The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Review: New Eastern Europe


I was very pleased to be asked to review the second issue of New Eastern Europe, a new quarterly journal. New Eastern Europe is a broadly collaborative affair, co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Solidarity Centre, and published by the College of Eastern Europe. Each issue contains a lively combination of reports, opinion, analysis and review articles, written by a range of authors including political analysts, academics, journalists and economists.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lead focus of  the second issue is heavily Russo-centric, featuring a timely collection of articles relating to the March election and the implications of Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming return to the presidency. Speculation about the likely impact of Putin’s controversial victory has been rife in recent weeks, with some analysts suggesting that that Putin is unlikely to even survive the duration of his forthcoming third term. The general consensus amongst the authors who have contributed to this special issue of New Eastern Europe, however, seems to be that we should expect continuity rather than change, both in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy, at least in the immediate future.


I particularly enjoyed  Jadwiga Rogoza’s fascinating article, where she argues that the recent surge in social activism in Russia is a product of social restructuring and the emergence of interest groups who increasingly conflict with the authorities (particularly the growth in prominence of the Russian middle class), linked to the role of the internet in helping to ‘demystify Putin’s rhetoric of success’ in defiance of the state-controlled media. Despite this, Rogoza still believes that the real challenge will be the evolution of the recent short term spike in social activism into a longer-term, more meaningful grass-roots opposition movement.


Ivan Preobrazhesnky goes on to analyse some of the historical parallels that have been drawn between the current Russian protests and those that took place during the dying years of the USSR (1989-1991), concluding that overall, the differences far outweigh the similarities, and that today, any change will be ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’. Dmitry Babich agrees, arguing that sweeping regime change within Russia will not happen any time soon, and that neither is Putin’s return to power likely to affect Russia’s relations with the West. Gail Lapidus extends the foreign policy focus, arguing that while Putin’s return may lead to ‘complications’ in US-Russian relations as we enter a period where areas of foreign policy convergence diminish while more contentious issues take centre stage, in the longer-term bilateral relations are unlikely to unravel or seriously diminish. The Russian coverage concludes with an inightful interview with Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia’s Yabloko block and author of Realeconomik.


Shining the spotlight away from Russia and onto some of her neighbours, the middle section of this issue contains an eclectic mixture of articles, including expert analysis of developments in Belarus, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Cornelius Ochman also provides a very interesting commentary about ideas of a new German ‘ostpolitik’ and I particularly enjoyed Thomas Escritt’s thoughts on the provocative policies adopted by Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in Hungary. Further articles analyse the effects of the global economic crisis across various countries in the east European region before finally, the focus shifts from the political to the personal, including a wonderful interview with travel writer Colin Thubron, Katarzyna Kwiatkowska’s profile of Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny and Slawomir Lukasiewicz’s portrait of Jan Nowak-Jezioranski and his work in the Polish underground during WWII and the communist period.


The second issue of New Eastern Europe concludes with their regular review section which, in this instance, includes thought provoking commentary on Agnieska Holland’s Holocaust film ‘In Darkness’; some thoughts about the newly published Polish autobiography by Danuta Walesa (better known as ‘Mrs. Lech Walesa’); a summary of Robert Massie’s portrait of Russia’s best known Empress Catherine the Great and a look at Taras Antypovych’s dystopian novel Chronos.


New Eastern Europe provides a welcome addition to existing periodicals focussing on central and east European affairs, effectively straddling the divide between more scholarly literature and popular media. The relatively short length of individual articles contributes to their readability, but without detracting from the standard of their content – written by a range of expert commentators, these articles are packed full of opinion and analysis.  The inclusion of articles written by a diverse collection of authors also has the advantage of providing a variety of different approaches, insights and perspectives. One thing I particularly like about New Eastern Europe is the fact that their print journal is supported by additional commentary on their frequently updated website,  active Twitter feed and Facebook page. At a time when traditional print media is struggling to adapt and survive in an environment which is increasingly dominated by digitisation and social media, New Eastern Europe sets an impressive example of how best to integrate and coordinate these different aspects to good effect. As a result New Eastern Europe is fast establishing itself as a ‘must-read’ for anyone with an interest in modern and contemporary central and eastern Europe.


New Eastern Europe is distributed internationally and Issue 2 is available now. You can also purchase an annual subscription to the journal HERE.

The main New Eastern Europe Website is HERE.

For regular updates, you can also follow New Eastern Europe on Twitter or like their Facebook page.




March 29, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Russia 2012 – History Repeating?

As you will probably have guessed, I’ve been following the recent Russian presidential election with great interest. In many ways the election itself was unremarkable: the outcome was a fait accompli before the first ballots had even been cast and the result simply confirmed what everybody expected – Vladimir Putin’s triumphant return to the Russian Presidency with a respectable 63% of the vote, despite widespread evidence of electoral fraud (in addition to the numerous video clips showcasing blatant examples of ballot stuffing and carousel voting available online, both GOLOS and the OSCE have issued formal statements highlighting ‘serious problems’ with the election).


In another sense however, March 4th marked something of a watershed. Russians were genuinely divided. Opposition to Putin’s proposed return to power crystallised, manifest in a series of demonstrations and protest marches held in the run up to polling day. Then more Russians took to the streets in response, not to condemn Putin but to cheer him. There has been much talk about the 2012 election sparking the ‘re-politicisation’ of the Russian citizenry. Putin’s re-election has dominated international media coverage too, provoking a deluge of commentary and providing a platform for airing a broad spectrum of views about contemporary Russia. Last weekend, as Russians went to the polls, my Twitter feed was alive with analysis, opinion and a wealth of wonderful visual and oral snippets about election day, providing some fascinating insights into events as they unfolded.


Something that particularly struck me during the recent election coverage was the widespread use of historical analogies when discussing more contemporary political developments. These have taken a number of different forms, including:


Vladimir Putin – Tsar or Comrade?: I’ve seen numerous references alluding to Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’, with parallels drawn with c17th-c18th Tsar Peter the Great in particular. This image was seemingly endorsed by protest leader Alexander Navalny, who referred to Putin as the ‘Emperor of Russia’ in a derogatory speech made after his re-election was formally confirmed. However, Putin has also been critically compared to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with 4th March 2012 referred to as Putin’s ‘Brezhnev moment’ , with widespread suggestions that the prospect of another 6 years (at least!) of ‘Putinism’, coming at a time of economic decline, will lead to the same kind of stagnation and frustration in Russia that characterised the Brezhnev era.


Putin's face superimposed onto Brezhnev's portrait - this popular image went viral during the Russian election earlier this month.


Electoral ‘Adjustment’: Focus on the lack of democracy and transparency surrounding the March 4th election triggered more comparisons with the Soviet era. Ok, so there are some obvious differences here: The 2012 Election provided at least a nominal choice of candidates, compared to the single candidate ‘elections’ that dominated the bulk of the communist period, although there were suggestions that any serious contenders had been prevented from standing on various ‘technicalities’. Putin’s 63% majority is also less risible than the 98% near universal popular endorsement that the communist party used to periodically claim –  electoral ‘adjustments’ notwithstanding, the prevailing consensus is that today, the Russian electorate still regard Putin as the most popular and viable option to lead their country at the present time. The OSCE post-election monitoring report claimed that, based on information from their exit polls, Putin would have squeaked by on just over 50% of the vote without any electoral manipulation, securing him a slim majority. This suggests that the various forms of electoral fraud were used as a propaganda tool to skew the vote more firmly in his favour by boosting his majority, rather than artificially creating his support base. In some areas though, Putin did claim victory with a curiously overwhelming majority (I’m thinking particularly here of Chechnya, where local officials claimed Putin won with 99.8 vote on a 99.5 turnout, just days after evidence of a Chechen plot to assassinate Putin had been revealed, with some Chechen precincts boasting voter turnout of 107% !).


Added to this, we have some of the tactics widely reported by the press during the election –  particularly the strategic organisation of crowds of pro-Putin demonstrators and the visible presence of large security detachments outside central polling stations (with reports that large numbers of OMON troops were deployed in central Moscow on election day) – both reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics to ‘remind’ citizens of their civic responsibility and to influence (intimidate) them into ‘willingly’ voting for their approved candidate.


Protest and (Potential?) Revolution:  Coverage of the growing anti-Putin demonstrations in the weeks leading up to polling day (which have also continued post-election) have also spawned comparisons with other key turning points in Russian history – I’ve seen parallels drawn between the current popular protests and the revolutionary years of 1905, 1917 and 1991 in recent weeks, with some commentators questioning whether 2012 might even herald ‘another Russian Revolution’. I was also interested to hear about Putin’s recent claims that ‘Western influence’ lay behind the demonstrations  – the return of another favoured Communist-era tactic, that of blaming the guiding hand of foreign forces for inciting domestic unrest! Traditionally, in the post-Stalin era, communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe used a combination of coercion, compromise and concessions to try to minimise overt expressions of opposition to their rule (something that was particularly prevalent during the Brezhnevian era ‘Little Deal’) and while it is still early days, Putin appears to be approaching his third term in office by adopting a similar approach – with the recent announcement that the case of imprisoned oligarch and outspoken Putin critic Mikhail Khororkovsky is to be reviewed after 7 years,  balanced with a crackdown which resulted in the arrest of many protest leaders (including Alexander Navalny) in the aftermath of March 4th.


I  asked a ‘troika’ of seasoned Russia-watchers – Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas – to share some thoughts about these historical analogies and to make some predictions about what the future could hold for Russia during Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. Their responses provide a good indication of the broad range of opinions that exist. Their overall consensus seems to be that when it comes to Putin, some historical analogies may carry more weight than others, but that we should always beware of drawing overly simplistic comparisons between Russia past and present.  So, over to them:


I have seen a lot of recent references describing Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’. Is this a fair description? On balance, would you say Putin was more of a Peter the Great, an Ivan the Terrible, or another Tsar altogether?


Mark Galeotti: As always with these kind of comparisons, none fit perfectly. Ivan the Terrible was an effective institution-builder in the first period of his reign, an increasingly destructive paranoiac in the second, which may prove to be a decent metaphor for Putin, but we’ll have to wait and see. In many ways, I’d also throw in a comparison with Tsar Nicholas I (who reigned 1825-1855), an authoritarian with a military background, who came to see the intellectual case for reform, but who never was able ultimately to overcome his visceral mistrust of it and the chaos change tends to bring.

Luke Harding: I’m not sure how helpful it is to compare Putin to either Peter or Ivan. But I do know that staff in his administration quite often use the phrase “Tsar Khochet” [The Tsar Wants….]

Edward Lucas: Personally, I don’t like any of these historical analogies. Russia now is quite different from Imperial Russia. Putin is a Red-Brown-White amalgam:  his approach is friendly to orthodox while keeping Lenin in his mausoleum and using fascist rhetoric. To view him as a ‘Tsar’ is too simplistic.


Critical comparisons have also been drawn between Putin and long-serving Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Do you agree?


MG: I’m not so much compelled by comparisons with Brezhnev as a person so much as the era. Brezhnev was the beneficiary of extremely favourable circumstances, both political and economic, with buoyant oil and gas export prices and a rebound from Khrushchev and his ‘madcap schemes.’ This allowed for a process of buying off every interest group, from the masses (with ‘sausage communism’) to the military and the increasingly corrupt elite. However, then the money began getting tight and everybody’s expectations had grown and that’s when things became troublesome. Brezhnev by that stage lacked the temperament or power to force harsh decisions on the government and to a large extent cuts hit the masses. Putin has likewise been the beneficiary of great good fortune and social and institutional expectations have grown, but on the other hand, Putin is no Brezhnev and he has the ability — though perhaps not the will — to adapt to meet changing economic needs.

LH: I’ve used the Brezhnev analogy before most recently in my Guardian article following Putin’s election victory, which you can read HERE. The comparison isn’t absolute, of course. But the similarities are obvious: a personalist regime, a leader who refuses to step down, the absence of any kind of succession mechanism. No-one can quite see how Putin will end – other than in the same way Brezhnev did. Plus of course, there are broader historical parallels: stagnation, high oil prices, emigration, an Olympics and a regime that – just about – has a degree of international respectability.

EL: Again, in my opinion this comparison is not really appropriate except as an insult. Modern Russia is far more open and dynamic than during the Brezhnev era.


To what extent have we seen a continuation of communist-era election tactics to influence the 2012 vote in Putin’s favour?


MG: Well, I would for a start challenge the suggestions in some media reports about a strong military presence at polling stations. None of the ones I visited had more than a bored cop or two…

There was a degree of fraud, but that was certainly not communist-style. Back then, if they wanted to stack the votes, they just counted them appropriately. Phenomena such as carousel voting is very definitely a post-Soviet development. Where there is a degree of continuity though, is in the dominance of the public narrative, largely through control of the TV and through ‘administrative resource’ – but on the whole I think the idea of linking this to the Soviet era is a mistake. Election fraud is election fraud.

LH: There are plenty of similarities here, but the most important factor has been State controlled TV – a glossily updated form of Soviet telly – which has broadcast wall-to-wall pro-Putin propaganda…

EL: I disagree. In my opinion, this is another wrong comparison. Election-rigging in its modern form started under Yeltsin (eg during the 1994 constutional referendum, the 1996 presidential vote). Communist elections were single-candidate so there was no need to rig them.


Historically, the Russian/Soviet authorities tried to suppress dissent, protest and rebellion through a mixture of coercion and concessions. It’s only been a week since Putin’s election victory but already, we have seen evidence of both.  How do you think Putin will handle continued opposition to his rule?


MG: We will see more of the same. I have discussed this further on my blog HERE.

LH: The conventional wisdom is that Putin has two choices. One to announce vague liberal seeming reforms, or pseudo-reforms in order to assuage the demonstrators and those more loosely fed up with his rule. The other is to employ the lugubrious KGB methods we’ve seen in the past: arrests (like last Monday), black PR against opposition leaders, administrative measures. Or both. I suspect both.

EL: A Mixture. Both options are limited. Opening up threatens to destroy the system, but it is too weak for mass repression.


The Russian protest movement has been attracting a lot of attention too – again, numerous historical parallels have been drawn, often between 2012 and 1917, although many have argued that 1905 is a better comparison and some have mentioned 1991. Do you think 2012 will bring another Russian Revolution?


MG: I haven’t seen any 1917 parallels, and I think they are pretty dumb. Where’s the revolutionary party? More to the point, where is the evidence of a weakening of central, existing power? 2012 will see no revolution.

The parallel with 1905 works better though – Again I’ve commented on this in more detail HERE.

LH: Yes – it’s 1905 not 1917. 2012 won’t bring another Russian Revolution. At this point I’m more pessimistic than optimistic, despite the encouraging middle-class-led uprising against Putin’s rule. The problem is this: the Russian governing class – worth billions – will fight very hard to preserve the current power dynamic and to hang on to their assets. The opposition are no match for the Kremlin. Putin and his ruling team have a kind of gangster energy about them.

EL: I’d say the current protest movement is more reminiscent of the late Gorbachev era, but much less naïve. Yes, it is good that the middle classes are involved in politics again, it’s good to have debate, satire etc. But it is a long way from reaching ‘critical mass’.


Finally, what do you think the future will hold for Russia, during Putin’s third term as President?


MG: This term, Putin’s last in power in my opinion, will see the slow, painful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back emergence of a genuine political alternatives — and maybe alternatives — to Putin and ‘Putinism’, but he and it will not go easily or quietly…

LH: Stagnation, frustration, emigration. A growing consciousness among Russia’s thinking population that the country is going nowhere under its current leadership…

EL: Change will be messy and remain inside the elite/system, at least at first. My bet is that Putin will not be leader after 2 years and one month. For more on this, see my recent interview HERE.


Mark Galeotti is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs and Academic Chair at New York University. His previous publications include The Politics of Security in Modern Russia; he writes a regular blog about Russian crime and security at In Moscow’s Shadows and he was present in Moscow during the recent presidential election. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkGaleotti

Luke Harding worked as the Moscow correspondent  for the Guardian between 2007 and 2011 and is the author of Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeharding1968

Edward Lucas is International Editor of The Economist and author of The New Cold War and Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West. You can follow him on Twitter @edwardlucas


Many thanks to Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas for their comments!



March 13, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Today in (East European) History – 5 March


It’s funny how sometimes, certain dates seem to have particular resonance in terms of their historical significance. A quick glance through my Twitter feed earlier this morning reminded me that, even amongst all of the current excitement over Putin’s victory in yesterday’s Russian election, 5th March is a date that marks a number of significant developments in the history of modern central and eastern Europe. On this day, the following events occurred:


5th March 1940 – Stalin signed the order authorising NKVD officers to commence the execution and burial of over 20,000 captured Polish Army Officers who were being held in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in Poland. Responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was subsequently denied by Soviet officials, who blamed the Germans right up until the dying days of the USSR, when Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility. However, Katyn has continued to cast a dark shadow over Russian-Polish relations in the post-Cold War period, as discussed in more detail in my previous blog post HERE.


5th March 1946 – Concerned by the rapid spread of communist influence across central and eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech at Fulton Missouri, where he stated that ‘an iron curtain’ had descended across the continent, separating East from West, The speech signalled the beginning of the end for the wartime ‘Grand Alliance’ and the hardening of formal spheres of influence in post-war Europe. Churchill’s vivid depiction of an ‘iron curtain’ dividing the capitalist west from the communist east became a key metaphor in Cold War political language. You can read Churchills speech in full HERE.


5th March 1953 – Soviet leader Josef Stalin died, aged 74, after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin’s body had been discovered several days earlier, collapsed in his private chambers. It has subsequently been alleged that Stalin may have been poisoned by Lavrenti Beria, his chief of secret police, Stalin’s death marked the end to his 29 years in power, a period which had seen the Soviet Union transformed politically, economically, socially and culturally through a series of sweeping reforms which had enabled the USSR to emerge from World War II as a victorious superpower, but had led to almost unimaginable hardship and suffering for millions of Soviet citizens. So while many Soviet people openly wept upon receiving news of Stalin’s death, many more exchanged secret smiles and secretly toasted his demise. Today, Stalin’s legacy remains highly contested, both within Russia and internationally, as discussed in a previous blog post HERE.


Also on this day in (East European) history:


5th March 1871 – Socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc (then part of Russian controlled Poland)

5th March 1918 – The Soviets moved the Russian capital from Petrograd to Moscow.

5th March 1933 – The Nazi Party won 44% of the vote in the German Parliamentary elections, allowing Hitler to assume dictatorial powers



March 5, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

History Carnival #107 – March 2012


As we make the transition from February to March, it feels as though we are also leaving winter behind us and moving into spring. While  it’s perhaps a little early to tempt fate by packing away your winter woolies *just* yet, the days have started to feel lighter and brighter of late (today is the 1st of March, and I am typing this bathed in the bright spring sunshine pouring in through my study window), the birds seem to be singing that little bit more loudly, and  the first spring flowers have emerged from the frozen soil. February has also provided fertile ground for the history blogosphere, so we have an exciting and eclectic mix of blog posts to showcase in this month’s History Carnival!


Early in February (perhaps as a reminder that winter wasn’t quite over yet!), Jane Winters posted this great account of The Frozen Thames over at the IHR Digital History Blog.


February, of course, meant St Valentine’s day, which triggered a number of Valentine themed blog posts. Over at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Blog, curator Victoria Osborne published one historic valentine per day in the week leading up to 14th February, culminating with Sealed with a Kiss (or 300) – a cute love letter from 1834.  A fascinating blog post at Victorian Gothic also explored the nineteenth century tradition of gifting hairwork as a token of romance or sincerity in The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork. My favourite Valentines related blog post though, was the ever excellent Retronaut’s collection of Vintage Valentines, a fantastic gallery, ranging from the curious to the downright creepy!


February also means pancakes! So, over at Shakespeare’s England  we were treated to some lovely insights into pancake days of old, in Dainty Ballerina’s When the Pancake Bell rings we are free, which included some authentic seventeenth century pancake recipes. While we’re on a  food-related theme, C Hayford’s blog post  Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey? Or, the Politics of Authenticity at Frog in a Well introduces a wealth of thought provoking ideas, and also links to a longer article about the role of Chinese food in the West. Chris Gehrz also touches on the issue of authenticity, this time related to the realm of public  and ‘living history’, in his blog about Dickens World at The Pietist Schoolman.


February was also a good month for fans of transport history and for rail enthusiasts in particular, with Reannon Muth’s post on The History of Rail Travel featuring at Tripbase while David Turner was busy celebrating the second anniversary of  his blog TurnipRail, with a couple of special guest authored posts and his own roundup of The Best of the Second Year.


At the ever excellent Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris took us ‘beyond the grave’ to explore Concepts of Death in Early Modern England. Meanwhile, at Necropolis Now, Caroline Tully posted a fascinating Interview with Professor Ronald Hutton which provided some great insights into his work on magic, witchcraft and paganism. There were also distinctly supernatural undertones to Romeo Vitelli’s post Listening to McKinley’s Ghost,  which detailed  an attempted assasination attempt made on Theodore Roosevelt in the run up to the 1912 US Election.


Melodee Beals’ post Scottish Solidarity and the Historigoraphy of the Tobacco Trade relates some of her recent research findings to the established historiography of Scottish tobacco merchants and their involvement in eighteenth century Atlantic Trade.


Over at Anterotesis, John Levin’s Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton not only reviewed an interesting exhibition but also assessed an important development in British queer history, while Hastan Niyazi explored the attrition and controversial history behind Raphaels’ ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ in From Scandal to Obscurity at Three Pipe Problem.


The promotion of infamous women in history continued at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans, with a fine blog post exploding some of the most common myths about Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard. On a related royal note, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee just around the proverbial corner here in the UK,  Ian Curry put the ‘royal’ into Royal Greenwich over at Vaguely Interesting, using his research into the local history to ask What is royal in Royal Greenwich?


I really enjoyed Claire Preston’s thoughts about lost intellectual treasures (something which it is easy to take forgranted in today’s digital age!) in her post on  Lost Libraries over at the Public Domain Review, while Dr Kenneth Owen offered some very interesting perspectives on Teaching Localities at his Weblog The Committe of Observation and Inspection.


I’d like to draw this month’s History Carnival to a close by featuring a few of my own favourite blog posts from February. Firstly, I really enjoyed Sarah J Young’s intriguingly entitled blog post Intergalactic Zombie Agriculture, in relation to the ideas of nineteenth century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Secondly, Alan Flower posted some wonderful diary entries from passengers who flew on the Hindenburg Airship in A Journey on the Hindenburg over at History and the Sock Merchant. Finally, one of my Swansea University colleagues Martin Johnes blogged On publishing an academic book – a pertinent post which not only ties in with the recent release of his new book ‘Wales Since 1939’  but also provides some particularly useful  insights for historians (like myself) who are currently completing their first monograph.


That’s all for this month folks! The next History Carnival will be up on 1st April,  hosted by Pamela Toler at History in the Margins.



March 1, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments