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

25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Last weekend marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which is remembered today as one of the iconic moments of the East European revolutions of 1989. Of course, the fall of the wall and the capitulation of the communist regime in East Germany did not represent the beginning of the changes that swept the communist bloc during that tumultous year – by 9th November 1989 Solidarity had already achieved electoral success in Poland, and the Hungarian communist party had announced sweeping reforms, proposed democratic elections and opened up their borders with the West – a move that also directly contributed to the final destabilisation of the communist regime in East Germany. Neither did the fall of the wall signal the end of the East European revolutions: the following day Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov announced his resignation after 18 years in power, later in November the Velvet Revolution led to the end of communist rule in Czecholovakia and in December the Romanian Revolution resulted in the Christmas Day execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. However, between its construction in August 1961 and its destruction in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe from the communist Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, so when the Wall finally crumbled and live images showing thousands of Germans celebrating by hacking at the hated structure with hammers and pick-axes were transmitted around the world, it created one of the most iconic moments of the revolutions of 1989, the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. As Soviet foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernayev recorded in his diary on 10th November 1989: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over … This is the end of Yalta … the Stalinist legacy and “the defeat of Hitlerite Germany”.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

Although I was still only a child, I do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I remember sitting transfixed in front of the TV, watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ on CBBC, as footage of the collapse of the wall and the first emotional meetings between Germans from East and West was shown. While I wasn’t old enough to really understand what was going on, I do remember the vivid sense that something *really* important was happening – the first sense I ever had of ‘living through history’. That feeling stayed with me over the years, and I have often wondered whether that was the reason why I became so interested in Central and East European history, eventually making a career out of it!

Five years ago, in November 2009, I was also lucky enough to be able to visit Berlin for the 20th anniversary ‘Mauerfall’ celebrations, as giant dominoes were set up following the former route of the Wall, before being symbolically toppled on the evening of 9th November:

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin - part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin – part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo ©  Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

fallen dominoes

The dominoes are toppled! Photo © Kelly Hignett.

This year, a different kind of installation – a ‘border of light’ or ‘Lichtgrenze‘ was created in Berlin, comprised of 8000 illuminated balloons that were then released, one by one, on the evening of 9th November 2014:

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin, the power of the internet meant I could still watch the release of the balloons and the dramatic firework finale from the comfort of my own sofa on Sunday evening via the official livestream. Granted, it wasn’t as good as actually being in Berlin, but alongside the proliferation of photos and videos posted on Twitter, it was a pretty good substitute!

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

However, although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin this year, I was able to organise an event to commemorate the 25th anniversary here at Leeds Beckett University, through our Centre for Culture and the Arts. Invited guest speaker Oliver Fritz, author of the critically acclaimed book The Iron Curtain Kid visited and spoke about his experiences of growing up ‘on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall’ in communist-controlled East Berlin, and about witnessing the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Oliver provided some fascinating – and often very humorous – insights into life in communist East Germany, attracting a lively audience comprised of staff, students and members of the public. Oliver’s talk was followed by a screening of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2007), a critically acclaimed portrayal of a Stasi agent assigned to conduct surveillance on a writer suspected of dissident activities in East Berlin during the 1980s.

Oliver Fritz, author of 'The Iron Curtain Kid' talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz, author of ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’ talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz's book 'The Iron Curtain Kid'.

Oliver Fritz’s book ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’.

A special exhibition, produced by Leeds Beckett students studying for a BA in Graphic Arts and Design (working with GAD Senior Lecturer Justin Burns), in collaboration with some of our final year BA History undergraduates was also displayed to mark the event. The impressively detailed and striking exhibition functioned as a visual timeline, spanning the initial division of Germany after WWII until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Division of a Nation'. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Division of a Nation’. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Mini Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Mini Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Bricks from the Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Bricks from the Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Berlin Wall Bricks' [print] - student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Berlin Wall Bricks’ [print] – student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'25 years since Mauerfall' [print] - student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

’25 years since Mauerfall’ [print] – student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Hammering down the Wall' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Hammering down the Wall’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Two Berlins' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Two Berlins’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

You can read more about the event here.

Finally, the 25th anniversary commemorations have recived a lot of media attention and online coverage. Here is a short collection of some of my favourite features from the past week:

Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo  © Kelly Hignett.

# Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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

History Carnival #126 – October 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering the Warsaw Uprising (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filming Miasto '44. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Filming Miasto ’44. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising. Photo credit © Kelly Hignett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commemorative plaque on the corner of ul. Krolewska.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Night in the Gulag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

By Siobhán Hearne.


Regulating Prostitution in Late Imperial Russia


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


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


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


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


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


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


Prostitution as a Matter for Medical and Moral Concern.


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


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

Poster: ‘Syphilis’ (1923).


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


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


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

Poster: ‘Casual Sex’.


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


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


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


The Russian Prostitute: Victim or Villain?


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

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


About the Author:

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


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

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Student Showcase 2012


I am delighted to be able to introduce the second annual ‘student showcase’ here at The View East! Over the next two weeks I will be posting a series of short articles authored by some of my final year history undergraduates, all of whom have recently completed their degrees at Swansea University.


Last year, when introducing the first student showcase I wrote about how while reading some of the high quality work produced by some of my final year students, I had reflected that it was a shame this work was not accessible to a wider audience. Hence the idea for the first student showcase was born. This initiative received an extremely enthusiastic response from my students, from my colleagues from the History and Classics Department at Swansea, from the University Press Office (who promoted the showcase on their website) and from the many people who have read and commented on the student authored posts  here at The View East.


On a personal note, this will also be the final Swansea student showcase. At the end of this month, after two years working as a Lecturer in the Department of History and Classics on a fixed-term basis, I am leaving Swansea to take up a permanent post lecturing in History at Leeds Metropolitan University. I’m extremely excited about my new role: I’m very much looking forward to joining the History staff and students at Leeds Met and to the opportunities that the security of a permanent academic post will provide me with – so hopefully next year’s showcase will be authored by some of my Leeds Met History students! However, I am also sad to be leaving Swansea. I have thoroughly enjoyed the two years I have spent here and would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful colleagues and students that I have had the privilege of working with during this time. So: thank you, all of you, for helping to make my time at Swansea so enjoyable!


The 2012 student showcase consists of a series of articles authored by final year undergraduates who will graduate next month. The authors all either researched their dissertation on a topic related to modern Russia/Eastern Europe under my supervision, or chose to take my third year ‘special subject’ The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Eastern Europe 1945-1989 during the last year (or, in a couple of cases, both!). All of these students consistently produced very high quality work throughout the course of the last academic year. Once again, they have all responded admirably to my invitation to write a short article based on their research for The View East.


So, by way of an introduction, the student-authored blog posts hosted here over the next two weeks will span Russia/USSR and Eastern Europe and will cover the following topics:


Week 1: Life on the Margins in Twentieth Century Russia


On Monday 18th June we begin with Siobhan Hearne’s article ‘Dangerous Women’ which presents a comparative analysis of state responses to prostitution in late imperial and post-revolutionary Russia.


This is followed on Tuesday 19th June, by Katryna Coak’s article ‘Women of the Gulag’ which provides some fascinating insights into women’s experiences of the Stalinist-era labour camps.


On Thursday 21st June Victoria Bird’s article ‘The Littlest Enemies’ explores the ways in which many children were negatively affected by the terror and repression of the 1930s, and considers how their experiences conflicted with the happy and positive images of childhood depicted in Soviet propaganda.


To conclude week one, on Friday 22nd June Samuel Threlfall writes about the development of criminal subculture in the Gulag camps in his article ‘The Rise and Fall of the Vory V Zakone’.


Week 2: Protest and Opposition in Communist Eastern Europe


During the second week of the 2012 showcase we move from Russia/the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe. On Monday 25th June, Arron Sharkey’s article ‘Operation Whirlwind’ analyses the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956, the first of three short articles relating to protest and opposition in the communist bloc.


This theme continues on Wednesday 27th June, as Rebekah Young’s article ‘Dubcek’s Failings’ provides some fresh perspectives on the complex decision making process that lay behind the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechsolovakia in August 1968.


Finally, on Friday 29th June, Christian Parker concludes this year’s student showcase with his examination of the techniques and tactics used to control the rise of dissent after 1968 in his article ‘Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe’.



June 14, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Using History as a Weapon in Yugoslavia.


I am very pleased to introduce another guest authored article here at The View East. This month’s guest post is by Thomas Moens, a postgraduate student at the Univeristy of Ghent, Belgium. Thomas is currently completing his MA thesis, which considers the political uses of the past in the former Yugoslavia. In this blog post, Thomas discusses some examples of the uses and misuses of history during the turbulent years surrounding the collpase of the Yugoslav federation at the end of the 1980s and the bloody civil war that followed. Thomas argues that while it would be wrong to view the violence of the 1990s as an inevitable product of Balkan history, the exploitation and manipulation of this history for more contemporary aims by the newly emergent postcommunist generation of political leaders played a key role in shaping events.


Using History as a Weapon in Yugoslavia.

By Thomas Moens.


“When the future collapses, the past rushes in” – John Torpey. [1]


John Torpey refers to the widespread sense of disillusionment felt at the end of the twentieth century, a time of great upheaval and rapid change for many people for whom both the nation state and socialism seemed to have failed. According to Torpey, the vacuum left by the collapse of communism was soon filled with identity politics and a focus on historical injustices. A closer look at the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation and the political discourse used by the two major players at that time: Serbian president Slobodan Milošević and his Croatian counterpart Franjo Tuđman, seemingly confirms Torpey’s theory. After 55 years of communist rule and suppression of any overt nationalist sentiments according to Tito’s ideology of Bratstvo I Jedinstvo (Brotherhood and Unity), national identity and ethnicity were quick to re-emerge on the Yugoslav political scene during the turbulent late 1980s. Confronted with uncertainty about the future of the federation, leading political figures successfully began to play the ‘nationalist’ and ‘historical’ card. Increased interest in identity politics was accompanied by a renewed interest in national history, as contemporary political goals became closely linked with historical legitimization.


The Politics of the Past


Almost all nationalist movements locate their contemporary political goals within a wider historical framework. So it should come as no surprise that during the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation at the end of the 1980s, historical references and analogies littered the political discourse. When analyzing public speeches given by both Tuđman and Milošević, the past seems to be almost everywhere. Both politicians tried to create a past-present continuum, which enabled them to present current political issues in historical terms. This overt ‘presence of the past’ aimed to turn collective memory into a political weapon. For example, Croatia’s contemporary struggle for independence was identified with the NDH (Independent Croatian State), a Nazi puppet regime which existed 1941-1945, and had led a genocidal campaign against its Serbian inhabitants. Meanwhile, attempts by Serbia’s political elite to hold on to the Yugoslav federation and the (armed) support provided to Serbian minorities in the other republics, was presented as a new episode in a much older ‘Greater Serbian’ ideal, rooted in the mid-nineteenth century struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. These rhetorical strategies in which references to an (often manipulated) view of history were very important; designed to create a historical sense of unity within particular ethnic groups and, at the same time, to present modern day political opponents as longstanding ‘enemies from the past’.


The Myth of Kosovo


In 1389 the Serbian ruler Lazar Hrebeljanović led an army which fought a decisive battle against the rising Ottoman power at Kosovo polje. According to the Kosovo myth, an angel came to Lazar and gave him the choice between an earthly and a heavenly kingdom. He chose the latter, was killed, his armies lost the battle and soon afterwards Serbian lands were occupied by the Ottomans. The Kosovo myth is still of major importance to Serbian identity and culture today, as Kosovo, with its ancient monasteries, is still seen as the cradle of Serbian culture and of the orthodox church. So, the 600th anniversary of this battle in 1989, was considered a decisive step in the build-up of nationalist sentiments in the years preceding the Yugoslav civil war. On Vidovadan, on 28 June 1989,  Slobodan Milošević gave his famous speech at Kosovo Polje, Gazimestan,[2] in front of an enormous crowd (comprised mostly of Serbs), while the event was also live-broadcasted on national television. In his speech, Milošević transposed the historical events of the 14th century Kosovo battle on to the conditions of the present. He condemned the disunity which had weakened Serbia’s ruling elite throughout its history and made them lose the original battle for Kosovo. He strongly emphasized the historical continuity between a 14th century Serbian empire and the Serbian people in 1989, and encouraged the Serbian people to show the same bravery as their ancestors when confronted with the current political struggles:


“Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past”.

Slobodan Milošević addressing the crowd at Gazimestan, Kosovo, 28 June 1989.


From Kosovo to Knin


Equally, the city of Knin, located in the Dalmatian hinterland of present day Croatia, has always been of great historical importance for Croatia. During the eleventh century reign of King Zvonimir, Knin was the capital of the medieval Croatian Kingdom (which lasted from the 10th to the 12th century). During the post-communist nationalist revival in Croatia, that medieval kingdom re-emerged as a focus point for Croatian nationalism as Franjo Tuđman proclaimed it his ‘historical duty’ to once again form a strong, independent, Croatian state. In some ways, the role Knin came to play in Croatian nationalist propaganda could be compared to the importance of Kosovo for Serbia. Both were seen as central in terms of linkage to a ‘historical fatherland’, but both areas had an ethnically mixed population.  Just as Kosovo was home to a vast majority of ethnic Albanians (estimated at around 85% of the total Kosovan population in 1991), about 80% of Knin’s inhabitants were ethnic Serbs. [3]  The Serbian population of Knin were concerned about the implications of their city becoming part of a newly independent Croatian state, fearing they would be cut off from their compatriots in Serbia and with memories of the atrocities the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) committed against the Serbian population during World War II still prominent enough in many peoples’ minds. During the Yugoslav wars, Serbian inhabitants of Knin even took up arms and formed the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), and it was only after the Croatian Army launched “Operation Storm” in August 1995 that these territories were recaptured. Only a couple of days later Croatian president Franjo Tuđman victoriously toured the country on his ‘Freedom train’ (vlak slobode). On departing in Zagreb, he travelled through Knin where he gave a famous speech celebrating Croatia’s military victory and emphasized the significance of Knin to the history of Croatia. By projecting the medieval Croatian state onto the present, he depicted the Serbian majority in the region as a ‘historical error’; an error which, according to his view had ‘finally been corrected’. According to Tuđman the expulsion of the majority of the Serbian Krajina after the conflict would not only correct a historical wrong but also offered the opportunity to populate this ‘Croatian heartland’ with ethnic Croats.



Franjo Tuđman in Knin days after the ‘liberation’, August 1995.


Ancient Hatreds?


The political rhetoric and historical claims made by Tuđman and Milošević were widely reproduced in the Western Press. As a result, the prominent discourse in 1990s Western media was to present the Yugoslav conflict as a new episode in a centuries old conflict. Although this idea has been largely discredited in academic circles, Robert Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts” also proved to be very influential in promoting this myth as Kaplan claimed the Balkan region is dominated by ‘Ancient Hatreds’, fuelled by the region’s cruel history of ethnic conflict, forced migrations and mass slaughter. [4] Sabrina Ramet claims that Kaplan’s work even helped to convince former US President Bill Clinton against any US military intervention in Bosnia, as any international intervention in this ‘ancient struggle’, on the basis that any international intervention was likely to further complicate things, and that it would be best to let the Balkan peoples ‘solve’ it themselves. [5]

Of course, it is true that nationalist tensions did not simply appear out of nowhere during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Yugoslavia collapsed; and the Balkan region does have a highly complex past in which borders were frequently redrawn, triggering large scale migrations and creating a complicated ‘ethnic patchwork’ – all elements which could, under the right conditions, fuel conflict. But it would be wrong to see the Yugoslav break-up as the logical outcome of centuries of ‘Ancient Hatreds’. It wasn’t the regions turbulent past which caused the break-up of Yugoslavia and the civil wars of the 1990s; but the exploitation and manipulation of this history for more contemporary political aims did play a key role in shaping events.


About the Author:


Thomas Moens is a postgraduate student, currently studying for his Masters degree in History at Ghent University. He has a particular interest in the history and politics of South Eastern Europe. He is currently working on his thesis, focusing on political uses of the past during wartime Yugoslavia. Thomas also regularly discusses developments in the Balkan region, both past and present, on Twitter and you can follow him HERE.


[1] J. Torpey, “The pursuit of the past: a polemical perspectivein: Theorizing Historical Consciousness, ed. P. Seixas, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2004, 240-255.

[2] – English transcription of Milošević’ speech

[3] The 1991 census in Kosovo was boycotted by the Albanian majority. But based on the 1981 census and demographic trends the Yugoslav federal bureau for statistics estimated a total of 85% Albanians in 1991 –  M. Mann, The Dark side of democracy, explaining ethnic cleansing, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 2005, p. 363.

[4] R. D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts. A journey through history, New York (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 22

[5] S. P. Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia: scholarly debates about the Yugoslav breakup and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 2005, p. 4.



April 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Russia 2012 – History Repeating?

As you will probably have guessed, I’ve been following the recent Russian presidential election with great interest. In many ways the election itself was unremarkable: the outcome was a fait accompli before the first ballots had even been cast and the result simply confirmed what everybody expected – Vladimir Putin’s triumphant return to the Russian Presidency with a respectable 63% of the vote, despite widespread evidence of electoral fraud (in addition to the numerous video clips showcasing blatant examples of ballot stuffing and carousel voting available online, both GOLOS and the OSCE have issued formal statements highlighting ‘serious problems’ with the election).


In another sense however, March 4th marked something of a watershed. Russians were genuinely divided. Opposition to Putin’s proposed return to power crystallised, manifest in a series of demonstrations and protest marches held in the run up to polling day. Then more Russians took to the streets in response, not to condemn Putin but to cheer him. There has been much talk about the 2012 election sparking the ‘re-politicisation’ of the Russian citizenry. Putin’s re-election has dominated international media coverage too, provoking a deluge of commentary and providing a platform for airing a broad spectrum of views about contemporary Russia. Last weekend, as Russians went to the polls, my Twitter feed was alive with analysis, opinion and a wealth of wonderful visual and oral snippets about election day, providing some fascinating insights into events as they unfolded.


Something that particularly struck me during the recent election coverage was the widespread use of historical analogies when discussing more contemporary political developments. These have taken a number of different forms, including:


Vladimir Putin – Tsar or Comrade?: I’ve seen numerous references alluding to Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’, with parallels drawn with c17th-c18th Tsar Peter the Great in particular. This image was seemingly endorsed by protest leader Alexander Navalny, who referred to Putin as the ‘Emperor of Russia’ in a derogatory speech made after his re-election was formally confirmed. However, Putin has also been critically compared to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with 4th March 2012 referred to as Putin’s ‘Brezhnev moment’ , with widespread suggestions that the prospect of another 6 years (at least!) of ‘Putinism’, coming at a time of economic decline, will lead to the same kind of stagnation and frustration in Russia that characterised the Brezhnev era.


Putin's face superimposed onto Brezhnev's portrait - this popular image went viral during the Russian election earlier this month.


Electoral ‘Adjustment’: Focus on the lack of democracy and transparency surrounding the March 4th election triggered more comparisons with the Soviet era. Ok, so there are some obvious differences here: The 2012 Election provided at least a nominal choice of candidates, compared to the single candidate ‘elections’ that dominated the bulk of the communist period, although there were suggestions that any serious contenders had been prevented from standing on various ‘technicalities’. Putin’s 63% majority is also less risible than the 98% near universal popular endorsement that the communist party used to periodically claim –  electoral ‘adjustments’ notwithstanding, the prevailing consensus is that today, the Russian electorate still regard Putin as the most popular and viable option to lead their country at the present time. The OSCE post-election monitoring report claimed that, based on information from their exit polls, Putin would have squeaked by on just over 50% of the vote without any electoral manipulation, securing him a slim majority. This suggests that the various forms of electoral fraud were used as a propaganda tool to skew the vote more firmly in his favour by boosting his majority, rather than artificially creating his support base. In some areas though, Putin did claim victory with a curiously overwhelming majority (I’m thinking particularly here of Chechnya, where local officials claimed Putin won with 99.8 vote on a 99.5 turnout, just days after evidence of a Chechen plot to assassinate Putin had been revealed, with some Chechen precincts boasting voter turnout of 107% !).


Added to this, we have some of the tactics widely reported by the press during the election –  particularly the strategic organisation of crowds of pro-Putin demonstrators and the visible presence of large security detachments outside central polling stations (with reports that large numbers of OMON troops were deployed in central Moscow on election day) – both reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics to ‘remind’ citizens of their civic responsibility and to influence (intimidate) them into ‘willingly’ voting for their approved candidate.


Protest and (Potential?) Revolution:  Coverage of the growing anti-Putin demonstrations in the weeks leading up to polling day (which have also continued post-election) have also spawned comparisons with other key turning points in Russian history – I’ve seen parallels drawn between the current popular protests and the revolutionary years of 1905, 1917 and 1991 in recent weeks, with some commentators questioning whether 2012 might even herald ‘another Russian Revolution’. I was also interested to hear about Putin’s recent claims that ‘Western influence’ lay behind the demonstrations  – the return of another favoured Communist-era tactic, that of blaming the guiding hand of foreign forces for inciting domestic unrest! Traditionally, in the post-Stalin era, communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe used a combination of coercion, compromise and concessions to try to minimise overt expressions of opposition to their rule (something that was particularly prevalent during the Brezhnevian era ‘Little Deal’) and while it is still early days, Putin appears to be approaching his third term in office by adopting a similar approach – with the recent announcement that the case of imprisoned oligarch and outspoken Putin critic Mikhail Khororkovsky is to be reviewed after 7 years,  balanced with a crackdown which resulted in the arrest of many protest leaders (including Alexander Navalny) in the aftermath of March 4th.


I  asked a ‘troika’ of seasoned Russia-watchers – Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas – to share some thoughts about these historical analogies and to make some predictions about what the future could hold for Russia during Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. Their responses provide a good indication of the broad range of opinions that exist. Their overall consensus seems to be that when it comes to Putin, some historical analogies may carry more weight than others, but that we should always beware of drawing overly simplistic comparisons between Russia past and present.  So, over to them:


I have seen a lot of recent references describing Putin as a ‘modern day Tsar’. Is this a fair description? On balance, would you say Putin was more of a Peter the Great, an Ivan the Terrible, or another Tsar altogether?


Mark Galeotti: As always with these kind of comparisons, none fit perfectly. Ivan the Terrible was an effective institution-builder in the first period of his reign, an increasingly destructive paranoiac in the second, which may prove to be a decent metaphor for Putin, but we’ll have to wait and see. In many ways, I’d also throw in a comparison with Tsar Nicholas I (who reigned 1825-1855), an authoritarian with a military background, who came to see the intellectual case for reform, but who never was able ultimately to overcome his visceral mistrust of it and the chaos change tends to bring.

Luke Harding: I’m not sure how helpful it is to compare Putin to either Peter or Ivan. But I do know that staff in his administration quite often use the phrase “Tsar Khochet” [The Tsar Wants….]

Edward Lucas: Personally, I don’t like any of these historical analogies. Russia now is quite different from Imperial Russia. Putin is a Red-Brown-White amalgam:  his approach is friendly to orthodox while keeping Lenin in his mausoleum and using fascist rhetoric. To view him as a ‘Tsar’ is too simplistic.


Critical comparisons have also been drawn between Putin and long-serving Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Do you agree?


MG: I’m not so much compelled by comparisons with Brezhnev as a person so much as the era. Brezhnev was the beneficiary of extremely favourable circumstances, both political and economic, with buoyant oil and gas export prices and a rebound from Khrushchev and his ‘madcap schemes.’ This allowed for a process of buying off every interest group, from the masses (with ‘sausage communism’) to the military and the increasingly corrupt elite. However, then the money began getting tight and everybody’s expectations had grown and that’s when things became troublesome. Brezhnev by that stage lacked the temperament or power to force harsh decisions on the government and to a large extent cuts hit the masses. Putin has likewise been the beneficiary of great good fortune and social and institutional expectations have grown, but on the other hand, Putin is no Brezhnev and he has the ability — though perhaps not the will — to adapt to meet changing economic needs.

LH: I’ve used the Brezhnev analogy before most recently in my Guardian article following Putin’s election victory, which you can read HERE. The comparison isn’t absolute, of course. But the similarities are obvious: a personalist regime, a leader who refuses to step down, the absence of any kind of succession mechanism. No-one can quite see how Putin will end – other than in the same way Brezhnev did. Plus of course, there are broader historical parallels: stagnation, high oil prices, emigration, an Olympics and a regime that – just about – has a degree of international respectability.

EL: Again, in my opinion this comparison is not really appropriate except as an insult. Modern Russia is far more open and dynamic than during the Brezhnev era.


To what extent have we seen a continuation of communist-era election tactics to influence the 2012 vote in Putin’s favour?


MG: Well, I would for a start challenge the suggestions in some media reports about a strong military presence at polling stations. None of the ones I visited had more than a bored cop or two…

There was a degree of fraud, but that was certainly not communist-style. Back then, if they wanted to stack the votes, they just counted them appropriately. Phenomena such as carousel voting is very definitely a post-Soviet development. Where there is a degree of continuity though, is in the dominance of the public narrative, largely through control of the TV and through ‘administrative resource’ – but on the whole I think the idea of linking this to the Soviet era is a mistake. Election fraud is election fraud.

LH: There are plenty of similarities here, but the most important factor has been State controlled TV – a glossily updated form of Soviet telly – which has broadcast wall-to-wall pro-Putin propaganda…

EL: I disagree. In my opinion, this is another wrong comparison. Election-rigging in its modern form started under Yeltsin (eg during the 1994 constutional referendum, the 1996 presidential vote). Communist elections were single-candidate so there was no need to rig them.


Historically, the Russian/Soviet authorities tried to suppress dissent, protest and rebellion through a mixture of coercion and concessions. It’s only been a week since Putin’s election victory but already, we have seen evidence of both.  How do you think Putin will handle continued opposition to his rule?


MG: We will see more of the same. I have discussed this further on my blog HERE.

LH: The conventional wisdom is that Putin has two choices. One to announce vague liberal seeming reforms, or pseudo-reforms in order to assuage the demonstrators and those more loosely fed up with his rule. The other is to employ the lugubrious KGB methods we’ve seen in the past: arrests (like last Monday), black PR against opposition leaders, administrative measures. Or both. I suspect both.

EL: A Mixture. Both options are limited. Opening up threatens to destroy the system, but it is too weak for mass repression.


The Russian protest movement has been attracting a lot of attention too – again, numerous historical parallels have been drawn, often between 2012 and 1917, although many have argued that 1905 is a better comparison and some have mentioned 1991. Do you think 2012 will bring another Russian Revolution?


MG: I haven’t seen any 1917 parallels, and I think they are pretty dumb. Where’s the revolutionary party? More to the point, where is the evidence of a weakening of central, existing power? 2012 will see no revolution.

The parallel with 1905 works better though – Again I’ve commented on this in more detail HERE.

LH: Yes – it’s 1905 not 1917. 2012 won’t bring another Russian Revolution. At this point I’m more pessimistic than optimistic, despite the encouraging middle-class-led uprising against Putin’s rule. The problem is this: the Russian governing class – worth billions – will fight very hard to preserve the current power dynamic and to hang on to their assets. The opposition are no match for the Kremlin. Putin and his ruling team have a kind of gangster energy about them.

EL: I’d say the current protest movement is more reminiscent of the late Gorbachev era, but much less naïve. Yes, it is good that the middle classes are involved in politics again, it’s good to have debate, satire etc. But it is a long way from reaching ‘critical mass’.


Finally, what do you think the future will hold for Russia, during Putin’s third term as President?


MG: This term, Putin’s last in power in my opinion, will see the slow, painful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back emergence of a genuine political alternatives — and maybe alternatives — to Putin and ‘Putinism’, but he and it will not go easily or quietly…

LH: Stagnation, frustration, emigration. A growing consciousness among Russia’s thinking population that the country is going nowhere under its current leadership…

EL: Change will be messy and remain inside the elite/system, at least at first. My bet is that Putin will not be leader after 2 years and one month. For more on this, see my recent interview HERE.


Mark Galeotti is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs and Academic Chair at New York University. His previous publications include The Politics of Security in Modern Russia; he writes a regular blog about Russian crime and security at In Moscow’s Shadows and he was present in Moscow during the recent presidential election. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkGaleotti

Luke Harding worked as the Moscow correspondent  for the Guardian between 2007 and 2011 and is the author of Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeharding1968

Edward Lucas is International Editor of The Economist and author of The New Cold War and Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West. You can follow him on Twitter @edwardlucas


Many thanks to Mark Galeotti, Luke Harding and Edward Lucas for their comments!



March 13, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments