The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.


Last weekend (6th-7th April) I attended the 2013 BASEES/ICCEES European Congress held at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. Unfortunately, teaching responsibilities and other constraints meant I missed the opening afternoon/evening on Friday 5th and the final panels taking place on the morning of Monday 8th. This was my third year as a participant at BASEES (you can see my report on last year’s conference HERE) and it was also my second year live tweeting from my twitter account @kellyhignett using the official conference hashtags: #euroiccees #basees. The annual BASEES conference brings together researchers working on all manner of topics related to Slavonic and East European studies, past and present, and has quickly become one of the highlights of my conference calender! The broad theme of this year’s congress was ‘Europe: Crisis and Renewal’, which encompassed a range of panels covering topics as diverse as cultural conflict in late Imperial Russia, re-thinking Cold War Eastern Europe, contemporary Balkan politics, the economics of Central Asia and the politics of healthcare in the post-Soviet space. As in previous years, the biggest problem I faced was trying to decide which of the intriguingly-titled panels to attend!


The first panel I attended on Saturday 6th focused on ‘New Perspectives in Cold War Studies’. In addition to great papers about East-West interaction during the Cold War by Sari Autio-Sarasmo and ‘Interactive Socialism’ by Katalin Miklossy, I particularly enjoyed Melanie Ilic’s paper, discussing her experience of interviewing and recording the life stories of several high profile Soviet women. Melanie’s new book Life Stories of Soviet Women will be published this August, featuring an impressive range of interviewees include one of Khrushchev’s daughters! She is also currently editing a collection relating to the ethics of oral history and memory studies, which I am contributing a chapter to, in relation to my own work on petty criminality in late-socialist East Central Europe.


A second panel, ‘New Research on Cold War Eastern Europe’, also contained an interesting mix of papers.Andru Chiorean discussed the ways in which new archival evidence is prompting a re-evaluation of role played by the Romanian censorial agency in regulating the output and content of publications after 1948, highlighting the need for researchers to incorporate the perspectives of both censor and victim. Patrick Hyder Patterson delivered a fascinating paper about socialist brand packaging in the East bloc, followed by an interesting discussion about the ‘afterlives’ of these brands, many of which are remembered fondly today (think Ostalgie and the film Good Bye, Lenin!). I’ve read Patterson’s book Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia and can recommend it. Finally, Kristian Nielsen argued the need to reconsider the economic aspects of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.


I particularly enjoyed both keynote speeches on the Saturday evening, given by Sabrina Ramet and Luke Harding. First up was Sabrina Ramet, whose talk ‘Religious Organizations and the Legacy of Communism in East Central Europe’  was insightful and engaging. Ramet began by linking calls for ‘re-evangelisation’ in post-communist east Europe with the popular desire for a return to more conservative social norms including discouraging divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. She also discussed how the post-communist religious resurgence gave rise to a form of ‘gigantomania’ in the former East bloc, with the construction of elaborate places of worship, religious icons and statues (including massive figures of Mother Theresa and Jesus – with three different cities (one in Slovakia, two in Poland) all competing to build the world’s largest statue of Jesus and the world’s tallest cross erected in Macedonia!). The bulk of Ramet’s paper however, focused on the evidence of widespread collaboration between various religious leaders and the secret services that have emerged with the opening of communist-era archives. The available evidence shows numerous instances of Orthodox priests in Romania passing information gleaned from the confessional to the Securitate, while Ramet suggests that 10-25,000 Catholic clergy acted as informants in Poland, while also acknowledging that there were some cases of ‘fake files’, planted to implicate innocent priests. After a quick break for refreshments during the wine reception (always a conference favourite!) and dinner, I returned to listen to Guardian Reporter and former Russian Correspondent Luke Harding discussing the experiences that formed the basis of his book Mafia State, in conversation with Glasgow University’s Stephen White. Harding too, was a very engaging speaker, likening his experiences in Russia to a bad spy thriller, but ‘without the Aston Martin or the beautiful Bond girls’, and describing Putin’s Russia as a ‘clever, adaptive, post-modern autocracy’ where corruption has flourished. The informal conversational style worked well, and was followed by a range of lively, probing questions from the audience.


I was up early on the bright and sunny Sunday morning to present my own paper, entitled ‘Doing Drugs Behind the Iron Curtain‘, alongside a fascinating paper about naratives of Kosovan wartime exile and Albanian nationalism, given by Erida Prifti and Nicholas Crowe from the University of Vlore in Albania.  My own paper was taken from a longer article I’m currently working on, which will be completed and submitted for publication this summer. This article explores levels of drug abuse and the development of domestic drug markets in East Central Europe between 1960s-1980s. In a nutshell though, the key points of my BASEES paper were as follows:


  • Although the regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland all noted rising levels of drug abuse from the 1960s this was largely denied and downplayed through a campaign of misinformation, censorship and propaganda
  • However, this official policy of ‘silence and inaction’ not only had negative consequences with regards to the lack of information, education, legislation and specialist healthcare available for drug addicts, but in many ways also faciitated the development of a thriving domestic market for the production and supply of illegal drugs.
  • The two main sources of supply were narcotics acquired from state healthcare (either via forged prescriptions or stolen by staff in hospitals, pharmacies and Doctors surgeries)  and domestic production of a range of opium and amphetamine based drugs, including Pervitin (Czechoslovakia) and Kompot (Poland), which were sold on the black market.
  • By the 1980s more organised, professional criminal networks began to operate in the drugs trade, which, according to law enforcement reports, was increasingly dominated by ‘professional manufacturers and pushers’.  I’ve also discovered evidence of international links with the wider global drugs trade, including gangs operating in the Middle East, South America, India, West Africa and Turkey, who were engaged in a range of drug smuggling operations through the East Bloc and across the Iron Curtain, although the domestic market in East Central Europe remained dominated by domestically produced and soirced drugs until the collapse of communism in 1989.


Before travelling home late on Sunday afternoon, I was also able to attend panels on ‘History, Narratives and Politics’, comparing contemporary Poland and Russia, and ‘Opposition, Terror and Imprisonment in Interwar Russia’, where I particularly enjoyed Ian Lauchlan’s discussion about the rise and fall of notorious Soviet Security chief Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mark Vincent’s insights into the fascinating subject of  Urki (criminal) courts in the Soviet Gulag camps, as protrayed in memoirs written by former  camp inmates.


Finally, I’d like to send a special shout out to the team from online magazine Crossing the Baltic, who I was lucky enough to meet at the conference. Check out their great website HERE, and you can also follow them on Twitter @CrossingBaltic !



April 12, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments