The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Women and Repression in Communist Czechoslovakia

Today’s blog post, written for International Women’s Day 2016, relates to my current research into women’s experiences of repression in communist Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on Czechoslovakia 1948-1968, during the period of Stalinist terror and its immediate aftermath.

The vast majority of the 90,000 – 100,000 Czechoslovak citizens who were prosecuted and interned for political crimes between 1948-1954 were men; only between 5,000 – 9,000 (5-10%) were women. These women were held in numerous different prisons and forced labour camps across Czechoslovakia, where they frequently experienced poor living conditions, inadequate hygiene and medical care and enforced labour, while enduring physical and psychological violence, abuse and humiliation at the hands of the penal authorities. Beyond this, however, hundreds of thousands of other Czechoslovakian women also became ‘collateral’ victims of state-sanctioned repression during these years. The Czechoslovakian Communist Party actively pursued a policy of ‘punishment through kinship ties’, so while family members of those incarcerated for political crimes were not necessarily arrested themselves, they were considered ‘guilty by association’. As men comprised the majority of political prisoners, it was usually the women who were left trying to hold their families together and survive in the face of sustained political and socio-economic discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion.

The growth in published memoirs and oral history projects such as Paměť Národa  and Političtívě in post-communist Czech Republic and Slovakia have encouraged more victims of repression to record their stories. However, women’s experiences of political repression in communist Czechoslovakia remain under-researched and under-represented in the historiography. It is often suggested that women are generally more reluctant to share personal accounts of traumatic experiences, in comparison with their male counterparts. For example Historian Tomáš Bursík’s study of Czechoslovakian women prisoners Ztratili jsme mnoho casu … Ale ne sebe! notes that in many cases ‘Women do not like to return to their suffering, that misfortune they affected, the humiliation that followed. They do not want to talk about it’. In her own account of imprisonment in communist Czechoslovakia, Krásná němá paní, Božena Kuklová-Jíšová also explained that:

‘We women are very often criticized for not writing about ourselves, about our fate. Perhaps it is because there were some moments which were very humiliating for us; or because in comparison to the many different brave acts of men, our acts seem so narrow-minded. But the main reason is that we have difficulties presenting ourselves to the world’.

This reticence extends to many women who experienced collateral or secondary repression, such as Jo Langer, who despite being subjected to sustained political harassment and socio-economic discrimination including loss of employment and forced relocation when her husband Oscar was arrested and interned 1951-1960, described how, upon receiving the first full account of her husband’s traumatic experiences in the camps after his release, she felt ‘shattered and deeply ashamed of having thought myself a victim of suffering’ (You can read more about Jo Langer’s autobiography Convictions: My Life with a Good Communist in my previous blog post HERE)

However, the inclusion of women’s narratives make an important contribution to the historiography, broadening and deepening our understanding of terror and repression in communist Eastern Europe. A number of women who endured political repression have shared their stories, which not only document their suffering at the hands of the Communist Party but are also testimony to their strength, resistance and will to survive. Through their narratives, these women are able to present themselves simultaneously as both victims and survivors of communist repression.

Today then, it seems fitting to mark International Women’s Day 2016 by briefly highlighting two examples to pay tribute to the many strong, spirited and inspiring women who feature in my own research.


Dagmar Šimková


“The screeching seagulls are flying around me. I am so free, I can walk barefoot. And the waves wash away traces of my steps long before a print could be left”.

Dagmar Šimková’s autobiographical account of her experiences in prison Byly jsme tam taky [We were there too] is arguably one of the strongest testimonies of communist-era imprisonment to emerge from the former east bloc. Šimková’s family became targets after the communist coup of 1948 due to their ‘bourgeois origins’ (her father had been a banker). Their villa was confiscated by the Communists, while Dagmar and her sister Marta were denied access to university. While Marta fled Czechoslovakia in 1950, Dagmar became involved in resistance activities, printing and distributing anti-communist leaflets and posters mocking the new Czechoslovakian leader, Klement Gottwald. In October 1952, following a failed attempt to help two friends avoid military service by escaping to the West, she was arrested, aged 23, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

Between 1952 – 1966 Šimková passed through various prisons and labour camps in Czechoslovakia: in Prague, Pisek, Ceske Budejovice and Opava. In 1955 she even briefly escaped from Želiezovce, a notoriously harsh agricultural labour camp in Slovakia. Sadly, her freedom was shortlived: she was found sleeping in a haystack at a nearby farm two days later, recaptured and returned to Želiezovce, where an additional three years was added to her existing prison term as a punishment.


Dagmar Simkova’s book Byly Jsme Tam Taky [“We Were There Too”]

In Byly jsme tam taky, Šimková documents the cruelty, humiliation and harsh reality of life for women in communist-era prisons and labour camps in striking detail, describing how ‘According to them [the prison authorities], we are swines, bitches, smelly discharge, whores, and beasts … A woman had to be shamed for her femininity, she had to be deprived of her gender’. However, she also described the strong bonds of mutual solidarity, gentility and friendship that developed amongst women political prisoners; a source of strength that enabled many to resist the dehumanisation of the prison experience and cope with their incarceration: ‘Most of us survived with a healthy mind, and it was determined by the fact that we are women. Not that women had easy conditions in prison, there was no difference in the level of cruelty, but women developed different survival instincts compared to men’.

From 1953, Šimková was held in Pardubice Prison near Prague, in the women’s department ‘Hrad’ (Castle), which was specially created to house 64 women who were perceived as being the ‘most dangerous’ political prisoners, and segregate them from the main prison population. Here, Šimková participated in several organised hunger strikes to demand better conditions for women prisoners. She was also an active participant in the ‘prison university’ founded by former university professor Růžena Vacková, who gave secret lectures on fine art, literature and languages to her fellow prisoners. Šimková later described how ‘We devoured every word. We tried to remember, and understand, like the best students at universities’. Some of the women even managed to compile some lecture notes into a small book which was secretly hidden, before being smuggled out of Pardubice in 1965. This book is currently held in the Charles University archives.

After a total of fourteen years incarceration, Dagmar Šimková was finally released in April 1966, aged 37. Two years later, during the liberalisation of the Prague Spring in 1968 she was instrumental in establishing K 231, the first organisation to represent former political prisoners in Czechoslovakia. Following the Soviet invasion to halt the Czechoslovak reforms, Šimková emigrated to start a new life in Austrialia, where she completed two University degrees, worked as an artist, prison therapist and even trained as a stuntwoman! She also worked with Amnesty International , continuing to campaign for better prison conditions until her death in 1995.


Heda Margolius Kovály


Heda Margolius Kovály’s memoir, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 remains one of the most damning accounts of the violence and repression that characterised mid-twentieth century central and eastern Europe. Heda’s incredible life story spans the Nazi concentration camps, the devastation of WWII, the communist coup and the post-war Stalinist terror in Czechsolovakia. Having survived Auschwitz, Heda escaped during a death march to Bergen-Belsen and managed to make her way home to Prague. After the war, she was reunited with her husband Rudolf Margolius, who was also a concentration camp survivor, and a committed communist. Following the Communist coup of February 1948, Rudolf served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade, only to quickly fall victim to the Stalinist purges. Rudolf was arrested on 10 January 1952, brutally interrogated and forced to falsely confess to a range of ‘crimes’ including sabotage, espionage and treason. He was subsequently convicted as a member of the alleged ‘anti-state conspiracy’ group led by former General Secretary, Rudolf Slansky, in Czechoslovakia’s most infamous show trial. In December 1952, Rudolf was executed, along with 10 of his co-defendents.

Following Rudolf’s arrest, Heda described how ‘Suddenly, the world tilted and I felt myself falling … into a bottomless space’ . She was left to raise their young son, Ivan, while fighting to survive in the face of sustained state-sanctioned repression. She was swiftly fired from her job at a publishing house, and was forced to work extremely long hours for pitifully little pay, while living on ‘bread and milk’ in order to make enough to cover their basic needs. Her savings and most of her possessions were confiscated, and she and Ivan were forced to leave their home and move to a single room in a dirty and dilapidated apartment block on the outskirts of Prague, where it was so cold that ice formed inside during the winter months, and cockroaches ‘almost as large as mice’ crawled up the walls. Abandoned by most of her former friends, Heda describes how she became a social pariah who was treated ‘like a leper’. At best, former friends and acquaintances would ignore her when they passed in the street, while others would ‘stop and stare with venom’ sometimes even spitting at her as she walked by.

The strain of living under these conditions caused Heda to become critically ill, but she was initially denied medical treatment. When she was finally admitted to hospital she had a temperature of 104 and a long list of ailments, leading the doctor who treated her to compare her to a newly released concentration camp survivor. It was while she was recovering in hospital that she heard Rudolf’s trial testimony broadcast on the radio, and she listened to her husband monotonously admit to ‘lie after lie’ as he recited the script he had been forced to learn. Forcibly discharged from hospital before she was fully recovered, Heda was so weak that she had to crawl ‘inch by inch’ from the front door of her apartment block to her bedroom, where she spent several weeks following Rudolf’s execution ‘motionless, without a thought, without pain, in total emptiness … lying in my bed as if it were a coffin’.


‘Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968’ is Heda Margolius Kovaly’s account of surviving Nazi and Communist persecution.

Nevertheless, Heda regained her strength. Her son Ivan later described how, even in the face of sustained persecution ‘Heda survived through her determination and managed to look after us both’.  She continued to maintain Rudolf’s innocence and fought to clear his name, writing endless letters and attempting to arrange meetings with various communist officials, most of whom refused to see her. Following Rudolf’s execution, she dared to publicly mourn him by dressing completely in black, in a deliberate challenge to the Communist Party. After she remarried in 1955, she continued to campaign for Rudolf’s full rehabilitation. In April 1963, she was finally summoned to the Central Committee where Rudolf’s innocence was privately confirmed, and Heda was asked to write a ‘summary of losses’ suffered as a result of his arrest and conviction, so that she could apply for compensation. In Under a Cruel Star, she described how:

‘I sat down at my typewriter and typed up a list:

– Loss of Father
– Loss of Husband
– Loss of Honour
– Loss of Health
– Loss of Employment and Opportunity to Complete Education
– Loss of Faith in the Party and Justice

Only at the end did I write:
– Loss of Property’.

Upon presentation of this list, the Communist officials responded in confusion:

‘”But you must understand that no one can make these losses up to you?”. “Exactly” I said “That’s why I wrote them up for you, So that you know that whatever you do you can never undo what you have done … you murdered my husband. You threw me out of every job I had. You had me thrown out of a hospital! You threw us out of our apartment and into a hovel where only by some miracle we did not die. You ruined my son’s childhood! And now you think you can compensate for that with a few crowns? Buy me off? Keep me quiet?”.’

Following the failed Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Heda left Czechoslovakia and settled in the USA with her second husband, Pavel Kovály. There, she continued to forge a successful career as a translator in addition to working as a librarian in the international law library at Harvard University. Heda Margolius Kovály died in 2010, aged 91. In addition to her personal memoir Under A Cruel Star, an English-language translation of Heda’s novel Nevina [Innocence] was recently published in 2015 – which I can also highly recommend!



March 8, 2016 Posted by | Communism, Eastern Europe, History, Memoirs, Oral History, Personal Testimony, Repression, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today

Last week I spent a few days in Prague, where I was attending an International Conference ‘The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today’ (Dědictví Totality Dnes). The conference was organised by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience in association with several of their partner organisations, and hosted by the Senate of the Czech Parliament. In addition to two full days of conference presentations and discussion, two linked film showings were offered at European House (Evropský dům): Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn (2007) and a special screening of The Soviet Story (2008) followed by a great Q and A session with Director Edvīns Šnore. You can read more about The Soviet Story (and order copies!) at the official website here.


It's always nice to have a reason to visit beautiful Prague! Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

It’s always nice to have a reason to visit beautiful Prague! Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

A particular highlight for me was the invitation to attend the presentation of the first Prize of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience at Kampa Museum. The award, designed by Polish artist Mikołaj Ostaszewski, will be awarded annually to a person or persons who are fighting anywhere in the world today against totalitarianism, for the ideals of democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms and the rule of law. This year, Crimean Tatar Leader Mustafa Dzemilev was presented with the award, to enthusiastic applause from all of those in the audience. You can read more about the award here.


Presentation of the first Platform of European Memory and Conscience Award to Mr. Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar People. The award was presented by Göran Lindblad, President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Presentation of the first Platform of European Memory and Conscience Award to Mr. Mustafa Dzhemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar People. The award was presented by Göran Lindblad, President of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.


Mustafa Dzhemilev's acceptance speech. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Mustafa Dzhemilev’s acceptance speech. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.


The aim of the conference was to assess the legacy of totalitarianism twenty five years after the collapse of communism, by combining discussion about past lessons with analysis of contemporary developments in the region. Discussion thus covered a broad range of topics, with themed panels including the ongoing fight to achieve justice for victims of totalitarian crimes; the evolving role of memory institutions; democracy the rule of law and economic transparency; media engagement; the role of the European Union and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. However, I have briefly highlighted some of the key themes and ideas that emerged from the conference below.


The Long Shadow of Totalitarianism

“We have been living in an atmosphere of freedom for the last 25 years, but what is freedom? Freedom is just a space that needs to be filled with positive developments and actions. Today, it is important to defend this space of freedom and prevent the past from repeating, by filling this space with positive content, for us and for generations to come” (Conference Statement by Daniel Herman, Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic)


Twenty-five years after the collapse of communism across the region, the legacy of decades of totalitarian rule continues to cast a shadow. The Berlin Wall may have fallen in 1989, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that for many, the maur im kopf (‘wall in the mind’) still persists today. Despite the widespread joy expressed when communism ended, millions of people had been deeply affected, and often damaged, by decades of totalitarian rule. This created the mass ‘moral illness’ described by Vaclav Havel. It is generally accepted that mentality lags behind institutional change during times of transition and during the conference presentations, many questions were raised about how effectively the totalitarian legacy has been overcome, and to what extent the ‘ ‘post-communist mentality’ has endured, and continues to influence both individual attitudes and institutional reforms.



Conference Poster: Legacy of Totalitarianism Today. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Conference Poster: Legacy of Totalitarianism Today. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Assessing the Post-Totalitarian Transition

In the past twenty-five years attempts by former communist states to establish and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for individual rights; establish social trust; develop political accountability and fight corruption have produced a variety of experiences. From the mid-1990s the prospect of EU membership was a key motivating factor driving reform in many post-communist countries, but some were able to use this ‘window of opportunity’ more effectively than others. Often however, there has been little political will to reform beyond the requirements necessary for EU accession, and little evidence of genuine internalisation of many of the associated democratic values (including individual rights). Today, while official data provided by organisations such as Freedom House tend to rate Central and East European countries relatively highly with regards to levels of freedom and democracy, popular opinion polls suggest that democracy in the region is not working so well, although there is evidence to suggest that citizens are now more willing to hold governments accountable by ‘punishing them’ via the ballot box. Law still has a tendency to ‘bend’ before political power, many of the big anti-corruption cases are politically motivated and there are cases where the security services have been misused for political purposes.

Today, there are suggestions that we are seeing a post-EU accession ‘crisis of democracy’, even amongst countries that have previously been viewed as success stories in terms of their post-communist transition (such as the worrying drift towards authoritarianism in Hungary), but given recent political developments in Western Europe (as highlighted by the 2014 European Parliament elections), I wonder to what extent we need to see this ‘democratic crisis’ in the context of a wider European political shift rather than as the direct result of an incomplete post-communist transition and the legacy of recent totalitarian rule.


Communism and Nazism Compared

“Nazism and communism are, in effect, interchangeable” (Conference statement by Valters Nollendorf, Occupation Museum Association of Latvia)



In 2009 the European Parliament designated 23 August as an annual day of European Remembrance for Victims of Nazism and Stalinism (‘Black Ribbon Day’) to act as ‘a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes’. But should we emphasise the similarities or the differences between these ideologies and the regimes they fostered? Should victims of communism be considered together with or separately from victims of Nazism? To what extent can the persecution and repression associated with the early communist period be considered as a continuation of Nazi repression? Nollendorf’s conference statement was controversial; the comparison between Nazism and communism has been addressed by numerous scholars and still remains a highly disputed subject. However, this comparison was evident in the screening of The Soviet Story, which highlights the ideological similarities and practical parallels that existed between the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. It is worth noting that many victims of totalitarianism suffered under both regimes and following WWII the Soviets often used former Nazi concentration camps as ‘special camps’ for prisoners of war, where many people were killed (although, there was no organised industrial genocide on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust). After the communist parties had consolidated their power in central and eastern Europe however, they also established their own system of prison camps and labour camps across the communist bloc – an extension of the Soviet Gulag – many of which have been described as ‘extermination regimes’. At last week’s conference, journalist Karl-Peter Schwarz highlighted the 2009 discovery of 4000 mummified bodies, victims of communist terror buried in a mass grave mine shaft at Huda Jama in Slovenia, which had created a ‘Pompeii of communist horrors’, and questioned why this story had barely been covered by wider European media (There is some information about this here).


How comparable are Nazism and Communism?

How comparable are Nazism and Communism?

Although communism was declared ‘dead’ after 1989/1991, it was arguably never fully buried. Communism has never been wholly discredited in the same way that Nazism was after WWII, and there has been no international attempt at ‘truth seeking’ along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials. In fact, in many instances attempts to bring legal action against communist-era officials has been met with reluctance and resistance. This lack of accountability allowed many communist parties across central and eastern Europe to rebrand themselves – some of them retained power into the 1990s, while others returned to political office just a few years after the collapse, and former communist parties in many countries have polled highly in recent elections (such as the success enjoyed by KSČM in the Czech legislative elections of October 2013, where they polled around 15% of the vote, making them the third largest parliamentary party). Today, communism and Nazism still tend to be presented differently, leading to allegations that communism is often ‘whitewashed’ for political reasons. In particular, academics and analysts often appear more willing to make excuses for the crimes of communism, presenting the ideology as well intentioned but distorted, due to a combination of the conditions under which it was enforced and the influence of human error.


Preserving and Promoting Voices of Victims of Totalitarian Persecution

“The communist experiment resulted in an ocean of injustice. I am just one drop in that ocean” (Aristina Pop Săileanu, former political prisoner, Romania)


Conference participants stressed the importance of recording the experiences of those who lived under communist regimes ‘to help give a voice to truth’ in the future. Several speakers also expressed the importance of education, knowledge dissemination and raising awareness of the crimes of communism. A number of organisations represented at the conference – including the Institute for Totalitarian Regimes , the Confederation of Political Prisoners (Czech Republic) and the International Center for Studies into Communism (Romania) described their involvement in oral history projects designed to collect testimonies from victims of the past, the ‘eyewitnesses of totalitarianism’, to ensure the preservation of their experiences. A variety of other positive initiatives were also outlined, including the organisation of school visits to encourage engagement between former political prisoners and victims of totalitarian repression, and the new ‘post-totalitarian’ generation. This is great news – I’ve seen first-hand how effective first-hand testimony from survivors can be in engaging younger students. But this process of ‘memory transfer’ can still be problematic.

What is the best way to pass on information, understanding, knowledge and experience about the past? As the generation gap widens, it is not only students but also their teachers who have no lived experience or memory of communism, and today, not all of the younger generation are interested in learning about the totalitarian past. Even twenty-five years on, it is often difficult for those who experienced communist repression to convey the truth of their experiences and discuss the ‘stripping of human dignity’ they endured, and some victims still refuse to speak about their experiences at all. Finally, how do we ensure equal representation of these voices, without privileging the more educated, more literate, more vocal members of this group? For example, Čeněk Růžička, President of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, argued that the experiences of the Roma, a group persecuted by both the Nazi and Communist authorities, remain marginalised compared with many other victims of totalitarianism. It is estimated up to 500,000 Roma were murdered in the Holocaust, but their fate is not given the same recognition as Jews and other groups who were victims of Nazi genocide, and Roma survivors have often been denied equal access to compensation. The issue of restitution for property stolen from the Roma has still not been addressed, and neither has any compensation yet been offered to victims of the forced sterilisation that routinely occurred in communist Czechoslovakia. In part, this marginalisation can be explained by the higher levels of illiteracy and the insular nature of many Roma communities, but it is also a product of continued prejudice and racism, as the Roma continue to be viewed as ‘second class citizens’ across much of Europe today.

Panel discussion about the legacy of witnesses of totalitarian persecution. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Panel discussion about the legacy of witnesses of totalitarian persecution. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Remembrance and Restitution

Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism gave a thought-provoking presentation, arguing that in post-totalitarian societies ‘memory goes hand in hand with forgetting’. Courtois talked about the slow process of ‘cleansing’ national memories, following decades when communist regimes used a combination of propaganda, censorship and brute force to supress or stigmatise any alternative interpretations or memories that deviated from or contradicted their ‘official line’. The fall of communism allowed many people to speak openly about ‘how things really were’ for the first time and today a more honest assessment of the past is finally possible.


Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism talking about the post-communist 'memory cleansing process'. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Stéphane Courtois, Professor of History and editor of the Black Book of Communism talking about the post-communist ‘memory cleansing process’. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

The contemporary consensus is that memory institutions and sites of remembrance remain important, as a memorial honouring the victims, a source of support for the survivors, sites of authenticity, museums of history, and centres for research and education about the totalitarian past. However, to date, the majority of memorials to communist repression across central and eastern Europe have been organised and built without any real state assistance. However, some questions are being asked about memory institutions: how long will they be needed? What role should they play? How should they be financed? Similar debates surround the future of many sites of repression and suffering, including prisons, labour camps and execution sites. How many sites should be retained as permanent memorials? How should these decisions be made? Who should finance the preservation of such sites? What functions should they serve? What about the future function of those sites which are not preserved? Some sites are already well established (such as Auschwitz-Birkeanau and Terezin) and others are currently under development (such as the ‘red tower of death’, a four-story building at the Jachymov uranium mine (the location of an infamously harsh communist-era labour camp) which was donated to the Czech Confederation of Political Prisoners after the production facilities closed. There are currently plans to develop the tower as a monument to the maltreatment and suffering experienced by the prisoners and a memorial to slavery across the eastern bloc). However, many other sites remain disputed, such as the Lety concentration camp, south of Prague, where an estimated 1,327 Roma were interned and hundreds died 1943-44. Today Lety remains the site of a functioning pig farm, despite a concerted campaign to close down or relocate the business out of respect for the victims.

Questions were also raised regarding restitution. How successfully have the crimes of the communist past been dealt with? Given the advancing age and declining health of both perpetrators and victims of some of the worst crimes of these totalitarian regimes, is there still a moral responsibility to achieve justice by bring them to trial? 2002 saw the launch of  ‘Operation Last Chance’ in an attempt to bring remaining Nazi war criminals to justice. Should a similar international campaign be launched targeting perpetrators of communist-era crimes, especially since more information has become available since the opening up of more state archives? The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism stated that crimes committed under communism could often be classified as crimes against humanity, but relatively few trials and convictions have been achieved in the former Soviet bloc to date, and approaches to restitution have varied widely. In Poland, the creation of the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for Crimes Against the Polish Nation to cover the period 1939-1990, a body with special powers for investigation and prosecution has been an important development – between 2011-2014 there have been 311 indictments filed, over 470 perpetrators formally accused and 170 convicted and sentenced. Following the 2006 establishment of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes there have also been recent attempts to bring communist-era prison authorities to justice in Romania (where 600,000 people were imprisoned under the communist regime), such as the recent cases of Alexandru Visinescu and Ioan Ficior. In Hungary too, the conviction of former Interior Minister Béla Biszku on charges of war crimes in connection with the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising earlier this year was viewed as a landmark case, and clips from the controversial documentary Crime without Punishment (2010) highlighting Biszku’s apparent lack of remorse were also shown at the conference by director Tamás Novák.

Tamás Novák tells us about 'hunting communists' and the interviews he conducted with former Hungarian Minister of Interior and convicted war criminal Béla Biszku. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Tamás Novák tells us about ‘hunting communists’ and the interviews he conducted with former Hungarian Minister of Interior and convicted war criminal Béla Biszku. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Russia and Ukraine

“The current situation in Ukraine has created a moral and material threat for Europe” (Conference statement by Marion Smith, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation)

“23 years of independent Ukraine has shown that ignoring the totalitarian past deforms the present” (Conference statement by Volodymyr Viatrovych, Director, National Memory Institute, Ukraine)

“Ukraine symbolises the crisis of memory faced by all post-communist countries today” (Conference statement by Stéphan Courtois, Professor of History)


Naturally, recent developments in Russia and the current crisis in Ukraine also provided a key theme running throughout the conference, from Sofi Oksanen’s opening keynote speech to the closing panel discussion entitled ‘Ukraine and beyond’. Oksanen’s speech (which can be read in full here) argued that Putin’s rise to power did not just signify a new leader for the country, but a new system of power, a form of ‘neo-totalitarianism’ which is evidenced by the Kremlin’s use of ‘information warfare’, attack of pressfreedom and restriction of civil rights, while Russian nationalism is acting as a new basis for increased hegemony in their former empire.


Writer Sofi Oksanen delivering her keynote speech, focused on Putin's Russia and the recent Russian annexaction of Crimea. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Writer Sofi Oksanen delivering her keynote speech, focused on Putin’s Russia and the recent Russian annexaction of Crimea. Photo ©‎ Kelly Hignett.

Oksanen also questioned how easily ‘the West’ appear to have accepted and ‘forgotten’ the Russian invasion of Crimea. Mustafa Dzhemilev also gave an impassioned condemnation of the Russian annexation of Ukraine and the enforcement of Russian citizenship on Crimean people, stating that even as the Crimean Tatars still struggle to overcome the legacy of Stalin’s 1944 forced deportations, they are facing a new threat from Putin’s regime. Dzhemilev also expressed concerns about the lack of external protection for Ukrainian territorial integrity in the face of the renewed Russian threat, despite the assurances provided by the 1994 Budapest memorandum, asking what message this sends to other states threatened by Russia’s resurgence? Finally, Andriy Kohut, a Ukrainian civic activist and coordinator of the Civic Sector of Euromaidan, traced the evolution of the current crisis in Ukraine from peaceful protest through confrontation to full scale revolution, before discussing some of the key challenges faced by the new Ukrainian President Poroshenko: to finally leave post-totalitarianism behind, harness the renewed civic activity sparked by the Euromaidan movement in a constructive direction, and deal with ongoing instability in the east, much of which continues to be fuelled by Russian influence.


dzhemilev panel

Mustafa Dzemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatars, speaking about the current situation in Crimea. Dzhemilev is viewed as a ‘provocateur’ by the Russian authorities, and is currently banned from entering Crimea.

Finally, the ongoing situation in Ukraine also provided a focal point for a closing statement entitled ‘Time for Europe to Wake Up!’ which was released by the Platform of European Memory and Conscience following the conference, and this can be read here.



June 20, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2013 in review

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

Click here to see the complete report.

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

‘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

Today in (East European) History – 5 March


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


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


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


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


Also on this day in (East European) history:


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

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

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



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

Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe

The collapse of communism led to increased levels of organised crime across Central and Eastern Europe, as the early post-Cold War period was characterised by the growth of a substantial indigenous underworld combined with an influx of criminal gangs from outside the region. The evolution of the East European underworld has thus been shaped by a mixture of cooperation and conflict between various criminal organisations. In this article, guest author Thomas Garrett asseses the state of East European organised crime, analysing the development of relations between some of the region’s key players.


Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe.

By Thomas Garrett.


In the decades since the collapse of communism, Central and Eastern Europe has been popularly portrayed as a cross roads for international organised crime: a meeting point for mafias from east and west and a hotbed of criminal cooperation, fuelled by the forging of international crime links between domestic criminal gangs and various external mafias who have infiltrated the region. In the early 1990s, crime groups from the former Soviet Union quickly moved in to develop a formidable presence in central and Eastern Europe, and as early as 1993, Irving Soloway, a spokesman for the US State Department claimed that American and Sicilian mafias were also ‘working with their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union… to apply strategic planning and market development policies for the new emerging free markets [of Eastern Europe]… and to develop and expand extremely illegal activities’. Soloway even claimed that three post-communist ‘crime summits’ had taken place in central and eastern Europe soon after the collapse  –  in Warsaw (1991), Prague (1992), and Berlin (1993) – where he alleged that the leaders of various organised crime groups met to approve alliances, divide territories of interest, and organise ways to work together (Irving Soloway quoted in Washington Times, 1993). Soloway’s scenario smacks of the kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ outlined by Claire Sterling in her book Crime Without Frontiers (Little, Brown & Company, 1994) – the formation of a transnational alliance allowing criminals to work together peacefully in the post-Cold War world, an arrangement regulated by business-like meetings to coordinate mutually profitable ventures. This is an idea that remains popularly accepted today: organised crime expert Mark Galeotti recently described how ‘I’ve come across… prosecutors who believe that somewhere – like a scene out of some Bond movie – there is a ruling council running all post-Soviet organised crime’. Galeotti disagrees with the idea that any kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ exists in central and Eastern Europe however, arguing that this idea is a ‘myth’ and argues that instead, crime in the post-Soviet states is characterised by a diverse mix of ‘loose but entrepreneurial’ organisations and smaller networks centred around important underworld figures (Mark Galeotti, Mythologising the Mafia, The Moscow News, August 2011).


Mafia International?


Whether they are united or not, the organised criminals of Central and Eastern Europe certainly represent a powerful force. A thriving domestic underworld has developed in countries across the region in the decades since the collapse of communism. The World Security Network Foundation currently estimates that as much as 20% of Hungary’s GDP is under the control of organised criminals, with Hungarian police citing a significant increase in illegal economic activity since Hungary joined the EU in 2004. Czech police now believe that they face about 100 different organised crime groups, comprised of around 3000 members, and 5000 further ‘auxiliary supporters’, with recently published survey data suggesting that Czechs believe organised crime to be one of the most serious problems facing their country today. While the Slovakian underworld appears to be rather less developed, with police estimating that only about 700 organised criminals are active in the country, that hasn’t stopped Bratislava from becoming a European centre for prostitution, an industry believed to generate over 50 million Euros in profit a year (Michaletos and Hanakova, Organised Crime in Central Europe). Poland has become a leading European centre for amphetamine production, while Albania remains a key European route for heroin smuggling. Organised crime has successfully penetrated economic and political spheres across the regions, with a number of ‘scandals’ connecting high profile politicians to organised crime. Reports compiled by both the Council of Europe and the German military have claimed that Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister of Kosovo, ran a powerful Albanian Mafia group controlling racketeering and heroin trade in the Balkans, and has alleged they even murdered Serbian captives to sell their organs on the black market (These allegations have always been denied by the KLA – the original version of the report is available here).


Hashim Thaci (Left) - the Kosovan Prime Minister is alleged to have close links with the mafia.


The geopolitical position of many central and east European states, lying between the poor, crime-ridden states of the former Soviet Union and the richer consumer countries to the west made the region a naturally lucrative smuggling route once the ‘Iron Curtain’ was opened, thus also attracting the attention of organised crime groups based outside of the region. Today, heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan destined for sale in western Europe and north America travel through central Asia across Russia and into eastern Europe, or through Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. While a lot of marijuana is produced in north Africa and transported directly to western Europe, marijuana grown in fields across central Asian states such as Kazakhstan (also a leading producer of marijuana for west European markets), has to be smuggled through Russia or Turkey before entering the EU.


Macedonian police seize packages of heroin, en-route for sale in Vienna and Frankfurt


Human smuggling routes follow a similar pattern across the region  Prostitution is a particularly lucrative crime, with women commonly brought from the poorer states of south east Europe and the former Soviet Union, and smuggled into states including the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. There they will be forced to work in brothels to earn money for the gangs who now ‘own’ them. Middle Eastern countries (particularly Israel), are also common destinations for prostitutes originating from the former USSR, who are often illegally transported through the Balkans. Aside from prostitution, victims of trafficking are sometimes forced to work for criminal gangs in various other illegal capacities to make them money, such as fraud.


Prague has become a European centre for prostitution


Today, despite heightened security measures, EU borders remain far from impermeable. In EU member states such as Bulgaria where corruption is rife, it remains relatively easy for criminal gangs to arrange for fake documentation such as passports and visas, which allow both material and human cargo to illegally travel on to popular European destinations such as Germany, France and Britain after they arrive in Bulgaria. And while trafficking drugs and people remain two of the most serious smuggling crimes, they are by no means the only illegal cargo to pass through central and Eastern Europe. Speedboats cross the Adriatic sea every night, laden with cigarettes and alcohol, to dodge tax regulations. Cars stolen in the West can be smuggled to Eastern Europe, but much more commonly today, cars stolen in Eastern Europe are smuggled to Russia, the Middle East and central Asia. Counterfeit designer fashion and bootleg DVDs and computer software, produced domestically and imported from Asia are also transported for sale inside the European Union.


Cooperation … and Conflict.


Given the broad scope of these smuggling operations, the post-communist decades have clearly witnessed a significant level of criminal cooperation, both between the various domestic mafias of central and Eastern Europe, and between domestic criminals and gangs based outside of the region. But does this equate to the formation of a ‘Pax Mafiosa’ –  a coordinated criminal network spanning the central and east European region? Or are we witnessing a series of more transient, short-term mutually profitable individual agreements between gangs who retain the power to fight over territory and markets when their interests and loyalties shift?


Since the beginning of the 1990s, Italy has been clamping down hard on the Sicilian Mafia. According to the deputy director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, at the end of the 1990s the Mafia sought to survive this crackdown by forming a “symbiotic” relationship with the Albanian crime families known as fares, who provided the struggling Sicilians a number of services (mostly providing ‘muscle’), in their operations across Italy. Today, both Sicilian Mafia groups and the ‘Ndrangheta are believed to have franchised out prostitution, gambling and drug dealing in territories along the Adriatic coast to the Albanians. One CSIS report even claimed that this partnership had proved so successful that the Sicilian mafia established a ‘headquarters’ in Vlorë, a coastal town in southern Albania at the close of the 1990s (And the Winner is … the Albanian Mafia, Washington Quarterly, 1999).


Vlorë, Albania, suspected to be the external headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia


While the Sicilian Mafia initially seems to have benefitted from cooperative relations with Albanian groups, using them to make up for the loss of manpower suffered during the Italian government’s clampdown, other Italian groups appear to have had less success. This has been particulalry apparent since the Albanian gangs have sought to expand their own influence in the last decade. According to one British anti-organised crime agency, native criminal groups based in Milan struggled violently with Albanian gangs who were attempting to muscle in on their lucrative drug market at the close of the 1990s, eventually losing out to their new competitors (Albanian Mafia targets Britain, The Guardian, 1999). Other criminal groups are also wary of working with their Albanian rivals. A US Newspaper reporter investigating Polish organised crime was told by an underworld source that ‘the Poles will work with just about anybody… blacks, Italians, Russians, Asians. But they won’t go near the Albanian mob. The Albanians are too violent and too unpredictable’. (Philadelphia, December 2002).


A similar scenario unfolded with the powerful Russian gangs. After the fall of the USSR, Russian crime groups quickly moved to establish a ‘presence’ in Eastern Europe, forging mutually profitable alliances through cooperation with many native criminal groups. According to the Conflict Studies Research Centre, many Russian gangs used connections formerly established during the Soviet era to forge links with the emergent East European underworld in the 1990s. Russian criminals liaised with Czech gangs to smuggle arms and drugs through Prague and into Germany (Dallow, Russian Organised Crime, 1998). Prague also quickly became a centre for prostitution, with Russian gangs smuggling girls in from the former Soviet Union, where they were sold or loaned to the ‘local’ Czech gangs who operated the brothels. In exchange, Czech gangs used their influence with local law enforcement to benefit their Russian counterparts, for example, faking court orders to free a particularly infamous Russian gangster from gaol. During the Cold War era, many Red Army recruits were stationed in East Germany, meeting German criminals who they were later able to form ‘business’ links with. In addition to the familiar alliances relating to prostitution and drug smuggling, a thriving market in stolen cars also developed through Germany in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. High-value cars stolen by German car thieves (sometimes to order) would be passed on to Russian gangs, who arranged for their illegal transportation through Poland and into the former Soviet Union In a matter of days, if not hours, a car stolen in Warsaw could end up anywhere from Kiev to Vladivostok. In Hungary, it was estimated that during the last week before the Soviet Union’s collapse, 1000 Red Army soldiers stationed in Hungary deserted rather than return home. Many of these later became involved in criminal enterprises based in Hungary but having connections in the former USSR. Dirty Russian money has been laundered through numerous financial institutions in central and eastern Europe.


But again, the post-communist Russian influx led to conflict as well as cooperation. While the early 1990s provided a windown of opportunity for Russian criminals to move in to Eastern Europe this influx often resulted in violence. In the mid-1990s one infamous case in Frankfurt involved the slaughter of a Russian pimp, his wife and four prostitutes due to a feud with other criminals, while a series of bombs set off in the Cypriot town of Limassol were believed to be caused by gangs fighting over extortion rackets on Russian businessmen. All across eastern Europe there were similar conflicts and ‘turf wars’ as gangs battled over the control of illegal markets, with car bombs, shoot outs, assassinations and even stereotypical gangland instances where gang members have been killed, hidden in the boots of cars and then buried. Levels of overt violence peaked at the close of the 1990s, partly as the underworld stabilised and partly because the state fightback launched by many central European governments led to a number of Russian criminals being ‘forced out’. However, there has been some resurgence in violence during the second post-communist decade and occasional ‘flare ups’ still occur today, for example in Italy, where Russian gangsters have recently sought to establish operations in the north (especially Milan), a strategy which has has brought them into conflict with both indigenous Italian gangs and with the resurgent Albanian fares.         


It would seem wrong then, to claim that there is some kind of East European ‘Pax Mafiosa’, as the relationships between the various criminal gangs operating across central and eastern Europe are often fractious and violent. It would also be wrong to characterise them as bitter rivals however, continually warring over territory and always seeking to monopolise their own particular markets. In today’s globalised economy, cooperation is increasingly a prerequisite for successful criminal organisations. Today, the East European underworld is characterised by loose alliances between groups, who cooperate to carry out more sophisticated and profitable crimes when it suits them, but also retain the capacity for fractious infighting and disunity. There is certainly no supreme Mafia council coordinating crimes across Eastern Europe, but in the twenty years since the collapse of communism, many criminals have learned how to work together to fully exploit the lucrative advantages that carving out a presence in the heart of Europe can provide.


About the Author:

Thomas Garrett is completing his MA in History at Swansea University. He is currently working on his dissertation, entitled ‘The Internationalisation of the Russian Mafia’ which analyses the global spread of Russian organised crime from the 1980s to the present day.


For more information see:

RW Dallow, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Russian Organised Crime (Surrey: Camberley, 1998)

Ian Davies, Chrissie Hurst, Bernado Mariani; Saferworld, Organised crime, corruption and illicit arms smuggling in an enlarged EU: Challenges and Perspectives (December 2001)

Kelly Hignett, ‘The Changing Face of Organised Crime in Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe’ Debatte, vol 18, no 1 (April 2010)

Ioannis Michaletos and Marketa Hanakova; World Security Network Foundation, Organised Crime in Central Europe (2010)

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

1989: The Director’s Cut?


I’m not generally a fan of the Daily Mail, but a couple of days ago I stumbled across a rather interesting article by Peter Hitchens entitled ‘What if the Berlin Wall Didn’t Fall?’ where Hitchens imagined what might have happened if the revolutions of 1989 had failed and communism had survived in Eastern Europe and the USSR. You can read his article in full here:


Playing the ‘what if?’ game in History can be problematic and obviously requires a lot of artistic license – ‘If Hitler had never been born, would the Holocaust still have happened?’ was a favourite question back when I was studying for my History A-Level, and of course it’s impossible to know and in some ways perhaps rather pointless to ask – though such an exercise can be very useful in getting history students to think about the complicated nature of cause and effect.  But, twenty years on, it is worth remembering that although the eyes of the world were turned on Eastern Europe in 1989, at the time no one was entirely sure how the dramatic events unfolding would pan out. In the lead up to 1989, few had predicted that communism was in imminent danger and the success of the revolutions that swept across the Soviet bloc was by no means a foregone conclusion. While the world was watching with interest, the world was also waiting, with some apprehension, to find out what the East European communists would be prepared to do to stay in power, and how Moscow would react to the events unfolding across their European sphere of influence…


Hitchens envisages what might have happened if the communists had enforced repression on a larger scale in 1989, imagining ‘a massacre on the scale of Tiananman Square’ taking place in East Germany to defend the Berlin Wall as the communists clung onto power, turning the tide in Eastern Europe while a coup organised by communist hardliners in the CPSU forces Gorbachev and other leading reformists from power in Moscow, leading to the authorisation of Russian military action to reverse the liberal reforms that had already taken place in Poland and Hungary, and bring all of the Eastern European states firmly back under Soviet control. Meanwhile the Western world looked on, denouncing the events unfolding in Eastern Europe, yet not prepared to take any firm action to oppose them.

Could this have been the outcome in 1989? It was certainly possible, if not probable.


Although we know that Gorbachev had effectively revoked the Brezhnev Doctrine by 1989 (this was the Soviet policy that legitimated military interference in the internal affairs of its East European allies in cases where the communist monopoly of power was threatened, as had previously happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), we also know that the East European communist parties still had considerable  forces of coercion at their disposal, and initially, the communists did attempt to use force to attempt to quell demonstrations and demands for reform in many cases (such as the GDR, Czechoslovakia and – later of course – Romania, where both the police and armed forces were unleashed against initial demonstrations). Due to the release of previously classified documentation after 1989, we also now know that many communist leaders seriously considered the use of force on a larger scale in an attempt to cling onto power, although without the security of ‘back-up’ from Moscow, most quickly decided against this option. For example, records from meetings in the GDR show that Erich Honecker continued to champion a forceful crackdown on protests in the weeks leading up to his removal from power on 18th October, despite being bluntly told by his security chief that ‘we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people’, while Czech Premier Ladislav Adamec also seriously considered using force to retain power at an emergency meeting of the Czech Central Committee held in late November, before deciding that, given the circumstances unfolding both in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere across the communist block, a ‘political compromise’ was his preferred solution.


However, I disagree with Hitchens’ view that pure force would have been sufficient to completely quell domestic unrest across Eastern Europe in 1989 – while enhanced repression may have been an effective short-term measure to restore the communist monopoly of power and may have convinced the majority of East Europeans that further anti-communist action was futile at that time, in the longer term the communists would probably have sought to ‘buy off’ their populations with some limited degree of reforms, particularly in the economic sphere, as had been the case under the Brezhnevian ‘Little Deal’ of the 1970s – which had become increasingly unworkable during the 1980s due to the mounting economic problems evident in the communist block. And even if communism had survived the upheavals of 1989, obviously one cannot assume that it would have survived another twenty years to the present day – serious problems were evident and had been exposed to both the people and to the outside world under Glasnost, so while a reversal of liberalism and the launch of a concerted large-scale crackdown in 1989 may have bought the communists a temporary ‘stay of execution’, without some kind of serious reform programme it is unlikely communism could have survived in the longer term, at least in its previous form.


Perhaps proceeding with caution to develop the more ‘limited’ reforms initially envisaged by Gorbachev (if such a programme was carefully controlled and constrained by the threat of force), would have made enough of a difference for communism to survive. But, we also know that many communist hardliners were opposed to Gorbachev’s reformist programme seeing even this as ‘too radical’, and that there were attempts to force him from power such as Hitchens imagines (most famously in the failed coup of August 1991). Had the Soviets chosen to rely on large-scale repression to retain power in their European ‘sphere of influence’ then the West would – almost certainly – have pursued a policy of ‘words but not action’ : spoken condemnation but without active engagement, as had previously been the case in 1956 and 1968, not willing to risk World War III over the fate of Eastern Europe, which up until 1989 was still generally accepted as being firmly ‘in the Soviet sphere’.


In Hitchens’ alternate version of 1989, the imaginary repercussions of events in Eastern Europe are wide-ranging. Margaret Thatcher remains in power in the UK as we never see the emergence of ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s (although Barack Obama has still been elected as US President in 2009, and is even ‘pictured’ at the Brandenburg gate in the article,  in an ‘How Obama MIGHT have looked confronting communism in 2009’ style mock-up photo!). The European Union fails to materialise as a significant political and economic organisation. NATO is strengthened but does not expand and the map of Europe remains firmly divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ with the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia still confined within the borders of the USSR. Other organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the ANC are also affected.  Certainly, a scenario similar to that outlined by Hitchens would have led to a dramatic cooling in East-West relations and the birth of a ‘new Cold War’ in 1989, which would have had far-reaching implications for international relations on a global scale as we entered the twenty-first century. Twenty years on, I think this makes one realise and reflect on just how pivotal the events of 1989 really were.


July 30, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

East European Concern Over Possibility of Closer U.S. – Russian Ties.

On 16th July 22 prominent figures from Central and Eastern Europe published an open letter to Barack Obama’s administration to express concern about recent U.S. moves to establish a closer relationship with Russia following Obama’s meeting to President Medvedev in Moscow earlier this month.

Originally published in Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and signed by 22 prominent individuals including former heads of state, foreign ministers, diplomats and intellectuals from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, including Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, copies of the letter were quickly circulated online. You can read the original letter in full on the Gazeta Wyborcza website here:,86871,6825987,An_Open_Letter_to_the_Obama_Administration_from_Central.html

The authors of the letter urged President Obama to remember their interests in his negotiations with Russia, expressing fears that they may be ‘sold out’ in his attempts to develop a more positive working relationship with Medvedev; warning that’ Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a nineteenth century agenda with twenty first century tactics and methods’ including ‘overt and covert means of economic warfare’ and admitting to ‘nervousness in our capitals’ over recent Russian attempts to advance their interests in the East European region. Particular areas of concern raised in the letter include worries about perceived NATO weakness in the face of a resurgent Russia, US inaction over the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, and current uncertainty over previous US plans to develop missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic which could ‘undermine US credibility across the region’ – see my earlier post here:

The letter comes in light of Obama’s recent visit to Moscow where he spoke of his ‘deep respect’ and desire for a ‘strong and prosperous’ Russia and of his aim to  ‘re-set’ US-Russian relations in the twenty-first century by working to forge a lasting partership to ‘resolve differences peacefully and constructively’. Obama was not completely blind to recent Russian posturing in Eastern Europe however, talking of his respect for Georgian sovereignty and warning Medvedev that ‘in 2009 a great power cannot show strength by dominating other countries’ (ummmm – Iraq?). US Vice President Joe Bidden is also currently visiting Ukraine and Georgia where he expected to confirm US commitment to extend NATO membership to both states in the future, despite staunch Russian opposition, and in today’s Guardian, Tony Blinken, one of Biden’s advisors was quoted as stating that any US efforts to ‘re-set’ relations with Russia ‘would not come at the expense of other countries’ – though the Obama administration has yet to make any official respose to the concerns expressed in the open letter.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poles Remember 1989 Revolution

Twenty years on, will present-day tensions overshadow past glories in Poland?

Tomorrow (4th June) marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Polish elections of 1989, the first ‘semi-free’ elections in communist Eastern Europe, and the day when representatives of trade union-come underground dissidents-come political opponents Solidarity dealt the final fatal blow to communism in Poland, sweeping to victory by winning 99% of all seats in the upper senate and all contested seats in the Sejm.  As Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first post-communist democratic prime minister in Poland recalled earlier this week: “Twenty years ago, what seemed impossible became possible”.

Solidarity Election Poster From June 1989.

Solidarity Election Poster From June 1989.

Today, the majority of Poles remain rightly proud of their role in the revolutions of 1989, seeing themselves as the standard bearers of anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. Many claim that it was the success of Solidarity in the June elections that finally opened the floodgates for meaningful reform across Eastern Europe, inspiring their communist neighbours to follow their lead and take decisive action to cast off Soviet rule. As a result, over 120 events are being organised throughout Poland to celebrate and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the June 1989 elections, including re-enactments of communist-era protests and numerous exhibitions, conferences and concerts, with the anniversary celebrations receiving widespread media coverage both within Poland and internationally. CNN, for example, are showing a series of programmes about the Polish role in the events of 1989 entitled ‘Autumn of Change: The New Poland’, and I found this short video on YouTube:

Some however, have been left disenchanted, feeling that Poland’s part in the events of 1989 was too quickly over-shadowed by the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, an event which, for many people today, remains the defining symbol of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I recently wrote about Polish complaints about their perceived under-representation in the EC video ‘Twenty Years of Freedom’ (see ‘Video Commemorating 1989 Revolutions Creates Controversy’ (18th May) @ ), and earlier this week, former Solidarity leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa also expressed some resentment at the lack of recognition generally given to Poland’s role in the events of 1989 in comparison with events in Germany, in an interview with the Financial Times where he complained that: “They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall, and made into heroes because they [East Germans] were running away [to the west] while Poland fought”.

Polish anniversary celebrations have also been marred by domestic quibblings, with the recent economic downturn taking its toll. The central festivities commemorating the 4th June elections were originally planned to take place in Gdansk, whose shipyards were famous for the anti-communist strikes of the 1980s and the birth of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. However, the threat of violent protests by the modern-day Solidarity trade union led Prime Minister Donald Tusk to recently announce that, in the name of national unity, the official celebrations would be moved to Krakow, stating that ‘Solidarity … wants to carry the symbolism of history, but Solidarity today is a medium sized trade union, and June 4th is  a national day. It cannot be highjacked by any political movement’.

While Krakow may be a safer, less controversial and – arguably – a far more picturesque location for official dignitaries to quietly celebrate Poland’s ‘twenty years of freedom’, it lacks the same kind of resonant symbolism as Gdansk, which is still remembered as the raw cradle of anti-communist dissent in Poland. Today however, the prevailing mood in Gdansk is one of anger at the current economic failings rather than nostalgia for the past. Mismanaged and heavily subsidised under communism, Polish shipyards have found it increasingly hard to restructure and adjust to function in a competitive global economy during the last twenty years. An EU investigation launched in 2005, recently ruled that the Polish government had breached EU rules by providing state aid to keep their domestic shipyards in business. As a result, two such yards, at Gdynia and Szczecin have already been sold to foreign investors leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. EU officials announced yesterday that they were committed to saving the historic Gdansk shipyard, which was awarded a European heritage label in January 2009. While the past significance of Gdansk will doubtless be remembered across Poland tomorrow however, its future currently remains uncertain.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Looking Back on the Berlin Wall.

University College London (UCL) have an interesting podcast available on their website. Entitled ‘Looking Back on the Berlin Wall’ the podcast contains a short (fifteen minute) interview with  Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German History at UCL, who has previously published several works on the GDR and is currently working on a Leverhulme funded project focusing on Germany from the First World War to the reunification of  East and West in 1990,  entitled ‘Living Through Dictatorships’.

In the interview, Professor Fulbrook discusses her own insights into events leading up to and surrounding the East German revolution, explores the shifting symbolism of the fall of the Berlin Wall over the past twenty years and highlights some of the lasting legacies of the events of 1989.

You can listen to the interview as an MP3 or download and listen via itunes by clicking on the relevant links here:

June 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment