The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

2011: A Quick Review

 

2011 is a year that has prompted numerous historical comparisons, even before it has ended. This has been a year marked by economic turmoil, widespread international protest and revolutionary activity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s recent announcement that their coveted ‘person of the year’ was to be awarded to ‘The Protestor‘. Throughout 2011, global news coverage has frequently been dominated by the growing wave of protest and demonstrations that swept the Arab World; quickly dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by international media and drawing frequent comparisons with the East European revolutions of 1989. Some (including, recently, Eric Hobsbawm) have suggested that comparisan with the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 is more fitting although many have questioned the value of either historical analogy. Similarly, almost twenty years to the day, in the last weeks of 2011, mounting protests against electoral fraud in Russia have evoked memories of the collapse of the communist monopoly of power and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently advising current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ‘learn the lesson of 1991’ and resign from power, although Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti has suggested that 1905 may turn out to be a more fitting historical parallel.

 

The increasingly uncertain economic climate and global financial downturn also dominated news coverage throughout 2011, particularly of late due to the growing crisis in the Eurozone. Across central and eastern Europe, economic crisis and social insecurity has generated fresh concern about ‘ostalgie’ with the release of surveys suggesting high levels of nostalgia for the communist era. In recent polls conducted in Romania 63% of participants said that  their life was better under communism, while 68% said they now believed that communism was ‘a good idea that had been poorly applied’. Similarly, a survey conducted in the Czech Republic last month revealed that 28% of participants believed they had been ‘better off’ under communism, leading to fears of a growth in ‘retroactive optimism‘.

 

Much of the subject matter presented here at The View East aims to combine historical analysis with more contemporary developments. During 2011 a range of blog posts have covered topics as diverse as the Cold War space race (with posts about Sputnik and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s first successful manned space flight); the role of popular culture (and specifically, popular music in the GDR) in undermining communism; the use and abuse of alcohol in communist Eastern Europe; espionage and coercion (with posts relating to the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the notorious murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov) and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first ‘student showcase’ here at The View East, which was a great success, with a series of excellent guest authored posts on a range of fascinating topics, researched and written by some of my students at Swansea University.

 

Something that I constantly stress to my students is the need to recognise how our knowledge and understanding of modern central and eastern Europe was, in many respects, transformed as new evidence and sources of information became accessible to historians of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism 1989-1991; and the ways in which our understanding continues to evolve as new information and perspectives continue to emerge today. So, with that in mind, here is a quick review of some of my own personal favourite topics of interest, events and developments during 2011. This short summary is by no means exhaustive so please feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments section below!

 

Anniversaries for Reagan and Gorbachev

 

February 2011 marked the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Today, former US President and ‘Cold Warrior’ Reagan remains highly regarded throughout the former communist block, where he is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War and open a pathway for freedom across Eastern Europe. A series of events were thus organised to mark the occasion across central and eastern Europe, where several streets, public squares and landmarks were renamed in Reagan’s honour and and the summer of 2011 saw statues of Reagan popping up in several former communist block countries, including Poland, Hungary and Georgia. To mark the centenary, the CIA also released a collection of previously classified  documents, along with a report on ‘Ronald Reagan, Intelligence and the End of the Cold War’ and a series of short documentary style videos that were made to ‘educate’ Reagan about the USSR on a range of topics including the space programme, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster, which can be viewed here. An exhibition held at the US National Archives in Washington DC also displayed examples of Reagan’s personal correspondence including a series of letters exchanged with Mikhail  Gorbachev and the handwritten edits made to Reagan’s famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983.

 

A statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, unveiled in the Georgian capital Tblisi in November 2011. The centenary of Reagan's birth was celebrated throughout the former communist block in 2011.

 

Today, citizens of the former East Block tend to view Reagan much more kindly than his Cold War counterpart, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who celebrated his 80th birthday back in March. Still feted in the West, Gorbachev was the guest of honour at a celebratory birthday gala in London and and was also personally congratulated by current Russian President Medvedev, receiving a Russian medal of honour. In a series of interviews, Gorbachev claimed he remained proud of role in ending communism, although for many, his legacy remains muddied.  April 2011 saw the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while August 1991 marked the twentieth anniversary of the failed military coup launched by communist hardliners hoping to depose Gorbachev from power and halt his reforms and finally, the 25 December 2011 was 20 years to the day since Gorbachev announced his resignation from power and the formal dissolution of the USSR. Recently released archival documents have also provided historians with more detailed information about the dying days of the Soviet Union as a desperate Gorbachev tried to hold the USSR  together.

 

March 2011 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting to celebrate his 80th birthday. Gorbachev was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia's highest honour.

 

Half a Century Since the Construction of the Berlin Wall

 

August 2011 marked 50 years since the construction of the famous wall which divided Berlin 1961-1989 and became one of the most iconic symbols of Cold War Europe. The anniversary was commemorated in Germany as I discussed in my earlier blog post here and was also widely covered by international media including the Guardian and the BBC here in the UK. I particularly enjoyed these interactive photographs, published in Spiegel Online, depicting changes to the East-West German border. In October, the CIA and US National Archives also released a collection of recently declassified documents relating to the Berlin Crisis of August 1961, which have been published online here.

 

13 August 2011 - A display in Berlin commemorates the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

 

Thirty Years Since Martial Law Crushed Solidarity in Poland

 

13  December marked 30 years since General Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981, as the emergent Solidarity trade union was declared illegal and forced underground. NATO have released a fascinating series of archived documents relating to events in Poland 1980-81 which have been published online here.  Today Jaruzelski still argues that he ordered the domestic crackdown to avoid Soviet invasion, claiming in a recent book that  his actions were a ‘necessary evil’ . but intelligence contained in the newly available NATO reports suggest that the Soviet leadership were actually ‘keen to avoid’ military intervention in Poland. Fresh attempts to prosecute 88 year old Jaruzelski for his repressive actions were halted due to ill health in 2011, as the former communist leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and has been undergoing regular chemotherapy this year.

 

13 December 2011 marked 30 years since General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of Martial Law in Poland, designed to crush the growing Polish opposition movement, Solidarity.

 

The Communist-Era Secret Police

 

Stories about communist-era state security are always a crowd pleaser and 2011 saw a series of new revelations from the archives of the notorious East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. I particularly liked the archived photos that were published in Spiegel Online, taken during a course to teach Stasi agents the art of disguise, as discussed in my previous blog post here and, in a similar vein, information from Polish files about espionage techniques used by Polish State Security which was published in October. In November, new research published in the German Press suggested that the Stasi had a much larger network of spies in West Germany than was previously thought, with over 3000 individuals employed as Inofizelle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial informers’, to spy on family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The Stasi even compiled files on leading figures such as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and former East German leader Erich Honecker, gathering information that was later used as leverage to force his resignation in October 1989. A new book published in September also detailed the extent of Stasi infiltration in Sweden, with information published in the German media suggesting that Swedish furniture manufacturer  IKEA used East German prisoners as a cheap source of labour in the 1970s and early 1980s.

 

‘Tourist with Camera’ – a favoured disguise used by Stasi surveillance agents, unearthed from the Stasi archives and part of a new exhibition that went on display in Germany earlier this year.

 

The Death of Vaclav Havel

 

2011 ended on something of a sombre note, as news broke of the death of communist-era dissident and former Czechoslovakian/Czech President Vaclav Havel on 18 December. An iconic figure, Havel’s death dominated the news in the lead up to Christmas, (only eclipsed by the subsequent breaking news about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17!) with numerous obituaries and tributes to Havel and his legacy appearing in the media (such as this excellent tribute in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received widespread media coverage. In recent interviews, such as this one, given shortly before his death, Havel commented on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab revolutions and the global economic crisis. RIP Vaclav – you will be missed.

 

December 2011 - News breaks of the death of playwright, communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hundreds of candles were lit in Prague's Wenceslas Square in his memory, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects and tributes poured in from around the globe.

 

The Growth of Social Networking

 

The use of social networking as a tool for organising and fuelling protest and opposition movements has also been a regular feature in the news throughout 2011 with particular reference to the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the recent ‘Occupy’ movement. Many more universities and academics are also now realising the potential benefits of using social media sites to promote their interests, and achievements, disseminate their research to a wider audience and engage in intellectual debate with a wider circle of individuals working on similar areas of interest, both within and beyond academia.  The potential benefits of Twitter and other social networking sites for academics has been promoted by the LSE and their Impact Blog during 2011, including this handy ‘Twitter guide for Academics‘.  On a more personal note, promoting The View East via Twitter has also helped me develop a much stronger online profile and contributed to an increased readership in 2011, something I discussed further in a September blog post here.

 

Was 2011 the year of the 'Twitter Revolution'?

 

As 2011 ends, our twitter feed @thevieweast is heading for 500 regular twitter followers; most days The View East receives well over 100 hits, the number of regular email subscribers has almost doubled and I’ve been able to reach a much wider audience – some older blog content I wrote relating to Solidarity was recently published in a Macmillan textbook History for Southern Africa and in the last twelve months I have given interviews to ABC Australia, Voice of America, and Radio 4, all in relation to subjects I’d written about here at The View East. So, as 2011 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented, followed and re-tweeted from The View East in 2011 – A very Happy New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2012!

 

Happy New Year from The View East!

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Twitterstorians at Two

 

Today marks the second anniversary of the Twitterstorians – two years ago today Katrina Gulliver began compiling a list of historians on Twitter, using the #twitterstorian hashtag. Last year, to mark our first anniversary, I wrote a short blog post about the virtues of using Twitter for academic networking and praising its ability to allow me to connect with other historians which you can read HERE.

 

Everything I wrote a year ago remains true today. Social networking remains controversial in some respects and my own friends, colleagues and acquaintances provide an interesting and illustrative sample spectrum: polarised between some who enthusiastically and actively engage with social networking; some who dismiss Twitter as ‘an utter waste of time’, and all of those who fill the void in between: occasional users, passive tweeters (those who use Twitter to follow others rather than tweet themselves) and some who use Twitter for a clearly defined aim, tweeting on a strictly professional or strictly personal basis. 2011 has been a year which has seen Twitter hit the headlines: initially praised for its role as a tool facilitating the organisation of protest movements and resistance during the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and then swiftly denigrated for its alleged use by rioters during the unrest that swept London and several other UK cities in July (although drawing on evidence from my own timeline, I saw no examples of Twitter being used as a tool for spreading unrest, but several examples of Twitter being utilised for positive ends during the post-riot clean-ups that were spontaneously organised in many UK cities, such as THIS campaign, which I personally contributed to).

 

The UK Higher Education Sector are increasingly recognising the potential benefits of using social networking as a medium for communication, publicity, self-promotion and information exchange. In the current climate universities are keen to explore cost effective ways of promoting themselves to and engaging with potential and current students, while academics are increasingly urged to demonstrate the wider ‘impact’, engagement and relevance of their research – this includes Historians, who, even within academic circles, often have the reputation for being behind the times and resistant to change! Last September I began a Lectureship at the History and Classics department at Swansea University. Since then, the department has established its own twitter feed HERE and several of my colleagues have also become regular ‘tweeters’.

 

Over the last year, I have continued to use Twitter as a tool to promote and publicise The View East. The Blog’s Twitter Feed @thevieweast now has over 300 followers, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you who have re-tweeted links and comments of interest I’ve posted during the last year! Publicising new blog posts via Twitter enables me to reach a much wider audience. As a result, today The View East is receiving a greater number of ‘hits’ than ever before, with my blog stats indicating that traffic directed via Twitter is consistently one of the highest sources of viewings (along with Google searches). This summer I hosted a ‘student showcase’ on The View East – the first in what I hope will become an annual event – publishing a series of blog posts authored by final year history students from Swansea University. This initiative was widely promoted on Twitter (not only on @thevieweast and my own personal twitter feed @kellyhignett but also via @SwanseaUni and @SwanseaHistory) and via the main university website. Over the last twelve months, my own blog posts at The View East have led to several media engagements, consultancy opportunities, conference papers and other research-related activities, as well as bringing me into contact with a number of people working in related areas.

 

The list of Twitterstorians has continued to grow over the last year, so here are just a small selection of some of my favourite Tweeters relating to modern history and contemporary affairs (largely Russia/FSU/Eastern Europe):

 

@HistoryCarnival – Highlights the best in history-related blogging each month (and the September issue includes The View East!)

@CWIHP – Cold War International History Project

@nickblackbourn – Author of the Twitter based  ‘Cold War Daily’ which can also be viewed HERE

@coldwarpenguin – For general Cold War related links

@BASEES – British Association of Slavonic and East European Studies

@UCLSSEES –School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL

@UCLSSEESLibrary – SSEES Library, based in London, hosting the UK’s largest open access collection on Russia and Eastern Europe and site of many of my own research visits!

@RFERL  – International media service, including some fascinating articles relating to the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

@MoscowTimes – For Russian related news (in English)

@RT_com (Russia Today) – For Russian related news (in English)

@ria_novosti – For Russian related news (in English)

@Russianist – Tweets and blogs on Russian history and literature

@EdwardLucas – Tweets about Central Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Cold War, especially crime &  intelligence

@MishaGlenny – Tweets about history, politics and media, including Central Eastern Europe, the Balkans, organised crime, technology

@MarkGaleotti – NYU academic and blogger, tweets about Russian security, crime, corruption and policing.

@MattPotter – Author and journalist, tweets about crime, politics, media

@MDRBrown – Academic, tweets on Cold War history, international relations, Eastern Europe

@andrewholt – Academic tweeting on Cold War History, C20 British Foreign Policy

@Lemberik – Blog about minorities and human rights in Central and Eastern Europe

@Horia_Victor – Tweets about minorities and human rights in Russia/FSU and Eastern Europe

@polandww2 – Tweets about Poland, WWII, the Eastern Front

@JohnsonRussiaLi – Johnson’s Russia List, for a wide range of Russian-related info

@RussianSphinx – Tweets on Russia

@kremlinologist_ – Tweets on Russia

@siberianlight – Tweets on Russia

@AskSiberia - Tweets on Siberia and the Far East

@globalvoices – For a range of interesting links and articles

@brainpicker – For a range of interesting links and articles

 

So, as we enter the ‘terrible twos’ – Happy Birthday, fellow #Twitterstorians!

 

 

 

 

September 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

History on Twitter: Happy Anniversary, Twitterstorians!

I’m something of a latecomer to the Twitterstorian party. I first joined Twitter in March 2009, unsure whether or not it was something I’d really ‘take’ to. This scepticism is evidenced by my first ever ‘tweet’ which tentatively proclaimed that I “remained unconvinced by this Twitter malarkey”! Shortly afterwards I set up a separate twitter feed for my blog ‘The View East’ here. However, it’s only really been during the last year that I personally have become regularly active on Twitter, and only actually a few weeks since I joined the Twitterstorians – a network of historians on Twitter compiled by fellow historian Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver ).

My contacts on Twitter initially consisted of a small group of friends, acquaintances, mainstream news and media outlets and links to other websites and organisations of interest. It did cross my mind that there may be some other historically minded folks out there ‘tweeting’, so I did the odd cursory search for keywords like ‘history’ and ‘historian’ and over time, I stumbled across a handful of other historical and academic types.

Katrina Gulliver had also wondered about the possibility of connecting with other historians on Twitter, but took a rather more proactive approach, first asking the question “where are all the historians on twitter?” one year ago today. Over time, the initial trickle of responses to her question became a flood. To date, there are over 200 Twitterstorians and the list is still growing. The Twitterstorian network ranges from professional historians and full time academics to amateur historians and those who consider their love of history simply as a hobby, covering topics ranging from the local to the global and spanning the medieval to the modern.

Over time I’ve come to view Twitter less as ‘just another alternative to Facebook’ and a way of wasting a few minutes during my morning coffee break and more as a potential tool for global networking and information exchange. Following Twitter feeds by organisations such as Times Higher Education (@timeshighered ) and Guardian Education (@GuardianEDU ) and publishers such as Routledge (@RoutledgeHist )and Ashgate (@ashgatehistory ) is a quick and easy way of keeping up to date on the latest updates, ideas and publications relevant to academia. This can equally apply to other areas too – during the May 2010 UK election and the uncertain political climate in its aftermath, I found Twitter by far the most effective and up to date tool for following developments in ‘real time’, following feeds from @bbcbreaking and @tweetminster .

Thanks to Katrina’s efforts, historians such as myself have been able to benefit from linking up with others working on both similar and unrelated areas of historical research. As a result I’ve been exposed to interesting articles, blogs and concepts and ideas that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. For me, over the last year, Twitter has been transformed from an occasional interest to a networking tool and an almost daily addiction. In part this is down to the contacts I’ve recently made through the Twitterstorian network. And it’s not all work related – I’ve also enjoyed exchanging thoughts on music, literature and a range of other topics with other like minded folks.

So, why not come and join the party?! I’d encourage anyone with an interest in history to join the Twitterstorians. If you’re on twitter simply tweet at @katrinagulliver or use the hashtag #twitterstorians in your posts. Or, for a current up to date list, visit Katrina’s excellent website and search her ‘Notes from the Field’ section using the Twitterstorian tag. And finally,  if you’re interested in modern East European and Russian history, don’t forget to check out @thevieweast and, if you’re interested, my own twitter feed @kellyhignett

Happy Anniversary to Twitterstorians – one and all!

September 7, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Follow ‘The View East’ on Twitter

We now have our very own twitter feed, so if you are a ‘tweeter’ you can follow us  to receive regular updates about new posts and links to related stories of interest via twitter. You can find us @ http://twitter.com/thevieweast

July 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

   

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