The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.


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

BASEES 2012.


I spent last weekend in Cambridge, attending the annual BASEES (British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies) conference. I always enjoy BASEES;  the range of topics covered by the various panels are excellent and it’s a great way to discover more about the research projects people are currently engaged in. In fact, the only problem I have with BASEES tends to be deciding which of the dozen panels to attend in any given time stream!


This year, I decided to try live conference tweeting for the first time, using the hashtag #basees2012. I was initially a little wary about this – I wanted to get the balance right, and tried to ensure that tweeting about what was being said didn’t detract from my ability to listen, concentrate and engage with the discussions and debates as they were going on around me. So, I tended to wait until the end of each lecture or panel of presentations before briefly updating my twitter feed, restricting my commentary to summarising a few key points from each session. I actually found this a really useful exercise – distilling my notes down to a handful of 140 character tweets forced me to really think about the essence of what had been said and I found this amplified, rather than distracted from, my concentration throughout the sessions. Using Twitter also allowed for wider engagement with the academic community, further enhancing the face to face opportunities for networking that conferences such as BASEES provide – several of my Twitter followers who were not able to attend #BASEES2012  engaged with my own commentary. So, live conference tweeting is definitely something I’d do again!


This year, I presented a paper early on Sunday morning, as part of a themed panel about ‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’, related to the growing use of oral history and memory studies as a tool for studying everyday life in the communist block. My paper (entitled ‘We had to become criminals to survive under communism!’ – Conversations about Crime in Communist Eastern Europe’ – click here to read the abstract, and you can read more about my work on communist-era criminality here), drew on my experiences of speaking to people about their attitudes towards and involvement in the communist-era second economy, and was presented alongside Melanie Ilic’s paper about conducting interviews into the everyday lives of Soviet women and Dalia Leinarte’s paper on researching the life stories of Lithuanian women under Soviet rule. Our panel was well attended, and our presentations sparked a lively debate/discussion relating to the theory and practice of oral history and memory studies more generally and, in relation to my own paper, a discussion about what exactly constituted crime and criminality in communist Eastern Europe. Some of the questions posed gave me considerable food for thought, and I came away with some useful ideas and avenues to explore as I continue to develop my work in this area.



Our panel on 'The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present' at #BASEES2012. From left to right: Melanie Ilic, Myself and Daria Leinarte.



Other highlights of this year’s conference included Ivan Krastev’s opening keynote speech on Saturday lunchtime, ‘Eastern Europe and Europe’s Crisis’, which compared and contrasted the post-socialist transition in 1990s Eastern Europe with the current economic crisis. Krastev began by questioning whether the ‘successful’ transition model applied to post-communist Poland or the Czech Republic could work today in Spain, Italy, Portugal or Greece. He went on to argue that there were some important differences we should consider – the East European transition, while a painful experience for many, was helped by the almost universal consensus that communism had failed, and the ‘end of history’ mentality that dominated the end of the Cold War, meaning that people accepted the need for radical change. In cost-benefit terms then, while people acknowledged the painful nature of post-communist economic reform, their confidence in a positive outcome remained high.  Today though, no similar consensus exists among European populations – in fact we are witnessing a high level of resistance to efforts to implement harsh austerity measures and reform the capitalist welfare state.


Krastev highlighted the fact that the political map of Europe was also very different, and suggested that today, while voters could change their governments they could not change their policies. He also emphasized the impact of declining levels of trust in EU institutions during the last two decades, and the shift in popular perspectives of the EU from ally (by the East Europeans, who had believed in what Krastev termed ‘the myth of the transformative power of the EU’  in their quest to ’re-join Europe’ after 1989) to enemy. Krastev concluded by sounding a warning note about the current European crisis, pointing out that the Eurozone remains in a very fragile state, and drawing parallels with the shift from viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘unthinkable’ in the mid-1980s (something which I often struggle to get my students to grasp) to ’inevitable’ just a few years later. Thought provoking stuff!


I also attended panel presentations on a variety of different topics. The first panel I chose discussed reactions to and reflections on the 2011-2012 Russian Elections. Derek Hutcheson’s paper drew on available data to analyse allegations of electoral fraud in more detail, before Stephen White demonstrated that although social media had played an important role in communicating and coordinating the recent mass protests in Russia it was Facebook rather than Twitter that appeared to have played the primary role. David White’s presentation suggested that the recent election backlash in Russia had ‘raised the costs of authoritarian rule’, although he questioned the prospects for recent dissent to develop into any kind of longer-term, organised, grass-roots opposition movement, followed by Richard Sakwa’s thoughts about the current political, sociological, epistemological and economic ‘stalemate’ in contemporary Russia.


From contemporary Russian politics, I was then quickly transported back in time as the next panel I attended was entitled ‘Imperial Russia: Tradition and Modernity’. Here, I particularly enjoyed Susanna Rabow-Edling’s paper which drew on the individual experiences of three governors wives in nineteenth century Russian Alaska, in relation to broader issues of gender, class, the ‘civilising mission’ within colonial discourse and experiences of frontier life. On Sunday morning, another Russian-based panel, this time on  ‘Stalinism and its Legacy’ also provided some interesting insights, particularly in relation to Norman Prell’s paper ‘The Road to Magadan: Memory and Silence’ which focused on exploring the importance of the Road to Magadan as an effective symbol for Gulag remembrance, due to its ability to act as both a physical symbol and a narrative tool; while Peter Whitewood’s paper on ‘Subversion in the Red Army’ provided some new ideas about the climate surrounding the Stalinist-era military purges of 1937-38.


On Sunday afternoon I also attended a panel on the topic of ‘Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian tourism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ and enjoyed all three papers. Kerstin Jobst began by providing an interesting overview of the development of Yalta as a modern spa resort in nineteenth century Russia, a process largely triggered by its initial popularity as a destination for the Russian Imperial family during Alexander II’s reign – which hinted at cnineteenth century ‘royal endorsement’ and a kind of Imperial ‘celebrity culture’! – while Sarah Lemmen concluded with a great paper about Czech travellers and their experiences of Cairo in the early twentieth century. However my favourite paper from this panel was definitely Yavuuz Kose’s paper ‘To bicycle in Bursa’ (read by panel chair Wendy Bracewell) which recounted the published account of Ahmed Tvfik, a young Turkish bicycle enthusiast who, along with a friend, independently toured Bursa on two wheels in 1900!


Finally, I was pleased that I was able to attend the screening of Robin Hessman’s documentary film My Perestroika before heading home on the Sunday evening. ‘My Perestroika’ (2010) told the stories of five Moscow schoolmates who reached adulthood just as their world collapsed around them in 1991. Hessman mixed archival footage (taken from both state archives and home movies) with contemporary first-person testimony to great effect, illustrating how and why these individuals looked back fondly on some aspects of their Soviet childhood, providing some sobering insights into how the enthusiasm and excitement that followed 1991 was quickly replaced by disillusionment and widespread political apathy and raising some interesting questions about the true nature and extent of the changes that have occurred in Russia in the last twenty years, particularly in terms of their impact on people’s everyday lives.




April 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment