The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 46,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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

Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Film Review)

This weekend I went to see Wałęsa: Man of Hope, the new film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, which offers a rich biopic of Lech Wałęsa: shipyard electrician, family man, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, communist-era dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of post-communist Poland. The film focuses on the period from the Gdansk strikes of 1970 to the collapse of communism in 1989. This was the time when Wałęsa rose to international prominence as leader of the Solidarity movement, and original documentary footage of various events was interspersed throughout the movie. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this, particularly as I visited Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, for the first time last November (and am looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks!), so I was delighted when I discovered that Cineworld are currently offering showings throughout the UK.

The film’s narrative is developed around Wałęsa’s interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, which took place in March 1981. Near the beginning of the film, Fallaci asks her advisor ‘What is he [Wałęsa] really like?’. His answer is: ‘Full of contradictions and surprises’ – something which is more than evident as the film progresses.

Poster advertising Andrzej Wajda's new film Walesa: Man of Hope.

Poster advertising Andrzej Wajda’s new film Walesa: Man of Hope.

Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska are both wonderful in their respective lead roles. Więckiewicz excels as Wałęsa, allowing his uncompromising charisma to really shine through, while Grochowska provides a great portrayal of Danuta, both as Wałęsa’s loyal, long-suffering wife and mother to their eight children, but also allowing her to emerge as a strong character in her own right. We see her abusing the secret service agents sent to periodically search their apartment (while concurrently destroying incriminating pamphlets by boiling them in a pot on her stove!) and ordering dozens of journalists out into the street when she decides their privacy has been eroded enough. One particularly poignant scene shows Danuta traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace prize on her husband’s behalf (Wałęsa was awarded the prize in 1983, but refused to travel to Norway to collect it in person, as he feared that he would be prevented from re-entering Poland). Danuta returns proudly bearing the prize, fresh from the prestige of the acceptance ceremony, but is met with a cold welcome back in Poland where she is forced to endure a humiliating strip search and ‘personal interrogation’ as a punishment.

 As the story unfolds, we get a real sense of the precarious position Wałęsa was in as he tried to grope his way through uncharted territory to victory against the communist party – often caught between the younger, radical members of the strike committee who urge him to push too fast, too soon and those who accused him of ‘selling out’ for his willingness to consider compromise with the communist authorities. We see Wałęsa himself become hardened and more radicalised in his demands for workers’ rights as the Solidarity movement gathered momentum. This is particularly evident from depictions of his experiences with the SB (the communist-era Secret Police in Poland). The fear manifest during his initial arrest for involvement in the 1970 riots is palpable, as he nervously watches other protestors, most of whom are bloodied and battered, being pulled in around him and listens to the StB make threats against Danuta and their new born son. But later arrests and interrogations are characterised by tolerance and resignation. ‘I’ve been expecting this’ he drily remarks when he opens his door to two nervous SB men sent to arrest him on a cold December night in 1983, as Polish Premier General Jaruzelski prepares to declare Martial Law.

Throughout the film we frequently witness Wałęsa’s ‘human’ side as he is forced to push harder and risk more in his fight against the authorities. The slogan ‘Nie chcem, ale muszem’ (‘I don’t want to, but I have to’) – as Wałęsa himself declared during his Presidential campaign in 1990 – appears increasingly apt. ‘What if I get scared?’ Danuta asks Lech before the SB men take him away on the eve of Martial Law. ‘Then that would mean the end’ he responds, before admitting, in a rare moment of vulnerability, ‘I get scared sometimes too’. This fear is perhaps most evident when he spots a Soviet aircraft hovering menacingly overhead as he is hurriedly transferred from his helicopter to the jeep that will take him to his confinement, while the SB officers accompanying him express concerns that the Soviets could decide to ‘take Wałęsa out’, placing them in danger too ‘so there aren’t any witnesses’. And although Wałęsa acknowledged how easily the people could turn against him during his 1981 interview with Fallaci, he still appears genuinely shocked when some passing Poles hurl abuse at him while he is being transported in an SB car the day after the declaration of Martial Law.

Scene from 'Walesa: Man of Hope' - showing Lech Walesa climbing atop the shipyard gates in Gdansk to declare victory in his August 1980 negotiations with the communist authorities.

Scene from ‘Walesa: Man of Hope’ – showing Lech Walesa climbing atop the shipyard gates in Gdansk to declare victory in his August 1980 negotiations with the communist authorities.

The film’s emphasis is firmly focused on Wałęsa’s ‘golden years’, although even the famous round table talks and the election victory of June 1989 are skipped over very quickly at the end. There is nothing about Wałęsa’s chequered Polish Presidency (1990-95) or the controversy provoked by his increasingly extremist views in recent years. While Wajda does not shy away from allegations that have emerged suggesting that Wałęsa acted as a police informant prior to his involvement in Solidarity (and even hints that there may be some truth in this), overall the film adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach in its portrayal of the nature of any collaboration between Wałęsa and the SB. No clear answers are provided, although more generally, Wajda hints at some of the reasons why people may have collaborated with the communist authorities – for example, the case of Wałęsa’s workmate, who agrees to make an unpopular speech calling for the acceptance of ‘voluntary penalties’ by shipyard workers who fail to make their quotas, because his family live in abject poverty and he was given ‘wood for the fire and a promise of electricity’ in exchange for his complicity.

Today, Lech Wałęsa remains a controversial figure. Reports that he recently walked out of an interview mid-way through, suggest that the confrontational, bullish, uncompromising attitude we witness during the film’s depiction of his interview with Fallaci has not mellowed. Wajda himself described producing the biopic as ‘a very difficult undertaking’, stating that his aim was to present a nuanced picture of Wałęsa – an aim in which he certainly succeeds. Man of Hope portrays Wałęsa very much as a flawed hero – someone who did the best he could under the circumstances in which he was operating, and achieved much against almost insurmountable odds. However Wajda also illustrates how Walesa’s ‘difficult’ and at times authoritarian leadership style frequently translated into arrogance, intolerance and rudeness. The overall sense I left with was one of Wałęsa as human, rather than saint-like, although  I thought this strengthened, rather than detracted from, the film’s message. Wałęsa himself has recently given his seal of approval to the biopic, stating that overall he thinks Wajda has ‘done a good job’.

The film trailer is below.  Catch it if you can!

October 28, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

History Carnival #126 – October 2013.

The passage from September into October also signals the transition from late summer into autumn, and there has been a distinctly autumnal feel in the air here of late. As we enter John Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, I’m delighted to play host to a second History Carnival here at The View East. Rather than ‘gathering swallows twittering in the skies’ over my house however, noisily honking geese have dominated for the past few days – I clearly live under a popular migratory flight-path!

The October 2013 History Carnival once again stands as a testament to the diverse range of excellent history blogs out there. This month, we begin with a visit to The Collation, featuring Goran Proot’s ‘Wherein True Bliss is Buried’ a study of a Broadside advertising a tragicomedy performed by a Jesuit theatre in Brussels in September 1624. This document was formerly the property of the Marquess of Downshire, but was subsequently acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Over at The Renaissance Mathematicus, C. Thony discussed the life’s work and enduring legacy of seventeenth century English mathematician John Collins, in his post The corresponding accountant, the man who invented π and the Earls of Macclesfield, which was inspired by the welcome news that Collins’ letters collection is going to be published as an edited collection.  

The team at Scandalous Women travelled back to the early Georgian era as Elizabeth Kerri Mahon explored The Life of Henrietta Howard, the ‘reluctant mistress’ of King George II. Over at History Republic, Joe K. provided an entertaining summary of the failure of the French Estates General of 1789 in the third of an ongoing series of posts about the French Revolution  entitled ‘The French Turmoil: Vive La France!’. Meanwhile, Guy Woolnough uses the case of Victorian gentleman John Dunne to highlight some of the ambiguities Historians can face when adopting a class-based approach in his article Identifying the Victorian middle class which was posted at the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.

At the ever-entertaining Pirate Omnibus, Simon Abernethy’s post ‘Taking a Walk on the Wild Side’ examined resistance to Lord Newton’s 1922 ‘Walk on the Left’ campaign, designed to ensure pedestrian safety in an increasingly motorised London, while Betsy Frederick-Rothwell’s blog post for Not Even Past draws on research and photographs sourced from the Austin History Center to document a day in the life of Austin’s Municipal Abattoir, which functioned as an integral part of the city between 1931-1969.

I’m expecting a steady increase in blog posts relating to WWI in the lead up to next year’s centenary and over at Withered Papyrus, Nikhil Sharma illustrated how the power and the personal often combine to devastating effect in history, documenting the relationship between Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his ‘unworthy’ wife Sophie Chotek in his review of the new book The Assassination of the ArchDuke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans. Also on a WWI-related note, Richard Evans wrote about the daring First World War journalists who risked arrest to report from the Front Line for The History Press Blog.

Moving on from WWI to WWII, UCL SSEES Lecturer Daniel Siemens provided some fascinating insights into an unusual alliance between politics and big business in interwar Germany over at the UCL SSEES Research Blog, where his post about Nazi storm-troopers’ cigarettes discussed the rise and fall of Arthur Dressler’s ‘Sturm’ company, which made a handsome profit from the production of German ‘home brand cigarettes’ for the SA between 1929-1934. Continuing the WWII theme, Alexis Coe’s blog post Zinaida Portnova: Young Avenger  at The Toast highlights the tragic story of a 15 year old Belarusian girl who played an active role in the underground resistance to Nazi occupied Belarus before she was captured, tortured and ultimately executed.

One of the perks of hosting this month’s History Carnival is that I can take the opportunity to close with a few of my own personal recommendations. Earlier this month I really enjoyed James Estrin’s evocative photos and insights into life in Manhatten’s ‘Little Italy’ district in the early twentieth century in The Italian Americans of Mulberry St: Long Before ‘The Godfather’, at LENS (hosted by the New York Times). As a historian whose research interests relate to the Cold War, I also enjoyed reading Matthew M Aid and William Burr’s article Disreputable if not Outright Illegal over at the National Security Archive website. Aid and Burr analysed recently declassified NSA documents that reveal that prominent figures including Martin Luther King and Muhammed Ali were placed under surveillance on a Vietnam War-era ‘watch list’ along with several prominent US Congressmen. They also discuss how other newly available NSA documents provide fresh insights into US knowledge of Soviet actions during several Cold War ‘flashpoints’ including the decision to close the Berlin Border in 1961; the placement of missiles on Cuba in 1962 and the Panama Canal negotiations in 1977. Finally, Josh Jones deserves a mention for compiling a great collection of links relating to George Orwell’s 1984 including access to free e books, audio books, study resources and reviews over at Open Culture.

That’s all for this month – but be sure to check out next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by the excellent History and the Sock Merchant on 1st November!

October 1, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hot Pink Protest: Bulgarian Monument Repainted as ‘Artistic Apology’ for 1968 Czechoslovakian Invasion.

This week marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Overnight on 20-21 August 1968 a combined force of up to 200,000 Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops entered and occupied Czechoslovakia to crush the political liberalisation sparked by communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s reformist ‘Prague Spring’ and implement a period of ‘normalisation’. You can read more about the failure of the Prague Spring and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in a previous blog post here.

Of course, the 45th anniversary of the invasion was commemorated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Prague, several top Czech officials (including current Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, lower house speaker Miroslava Němcová and Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček) marked the occasion in a ceremony that took place outside the Czech Radio building that had formed one of the centres of resistance in 1968.

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an 'artistic apology' for Bulgaria's role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an ‘artistic apology’ for Bulgaria’s role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via

However, this year domestic remembrance was overshadowed by developments in Bulgaria, where anonymous artists spray painted a prominent monument to the Soviet Army pink with the accompanying slogan ‘Bulgaria Aplogises’ (written in both Czech and Bulgarian) indicating remorse for Bulgarian involvement in the invasion. Back in 1968 Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was the leading advocate of hard-line intervention to quell Dubcek’s reforms, and critics have since pointed out that Bulgaria was the first Warsaw Pact country to insist on military intervention in 1968 and the last communist-bloc country to formally apologise for their involvement, in 1990. This week, a Bulgarian blogger interviewed one of the anonymous artists, who confirmed that choosing pink paint was a deliberate nod to Czech artist David Černý, who famously painted a Soviet tank dedicated to the memory of the 1945 liberation of Prague pink in 1991, an act which sparked controversy and ultimately led to the tank’s removal to a military museum.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of 'Operation Danube' - the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’ – the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Photo Credit: ArtDaily.Org

Photos of the freshly re-painted monument quickly spread around the world via social networking sites and the story was also picked up by several international media organisations. The Bulgarian authorities moved quickly to try to ensure damage limitation: the monument was cleaned the following night (an operation allegedly conducted by volunteers from the ‘Forum Bulgaria-Russia’), while the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia swiftly announced the launch of pre-trial proceedings against the (still unknown) perpetrators on charges of ‘hooliganism’ which could result in a sentence of up to two years in jail if pursued, although this seems unlikely unless they are identified. However, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the Russian government intend to formally request that the Bulgarian authorities take action to punish those responsible and prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents in future. His statement demanded ‘the adoption of effective measures to prevent the mockery of the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Europe from Nazism and Bulgaria, to identify and punish those responsible’.

This was not the first time that the Soviet Army monument in Sofia has been the subject of a controversial makeover. It has been subject to repeated graffiti, most famously in June 2011 when the statues were  re-painted to resemble a collection of well-known Western pop culture heroes including Superman, The Joker, Captain America and Ronald McDonald, the flag held by the soldiers was painted with the US stars and stripes and an accompanying

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit:

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit:

slogan proclaimed that the makeover was ‘In Step With The Times’. I also wrote about this in an old blog post here. The Soviet monument has long divided opinion in Bulgaria – many view the statue as a symbol of communist repression, and there have been several calls for it to be destroyed, or at least moved from its current (prominent) location in central Sofia to the city’s museum of communism which opened in 2011. But these proposals are opposed by others who argue that the statue represents Bulgaria’s liberation from fascism in WWII and charge those who want the statue removed with ‘historical revisionism’. Of course, this debate is not just taking place within Bulgaria; over twenty years after the collapse of communism, the status of Soviet WWII memorials as symbols of liberation or oppression are still frequently contested throughout the former communist bloc. For more on this topic see my previous blog post here.

The latest ‘attack’ on the Soviet memorial in Sofia must also be understood in the context of growing domestic unrest in Bulgaria, where large-scale protests against the current government (which is dominated by the former communist party) have been occurring on a daily basis since June. Interestingly, photos of the on-going anti-government protests in Sofia following the controversial repainting of the memorial earlier this week show demonstrators brandishing a cardboard cut-out of Černý’s ‘pink tank’.

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny's 'pink tank'. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny’s ‘pink tank’. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via

However, the Czechs have also experienced a summer of political turmoil, triggered by the collapse of Petr Necas’s government following a corruption scandal in June. Czech MPs recently passed a vote of no-confidence, dissolving parliament and triggering an early election this autumn that threatens to return the communist party to power. Some Czech officials used the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion earlier this week, to warn against the return of the communists to political power, with Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček commenting that:

 “This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past … Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example”.

August 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Remembering the Warsaw Uprising (1944)

As some of you will already know (particularly those of you who follow my personal twitter feed, so will have seen some of the photos I’ve posted recently), I’ve spent the last few weeks in Central Europe on a research trip. I’ve largely been based in the Czech Republic and Poland with a quick trip to Ukraine (Lviv) thrown in! It’s been a really great trip, both in terms of gathering data for my current research which focuses on drug abuse in communist central Europe and in terms of laying some initial groundwork for the next major research project I want to undertake, which I’m very excited about, and will relate to the repression of women, initially focusing on communist Czechoslovakia.

Warsaw - the city where old meets new! Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Warsaw – the city where old meets new! Photo © Kelly Hignett.

I’m currently in Warsaw, on the final leg of my trip before returning to the UK next week. It has been several years since my last visit here and I’ve noticed a lot of changes, something which has been enhanced by the fact that Warsaw currently feels very much ‘under construction’ – the central part of the Metro system is closed this summer to allow for major rennovations (which means I’ve been doing a LOT of walking – just as well, given my excessive consumption of beer, borscht and pierogi while I’ve been here!) and it feels very much as though Warsaw is going through something of a metamorphosis, preparing to emerge as a leading centre of twenty-first century Europe. I read this article a couple of days ago, which sums it up pretty well, describing Warsaw as a ‘fascinating capital of many layers’, one of the reasons why I like it so much.

I also arrived a couple of days after the 1st August anniversary marking 69 years since the outbreak of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; the day when the Polish resistance took up arms in an attempt to liberate their city from Nazi control. Following 63 days of ferocious street fighting by the Polish Home Army, who were supported by the civillian population but failed to attract any substantial international support, the beleaguered resistance capitulated having suffered estimated losses of 16,000 resistance fighters and 150,000-200,000 civillians. Following the rising, the Nazis extracted revenge by systematically reducing most of Warsaw to rubble while executing and forcibly evacuating its surviving citizens  – by the time Warsaw was ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, 85% of the city had been destroyed and from a pre-war population of 1.3 million only around 1000 people remained, hiding in the ruins.  The defeat of the Home Army also removed any serious domestic resistance to Soviet control of the city, where a communist regime was swiftly imposed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

August 4, 2013 - 3 days after the 69th anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the central memorial in Warsaw remained bedecked with floral tributes, candles and flags.

August 4, 2013 – Warsaw Uprising Memorial, bedecked with floral tributes, candles and flags. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

One of the things that has struck me during this visit, is how much more prominent the Warsaw Uprising has become in recent years. A recent poll found that today, a majority (34%) of those surveyed view the 1944 uprising as the most important insurrection in Polish history. 1st August is a major commemorative event in Warsaw: every year sirens are sounded at 5pm, marking ‘W hour’ (the official start of the uprising), followed by a minutes of silence in memory of those who lost their lives. Flags adorn the streets, flowers and candles are left at various memorials around the city and organised re-enactments are common. While I wasn’t in Warsaw during this year’s commemoration,  my friends over at Crossing the Baltic have posted a short article with some photos, and when I arrived here a couple of days later the central monument remained bedecked with various tributes.

In addition, I discovered that the area around Rynek Nowego Miasta (New Town Market Square) was abuzz, as filming is currently underway for ‘Miasto ‘44’ (City ‘44), a new film about the uprising by acclaimed Polish director Jan Komasa. One of the streets nearby was cordoned off for the film crew, where barricades had been erected. I had a lunch meeting on the square one day earlier this week, and noticed several actors and film extras, who were wandering around and enjoying the sunshine whilst taking a break from filming!

Actors filming 'Miasto 44' in Warsaw happily pose for photos. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Actors filming ‘Miasto 44’ in Warsaw happily pose for photos. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Enjoying the sunshine, during a break from filimg. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Enjoying the sunshine, during a break from filimg. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Filming Miasto '44. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Filming Miasto ’44. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Filming 'Miasto '44'. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Filming ‘Miasto ’44’. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Komasa has described Miasto ’44 as ‘a story of tragedy and heroism, sacrifice and terror, which will reflect modern issues and concerns’, claiming that the film will concentrate on the relationships between the (mostly young) men and women involved in the uprising. The screenplay has been approved by acclaimed historian Professor Norman Davies and former foreign minister and underground member Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, while Komasa has said that surviving veterans who participated in the uprising have also visited the film set to advise on various aspects. The film premiere is scheduled to take place on 70th anniversary of the uprising next year and will be shown in front of a crowd of 15,000 people at Warsaw stadium. I’ll be very interested to see this film when it is released next year!

Barricade, constructed on the film set of 'Miasto '44'. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Barricade, constructed on the film set of ‘Miasto ’44’. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

More generally, while walking around Warsaw during the past week, I noticed that the uprising has become much more ‘visible’ in the city’s heritage. In addition to the central monument, numerous smaller plaques and commemorative memorials are scattered around the city denoting various significant locations and events, while the anchored ‘P’ (PW), the symbol most commonly associated with the 1944 uprising and the Polish underground, is a very common sight. This post-communist resurgence is unsurprising if you consider that for many decades after WWII the communist authorities attempted to suppress popular memory of the uprising: emphasis was placed on the role played by the Red Army in the liberation of Warsaw, while the leaders of the Polish underground were denounced as German collaborators and terrorists, who acted to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie and rich landowners. Any official commemoration of the uprising was forbidden, and it was only after the fall of communism in 1989 that the first monuments were able to be openly erected.

Building decorated with the symbols of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Building decorated with the symbols of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Wall plaque denoting barracks errectd during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Wall plaque denoting barracks errectd during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Wall plaque on ul. Mysia, in commemoration of a scoutmaster involved in the 1944 Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Wall plaque on ul. Mysia, in commemoration of a scoutmaster involved in the 1944 Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Memorial for 40 members of the Polish underground who were shot by the Nazis. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Memorial for 40 members of the Polish underground who were shot by the Nazis. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Commemorative plaque on the corner of ul. Krolewska.

Commemorative plaque on the corner of ul. Krolewska. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

I had some free time this morning, so decided to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego) which opened in 2004 and was highly

recommended to me by a number of Polish friends. The museum, housed in a former power station, has done much to raise the historical profile of the uprising, and is currently involved in plans to commemorate next year’s 70th anniversary. The museum is packed with information about different aspects of the uprising and generally succeeds in their aim to strike a balance between ‘traditional’ displays (for example, the extensive collection of artillery that forms one large portion of the display) and interactive engagement, as visitors are invited to view images through binoculars, peer through a German guard post and crawl through a (less smelly!) replica of the sewerage tunnels used by the resistance to move around Warsaw during the uprising. Unsurprisingly, the primary emphasis of the museum is on exploring the organisation of the Polish resistance (which is fascinating, and it was nice to see the role played by women in the underground movement acknowledged) and the military aspects of the uprising, but there is also some more general information about Nazi occupied Poland, the Warsaw ghetto and the role played by the Church. Video footage of veterans talking about their experiences are displayed and two films are included: the first, compiled of footage produced by the Polish Home Army Propaganda Division during the uprising, is included in the cost of the general entry fee, the second – ‘Miasto Ruin’ (City of Ruins), is not, but I’d highly recommend paying the extra 2 Zloty fee to view it! Miasto Ruin is a short 3D depiction of a flight over the ruins of Warsaw at the end of WWII, and this really bought home the level of destruction suffered by the city for me, more so than any photographs I’ve seen (if you’re interested, you can view the film trailer here). I would have liked to have learned a little more about the role played by civilians and their experiences of living through the uprising (although, admitedly, the Home Army video footage did cover this in some detail), and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own research interests!) I’d also have been very interested to learn more about the persecution of the surviving Polish resistance leaders by the communists (such as the Trial of the Sixteen in 1945), which was limited to one brief display.  But I’d definitely recommend a trip here if you visit Warsaw!

The Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego). Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego). Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

Armband worn by a member of the Polish Home Army during the 1944 rising - on display in the Warsaw Uprising Museum.Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

Armband worn by a member of the Polish Home Army during the 1944 rising – on display in the Warsaw Uprising Museum.Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

Polish friends have told me that while the post-communist period has led to the resurgence of the Warsaw Uprising in popular memory, the availability of new information has also sparked serious academic debate and critical analysis of various aspects including the motivations of the resistance leaders, the high casualty rate and the wider international context. Questions surrounding Soviet attitudes to the Uprising and the lack of British support for the Polish resistance remain. However, at present, there tends to be much less emphasis on the Uprising in Western historiography of WWII (with a few notable exceptions). There is still much that we do not know about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and to date, key intelligence files in both Russia and the UK remain classified.

Memorial Wall, outside the museum. Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

Memorial Wall, outside the museum. Photo Credit © Kelly Hignett.

August 8, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

‘Everything about everyone’: the depth of Stasi surveillance in the GDR.

The recent NSA scandal has triggered comparisons with the East German Stasi, demonstrating that even twenty five years after the collapse of the GDR the Stasi still act as a a default global synonym for the modern police state. In this blog post, guest author Rachel Clark, a final year History student at Leeds Metropolitan University, explores the intrusive methods used by the Stasi in their ruthless and relentless pursuit to ‘know everything about everyone’ in the GDR.

‘Everything about everyone’: the depth of Stasi surveillance in the GDR.

 By Rachel Clark.


The recent NSA whistleblowing scandal has drawn comparisons with the once feared East German Stasi. (Image credit: AP Photo, from )

The recent NSA whistleblowing scandal has drawn comparisons with the once feared East German Stasi. (Image credit: AP Photo, from )

The whistle-blower scandal currently dominating the USA has resulted in some uncomfortable comparisons being drawn between the actions of the US National Security Agency and the activities of the East German Stasi, arguably the most formidable security service in modern European history. One former Stasi officer has even commented that ‘The National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance capabilities would have been ‘a dream come true’ for East Germany. NSA supporters have emphasised the necessary role that the agency plays to protect national security interests, whereas the Stasi’s sole objective was to act as the ‘sword and shield’ of the East German communist party and ensure their continued supremacy. In order to fulfil this role, the Stasi developed an extensive range of highly intrusive methods.


Stasi Surveillance Tactics


The establishment of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II led to a severe expansion of domestic security services as these ‘overt socialist dictatorships’ required complete ideological compliance from the populations under their authority. The East German Ministry of State Security (MfS), otherwise known as the Stasi, was founded in 1950, and would soon go on to develop a fearsome reputation both within and beyond the GDR.

The 2006 film The Lives of Others depicts Stasi surveillance in East Berlin.

The 2006 film The Lives of Others depicts Stasi surveillance in East Berlin.

The Stasi aimed to rigidly monitor and ruthlessly suppress any potential dissent or non-conformity. In the Stasi mindset, knowledge was power, and inStasiland Anna Funder describes how the Stasi strove to ‘know everything about everyone’, scrutinising not only the political conduct of suspected opponents but also their personal lives, infiltrating leisure clubs and social societies, their working lives, and even studying their sexual habits. The 2006 thriller The Lives of Others depicts Stasi surveillance tactics in East Berlin, as the film’s protagonist, Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler rigorously monitors his allocated target by eavesdropping on and recording their most private moments, including their personal conversations, telephone calls, and even their lovemaking. Gerd Wiesler effectively illustrates how the Stasi operated with no limits to privacy and had no shame when it came to protecting the party and the state.

Stasi tactics involved serious breaches of privacy, but the organization simply operated ‘above the law’. Various methods of comprehensive surveillance and control over communication were utilised by the MfS, including the opening of personal mail and the tapping of telephone calls, and by the 1960s 3,000 Stasi officers had been assigned to telephone surveillance. Personal correspondence was opened religiously, with little effort made to disguise mail that had been tampered with. Julia, a citizen of the former GDR who was placed under intense Stasi surveillance due to her a relationship with an Italian man, described to Funder how her letters used to frequently arrive ripped open, with stickers claiming they had been ‘damaged in transit’ (Stasiland). Recording devices were secretly installed in suspected dissident’s homes and regular ‘home intrusions’ (apartment searches) were conducted while residents were out, although the Stasi often deliberately left discreet signs of their presence, designed to intimidate the individual they were monitoring.

Ulrike Poppe became one of the most heavily targeted individuals in the GDR due to her unrelenting support for democracy, and she was intimidated and harassed by the Stasi on a daily basis. Poppe recalls how Stasi officers often flattened her bicycle tyres and due to their desire to acquire as much information about her as possible, the homes of her friends and acquaintances were bugged and cameras were installed across the street from her apartment. This level of personal persecution was a tactic often utilised against Stasi targets, as they endeavoured to strike fear and unease into all sectors of society. The Stasi’s relentless methods were somewhat of an ‘open secret’ among the GDR populace, most of whom became resigned to living under the ever-watchful eye of the organisation.


Stasi Files


The Stasi kept meticulous records and Stasi files were released to the public in 1992. Image taken from:

The Stasi kept meticulous records and Stasi files were released to the public in 1992. Image taken from:

Such a wealth of information resulted in the formation of files containing remarkably detailed descriptions of citizen’s lives. After the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the MfS, the Gauck Agency (BStU) seized control of these files and early in 1992 public bodies and individuals were access to these surveillance records. 180 kilometers of files, 35 million other documents, photos, sound documents, and tapes of telephone conversations were released for public viewing. This exposed the depth of observation that East German citizens had been subjected to, highlighting the shocking crimes and breaches of privacy committed by the Stasi. Historian Timothy Garton-Ash was conducting research for his PhD in East Berlin in 1978, and as a western intellectual he was closely observed by the MfS. In 1997, having accessed his file, Garton-Ash authored a book The File: A Personal History, describing his experiences with the Stasi and recording how he had been ‘deeply stirred’ by reading his file, a ‘minute-by-minute record’ of his time in Berlin’. After reading her file, Ulrike Poppe was also surprised by the depth of Stasi knowledge, everything had been recorded,  no matter how trivial, as her file contained a record of her every movement and was full of ‘just junk’.


Ardagh estimates that secret files were kept on about one citizen in three, highlighting the enormity of the Stasi library. In order to gather such extensive amounts of information, the MfS established an immense network, comprised of both fulltime, paid Stasi officers and a large quantity of informers. At the height of Stasi dominance shortly before the collapse of communism in 1989, estimates suggest there were a staggering 97,000 people employed by the MfS with an additional 173,000 informers living amongst the populace, resulting in an unprecedented ratio of one Stasi officer for every sixty-three individuals. If unpaid informers are included in these figures, the ratio could have been as high as one in five. (Figures from Ardagh, Germany and the Germans and Funder, Stasiland).


Stasi Informers


It was the widespread recruitment of Inoffizielle Mitarbeiters (IM’s, or ‘unofficial collaborators’), that allowed the Stasi to construct such an impressive

Ulrike Poppe was subjected to intense Stasi surveillance and frequent harassment due to her political views. Image taken from:

Ulrike Poppe was subjected to intense Stasi surveillance and frequent harassment due to her political views. Image taken from:

army of spies and conduct such intense levels of surveillance. The recruitment of informers enabled the Stasi to infiltrate all aspects of daily life. In the GDR ‘everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence’ (Stasiland p.28). Former citizens of the GDR often say that the most distressing element of retrieving ones Stasi file was the revelation that trusted friends, family members and colleagues had been secretly relaying information about them to the MfS. Though such a revelation is obviously upsetting, Dennis argues that a large number of IM’s were blackmailed or coerced by the Stasi (Stasi, p.243). Potential IM’s were subject to strict Stasi scrutiny to ensure they were ‘appropriate’ targets and all of their personal details would be closely examined, including their sexual behavior. Any potential ‘flaw’ uncovered could serve as a means of blackmail to ‘persuade’ potential recruits to inform on others; again illustrating the famed Stasi obsession for personal information.


A Modern Day Stasi?


The Stasi operated with cunning and coercion and their intense levels of intimidation and surveillance successfully created a culture of fear in the GDR. Following the East German uprising of June 1953 the GDR was often perceived as ‘one of the most quiescent’ of the east bloc states (Anatomy of a Dictatorship, p.5) and it is significant that there were no further outbreaks of mass political stability until communism collapsed in November 1989. The fearsome reputation of the East German state security survived the collapse of communism and the end of the GDR itself, as shown by the fact that contemporary security establishments such as NSA are likened to a ‘modern-day Stasi State’. In today’s increasingly digital age, some of the old Stasi surveillance tactics such as opening letters seem a little out-dated, but the digital advances of the twenty first century pose some interesting debates as it can be suggested that today’s technological capabilities may succeed is making the modern populace as vulnerable to personal infiltration as those who lived under the Stasi. Perhaps we should consider whether hacking email accounts, Facebook ‘stalking’, CCTV surveillance and GPS tracking are really so far-removed from tearing open letters and tailing individuals as they go about their daily activities?

About the Author:

Rachel Clark has recently completed her BA in History at Leeds Metropolitan University and will graduate with First Class Honours later this month.  During her final year of study, Rachel studied the history of twentieth century East Central Europe, specialising on the role of the Stasi for one of her research essays. Her final year dissertation, which researched the treatment of shell-shock in the First World War, was awarded the class prize. Rachel plans to spend the next year travelling and hopes to continue her academic studies at postgraduate level when she returns.

Suggested Reading:

Curry, C. (2008) ‘Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany’s Secret Police’, Wired Magazine

Dennis, M. (2003) The Stasi: Myth and Reality Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Fulbrook, M. (1995) Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989 Oxford: Oxford University Press. .

Funder, A. (2003) Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall London: Granta Publications.

Funder, A. (2007) ‘Tyranny of Terror’, The Guardian

Garton-Ash, T. (2007) ‘The Stasi on Our Minds’, New York Review of Books

Ghouas, N. (2004) The Conditions, Means and Methods of the MfS in the GDR; An Analysis of the Post and Telephone Control Gottingen: Cuvillier Verlag. 

Koehler, J, O. (1999) Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police Colorado: Westview Press.

Pittaway, M. (2004) Brief Histories: Eastern Europe 1939-2000 London: Hodder Arnold.

July 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saturday Night in the Gulag

Earlier this week, I came across this article on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty site. The article describes how the Museum of Political Oppression in Dolinka, Kazakhstan, formerly head of the KarLAG prison camp system through which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens passed during the Stalinist-era terror, had recently begun conducting ‘night time tours’. To provide vistors with an ‘authentic’ Gulag experience, the article went on to describe how:

“… actors performed a mock interrogation scene in which a young woman is pressured to denounce her father. The group also witnessed performances that included an inmate who was hanging by his hands while being mistreated by a guard. To have a better taste of being a prisoner at KarLAG, the visitors were also offered gulag-type meals. The museum initially planned to offer visitors the chance to become “Stalin-era prisoners” for one night, but museum director Svetlana Bainova told RFE/RL the plan was scrapped following a request by local officials. She said the officials argued that such an experience could scare or even psychologically traumatize the participants”.

Museum employees at the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan demonstrate how prisoners were tortured to extract confessions. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here:

Museum employees at the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan demonstrate how prisoners were tortured to extract confessions. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here:

The photo gallery that accompanies the article shows that the museum’s exhibition hall contains a number of informative displays including prison files and information about the impact of the great Soviet famine of 1930-33, while the Hall of Remembrance pays tribute to those individuals who died in KarLAG. However the photos also depict real life ‘actors’ – museum employees – playing the roles of prisoners undergoing interrogation. torture and demonstrating hard labour, while others play the role of the uniformed prison guards.

I must confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the thought of  this. I realise that dark tourism (or ‘thanotourism’, defined by the iDTR as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’) will always be a subject that evokes controversy. Sites that commemorate and educate about the ‘darker’ aspects of human history play an important role – speaking as a ‘tourist’ who has actively visited numeorus such sites including Auschwitz Birkenau, The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin and the controversial TerrorHaza (Museum of Terror) in Budapest, I do agree with the often cited argument that while visiting the sites of former attrocities can be a rather harrowing experience, the experience can help bring these historical events alive in a very different way from studying academic texts, or even reading the memoirs of those who experienced these terrible events first hand. As a historian, I recognise the importance of ackowledging, remembering and commemorating the darker aspects of human history, as well as celebrating our more glorious achievements. And – stepping down from the moral high ground and speaking as a realist – I also understand that ‘money talks’. Economic benefits must be taken into consideration, as popular demand for thanotourism is potentially lucrative, with high visitor turnover injecting much-needed cash into the local economy. But does the Museum of Political Oppression risk crossing the line between education and scandenfreude? Having actors playing the part of tortured and exploited GuLAG inmates and offering tourists the chance to experience ‘authentic Gulag conditions’ feels like unneccesary theatrics, designed to create an environment akin to a macabre theme park, which is particularly dangerous given that the horrors of the Stalinist-era remain within living memory for many today, including those who experienced the hardship and suffering of KarLAG first hand and survived to tell the tale and out of respect for the memories of the many who lost their lives.

An employee of the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan depicts a tortured KarLAG prisoner. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here:

An employee of the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan depicts a tortured KarLAG prisoner. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here:

However, the Museum of Political Oppression is not the only Gulag-related ‘attraction’ to blur the boundaries. Grutas Park sculpture park  (also known as ‘Stalin’s World’) in Lithuania, combines extensive exhibitions featuring Soviet sculptures, artwork and museum artefacts with a mini-zoo (‘fun for all the family!’). The park also features a recreated Gulag camp, complete with wooden paths, guard towers and barbed wire fences, among its exhibits, but original plans to transport vistors to the park packed into a ‘Gulag-style train’ were blocked. In 2006, Igor Shpektor, Mayor of Vorkuta – one of the most infamous outposts of Stalin’s Gulag where over two million deportees passing through the camp 1932-1954 – was criticised for plans to charge foreign tourists over £80 per day to ‘holiday’ in an ‘authentic’ Soviet-era prison camp. Shpektor’s plans to renovate an abandoned prison complex, complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labour were condemned by camp survivors as ‘sacrelidge’. But Shpektor defended his plans, arguing this would provide a much-needed cash injection for the depressed Vorkuta region as: ‘The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners … A whole trainload of people turned up in autumn last year wanting to go to such a concentration camp, for money”.

In 2006, a re-created Stalinist-prison camp near Vilnius, Lithuania hosted 400 students from 19 EU countries in a role playing exercise designed as a ‘live history lesson to foster deep reflection of the common past of European nations and people’. During their stay in the camp:

“The students are “forced” to travel for one hour in an “authentic Soviet truck ZIL157K” to a forest bunker … Then, for the next two hours, they live through the experience of being “political prisoners”, which includes being interrogated by NKVD (security service) officers, shouted at and insulted by the guards. The roles are performed by professional actors. The “excursion” ends with the announcement of Stalin’s death and subsequent amnesty.”

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a couple of hours of role-playing equates to the ‘authentic’ reality experienced by Gulag inmates, many of whom endured lengthy sentences spanning several years or even decades, having been interred for imaginary or fabricated crimes, not knowing if they’d ever live to see release, or what the fate of their families had been. Some of the student participants seemed to agree, with one participant (rather worryingly!) commenting that:

“I think that everybody can do this. We really enjoyed the deportation day, but I would prefer something more difficult, with more blood and maybe lasting for one week and not just one day.”

So, why does the idea of ‘experiencing’ the Gulag – an instrument of repression, fuelled by brutality, where millions of Soviet citizens lost their lives – hold such appeal for many people? Would you want to spend ‘Saturday night in the Gulag’? What limits – if any – should be applied to the ‘performative aspects’ of tourist attractions such as these?


June 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Europe’: Then and Now


On 18th April I visited London to attend “Europe” Then and Now, the second annual Central Europe Symposium hosted by UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and organised in conjunction with the Austrian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Polish and Hungarian UK Embassies.Full details about the symposium are available HERE.


The symposium consisted of three panel discussions covering a range of issues broadly related to ‘The Question of Europe’, ‘Economics and the Moral Society’ and ‘Culture and the Public Sphere’.Some challenging but timely questions were posed throughout the day, with lively discussion and debate reflecting on the problem of defining ‘Central Europe’. experiences of post-socialism, European integration and the impact of the current financial crisis.


I’ve written a reviewed of the symposium for the journal New Eastern Europe and you can read my thoughts on their website HERE.



May 3, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:


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


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


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