initially appeared to support enhanced efforts to reduce corruption in line with the changing political climate of the mid-1980s, its real impact was much more limited. True, Babinsky’s arrest came in the aftermath of Andropov’s anti-corruption drive, while his trial took place after Gorbachev’s reform programme had begun to influence the climate in Eastern Europe.[ix] When Milos Jakes took over the leadership from Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia in 1987 he also declared that ‘corruption in official ranks must be combatted’.[x] However, in many respects the Babinsky case actually highlights the limits of any serious attempts to root out corruption among members of the communist elite. At the time, Der Spiegel called the Babinsky case ‘one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of Czechoslovakia’ but the political impact of the case was negligible.[xi]

 

Babinsky was guilty of the charges against him, but he was also clearly a useful scapegoat. While he was publicly vilified and sentenced to 14.5 years in prison, the higher ranking beneficiaries of his illegal efforts escaped largely unscathed. The identities of the state officials incriminated in his testimony were omitted from the indictment on the direct orders of Slovak Justice Minister Pjescak, who had already prohibited any tape recording of the trial, as soon as it became clear that high ranking officials were going to be ‘named and shamed’ in court testimony! On 3 July 1987, following publication of the court verdict, the CPCZ CC Presidium published a statement in Rude Pravda announcing the expulsion of ‘those guilty parties connected with the Babinsky case’ from the communist party. However, only two district officials were actually named in this statement (Deputy Interior Minister Jan Kovac and former Central Committee Department head Stanislav Dudek) with vague references to the expulsions of  ‘other (unnamed) members recently convicted of corruption’ and ‘reprimands ‘with warnings’ issued to five other anonymous state officials.[xii] The following day, Rude Pravda also carried a timely editorial criticising any ‘abuse of rank, position, bribery and nepotism’ and warning that in future any such activities would be exposed.[xiii] But these words were not supported by action: although a state committee was established to investigate Babinsky’s testimony, their closing report claimed that Babinsky had ‘cast unjustified aspersions on a number of innocent party members … a political provocation which the Western media had misused’, while a subsequent politburo statement also maintained that while a few guilty parties had been justly expelled, ‘other comrades named in the press had been falsely accused’.[xiv]

 

 

 


[i] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL Report SR/10, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß (‘Girl to Measure’), Der Spiegel, 26/1987 ‘Czech Aides Linked to Scandal’, The New York Times, 8 June 1987

[ii] ‘Premier Quits in Shake up of Czech Regime’, LA Times, 11 October 1988

[iii] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[iv] Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[v] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987

[vi] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[vii] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987; Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987; ‘Czech Aides Linked to Scandal’, The New York Times, 8 June 1987

[viii] Corruption Trial in Bratislava: Catering for the Elite’, RFE/RL, 10 August 1987

[ix] Other high profile ‘casualties’ of the anti-corruption drive in Eastern Europe include the conviction  of Maciej Szcepanski, Central Committee member and head of the Polish committee for Radio and Television in 1984 on 35 counts of bribery and embezzlement and the conviction of Bulgarian Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade Georgi Vute in January 1987 for bribery and currency offences.

[x] ‘Officials Booted Out of Party’, Associated Press, 20 February 1988

[xi] Mädchen nach Maß, Der Spiegel, 26/1987

[xii] ‘Communist Party Expells District Officials’, Associated Press, 4 July 1987 and RFE/RL Weekly Record 18-24 February 1988 (OSA Archives, 26-2-1988)

[xiii] ‘Communist Party Expells District Officials’, Associated Press, 4 July 1987

[xiv] ‘Corruption Trial in Bratislava: The Party Metes Out Penalties’, RFE/RL 13, 1988; ‘Officials Booted Out of Party’, Associated Press, 20 February 1988

July 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

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