The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Paula Kirby on Life in the GDR.

I’m  very pleased to be able to publish this online interview with Paula Kirby – a writer who lived and worked in Dresden, East Germany during the 1980s. During her time in Dresden, Paula was monitored by the Stasi, and she recently gained access to her Stasi file.  Paula  is currently writing a novel set in 1980s East Germany and she also regularly tweets about the GDR – you can follow her on Twitter @PaulaSKirby (and we think that if you’re not already following her on Twitter, then you really should be!). Here, Paula reflects on her experiences of living and working in East Germany.


Hi Paula! Thanks very much for agreeing to share your experiences with us. Could you begin by telling us a little about the time you spent living and working in East Germany?

Of course – I was there for two years, from September 1985 to the end of August 1987, teaching English in the Intensive Language Centre of the Technical University of Dresden. My students were predominantly men aged 35+ who were already well established in their careers and needed to improve their English, usually in preparation for a stint “building Socialism” overseas: common destinations for my students included Ethiopia, Libya and Iraq, where English would be more widely understood than German. For me, the allure of the GDR was curiosity, plain and simple: the chance to see and experience a country that had always intrigued me, but which I had assumed would always remain a mystery.


Paula at work - photograph taken at the Technical University in Dresden, SIZ office (1986)

Paula at work – picture taken at the Technical University in Dresden, SIZ office (1986)


What did you expect life in communist East Germany to be like? Was the reality similar to how you had imagined it?

My degree subject was German and one of my Final Year modules had included the study of a few works of GDR literature; as a student I’d also made two or three day-visits across Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, so I knew about the greyness and the strange sensation of stepping back in time by a couple of decades or so; I knew there wouldn’t be much in the shops; I knew East Berlin felt like an oasis of calm and tranquillity after the (equally but oppositely thrilling) spectacle of West Berlin. I had seen the Berlin Wall and knew that GDR citizens were not free to travel; and I had heard of the Stasi, of course, though I wasn’t sure how much of what I thought I knew was true and how much merely Cold War propaganda.

Nevertheless, the GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!


Photograph showing the block of flats on Leningrader Strasse, Dresden, where Paula lived 1985-1987.

Photograph showing the block of flats on Leningrader Strasse, Dresden, where Paula lived 1985-1987.


Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.


Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) in Dresden - built by the East German government in 1969.

Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) in Dresden – built by the East German government in 1969.


Another highlight of my time in Dresden were my interactions with friends, colleagues and students. One of my strongest memories is of laughter: whether in the classroom or staffroom, at a local restaurant or over a bottle of wine or whisky at home, we spent a huge amount of time laughing. Not that that, of itself, is anything particularly unusual: it just wasn’t what I’d been expecting of the GDR, which I’d assumed would be altogether grimmer in character. Also, in a society where there was simply no point spending your life in the pursuit of material gain because, no matter how much money you amassed, there was very little to spend it on, people had the mental space to focus on other things: like friends and family, going mushrooming in the woods, going for bike rides: the simple life. There was a simplicity and a warmth in the interactions I shared in that was quite delightful and very different in character from anything I’d experienced in the West – I suspect that plays a large part in many former GDR citizens’ nostalgia for those times.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.


East German mural, on the Kulturpalast in Dresden.

East German mural, on the Kulturpalast in Dresden.


While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.


How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

For the same reason, travel to other countries within the Soviet bloc was difficult. (To be fair, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, it wasn’t straightforward for GDR citizens either.) I had a visa permitting me to travel between the GDR and non-socialist countries as often as I wanted, but no visa permitting me to travel within the Soviet bloc. These days travelling from Dresden to Prague simply involves a train journey of about two and a half hours. Back then when I wanted to visit Prague I was told I’d have to go to East Berlin (a two-hour train journey from Dresden) in order to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia; but once I was there, the embassy refused to give me that visa because I didn’t yet have a visa to leave the GDR for another socialist state. For this I had to return to Dresden and apply to my local police station, after which I had to go back to East Berlin for my Czechoslovakian visa. And both visas had to be paid for in hard currency, of course. Even once all that was sorted out, the train journey to Prague took a good four hours because of the border – where, of course, the passport and customs officials were particularly interested in the passenger from the West…

I think generally, as Westerners living and working in the GDR, we fell between two stools. In some ways it worked in our favour: we could, after all, nip across the Wall to West Berlin whenever the urge for an orange or some real news became too strong, and we were free to leave permanently whenever we wanted. However, unlike lifelong residents of the GDR, we were entirely dependent on the products available in the shops. People who were permanently resident there often had allotments where they grew their own fruit and veg; or if they weren’t gardeners, they were good at, say, DIY and could repay the favour of a few kilos of soft fruits in the summer by being willing to fix a neighbour’s dodgy plumbing. Partly because of the poor supply situation and partly, too, because of the interminable bureaucracy, GDR life was eased considerably if you had “Vitamin B”, where the B stood for Beziehungen: contacts. But such contacts take time to build up, so we temporary residents were at a disadvantage: a disadvantage that would have immediately disappeared if we’d had enough Western currency, of course!


How aware were you of the Stasi during your period of residence in Dresden?

I was aware of the existence of the Stasi, and I assumed they’d be at least a little bit interested in me, as a Westerner, but back then no one had any sense of the sheer scale of Stasi operations. My approach, especially in my first year there, was to be cautious but not paranoid: after all, I wasn’t spying, I wasn’t trying to foment revolution and I wasn’t a subversive element, so I couldn’t imagine they’d find anything of interest to them even if they were watching me.

That all changed after my then-partner Knut and I applied for permission to marry and for him to leave the GDR and live with me in the UK. We were never in any doubt that this would not endear us to the GDR authorities, and after that I was much more careful about what I wrote and said. We were quite certain that our letters and phone calls to each other would be monitored – and my letters and phone calls home as well – so I began to take the ‘invisible ear’ into account when deciding what to write and say.

Generally I think most East Germans adopted a similar kind of approach to the one I had taken in the early part of my time in Dresden: they would be somewhat cautious about what they would say, and to whom. Publicly people would repeat or even initiate all the slogans and stock phrases required of them, while perhaps taking a decidedly more sceptical tone in private. Among family and close friends people were sometimes surprisingly forthright about their true feelings, though many will have been devastated after the collapse of the GDR to discover the extent to which the Stasi exploited this too.


You recently requested access to your Stasi file. What motivated you to do this and what did this process involve?

For the applicant the process is quite straightforward,: simply complete the form on the website of the BStU, the Germany authority now responsible for managing access to the remaining Stasi files, and then wait. In my case, it didn’t actually take too long -  I heard back within two months that there were index cards referencing me and that it was therefore likely there would be a file, and I received my copy of the full file just over a year after that. That may sound a long time, but the usual waiting time is currently at least two, sometimes even three years, simply because there are still so many new applications coming in and the documents can be spread over several different former Stasi offices, which makes tracking them all down a huge task.  You also have to bear in mind the sheer size of the archive: some reports say that, if placed upright in a single line, the files would stretch for 80 miles, others that they’d stretch for 120 miles. Whichever is nearer the truth, the scale is truly staggering, especially when you consider that the population of the GDR was less than 17 million.


A small portion of the extensive archive of Stasi files held by the BStU today.

A small portion of the extensive archive of Stasi files held by the BStU today.


As for my motivation, I’d always known I’d do it one day. I had always wanted to get a clear picture of the kind of thing the Stasi were interested in, and the extent to which they had had me under surveillance. Most of all, I wanted to see whether I could work out who, if anyone, had been spying on me. I am fascinated by the notion of layers in relationships: the bits that are visible and the bits that are concealed. Was there someone I had thought of as a friend who had actually just been acting a role with me? If so, it would mean that the memories I had of my time in Dresden – my understanding of my own story, if you like – would be at least partially false. This is also a central theme of the novel I am currently writing.

The initial confirmation from the BStU that there probably would be a file on me was a bit of a shock, and had me reaching for the Remy Martin! Which was strange, really, because it was exactly what I’d been expecting (a Westerner who tried to marry a GDR citizen and leave with him: how could there not have been a file on me?), but that first letter from the BStU transformed the thought from the hypothetical to the real, and really did give me a jolt. By the time my file arrived I’d got used to the idea and, perhaps more importantly, had seen a copy of my former partner’s file so already had a bit more of a sense of the kind of thing it was likely to contain. I was still very curious to see it, but nowhere near as agitated as I’d imagined I would be.


Wow – so what kind of information was contained in your file? Were there any surprises? What have you learned from reading it? 

There was less in both my own file and that of my then-partner, Knut, than I’d expected, but as I read and digested what was in there, it became clear that we weren’t talking about a “Lives of Others”-style round-the-clock surveillance, but merely the gathering of what might later become the evidence for the prosecution, so to speak. The crimes of which they suspected us were, in Knut’s case, being likely to try to leave the GDR illegally; and in mine, espionage, passing on secret information and – I still can’t quite say or write this without laughing – people-trafficking! And they clearly weren’t interested in anything that might suggest we were not guilty – so no wonder both of our files were relatively short.


The former Stasi headquarters in Berlin - now a museum.

The former Stasi headquarters in Berlin – now a museum.


The first thing that struck me was that it was clear from both files that they never for one moment gave any consideration whatsoever to granting our application to marry. It clearly never crossed their minds that our relationship might be genuine, even though it is also clear they were monitoring our letters and phone calls, and would therefore have had evidence enough to show that it was. They could have turned the application down right at the start, rather than leaving us in suspense for over a year.

Knut had already been under surveillance before our application, simply because he had the “wrong” friends: two who had emigrated legally to West Germany, and two others who had attempted to escape and had been caught and imprisoned. These four friendships alone were enough to bring him to the attention of the Stasi. Not only that, but to earn him the Stasi code-name of Karzinom: Carcinoma. That, I think, shocked me more than anything else I found in either of our files. The sheer malevolence of that code-name blows any notion of a cold, unemotional, detached state-machine out of the water and suggests real hatred towards those the state considered its enemies. However, my own code-name was Stachel, which means “thorn”, as in “thorn in our side” -  and I rather liked that!

In my case, the Stasi had created various index cards with my details on them even before I arrived in the GDR (there were 20 on me in all), but there is little record in my file of any active interest in me before Knut and I submitted our application to marry. Two or three notes make it clear that the Stasi occasionally debriefed an IM (unofficial informer) about me in my first few months in Dresden, but since the file doesn’t go into detail about what was said, I assume they had nothing of interest to tell.

The second thing that stands out in both files was how jumpy the GDR was about our having any contact whatsoever with the British Embassy in East Berlin. I had quite a lot, of course – I generally dropped in there for a decent cup of tea and to read the British newspapers whenever I was in Berlin, and the embassy was also a good source of data and statistics about the UK that proved useful for my teaching. The letter below, which was written in December 1986 and sent between Stasi departments, noted my contacts with the British Embassy, suggested they should be viewed in the light of increased espionage activity on the part of the NATO states, and asked the recipient to consider assigning an IM (unofficial Stasi informant) to me. There is no formal record in my file of this having been done, though there are a few observation sheets from June 1987 that suggest it might have been:


Paula's Stasi file contains a copy of this letter, written in December 1986, where the Stasi discuss the possibility of assigning an IM (unofficial informer) to monitor her.

Paula’s Stasi file contains a copy of this letter, written in December 1986, where the Stasi discuss the possibility of assigning an IM (unofficial informer) to monitor her.


Naturally, once Knut and I had submitted our application to marry and for Knut to join me in the UK, I visited the embassy more often. I had several meetings with officials there, all of them very friendly and positive and, of course, I always told Knut afterwards what had been said. It came as no surprise, of course, to find this information recorded in Knut’s Stasi file, but what was extremely odd was that the file claims it was Knut who had been to the British Embassy and had these discussions with the Consul and others there, which is entirely untrue. Was this a deliberate distortion of the facts in order to make the case against him as damning as possible, or a genuine misunderstanding by the Stasi? I will never know.

Despite its fearsome reputation today, the Stasi was capable of almost farcical incompetence, something which becomes clear from a copy of a second letter that I found in my own file, as shown below. This letter was dated February 1988, and was sent between Stasi divisions in Dresden. It related to something that had happened seven months earlier, in June 1987, when an official at the British Embassy in Prague had been on a visit to Dresden and had, of course, been trailed by the Stasi. According to the letter in my file, he had been seen entering my flat at 6.13 pm, but “no further information concerning the duration of the visit is available”.  On the basis of this, the letter asks the recipient to try to investigate the nature of the relationship between the embassy official and me, and the possibility of using me to report to them on his activities:


Paula's Stasi file also contained a copy of this letter, dated Febraury 1988, concerning her 'connections' with an official at the British Embassy in Prague.

Paula’s Stasi file also contained a copy of this letter, dated Febraury 1988, concerning her ‘connections’ with an official at the British Embassy in Prague. However the letter contains numerous innaccuracies and errors.


There is so much about this that is just breathtakingly inept! First, the letter refers to my still being resident in Dresden in February 1988, but by the time it was written I’d been back in the UK for nearly six months, since my GDR visa had expired at the end of August 1987. Secondly, the letter was written less than a month after the GDR had finally deigned to tell Knut that our application to marry and for him to leave had been turned down, so it is safe to say it would have been a particularly unpropitious time to ask me to do the Stasi a favour.

And it gets funnier: when I read this letter in my file I hunted out my 1987 diary and turned to my entry for the day of the embassy official’s visit. Not only had he not been alone when he visited me, his companion was an official from the British Embassy in East Berlin. Given the extreme concern about my contacts with the British Embassy that is apparent in the rest of my file, I am quite sure that the presence in my flat of officials from not one but TWO British Embassies would have left the Stasi hyperventilating, if they’d only known about it! And since both officials entered my flat quite openly and together, I can only assume that whoever had been given the task of trailing the official from Prague that day had taken a very narrow interpretation of his instructions and had seen no reason to mention the existence of a second visitor.

Even more amusingly, my diary reveals that we were only in my flat a very short time before walking to the restaurant of the Interhotel right next to my apartment block, where we spent several hours in full view of anyone who cared to see us, in animated discussion about the GDR, the CSSR, Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, the GDR elections and much more besides. One of the very reasons the GDR built so many Interhotels was to make it easy for the Stasi to keep an eye on Western visitors, so really, we couldn’t have made things any easier for them if we’d tried. Yet they still managed to miss all the interesting bits. I am irresistibly reminded of this, possibly the best commercial of all time.


Today, the topic of East Germany still clearly holds a great deal of interest for you. You regularly tweet old photographs and snippets of information about the GDR. What is your aim in doing this?

I just want to give people a glimpse inside a land that few of them will have seen for themselves and which is now gone for ever.  I want to give them something that takes them beyond the stereotypes and the clichés and gives them a more rounded sense of a real country where real people led real lives that, in many respects, weren’t so very different from our own. A country where, just as in the West, children played on swings and struggled with their homework, and grown-ups had to buy petrol and scrub the bath and peel potatoes; where, it is true, there were few luxuries and many frustrations, and where non-conformity could be dangerous, but where people also tried to get on in their careers, raised families, had friends round for supper, built sandcastles, swept the front path and baked cakes …

There’s no hidden message in my tweets and I actively avoid giving my personal opinion in them wherever possible. I’m not interested in either demonising or sanitising the GDR. I just want to convey a sense of what it felt like to live there: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always real.

I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.


Life in East Germany - it wasn't all Stasi and Sauerkraut! [Photograph taken from ]

Life in East Germany – it wasn’t all Stasi and Sauerkraut! [Photograph taken from ]


A lot of your tweets relate to everyday life in the GDR. Why do you think it’s important for people to know about everyday life under communism, as well as focusing on the ‘high politics’ of the Cold War?

Any study of an era that excludes the daily experiences of the people who lived in it must inevitably be incomplete, and why should anyone with any interest in the subject be satisfied with that?  But for me the main motivation is quite simply fascination with the subject. The GDR existed until less than 25 years ago. Less than 25 years ago, it was right on the front line of the Cold War. Less than 25 years ago people risked being imprisoned or even shot simply for trying to leave their country: and this just 600 miles – a couple of hours’ flight – from London. This is very recent history, and for those of us in the UK, very local history too. Before the fall of the Wall the GDR was shrouded in mystery because the Iron Curtain put it beyond reach. It seems ironic to me, and also rather sad, that it largely remains shrouded in mystery because in the rush to reunification so much seems to have been erased from view.

I am also fascinated by the apparent split personality of the GDR: for me, and I think for many others who lived there too, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. There was much that I loved and valued and feel nostalgic for; but also much that I hated and am glad has gone.


That’s interesting – so what do you think about the legacy of the GDR today, and the notion of Ostalgie? Do you think it is true to say that there is still an East/West divide evident in Germany today?

I think the East/West divide is still very marked in Germany today, in all sorts of ways: a variety of reports suggest that incomes are still markedly lower in the East; unemployment higher; life expectancy shorter. And, according to this Gallup poll, people in the East feel they are having a harder time of things in general. It was interesting to see the results of last year’s Bundestag election too: while the results overall gave the right-of-centre CDU victory in most areas, both West and East, the image below showing the proportions of second votes for the far-left Die Linke party indicates far higher support in the East. I know that friends of mine in the East still feel that West Germans look down on them and, for instance, that they are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or contracts in the West. The divide is most certainly still there.


Map illustrating East-West divide in voting patterns in the 2013 German Federal Elections.

Map illustrating East-West divide in voting patterns in the 2013 German Federal Elections.


As for Ostalgie, this comes in a variety of forms, I think. Humans are prone to nostalgia, of course, and nostalgia isn’t known for sharpening the accuracy of our memories: how many of us don’t secretly hold to the view that our childhood summers were sunnier and our Christmases more snowy? But I suspect that, in the case of the GDR, nostalgia is being exacerbated by the feeling among some former citizens that the world they grew up in hasn’t just been left behind by time but has been deliberately destroyed.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.


Old East German products. Today, many people are nostalgic for certain aspects of life in the GDR.

Old East German products. Today, many people are nostalgic for certain aspects of life in the GDR.


However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat (‘Homeland’) taken away from them.

Finally, I should, of course, add that Ostalgie is far from universal. There are some who were treated appallingly by the GDR state and who hate every reminder of it; and many more who have embraced the freedoms and opportunities brought by reunification that they would never have experienced under the old GDR regime. As with most things about the GDR, the Ostalgie phenomenon is more complex than it may at first appear.

Many thanks, Paula!



February 14, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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

Dave Brubeck – Fighting Communism with Jazz

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe


In this, the final post in this year’s student showcase, Christian Parker considers the slow but steady growth in dissent and organised opposition in Eastern Europe in the decades following the Prague Spring. While the majority of citizens adopted an attitude of outward conformity, a small but vocal minority bravely continued to speak out against various aspects of communist rule, even in the face of sustained state repression and persecution. The state authorities adopted a range of coercive  means to contain and marginalise dissent and non-conformity in both the political and the cultural sphere, however ultimately they were unsuccessful in their attempts to quell opposition to communist rule.


Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe.

By Christian Parker


The failure of Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to develop ‘socialism with a human face’ and the forcible crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was the catalyst for an ‘era of stagnation’ in Eastern Europe. In a speech made to the Polish Communist Party on 12th November 1968, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev justified the recent military intervention in Czechoslovakia and confirmed that any future attempts to deviate from the ‘common natural laws of socialist construction’ would be treated as a threat.[1] The message was clear: any significant reforms to the existing system would not be tolerated. As Tony Judt notes, this ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ set new limits on manoeuvrability and freedom within the Eastern bloc, each state ‘had only limited sovereignty and any lapse in the Party’s monopoly of power might trigger military intervention’.[2] As long as the Soviets were prepared to maintain communism in Eastern Europe by force, any attempt at challenging the status quo appeared futile so most people adopted a policy of outward conformity and passive acceptance towards communism. However, dissent and non-conformity continued to exist in Eastern Europe, and the authorities employed extensive repression against dissidents, developing a range of coercive tactics to ensure dissent and opposition remained on the fringes of socialist society.


Charter 77 and the Birth of Organised Opposition


Perhaps the most important dissident movement to emerge in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Prague Spring was the Charter 77 group. Charter 77 was initially formed in response to the arrest of a popular Czechoslovakian band ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’ for musical non-conformism and social subversion, after the band wrote to dissident playwright Vaclav Havel (previously famous for his 1975 Open Letter to Husak which protested the pervasive fear and ‘fraudulent social consciousness’ dominating life in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring), requesting his help to campaign for greater tolerance in both the political and cultural spheres.[3]


Charter 77 therefore sought to establish a ‘constructive dialogue’ with the communist party, aimed at securing a range of human rights and individual freedoms, including freedom from fear and freedom of expression which the movement demonstrated were ‘purely illusory’ in communist Czechoslovakia.[4] The movement gained further impetus from the fact that the Czechoslovakian government had recently signed the Helsinki Accords, promising to uphold ‘civil, political, economic, social, cultural…rights and freedoms’.[5]


Signatures for Charter 77 – calling on the Czechoslovakian communist party to uphold commitments to basic freedoms and human rights. Signatories were harrassed and persecuted in a variety of ways.


On its initial publication in January 1977, the Charter initially bore 243 signatures, including those of Vaclav Havel, Pavel Landovsky and Ludvik Vaculik. The state acted quickly in an attempt to prevent the campaign gaining momentum by arresting Havel, Landovsky and Vaculik whilst they were en route to the federal assembly, where they planned to deliver a copy of the Charter. The state’s retaliation to Charter 77 was wide and menacing; leading figures associated with the movement were arrested and imprisoned and signatories were targeted via a wide range of other means including arrest, intimidation, dismissal from work, denial of schooling for their children, suspension of driver’s licenses and the threat of forced exile and loss of citizenship – Geoffrey and Nigel Swain note that by the mid-1980s over 30 ‘Chartists’ had been deported, including Zdenek Mlynar, former secretary of the Czechoslovakian communist party.[6] Charter 77 backed the ‘Underground University’ (an informal institution that attempted to offer free, uncensored cultural education) but lecturers were frequently interrupted by policemen, and leading figures including philosopher Julius Tomin, were harassed and assaulted by ‘unknown thugs’. Attempts were also made to pressure workers into signing anti-Charter resolutions, though as the state representatives failed to give the workers a copy of the Charter so they could see what they were signing against, the majority refused.[7]


However, state attempts to ‘bury’ Charter 77 were largely unsuccessful. An ‘Anti-Charter Campaign’ publicised by state-run media actually helped to increase the document’s profile and despite sustained repression, by 1985 only 15 of the original signatories had removed their names. Jailing high profile Chartists proved counterproductive – John Lewis Gaddis even argues that, in the case of Vaclav Havel, it was his imprisonment 1979-1983 that gave him the ‘motive and the time to become the most influential chronicler of his generation’s disillusionment with communism’.[8] (For more on Vaclav Havel, see the previous blog post HERE). While Havel became a dominant figure, other Charter 77 dissidents also continued to undermine state authority, right up until the velvet revolution of 1989. In 1988, two leading Chartists, Rudolf Bereza and Tomas Hradilek, wrote to Soviet Premier Gorbachev demanding that anti-reformist central committee secretary Vasil Bilak be tried for high treason due to his role in the invasion of Prague in 1968. Bilak was subsequently forced into retirement from politics. Tony Judt has suggested that by ‘moralizing shamelessly in public’ Havel and the other chartists created ‘a virtual public space’ to replace the one removed by communism.[9]


Vaclav Havel, speaking at home in May 1978. A leading figure in the Czechoslovakian dissident movement, Havel was subjected to intense surveillance, restricted movments, frequent arrest, interrogation and imprisonment.


The Wider Impact of Charter 77


Charter 77 also gave impetus to dissidents elsewhere in Eastern Europe and by 1987 their manifesto supporting the establishment of human rights across Eastern Europe had gained 1,300 signatures. Immediately after the publication of Charter 77 Romanian writer Paul Goma wrote an open letter of support and solidarity which was broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Goma also wrote to Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, asking him to sign the letter! Goma’s publication gained just over 200 signatories for the Charter, however he faced a sustained campaign of repression and intimidation as a result. The street where he lived was cordoned-off, his apartment was repeatedly broken into and his phone line was cut. Several of his fellow signatories, including worker Vasile Paraschiv, were arrested by the Securitate and beaten when visiting Goma’s apartment. After Nicolae Ceausescu made a speech on February 17 denouncing ‘traitors of the country’, Goma sent him a second letter, describing the Securitate as the real ‘traitors and enemies of Romania’. Goma was expelled from the Romanian Writers Union and arrested – his release was secured following an international outcry but after continued harassment Goma immigrated to Paris on November 20, 1977. Even this didn’t stop Romanian attempts to silence Goma, and the Securitate made two attempts to silence him permanently while he was living in Paris – sending him a parcel bomb in February 1981 and attempting to assassinate him with a poisoned dart on January 13, 1982.[10]


Paul Goma’s case was not an isolated incident – while attempted assassinations abroad were rare, this tactic was occasionally used to silence particularly troublesome East European dissidents. For example, writer and broadcaster Georgi Markov’s defection to London from Bulgaria led to him being declared a persona non grata, and he was issued a six year prison sentence in absentia. He continued speaking about against the communist regime in Bulgaria on the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, and on 7th September 1978 a Bulgarian Security Agent fired a poisoned ricin pellet into Markov’s leg while he was waiting at a bus stop in central London. He died a few days later (For more on the Georgi Markov assassination see the previous blog post HERE).


Dissent and Non-Conformity in the GDR


In many respects, dissent in the GDR was the result of unique conditions within the communist bloc:  it was arguably the only state which, even in the wake of the failed Prague Spring, could still boast an ‘informal and even intra-Party Marxist opposition’, a class of intellectuals who attacked the regime from the political ‘left’.[11] Thus, Wolfgang Harich desired a reunified Germany and wrote about a ‘third-way’ between Stalinism and Capitalism, another variant of ‘socialism with a human face’. Harich was particularly critical of the regime’s ‘bureaucratic deviation’ and ‘illusions of consumerism’ and similarly Robert Havemann and Wolf Biermann attacked the regime for supporting mass consumption and privately owned consumer goods. Rudolf Bahro, another leading East German dissident, is best known for his essay The Alternative, which Judt describes as ‘an explicitly Marxist critique of real existing socialism’.[12]


State leaders would not tolerate these revisionists, despite their Marxist leanings and the feared East German Stasi employed a range of methods to silence them. Mary Fulbrook notes that isolating dissident intellectuals was done ‘with relative ease by the regime’.[13] Thus Harich was imprisoned, Havemann was placed under house arrest and Bierman and Bahro were both forced into exile in the West. The case of Bahro provides a particularly disturbing insight into the lengths the Stasi were prepared go to. Bahro, dissident writer Jürgen Fuchs and outlawed Klaus Renft Combo band member Gerulf Pannach had all been held in Stasi prisons at a similar time and all later died from an unusual form of cancer. After the collapse of communism an investigation discovered that that Stasi had been using radiation to ‘tag’ dissidents. One of Bahro’s manuscripts was also discovered to have been irradiated so it could be tracked across to the west.[14]


The pervasive influence of the Stasi meant that any criticism of the East German regime, however mild, could have severe repercussions. Erwin Malinowski, who wrote a letter of protest about the treatment of his son, who was imprisoned after applying to move to West Germany in January 1983, was placed in a Stasi remand prison for seven months and then served two years further imprisonment for ‘anti-state agitation’. His son was eventually ‘bought free’ by the West Germans, one of the measures through which dissenters could escape the GDR. West German money also secured the release of Josef Kniefel who in March 1980 attempted to blow up the Soviet tank monument in Karl-Marx-Stadt in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. He had previously served a ten month prison sentence for attacking Stalin’s crimes against humanity and the role of the ruling parties of Eastern Europe.[15] For other dissidents, ‘repressive tolerance’ and limited publishing space proved effective measures by which the GDR could assert control. The GDR’s response to dissent was effective, however despite the relative success of the Stasi in isolating prominent dissident intellectuals, the regime never achieved total success in quelling dissent, discontent, or opposition.[16]


During the 1970s and 1989s, the peace movement, environmental movement and Protestant Church also provided citizens with outlets to vent their frustrations. Many who joined these organisations sought to improve the regime from within, disillusioned with the lack of respect for the environment and public health encouraged by growing industrialisation and the use of nuclear energy, something which was exacerbated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. To control environmental dissidents, the state banned the publication of data relating to the environmental situation in the GDR. Moreover, Stasi attempts to infiltrate and break up these groups met some success. For example, the main Church environmental movement Kirchliche Forschungsheim Wittenburg was infiltrated by the Stasi to the point where it lost its relevance in the wider environmental movement. However, the organisational networks, political strategies and the experience built up during the 1980s, set the stage for these groups to later serve as a vital part of the revolution of 1989. Such vociferous opposition thus taught East German dissidents the ‘complex arts of self-organization and political pressure group work under dictatorial conditions’[17]


The GDR not only took a hard line against intellectual dissent but also persecuted cultural non-conformity. For example, the Klaus Renft Combo, described by Funder as ‘the wildest and most popular rock band in the GDR’, agitated the state so much that at the bands attendance at the yearly performance licensing committee meeting in 1975 they were informed that ‘as a combo … [they] no longer existed’. Copies of their records disappeared from the shelves, and the radio stations were prohibited from playing their songs. Klaus Renft was exiled west, and several other band members were imprisoned. Despite this, the GDR failed to stop the band altogether, and they gained something of a cult following because of their repression by the state.[18]  Attempts by the GDR and other East European regimes to prevent their citizens’ exposure to ‘Western culture’ were ultimately unsuccessful however, with bootleg records and cassette tapes smuggled in and distributed on the black market and the increased availability of television sets and video recorders in the 1980s allowing citizens access to Hollywood films and TV series such as ‘Dallas’. (For more information about the impact of popular culture on communist Eastern Europe see the previous blog posts ‘Video May Have Killed the Radio Star, But Did Popular Culture Kill Communism?’ HERE and ‘Rocking the Wall’ HERE).


The Klaus Renft Combo – In 1975 the band were targeted due to their ‘subversive lyrics’ and were forcibly disbanded. Members were arrested and forced to leave the GDR for West Germany.




It is clear that the regimes of Eastern Europe possessed a vast array of techniques with which they attempted to silence those who attempted to oppose or criticise communism. These dissidents could not directly bring down the regimes they spoke out against; partly due to the success of state attempts to contain, control them and limit their influence, and partly because they lacked sufficient popular mandate amongst their populations. Certainly though, through their bravery and continued campaigns in the face of persecution and oppression they created hope, and in many ways they helped to set the precedent for the revolutionaries of 1989.


About the Author


Christian Parker has just completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University. In his final year of study, Christian specialised in East European History. After taking the next year off to travel, Christian hopes to begin postgraduate study in 2013.



[1] The Brezhnev Doctrine (12 November 1968) available online @

[2] Tony Judt, PostWar (Plimlico, 2007), 446

[3] Dear Dr. Husak (April 1975) – available online @

[4] Declaration of Charter 77, published in January 1977, available online @

[5] Helsinki Accords (1 August 1975) – excerpt available online @

[6] Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe Since 1945 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 185

[7] Sabrina Ramet, Social Currents in Eastern Europe, (Duke University Press, 1995), 126

[8] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, (Penguin 2007), 191

[9] Tony Judt, PostWar (Plimlico, 2007), 577

[10] Dennis Deletant, Ceausescu and the Securitate, Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1989, (Hurst & Co., 1995), 235-242

[11] Tony Judt, Post War, (Plimlico, 2007), 573; Christian Joppke, ‘Intellectuals, Nationalism and the Exit From Communism: The Case of East Germany’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37, 2 (April 1975), 216.

[12] David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi, The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 99; Tony Judt, Post War, (Plimlico, 2007), 573-574.

[13] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 176.

[14] Anna Funder, Stasiland, (Granta Books, 2004), 191

[15] David Childs and Richard Popplewell, The Stasi, The East German Intelligence and Security Service, (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 97-98

[16] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995) 201.

[17] Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, Inside the GDR, 1949-1989, (Oxford University Press, 1995)

[18] Anna Funder, Stasiland, (Granta Books, 2004), 185-191

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

‘Dangerous Women’ – Prostitution in Late Imperial and Post-Revolutionary Russia.


In this, the first student-authored article of 2012, Siobhán Hearne presents a comparative overview of state attitudes towards prostitution in late imperial and early post-revolutionary Russia. The period between the introduction of state regulation of prostitution in 1843 and the end of Lenin’s NEP in 1928 were years of extensive political and socio-economic upheaval in Russia. Here, Siobhán considers how a study of evolving attitudes and official policies towards prostitution during this time provide us with an interesting window into wider issues of class, gender and shifting ideological perceptions during this tumultuous time.


‘Dangerous Women’ – Prostitution in Late Imperial and Post-Revolutionary Russia

By Siobhán Hearne.


Regulating Prostitution in Late Imperial Russia


In late imperial Russia, women who engaged in prostitution were perceived as dangerous social elements. Venereal disease reached record levels during the late nineteenth century; the  the prostitute was typecast by Tsarist authorities as a ‘human transmitter’, described as ‘dangerous fonts of disease whose very existence necessitated state intervention’.[1] In 1843, an Empire-wide system of regulation was introduced, requiring any woman working as a prostitute to register with the medical-police. Regulation aimed both to control levels of venereal disease and extend central state control over prostitution. Hygiene was central to regulation policy: prostitutes were instructed to wash regularly in cold water, change linen after each client and forbidden from practicing during menstruation. If a woman was found to be infected with venereal disease, this usually resulted in immediate hospitalization, and until 1912, infected prostitutes would be transported to institutes on foot; a humiliating experience described by one spectator as an ‘ugly spectacle, insulting to public morality’ which left these women vulnerable to harassment.[2] Registered prostitutes were subject to a number of oppressive controls, including weekly medical examinations and increased police surveillance. Most significantly, the prostitute was required to substitute her internal passport for a medical document, or ‘yellow ticket’, attesting to her sexual health. This ‘yellow ticket’ carried a stigma, and as internal passports were required for to rent property and secure employment, the prostitute would often be confined to living in deprived neighbourhoods and prevented from gaining alternative employment in any other profession. This also meant that regulation largely targeted lower-class women and raids were generally carried out in taverns and flop-houses in working-class areas.


Brothel-keepers were also required to comply with various restrictions: regulation provided a set of thirty rules for brothel-keepers who faced prosecution if women failed to attend their weekly medical examinations. The brothel was to be hidden; they could not open onto the streets, their windows had to be kept permanently blackened and they could not be located within 30 metres of churches or schools to ensure that the reputation of an area was not tarnished. Interestingly, images of the Imperial family were forbidden, and as Bernstein comments, this illustrated that in late Imperial Russia ‘brothels would be tolerated but not blessed’.[3]


The Imperial system of regulation was spectacularly unsuccessful: a combination of poor planning and lack of resources meant that it actually exasperated many of the problems it set out to solve. Inadequate hospital facilities and ineffective treatments ensured that the central aim of controlling venereal disease was not achieved. Kalinkin Hospital in St Petersburg, probably the best facility for the treatment of venereal disease in imperial Russia, was extremely crowded, with patients often having to share beds. For example records indicate that on January 1st 1907, 8,143 hospital beds were occupied by 10,460 patients. Stites estimates that three quarters of registered prostitutes were infected with venereal disease, and it is likely that levels of infection among those who remained unregistered were even higher.[4] In addition, the notoriously oppressive reputation of the medical-police actually caused many prostitutes to engage in clandestine prostitution, while others plied the trade only intermittently.


In addition to medical concerns, imperial regulation can also be perceived as a product of the social stresses and strains resulting from modernization. The late nineteenth century saw an influx of young, unattached peasantry who migrated from rural Russia to larger provincial towns and cities, seeking employment. The crippling redemption payments and losses of land resulting from the 1861 emancipation from serfdom led to a rise in urban migration. Many of these internal migrants were young, unattached women, who left the restrictions of the village for the freedoms and relative independence of factory work and urban life. For example the female population of Moscow rose by 57% between 1897-1912.[5] Attitudes towards prostitution therefore also reflected wider concerns about social dislocation and gender norms, as many of these young women were viewed as ‘unheaded’. Once registered as a prostitute, women were firmly brought under state authority and surveillance. Regulation also increased female dependency on men; whether indebted to the medical-police committee or relying on the protection of a pimp to avoid them, the prostitute could never be her own mistress. Alpern argues that regulation set out to ‘scrutinize the behaviour of lower class women’, while also Bernstein believes that the regulation of prostitution gave the tsarist state an ‘additional mechanism of control over the urban lower classes’.[6] Therefore, regulation was not only driven by medical concerns, but also by a desire to reinforce traditional gender and social hierarchies in Tsarist Russia at a time of social and economic upheaval, placing lower-class women firmly at the bottom.


Post- 1917: ‘Prostitution is the poisonous flower in the bourgeois way of life!’


After the revolutions of 1917, the Tsarist system of regulation was quickly abolished. Marxism attributed the existence of prostitution to capitalist exploitation and inequality:  Lenin once commented that ‘so long as wage-slavery exists, inevitably prostitution too will exist’ while August Bebel stated that ‘marriage constitutes one phase of sex relations of bourgeois society; prostitution constitutes the other’.[7] The prostitute was thus depicted as a victim of an unjust social system, and in direct contrast to traditional ideas blaming prostitution on the loose morals of the lower class, socialist writers also tended to focus upon the economic dominion and insatiable sexual appetites of upper class males: the exploitation of the prostitute illustrating the barbaric nature of capitalist violation, both of women and of the working class. It was assumed that the abolition of capitalism and consecutive implementation of socialism would cause the vice to disappear. Between December 1917 and January 1919 the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks were officially renamed from March 1918) drafted a series of laws aimed at kick-starting a programme of women’s emancipation, including political and legal equality, the legalization of divorce, and the abolition of state regulation of prostitution. The practice of prostitution was formally decriminalized in the Criminal Code of 1922. However, while prostitution itself was no longer defined as a punishable offence, anybody who refused to participate in ‘socially useful labour’ could be sent to labour camps and Alexandra Kollontai, founder of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Movement) called for new laws condemning ‘truancy from work through unproductive means’, including prostitution. Kollontai believed that the practice of prostitution, the ‘poisonous flower in the swamps of the bourgeois way of life’ was usually accompanied by work desertion, venereal disease and immorality.[8] Therefore, after 1917 official policy on prostitution initially focused on two main aims: control of venereal disease and preventing women from engaging in this unproductive and ‘immoral’ work.


Prostitution as a Matter for Medical and Moral Concern.


In Tsarist Russia, sexual education had been heavily censored by the state, with laws in place disallowing doctors from conducting public lectures on sexual health unless the police were present and able to stop talks deemed inappropriate without explanation. Therefore, the Communists saw the need for ‘sexual enlightenment’, launching a mass education programme to combat the spread of venereal disease through prostitution, equating the sexual health of the individual with the health of the new regime. A series of educational posters were issued during the 1920s demonstrating the dangers of syphilis, depicting workers as victims of ignorance and encouraging a new sense of awareness to combat the spread of venereal disease.


Poster: ‘We Will Cure Syphilis’ (from the early 1920s).

Poster: ‘Syphilis’ (1923).


Coupled with the graphic images, the poster above does include a specific warning that ‘syphilis is primarily passed through prostitution’. However, the Communist campaign also emphasised individual responsibility for sexual health, in contrast to the Tsarist era, where prostitutes were frequently held solely responsible for the spread of venereal disease.  In further contrast to regulation, those in the medical profession condemned repressive measures against prostitutes and involved themselves in producing an analysis of prostitution in the campaign against the vice in the 1920s.


During the NEP period (1921-28) women were particularly vulnerable to economic hardship; the chaos of the Civil War meant low wages and frequent redundancy, as most employers preferred men of higher skill, ignoring official decrees forbidding gender discrimination. In 1918 women made up 45% of the industrial labour force, however by 1928 this had fallen to just 28.6% despite numerous communist decrees on ‘gender equality’.[9] The introduction of NEP created ideal conditions for prostitution to flourish: mass unemployment, desperation and a wealthy new class of client – the ‘NEPman’.  The economic instability of the NEP period required a more identifiable enemy than simply venereal disease, causing the prostitute to be depicted as the sexually dangerous single woman – the ‘NEPwomen’, associated with money and excessive sexuality and described by Kollontai as ‘tarted up like a streetwalker…[with] furs draped over one shoulder and rings sparkling on her fingers’.[10]


Poster: ‘Casual Sex: The Main Source of the Spread of Venereal Disease’

Poster: ‘Casual Sex’.


In 1926, Article 150 of the Russian Republic’s Criminal Code made those spreading venereal disease criminally liable (both men and women), demonstrating a new preoccupation with the medical rather than the moral implications of prostitution. The Soviet Health Commissariat created a Central Council for Combatting Prostitution, which sought better employment and education for women and launched positive propaganda campaigns. A number of labour clinics were also established during the 1920s, aiming to solve the problem of prostitution and transform the prostitute into a ‘new Soviet woman’. Clinic organizers claimed that prostitutes required financial assistance, and the promise of another form of income, to prevent them from returning to the streets for money. The clinics worked to  provide prostitutes infected with venereal disease with vocational, political and social education, aimed at reintegrating them back into the working world, and reclaiming them as ‘productive Soviet citizens’. The clinics were designed to aid the prostitute in making the transition from street-work to ‘productive’ work. The promise of a job at the end of the programme was used as an incentive during a period of high unemployment. However, the economic hardship of NEP caused many unemployed women to pretend to practice prostitution to gain entry to these programmes, resulting in the clinics only accepting women with official referrals from a venereal dispensary. Even then, the clinics were of poor capacity: on opening in 1928, the Leningrad facility had 700 applicants for its 100 places, so many women were turned away.[11]


Propaganda campaigns included accounts published by former residents to demonstrate success; however reports written by medics working at the clinics showed that around 50% of women chose to leave the clinics, either voluntarily or as a result of ‘bad behaviour’, while others returned to prostitution at the end of their course of ‘treatment’. These substantial levels of failure present the difficulty of ‘reforming’ prostitutes, and encouraging them to opt for low-wage factory work over a considerably larger wage from prostitution, during a period of economic instability. Regardless, by the middle of the 1920s, the tax-exemption of the clinics had been revoked, meaning that they were no longer financially viable, demonstrating the government’s lack of financial commitment to the fight against prostitution.


Immediately following the revolution of 1917, Communist ideology depicted the prostitute as an emblem of capitalist female exploitation, and a victim of social circumstance, however during the 1920s, a period of sustained economic hardship and limited employment, the prostitute slowly became vilified as an enemy of Communism, and stereotyped as a ‘NEPwoman’  who profited during a difficult financial time. Communist prostitution policy quickly became less concerned with the pre-revolutionary moral implications, and more concerned with practical, economic aspects: the prostitute as a ‘work-shirker’, who hindered levels of production.  It is evident that concerns over venereal disease as a hindrance to production also greatly influenced the Communist campaigns of sexual education in the 1920s. The labour clinics of the 1920s provided some attempt to ‘reform’ prostitutes, however their success was limited. In the troubled economic climate of the 1920s  they were not viable, and closed before any real progress could be made. Despite the Criminal Code of 1922 decriminalizing prostitution itself, women continued to be sentenced to imprisonment for ‘prostitution’ in the courts, demonstrating that a shift in policy did not necessarily equate to a change in popular opinion.


The Russian Prostitute: Victim or Villain?


Theoretically the 1917 revolution marked a watershed, ushering in radically new attitudes towards prostitution. However, in practice, many similarities and continuities can be found between the imperial and communist approaches. Both regimes perceived prostitution as an issue provoking medical and moral concerns. Health-wise, both systems employed the analogy of state and body, be this to ensure traditional autocratic control, or advanced economic production. Both regimes linked the prostitute to a certain social class (the inferior lower class during the imperial era, and the despised decadence of the upper echelons of capitalist society under communism). Both ultimately presented the prostitute as a villain, as a ‘dangerous woman’ whether as the wretched lower-class transmitter of venereal disease, or the labour deserter, intent on wrecking industrial production. Furthermore neither had a lucrative model for solving the problems caused by prostitution, as they failed to recognise that regardless of policy and propaganda, there would still be a market for ‘world’s oldest profession’.[12]

[NB: All images used here are taken from Frances Bernstein, ‘Visions of Sexual Health and Illness in Revolutionary Russia’ from Sin, Sex and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870, ed. Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall (London and New York: Routledge Press 2001]


About the Author:

Siobhán Hearne has just completed her BA in History and English Literature at Swansea University. In her final year of study, Siobhán researched and wrote her History dissertation about prostitution in late Imperial and early Communist Russia. Siobhán will begin her MA in Twentieth-Century History at the University of Liverpool in October 2012


[1] Laurie Bernstein, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia, (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press 1995).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930, (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1978).

[5] Barbara Evans Clements, Daughters of Revolution: A History of Women in the USSR, (Illinois: Harlan Davidson 1994).

[6] Barbara Alpern Engel, Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996); Bernstein, Laurie, Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia, (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press 1995).

[7] V. I,  Lenin, ‘Capitalism and Female Labour’ (1913), available via Lenin Internet Archive, accessed at ; August Bebel, “Women and Socialism Chapter XII ‘Prostitution a Necessary Social Institution of Bourgeois Society’” (1879) available via Marxists Internet Archive, accessed at

[8] Alexandra Kollontai, Speech to the third all-Russian Conference of Heads of the Regional Women’s Departments, 1921, ‘Prostitution and ways of fighting it’, available via Kollontai archive at:

[9] Barbara Alpern Engel, “Women in Russia and the Soviet Union”, Signs, Vol. 12, No. 4, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory (1987), pp. 781-796.

[10] Elizabeth A, Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997)

[11] Frances Bernstein, ‘Prostitutes and Proletarians: The Soviet Labour Clinic as Revolutionary Laboratory’ from The Human Tradition in Modern Russia, ed. Husband, William B. (Deleware: Scholarly Resources 2000)

[12] R. Barri Flowers, The Prostitution of Women and Girls, (North Carolina: McFarland & Co 1998)


June 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Power and Privilege: Elite Lifestyles in Communist Eastern Europe


When the communists assumed power across Eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII, their stated intention was to create a new, more democratic and egalitarian society. However, a gulf quickly became evident between the political elite and the masses. In the 1950s Yugoslav partisan and communist leader turned dissident Milovan Đilas openly condemned the emergence of what he described as a ‘New Class’ in communist Eastern Europe, comprised of the privileged political elite.[1] In post-war Eastern Europe, it was soon widely recognised that membership of the communist party didn’t just give you political standing, but also provided access to numerous socio-economic advantages. Possession of a party card opened the door to numerous ‘perks’, including the allocation of a superior standard of accommodation, access to special shops (containing domestically produced goods in short supply and imported luxury items from the West) and holidays in special health resorts. Little wonder then, that many people have subsequently justified their decision to join the East European communist parties, as motivated not by  any genuine ideological or political commitment, but simply to ‘get along in life’. The higher up the power structure you climbed, the more levels of privilege reached ridiculous proportions. While official salary levels among the nomenklatura (communist-era bureaucrats) remained relatively low in monetary terms, in practice communist officials could supplement their basic income through corruption, bribery and blat, and they also enjoyed a range of other ‘perks’.


The Early Years


The conditions of general scarcity and shortage that predominated during the early period of post-war reconstruction combined with the general feeling of insecurity and fear spawned by the Stalinist-era terror as political purges swept across Eastern Europe, meant that in the 1940s many newly appointed officials were keen to ‘prove’ their loyalty to communism, through shows of sacrifice and austerity, and as a result the accumulation of excessive material luxuries by the political elite was generally discouraged. However, even during these early years, communist bureaucrats enjoyed many ‘perks’, including a superior standard of accommodation and access to chauffer driven cars, special shops and restaurants. The gratuitous level of luxury enjoyed by some members of the Stalinist-era political elite in Eastern Europe has also been documented. One example is the opulent living conditions enjoyed by Boleslaw Bierut (Leader of the Polish Workers Party’ from 1948 until his death in March 1956),  recounted in detail by Józef Światło, a high ranking Polish security officer who defected to the West in 1953. According to Światło, Bierut’s living quarters comprised ‘No less than ten lavishly and luxuriously furnished palaces … all fitted out with legendary magnificence’.


Boleslaw Bierut (Polish Leader 1948-1956) relaxing with a newspaper, probably in one of his many luxury palaces. Bierut was notorious for his opulent lifestyle.


Światło described Belweder, a palace in Warsaw that acted as Bierut’s principal residence between 1945-1952, in more detail:


“Inside there is a hunting room decorated in pale brown, like the deerskin with which all the furniture, even the superb armchairs are upholstered. Their backs are made of special wickerwork, brought in India … Ebony furniture is upholstered with the best leather. Along one wall, on a low buffet are selected southern fruits, imported from abroad, sweetmeats of all kinds, foreign cigarettes and selected fruit juices. Along another wall, on a larger buffet are vodkas, brandies, liqueurs, foreign wines. And beside the batteries of bottles, on foreign porcelain dishes and silver platters are caviar, smoked salmon, lobster and the most delicate cold hors d’oeuvre of meat and fish… an entire state apparatus exists to ensure that there should be no lack of the best and most valuable things at Comrade Bierut’s table. General Komar, head of the second department, used to send people to France specially to purchase wine and southern vegetables for Comrade Bierut and the party members…”[2]


Światło also went on to describe a similar level of opulence at Konsevian, Bierut’s summer home:


“There are 18 rooms in the villa, all newly decorated. Bierut normally spends the summer there, in rooms hung with old pictures and filled with carved masterpieces. He has at his personal disposal a tailor, a chef, a hairdresser, apart from about 230 servants in the little palaces and residences”.[3]


Elite Lifestyles in the Post-Stalinist Era


Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the extensive privileges enjoyed by the East European political elite became even more apparent. In East Germany, for example, the party leaders had initially taken up residence in a set of elegant villas located near the Schönhausen Palace (used as the offices of the head of state of the GDR and then, from 1964, as the State Guest House for visiting dignitaries), in Berlin.  In 1956 however, the SED leadership approved the building of a luxurious ‘secure living zone’ for the party leadership near Wandlitz (about 30 km north of East Berlin). Construction of the Waldsiedlung complex was undertaken between 1958 and 1960. The completed complex covered a total area of 2km² and consisted of 23 luxury detached family houses; a club house with private cinema; a gourmet restaurant; a shop stocking a selection of luxury Western goods; a market garden; a health centre; a shooting range;  a swimming pool; a sports field and several tennis courts. In the 1970s a new four-lane autobahn was also constructed, to provide a direct connection between Waldsiedlung and Berlin. The area surrounding the complex was officially designated as a protected area for ‘game research’ , decreed off limits to all ordinary Germans and  troops were stationed to guard the entrances to the complex, which could only be entered with special passes. The SED elite lived here in luxury from 1960-1989.[4] SED leader Walter Ulbricht (1950-1971) not only enjoyed the comforts of a magnificent 25 roomed house in Waldsielung, but also had a holiday home specially built on the small Baltic Island of Vilm, which was subsequently deleted from maps to avoid unwanted attention! [5]


Many of the other East European leaderships followed suit and also built their own private luxury accommodation complexes, for example those in Katowice (Poland);  Buda (Hungary); Sosea (Bucharest) and Boyano-Knyazheva (Sofia). Construction of these ‘privileged communities’ were funded by state money and because the apartments were given ‘high priority’ status they were built to the highest standards, employing the most highly skilled craftsmen and  using high quality materials directly imported from the west. The complexes were naturally located in the most attractive and sought after areas; in many cases the land required was fraudulently appropriated, with claims that the land was needed to construct important public buildings, and in cases where the desired area was already inhabited, the occupants were forcibly resettled irrespective of cost.


Hirszowicz claims that, by the 1970s:


“The practice of occupying sites for hunting grounds, holiday homes and sporting grounds to be used by the privileged few (usually higher officials) was common. The users of these facilities often had at their disposal special transport facilities and personnel; for the more important ones even airports and special highways and roads leading to remote spots were earmarked”.[6]


One good example is provided by the case of Abramow, a village in South-Eastern Poland:


“The village was situated in the Bieszczady mountains where a special micro-climate favoured a particularly fine breed of deer. The decision was made to use the area as a hunting ground for dignitaries. In 1968, 3000 ha were fenced off, and over the next few years this was increased to 7,000 ha. The ‘official’ reason was that the area was needed by the armed forces for strategic reasons. By 1980, the hunting grounds extended over 60,000 ha and the intention was to expand them further. Buffer zones around the hunting grounds were also fenced off and the families living in these zones were compulsorily resettled; those who complied could move to towns where they obtained a flat immediately, but those who resisted were removed forcibly during the night and dumped in one of the dilapidated houses in the mountains abandoned by the Ukrainian population in the late 1940s and pressure was put on them to stop resisting the compulsory resettlement order. In the ‘militarised’ zone, shooting lodges were erected and special landing strips for planes were constructed to make access easier for the visiting dignitaries”.[7]


However, perhaps the most extreme example of excessive elite privilege during the latter decades of communist rule in Eastern Europe was provided by Nicolae Ceausescu. The fact that the Romanian leader and his family lived in the lap of luxury while most ordinary Romanians lived under conditions of enforced austerity and extreme repression, struggling with deprivation and poverty, has been well documented. During his time as leader (1965-1989) Ceausescu owned over 15 luxury palaces around Romania, including a riverside villa at Snagov, a lakeside resort at Cernavodă, a mountainside lodge at Braşov and the Primaverii Palace in Bucharest, which had rooms filled with priceless silk, porcelain, marble, silverware, chandeliers and carpets. Ceausescu also acquired a large collection of valuable gifts and ‘trinkets’ from other world leaders, many of which – including a leopard skin, a pair of silver enamelled doves and an ornamental bronze yak – were recently auctioned off in Bucharest.[8]


This level of luxurious living was even extended to non-human members of the Ceausescu family. Ceausescu’s pet dog, Corbu (who was awarded the rank of ‘Colonel’ in the Romanian Army!) was often driven through Bucharest in a limousine accompanied by his own motorcade, and there are reports that the Romanian ambassador in London had official orders to visit UK supermarket Sainsbury’s every week to buy dog biscuits for Corbu, which were then sent back to Romania in the diplomatic bag![9]


A pair of enameled and silvered doves, originally a gift to Romanian Leader Nicolae Ceausescu from the Shah of Iran in 1977. The doves were auctioned in January 2012. The Ceausescu family lived in the lap of luxury while millions of ordinary Romanians struggled to get by.



[1] Milovan Đilas, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Praeger, 1957)

[2] Józef Światło, Za Kulisami Bezpieki Ipartii), [‘Behind the Scenes of the Security Forces and the Party’], (Free Europe Committee Booklet: New York, 1954)

[3]Józef Światło, Za Kulisami Bezpieki Ipartii [‘Behind the Scenes of the Security Forces and the Party’], (Free Europe Committee Booklet: New York, 1954)

[4] Robert Hopkins, ‘Restored, a monument to East Germany’s hypocritical communist elite’, The Telegraph, 30 December 2011. Also see Wikipedia for more details about the Waldsielung complex.

[5] Mervyn Matthews, Privilege in the Soviet Union: A Study of Elite Life-Styles under Communism, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), p.166

[6] Maria Hirszowicz, Coercion and Control in Communist Society: The Visible Hand in a Command Economy, (London: St Martin’s Press, 1986) p.100

[7] Maria Hirszowicz, Coercion and Control in Communist Society: The Visible Hand in a Command Economy, (London: St Martin’s Press, 1986) p.100

April 23, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Degner Defection


A few weeks ago I was interviewed for ‘The Degner Defection’ – a BBC Radio 4 feature that told the little known story of East German motorcycle racer Ernst Degner and his daring defection to the West at the height of the Cold War. The programme aired on Monday 13th February.


A rising star in the GDR, Ernst Degner was determined to win but was also increasingly determined to escape from the repressive East German regime. After forming an alliance with Jimmy Matsumiya, a ‘fixer’ from the Japanese Suzuki team, Degner defected during the Swedish Grand Prix in September 1961. This was the race where Degner could have secured the 1961 125cc World Championship for himself, and for East German team MZ, but his engine failed early in the race, leading to charges that he had deliberately sabotaged his bike to facilitate his escape. Degner’s defection was fraught with risks coming so soon after the German border closure and construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. His family also narrowly escaped, after his wife drugged their two sons and concealed them in the boot of a car to smuggle them through the border crossing into the West.



Ernst Degner racing in 1957.



Degner not only successfully escaped along with his family, but also took much of MZ engineer Walter Kaaden’s pioneering technology with him, and the following year Degner went on to win the 1962 50cc world championship for Suzuki. However many aspects of Degner’s life (and his tragic death in a Tenerife hotel room in 1983) remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.



Ernst Degner, the dashing young East German motorcycle racer. Many aspects of Degners life, and his death, remain shrouded in mystery and controversy.



‘The Degner Defection’ features personal testimony from Degner’s family, his former competitors and many of those who worked with him on the race circuit, mixed with expert analysis from Stasiland author Anna Funder, racing commentator Murray Walker, and myself – you can hear me briefly talking about the construction of the Berlin Wall and the political climate in Germany in 1961. If you missed the 30 minute programme when it aired on Radio 4 on Monday 13th February, it is still available to listen online via the Radio 4 Homepage  and on BBC iplayer. It’s a fascinating story of a daring defection at the height of the Cold War, amidst espionage and double dealing, all taking place in one of the world’s most dangerous sporting arenas, so is well worth a listen! Also, look out for a future guest authored blog post coming soon here at The View East, written by producer James Roberts, who will be sharing some of the additional information that his research into Degner’s story uncovered!




February 17, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Eastern Europe, Immigration and Crime.


I recently read THIS article on the Mail Online ['To East Europeans, Legal is Anything They Can Get Away With', written by Alexander Boot]. For those of you familiar with the Mail, it won’t come as a surprise that much of this article is couched in typical rhetoric  – right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigration etc -  although I suppose it could be worse, having also read THIS article a couple of days ago, about a website set up by the Dutch far right anti-immigration political party PVV which encourages people to report their complaints about ‘problematic’  East European migrants, with one PVV spokesman openly blaming central and east European migrants for a range of social problems including crime, alcoholism, drug use and prostitution.


In his recent article, Alexander Boot claims that the inclusion of East European countries in the EU has led to a ‘staggering influx’ of emigration to the UK, and East European migrants, we are told, statistically ‘contribute more than their fair share’ to the UK crime rate. Suggestions of a link between immigration and crime, attempts to present crime as an ‘alien import’ and to lay  the blame for increased criminality with immigrant communities are hardly new ideas, but have featured throughout human history, often becoming particularly prominent during times of economic hardship. Following both EU enlargements into the former communist block to date – in 2004 and 2007 – media organisations here in the UK (and elsewhere across Western Europe) published a number of alarmist stories predicting a ‘crime wave from the East’, something which I discussed in a previously published article HERE. During the recent economic downturn, we have seen a resurgence of articles linking crime and immigration published by some media organisations. It would perhaps, have been nice if Boot had provided some evidence to support his claim that East Europeans contribute ‘more than their fair share’ to UK crime, especially as a few years ago, this study, conducted by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, concluded that contrary to popular opinion, increased levels of immigration from Eastern Europe to Britain had not fuelled a rise in crime, but that criminality among East European communities was in line with the rate of offending in the general population. Interestingly, preliminary research carried out in the Netherlands in 2005 also concluded that criminal suspects from central and eastern Europe accounted for only 0.81% of foreign criminals arrested. [1]


What particularly interested me about Boots’ article however, was his suggestion that the alleged propensity of East Europeans to commit crime was directly related to their experiences of life under communism, something which relates to my own research into crime in communist and post-communist Eastern Europe. Boot alleges that a sustained lack of legality and morality during the communist era caused a ‘cultural genocide’ in Eastern Europe. His article states that ‘a child growing up under a communist regime learns as he emerges from his pram that he must think one thing, do another and say a third… He’ll lie not because he’s a compulsive liar but because he wasn’t taught the concept of truth’. As a result, he argues, ‘intuitive respect for the law just isn’t part of Eastern Europeans’ psychological or cultural makeup … Legal is anything they can get away with, moral is anything that pays an immediate dividend’.


To an extent, many of Boots’ claims have been documented by those who lived under communism in Eastern Europe and many of his arguments are also represented in academic research into this topic. Many former communist block citizens have spoken about the existence of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres under communism; about learning from an early age that certain topics could only be safely discussed and certain opinions could only be openly expressed within the confines of closed circles of acquaintances and this theme has been explored by scholars including Orlando Figes and Sheila Fitzpatrick. In addition, from the close of the 1960s, increasing economic deterioration and a sustained lack of respect for communist authority fuelled a burgeoning ‘second economy’ in all states across the socialist block, so that petty crime, pilferage, black market trading, graft and corruption became endemic. Economist Edgar Feige has claimed that, under communism, ‘virtually every citizen became a de-facto criminal’ by virtue of their involvement in a wide range of ‘petty illegalities’. [2] In effect, many illegal activities were essentially ‘de-criminalised’ by popular discourse, so that most people did not perceive themselves as ‘criminals’ despite openly acknowledging that they regularly broke the law. Many citizens expressed their lack of respect for formal law and subsequent studies have claimed that this exacerbated the moral failing of communism, something which contributed to its eventual collapse. [3]  However, my conversations about crime under communism suggested that, rather than leading to a ‘cultural genocide’, many individuals remained aware that their actions were legally and morally dubious, so developed a range of coping mechanisms which enabled them to justify and normalise their behaviour, even while acknowledging its illegality. In his study of law and social norms in post-communist Europe, Denis Gallighan describes this process as representing the ‘pathology of social norms’ – creating a situation where the norms by which people lived their daily lives were a significant distortion of and alien to true accepted values, as the result of social forces. [4] This is a topic that I explore further in my forthcoming book.


In the interviews I have conducted about crime under communism for my own research, many of the people I spoke to expressed the sentiment that, in the communist era, ‘we were forced into crime, to survive within the system’. In his article, Boot also attributes the widespread illegality that developed in communist Eastern Europe to the necessity for survival. This ‘survival thesis’ is an idea that has been widely promoted by former citizens of the communist block, many of whom admit that they engaged in a range of petty illegalities in order to circumvent the inefficiency and material shortcomings of the regime and provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. There is, of course, ample evidence to support the ‘survival’ theory, as the general economic decline during the latter decades of socialism was marked by increasing shortages of basic foodstuffs and consumer goods, with protracted waiting lists for ‘luxury items’ such as washing machines, cars and telephone lines which were in short supply. However, even under conditions of communist-era shortage, for the most part these were far from subsistence economies. For many people, involvement in the second economy tended to be more about relative deprivation; many transactions were motivated by the (modest) desire to improve ones living standards and have a ‘nicer life’ within the constraints of the socialist system. There were occasions where a willingness to engage in illegal activity could mean the difference between life and death – for example corruption in the medical sector was widely accepted and expected, so bribing a nurse or doctor could ensure access to scarce medication or allow a patient to ‘jump the queue’ to undergo an essential operation – but many people primarily used the black market to obtain luxury consumer goods, particularly in urban areas. In one Czechoslovakian survey from 1988 for example, a large majority (75%) said they used the black market primarily to purchase luxury or consumer goods, and it was widely recognised that refusal to engage in these petty illegalities would, in effect, mean relegation to the margins of socialist society. [5]


However, it is far too simplistic to claim that experiences and attitudes developed in response to communist rule translate – in effect – to a predisposition towards illegality in the post-communist period, or that such behaviour has subsequently been ‘imported’ into the UK. A recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute demonstrates that between 2004 and 2010, of the estimated 1.5 million East Europeans who travelled to work in the UK, 70% were aged 18-35 – meaning that a large number would have been born and/or largely raised after communism collapsed – well educated and skilled, while numerous UK employers have praised the honesty and hard work ethic they have experienced when employing workers that originate from central and eastern Europe. Of course, there have been cases of known criminals from Eastern Europe moving westwards after the iron curtain was lifted, and establishing criminal operations in their new countries of residence. Historically however, migrant communities have often been restricted to the socio-economic margins on arrival in foreign lands, and studies into crime among these communities suggest that many who do turn to crime use it as a ‘crooked ladder of mobility’ – so it is not enough to consider their previous experiences of legality and criminality, but we also need to consider their experiences and the conditions they find themselves living in post-emigration.  During the current economic crisis, with many media outlets blaming East European migrants for job losses and evidence that many individuals have struggled to establish new lives here in the UK (with reports of many migrants returning home, or sleeping rough in appalling conditions after failing to secure employment), factors which could increase the likelihood that they will turn to crime, for ‘survival’, perhaps drawing unlikely parallels with the communist era. Meanwhile, with newspaper headlines continuing to link East European migrants to high levels of criminlity, research by the Institute of Race Relations published in May 2011 shows that eastern Europeans in the UK today face increasing threats of racial violence.


Besides, Boot concedes that not all former communist block citizens are ‘criminally inclined’; there are, he concedes, ‘numerous exceptions, people endowed with the mind, courage and moral sense to reject the spiritual poison of communism’, many of whom have ‘found themselves in the West, where they become hard working, law abiding citizens’. As the author was born and raised in Russia before emigrating to the US (and then the UK), then presumably he is counting himself among this ‘exceptional’ group.



[1] Weenink, A and van der Laan, A, ‘The Search for the Russian Mafia: Central and Eastern European Criminals in the Netherlands 1989-2005′, Trends in Organized Crime, Volume 10, (2007), 57-76

[2] Feige, E, ‘Underground Economies in Transition: Non-Compliance and Institutional Change’ in Feige, E and Ott, K (eds), Underground Economies in Transition (London: Ashgate, 1999), 18.

[3] See, for example, Clark, J and Wildavsky, A, ‘Why Communism Collapses: The Moral and Material Failures of Command Economies Are Intertwined’, Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1990), pp. 361-390 and Grossman, G, ‘Subverted Sovereignty’, (Center for German and European Studies, University of California, 1998)

[4] Gallighan, G, ‘Legal Failure: Law and Social Norms in Post Communist Europe’ in Denis Gallighan and Marina Kurkchiyan (eds), Law and Informal Practices: The Post-Communist Experience, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[5] ‘Problem nejen moralni, ale i ekonomicky’, Hospodarske noviny, 20 January 1989, 8-9



February 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Remembering Vaclav Havel


The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.

Obviously the greengrocer . . . does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”. Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

- Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (1978)


Remembering Vaclav Havel


Today marks the passing of communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday 18 December 2011, aged 75.  I was very saddened to learn of Havel’s death last weekend after aprolonged period of ill health  – for me, Havel was, and will remain, one of the most iconic figures to emerge from communist Eastern Europe.


Havel’s funeral at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague later today, which will be televised and broadcast on large screens across the Czech Republic, brings an end to a three days of official mourning, during which time thousands have queued to pay their respects while Havel’s body has lain in state.  Havel’s funeral will be attended by leaders from around the world; at twelve noon a minutes’ silence will be observed in his honour; requests have already been received from numerous Czech towns and cities seeking to name streets and squares in his memory, along with proposals that Prague airport be renamed in his honour. Tributes to Havel have also poured in from world leaders across the globe and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL have compiled a handy list of links to press and media coverage of Havel’s death HERE.


Crowds of Czech mourners follow Vaclav Havel's hearse on its journey to Prague Castle earlier this week. Thousands of people have queued to pay their respects to the former playwright, dissident and President during a three day mourning period.


Havel’s life has been well documented in the numerous tributes and obituaries that have appeared in the international press during the past week. Some of the best (English language) articles I’ve read have been Anne Applebaum’s article in The Washington Post; Edward Lucas’s tribute in The Economist; John Keane’s portrait ‘Remembering the Many Vaclav Havels’ and particulalry, David Remnick’s Letter from Prague ‘Exit Havel: The King Leaves the Castle’, first published in The New Yorker shortly after Havel left office in February 2003, but providing a fascinating insight into his Presidency.


Communist-Era Dissidence


The son of a wealthy ‘bourgeois’ family,  as a teenager Havel was prevented from pursuing his love of the arts at University and forced instead to enter a technical engineering programme, which he dropped out of after two years. His love of the theatre led to his finding work as a stage hand, and during the 1960s he made his name as a playwright, until his support for the ill-fated Prague Spring of 1968 resulted in enforced exclusion from theatre work. Instead, Havel was forced to take a job working in a brewery (which he later wrote about in his play Audience), but became increasingly politically active, writing a series of underground essays critically appraising the communist regime and later acting as a key figure in the Czech dissident movement Charter 77.


Charter 77 - the original membership card bearing Havel's signature.


Havel was imprisoned numerous times and was a frequent victim of repression and  harassment by the communist-era StB ( Czechoslovakian state security).  I’ll always remember seeing the following footage, originally filmed at the close of the 1970s and more recently shown as part of a documentary on The Lost World of Communism where Havel  demonstrated the blatantly intrusive level of police surveillance he was constantly subjected to:




Havel and The Power of the Powerless


Havel’s most enduring legacy will almost certainly be his most famous essay The Power of the Powerless, written in 1978 but still widely considered to be the greatest political essay to emerge from communist central and eastern Europe, and something which  I still set as essential required reading  for students taking my courses on communist Eastern Europe today. The Power of the Powerless proved a source of inspiration, not only to millions living during the last decade of communist rule across Eastern Europe but more broadly, speaking to those who have and continue to struggle to resist totalitarian rule across the globe.


Havel’s greengrocer, who unthinkingly places a sign in his shop window ‘because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it ‘ and because ‘these things must be done if one is to get along in life’ aptly represented the faceless millions living under communist rule. Havel however, looked beyond this act of seemingly harmless conformity to communism – the real meaning of the sign, he argued,  was not conveyed by the printed words on display, but by the silent signalling of conformity, acceptance and  desire to avoid trouble, the unseen signal ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’.  Havel’s greengrocer illustrated the fact that even the most oppressive regimes depend on some level of minimal compliance by the people they govern, the majority of whom chose to ‘live within the lie’ and, by conforming to the system, thus perpetuate its illusions.  This then was ‘The Power of the Powerless’. Instead, Havel thus called on the inhabitants of communist regimes to ‘live in truth’, practice non-violent civil resistance wherever possible, and encouraged the development of independent civil society. He recognised that this would not be an easy course for people to choose, as illustrated by the fate of his grocer:


“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself”


These were tactics commonly employed by the communist authorities against any perceived dissidence, opposition and non-conformity as Havel had personally experienced. Havel however, quietly retained the courage of his convictions, and urged others to choose a similar course.


The Quiet Revolutionary

Havel went on to lead the Czechoslovakian ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989, establishing a Civic Forum during the dying days of communism in November 1989, and, as communism finally crumbled, appearing side by side with reformist communist leader and architecht of the failed Prague Spring Alexander Dubcek, while thousands of protestors lined Wenceslas Square, jingling their car keys and chanting ‘Havel na Hrad!’ (Havel to the Castle!).


November 1989: Vaclav Havel greets crowds in Prague's Wenceslas Square during Czechoslovakia's 'Velvet Revolution'.

November 1989: Havel turns and embraces former Communist leader Alexander Dubcek as news reaches them that the Czechoslovakian communist party have resigned from power.


Within weeks Havel  had indeed been elected as the first post-communist President of Czechoslovakia.  He was one of the few communist –era  dissidents to successfully make the transition from shadow politics into ‘real’ politics after 1989, spending a total of thirteen years as President, of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and then, following the Czech-Slovak ‘Velvet Divorce’ of 1993,  as President of an independent Czech Republic (1993-2003). Havel’s transition from dissident to head of state was not always a smooth one, and his post-communist Presidency was not without its problems  – most notably, he had strongly opposed the breakup of Czechoslovakia but failed in his efforts to hold the federation together – while critics have argue that he clung too long to the Presidency to the detriment of both his own health, and the wellbeing of his country, issues that Havel himself addressed in one of his most recent plays Leaving.


Since leaving the Czech Presidency, Havel retained relatively high popularity levels within the Czech Republic and remained an iconic figure internationally. In his last interview, recorded shortly before his death, Havel gave his thoughts on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab Spring and the current global financial crisis. Havel’s legacy will continue to exert influence long after his death.



December 23, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 3 Comments


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