The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

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

‘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

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

Today in (East European) History – 5 March


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


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


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


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


Also on this day in (East European) history:


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

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

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



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

Default and Design – Economic Crisis & Political Consolidation in Putin’s Russia


All eyes are currently on Russia, with the 2012 Presidential elections due to take place in early March and former President (and current Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin’s controversial decision to seek re-election for a third term sparking a series of public protests and demonstrations (both pro- and anti-Putin). In this article, guest author Josh Black looks back at the turbulent experiences of post-Soviet Russia to argue that the Russian debt default of 1998 should be viewed as a crucial turning point in contemporary Russian history, marking the failure of the economic liberalism associated with the Yelstin era and the birth of a new brand of ‘Putinomics’. You can read more of Josh’s work at his fantastic blog Out of the Black.


Default and Design – Economic Crisis & Political Consolidation in Putin’s Russia.


By Josh Black.


“Monday, August 17, 1998, is now etched in the contemporary history of Russia – perhaps as significant a date as December 25, 1991, when an independent Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many pondered at the time whether the experiment in forging Russia as a modern, democratic, market-orientated country had failed.” ~ Martin Gilman, No Precedent, No Plan: Inside Russia’s 1998 Default (MIT Press, 2010)


Identifying historic turning points in post-Soviet Russia is like shooting fish in a barrel. There have been many crises, all with deep ramifications, so that dates regularly leap out as crucial. Obviously, for many, 8 December 1991 – the date of the secret summit between the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian Premiers that condemned the USSR to dissolution – is central to the emergence of a post-Imperial Russia. From a contemporary vantage point however, others – such as journalist and author Edward Lucas – increasingly point to a date at the end of the first post-communist decade – 31 December 1999 – when the resignation of Boris Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin acting President and ushered in the siloviki state that has come to represent the essence of post-Soviet Russia.


Rarely is 17 August 1998 – Russia’s default on its debts – considered as a date of any lasting significance. After all, economically speaking, Russia recovered strongly from the severe devolution of the rouble that followed.  If we look beyond the short-term economic impact, however, this was arguably the moment that changed everything.  As inflation soared (with prices up 38% in September 1998 alone and 85% over the course of the year), the threat of a return to the chaos of the early 1990s and the passive response of the West to Russia’s economic troubles came as a shock both to political circles and public opinion.  The reformist clique incorporating Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar and Viktor Chernomyrdin quickly fell out of favour; but while most onlookers expected a full reshuffle from Yeltsin in the midst of the havoc, his sole appointment was a new Security Chief, one Vladimir Putin.



Vladimir Putin - often depicted by his allies as Russia's 'strongman', bringing order to chaos - has become synonymous with modern Russia for many.



Although the economic impact of the 1998 debt crisis may have been transient, the lessons in political economy learnt by Putin and his coterie were not.  Indeed, many of the Kremlin’s actions over the past twelve years have been direct responses to the perceived failure of economic liberalism at the end of the 1990s.  After 1998, getting a grip on the country’s economy was seen as fundamental, political freedoms as secondary.  Daniel Triesman argues that as a result,  today Russia’s leading elites act less as ideologues or securocrats than as Directors of ‘Russia plc’; economic managers who acquire assets and pursue profit, often regardless of ‘inconvenient’ principles such as human rights and the rule of law.


Recalling Recession – the economic crisis of 1998 arguably left a lasting legacy which continues to reverberate in Russia today:




The Early Transition Economy: The Failure of Economic Liberalism


Bringing the Russian Federation into existence in 1991 was relatively easy; Boris Yeltsin simply put pen to paper, and then returned to the banya to bask in the glory. Conjuring and bolstering institutions to match during the chaos that followed, however, was beyond his branch of magic. An anecdote about Yeltsin serves as a useful illustration of the Kremlin’s struggle to continue to assert central authority over increasingly  unruly regions, relative to the revolution that followed. When visiting the peripheries, Yeltsin was supposed to be with his aides-cum-bodyguards at all times, to avoid giving governors an opportunity to press their claims too effectively. One governor surmounted this obstacle by suggesting he and Yeltsin get into a rowing boat too small to take any other passengers while the aides waited on the shore. When the pair returned, a sheepish Yeltsin demounted, followed by the Governor, holding a signed Presidential decree! (Interview with Leonid Smiryagin in Triesman, p.281)


As well as arguably giving away too much political autonomy, the new Russian state also failed in its economic responsibilities. At various points in the 1990s, one-third of the regions were withholding some or all of their tax revenues from the central treasury;  Gazprom – one of the largest and most profitable Russian companies – collected barely a quarter of its dues; and attempts to clampdown on tax evasion by the new oligarchs were constantly thwarted. Given the seller’s desperate circumstances, and decades of underinvestment, privatisation was never the hoped for cash cow. What Western support existed for the Russian transition was limited (since the US preferred to work through the IMF) and was not greatly appreciated by the Russians who resented the humiliating perception that Russia was surviving off Western food parcels. While the larger part of intergovernmental support consisted of trade-backed loans, the Russian State guaranteed imports so when many importers simply didn’t pay, this left the Finance Ministry to foot the bill. And to add insult to injury, it was the financier George Soros, whose Open Society organisation was to prove a thorn in Putin’s side in Ukraine and Georgia some years later, who kicked off the 1998 crisis, when he argued for a 15-20% devaluation of the rouble on August 13.


Russia worked closely with the IMF throughout the 1990s, although the relationship was often fraught, with projections frequently disappointing both parties. Despite borrowing $20bn in total (and around $12bn from the World Bank), Russia frequently failed to pay all of its workers and pensioners. Life expectancy dropped and prices soared. In 1998, the deficit was 6% of GDP, not surprisingly commensurate with unpaid federal taxes of a similar amount (Trieseman, p. 201). In a precursor to the eventual crisis and default, Russia attempted to auction a large number of bonds in July to meet its cash needs. Not only was demand underwhelming, but one of the larger domestic banks (Sberbank, now the third largest in Europe in terms of capital) bowed to its own liquidity crisis and redeemed 12bn roubles in bonds. The auction had scraped a net benefit of just 2bn roubles, against a cash flow requirement of 14bn. Inflation soared, and as a result the value of the rouble plummeted 70% against the dollar.


The Birth of ‘Putinomics’


After the chaos of the Yeltsin era, ‘Putinomics’ could be described as a form of ‘shock therapy’ for the Nation’s neuroses. Once in office, Putin began to systematically restore government control over the economy, and the years 2000 to 2009 were a paragon of stability in comparison to the preceding administration. Key politicians, such as the Gazprom Executive Dmitry Medvedev, (described in US diplomatic cables as ‘Robin’ to Putin’s ‘Batman’) and Alexei Kudrin were quickly promoted to positions of power and maintained there in perpetuity. After State buyouts of NTV and Gazprom, and the dismemberment of Yukos, the oligarchs were given a stark choice; keep your money and keep quiet, or be driven out of politics and the media.  Even those who remained loyal to Putin were not given free reign; Oleg Deripaska was given a very public dressing down for having the gumption to close a factory during the economic downturn in 2008 in a move designed and captured for public consumption as illustrated in the video clip below:





The recasting of the political landscape under Putin allowed Alexei Kudrin (Finance Minster between 2000 and 2011) a free hand when it came to reforming Russian institutions. Kudrin swept away many of the revenue traps, including the abolition of import guarantees and offsets in place of hard cash. His 13% flat tax boosted compliance, and his decision to generate a stabilisation fund meant that the Government was not caught short again in 2008, when the worst recession since 1994 hit. The renationalisation of gas and oil through Gazprom and Rosneft  and a series of effective ‘Gas Wars’ with Ukraine in particular allowed the Russian state to reap the benefits of a decade of high oil and gas prices, while external creditors were quickly repaid so that Russia was beholden to no-one. As well as being operated at less than arms-length from the Kremlin, Gazprom and Rosneft also proved useful training grounds for future political appointees, such as Igor Sechin and Sergei Naryshkin, adding weight to Trieseman’s characterisation of Russia’s rulers.


At their most basic level, Putin’s reforms to Russia’s economy were successful.  Under Putin, the Russian economy enjoyed a period of sustained and pleasantly surprising growth of around 6% until 2009.  Despite a continuing brain drain through emigration, improvements in the standard of living (as average wages rose from just over 1,000 roubles in 1998 to over 20,000 in 2010) made Putin seem politically invulnerable.


Too Far?


Cover Image from The Economist (21-27 January 2012)


Today then, the emergence of an ‘Anti-Putin’ opposition movement owes little to economics. Suggestions that the protestors have undefined goals are untrue and unfair; they are simply political, sparked by recent widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Economics does play a role, however, and an increasingly important one as the Presidential election approaches (4 March 2012 – another historic date to remember?).


For a start, the Kremlin has become increasingly unfriendly to non-State business since Putin’s campaign against Mikhail Khordokovsky. While the likes of BP and Shell have been hard to dislodge, despite sustained harrassment, Foreign Direct Investment has often lagged behind other economies in the region.  Recently, and in full campaign-mode, Putin even suggested that Aeroflot should offer free flights to football fans during Euro 2012 and the World Cup in 2018!


The other consequence of Russia’s re-conquest of the ‘Commanding Heights’ of the economy has been that, while the reformers of the 1990s tried desperately to pare down spending commitments, Putinism has thrived on sharing the proceeds of Russia’s wealth.  Putin’s final State of the Union address (to date!) in 2009 is a case in point, the then (and future?) President promised to spend 250bn roubles on housing and to match private pensions, paid for out of the assets of Yukos. As the credit crunch has intervened, the Kremlin dipped heavily into the oil stabilisation fund established by Kudrin, until a proposed increase in military spending (affecting both employment and heavy industry – two significant political weaknesses)  caused the latter to resign and join the protest movement that sprang up after the falsified elections in December 2011.


Then there is corruption, said to be worth £200bn as a whole in Russia, and undoubtedly boosted by large projects such as the preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. Indeed, if anything has proved to be a catalyst for revolution over the past year, it is corruption and the recent emergence of the anti-corruption blogger, Alex Navalny, as the most significant opposition leader is testament to this. If Navalny is one leading symbol of the opposition movement though, businessmen trying to gain a foothold in the political system are not faring so well. A recent poll had Mikhail Prokhorov (billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team) and Sergei Mironov (of the liberal Yabloko party) on 6 and 5% respectively, with the presidential elections just a month away.  Moreover, the Communists have a support base worth twice as many votes as both combined.


Interestingly, as Angus Roxburgh reveals, Khordokovsky was promoting the idea of a windfall tax on the oligarchs when he was arrested and jailed. The temptation to believe that a more responsible system of free enterprise might still have flourished in Russia still holds, yet although Russians show a reluctance to continue paying more in tax (and who doesn’t), suspicion of economic liberalism is still preyed on by Putin’s spokesmen, as demonstrated in this recent article.



Vladimir Putin pledged to 'win the battle for Russia' in a pre-election speech at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium (23 February 2012).



As Putin now goes into the Russian elections leading in the polls but still unsure of victory in the first round, promises to re-privatise non-resource or defence based industries are being floated, as are plans to re-introduce gubernatorial elections.  Nonetheless, the tendency since Medvedev succeeded Putin as President has not been to roll back the measures taken to re-establish control over the economy. On the contrary, spending and inflation has risen and the government is active in promoting certain industries. Kudrin, perhaps the last instinctive free-marketer in the Russian government, has ruled out a return to office. Despite recently joining the WTO and the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, not to mention Putin’s own ghost-written columns in Russian newspapers denouncing red tape and corruption, few officials have shown enthusiasm for any comprehensive reform. As ever, national trauma means Russia will only proceed slowly and cautiously down the road urged on it by Western economists and leader writers.


About the Author


Josh Black is a graduate of Modern History from Leeds University. He completed his degree in 2009 and has developed a particular interest in the politics of Eastern Europe through his travels and collection of many stacks of books and newspapers. He is planning to take up a place at Oxford in October 2012 to study for an MSc in Russian and Eastern European Studies. Josh regularly blogs at his own site ‘Out of the Black’ at




February 23, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mafia State (Review)


“Someone has broken into my flat. Three months after arriving in Russia as the Guardian’s new Moscow bureau chief, I return home from a dinner party. It’s late. I turn the key. At first, everything appears normal … and then I see it. It’s a strange detail. The window of my son’s bedroom is wide open.

I find myself in a new world. It is a place of unknown rules, of thuggish adversaries. Suddenly, it appears we have become the objects of a malign psychological exercise, a dark experiment on the human soul. Our souls. I hug my son close.”


– ‘Prologue: The Break In’ – in Luke Harding, Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (Guardian Books, 2011)


Luke Hardings 'Mafia State' (Guardian Books, 2011) is part sensational expose and part damning indictment into the shadowy underbelly of contemporary Russia.


Luke Harding’s Mafia State intrigued me from its opening line (‘Someone has broken into my flat …’) and when I finished reading his book, I described it as ‘unputdownable’ on Twitter. Perhaps the best testament to the book’s readability though – due, no doubt to a combination of Harding’s incisive and engaging journalistic penmanship, the division of his narrative into a series of short, interlinked chapters and the darkly alluring nature of the subject matter – is the fact that after finishing it, I left Mafia State lying on my coffee table, and returned home a few hours later to find my boyfriend, who, by his own admission ‘never really reads’, was engrossed in it!


At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Harding’s book is a rather stereotypical tale of Cold War intrigue. The story sounds familiar: a British journalist arrives in Moscow, uncovers some uncomfortable truths about those in power and, despite attempts to restrict his freedom of movement and speech, starts asking some difficult questions and publishing some critical reports. This quickly marks him out as an ‘enemy of the state’ and he encounters official hostility, becoming the target of an insidious campaign of harassment and intimidation, until one day, he is simply barred from re-entering the country on some small bureaucratic pretext, in a textbook Soviet-style expulsion. What is distinctive about Harding’s case, however, is that the experiences he describes take place, not in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but in Putin’s ‘Neo Soviet Russia’, twenty years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. Harding, who worked as the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian from 2007 until his expulsion in February 2011 (when, on arrival at Moscow airport after a visit to the UK, he was politely informed that ‘For you, Russia is closed’), has now published Mafia State, part sensational expose and part damning indictment into the shadowy underbelly of life in contemporary Russia. His account includes some fascinating (and at times rather frightening) insights into a range of areas that  illustrate the corrupt nexus of crime and politics underpinning Russian interests today.


Harding’s journey takes him from the destitution and decay of rural Russia to the extravagant lifestyles of the ‘dollar millionaires’ who have proliferated in the post-communist decades. He witnesses the blatant use of corruption and vote fixing in local elections and the ‘Potemkin villages’ built to impress Olympic inspection teams in advance of 2014, when Russia will host the Winter Olympics. He observes the brutal violence and state-authorised ethnic cleansing in Georgia in the aftermath of the 2008 war and investigates the brutal ‘counter-terrorist’ methods employed in the north Caucasus, creating a spiralling circle of violence and insurgency which, in turn, fuels xenophobia, nationalism and the radicalisation of the far right in contemporary Russia. On an equally sombre note, he highlights the suspected state-authorised assassinations of numerous ‘troublesome elements’ ranging from Russian journalists and human rights activists who criticise the Kremlin to the notorious murder of former FSB officer Litvinenko in London during November 2007.


Mafia State is a timely read for anyone interested in the shadowy workings of contemporary Russia, and seems particularly pertinent in light of more recent developments, such as the mass protests against electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin’s confirmation that he intends to return to the Presidency by standing for a third term in 2012.


I recently wrote a full review of Mafia State which has been published in the latest edition of the journal New Eastern Europe, alongside a range of other excellent articles. If you’re interested in central and east European affairs and you haven’t checked it out yet, then you really should! For more information, go to their website. You can also follow New Eastern Europe on Twitter @NewEastEurope


Mafia State is published by Guardian Books and you can purchase it from their online bookshop or from Amazon. You can also follow Luke Harding on Twitter @LukeHarding1968



January 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2011: A Quick Review


2011 is a year that has prompted numerous historical comparisons, even before it has ended. This has been a year marked by economic turmoil, widespread international protest and revolutionary activity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s recent announcement that their coveted ‘person of the year’ was to be awarded to ‘The Protestor‘. Throughout 2011, global news coverage has frequently been dominated by the growing wave of protest and demonstrations that swept the Arab World; quickly dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by international media and drawing frequent comparisons with the East European revolutions of 1989. Some (including, recently, Eric Hobsbawm) have suggested that comparisan with the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 is more fitting although many have questioned the value of either historical analogy. Similarly, almost twenty years to the day, in the last weeks of 2011, mounting protests against electoral fraud in Russia have evoked memories of the collapse of the communist monopoly of power and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently advising current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ‘learn the lesson of 1991’ and resign from power, although Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti has suggested that 1905 may turn out to be a more fitting historical parallel.


The increasingly uncertain economic climate and global financial downturn also dominated news coverage throughout 2011, particularly of late due to the growing crisis in the Eurozone. Across central and eastern Europe, economic crisis and social insecurity has generated fresh concern about ‘ostalgie’ with the release of surveys suggesting high levels of nostalgia for the communist era. In recent polls conducted in Romania 63% of participants said that  their life was better under communism, while 68% said they now believed that communism was ‘a good idea that had been poorly applied’. Similarly, a survey conducted in the Czech Republic last month revealed that 28% of participants believed they had been ‘better off’ under communism, leading to fears of a growth in ‘retroactive optimism‘.


Much of the subject matter presented here at The View East aims to combine historical analysis with more contemporary developments. During 2011 a range of blog posts have covered topics as diverse as the Cold War space race (with posts about Sputnik and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s first successful manned space flight); the role of popular culture (and specifically, popular music in the GDR) in undermining communism; the use and abuse of alcohol in communist Eastern Europe; espionage and coercion (with posts relating to the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the notorious murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov) and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first ‘student showcase’ here at The View East, which was a great success, with a series of excellent guest authored posts on a range of fascinating topics, researched and written by some of my students at Swansea University.


Something that I constantly stress to my students is the need to recognise how our knowledge and understanding of modern central and eastern Europe was, in many respects, transformed as new evidence and sources of information became accessible to historians of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism 1989-1991; and the ways in which our understanding continues to evolve as new information and perspectives continue to emerge today. So, with that in mind, here is a quick review of some of my own personal favourite topics of interest, events and developments during 2011. This short summary is by no means exhaustive so please feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments section below!


Anniversaries for Reagan and Gorbachev


February 2011 marked the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Today, former US President and ‘Cold Warrior’ Reagan remains highly regarded throughout the former communist block, where he is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War and open a pathway for freedom across Eastern Europe. A series of events were thus organised to mark the occasion across central and eastern Europe, where several streets, public squares and landmarks were renamed in Reagan’s honour and and the summer of 2011 saw statues of Reagan popping up in several former communist block countries, including Poland, Hungary and Georgia. To mark the centenary, the CIA also released a collection of previously classified  documents, along with a report on ‘Ronald Reagan, Intelligence and the End of the Cold War’ and a series of short documentary style videos that were made to ‘educate’ Reagan about the USSR on a range of topics including the space programme, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster, which can be viewed here. An exhibition held at the US National Archives in Washington DC also displayed examples of Reagan’s personal correspondence including a series of letters exchanged with Mikhail  Gorbachev and the handwritten edits made to Reagan’s famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983.


A statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, unveiled in the Georgian capital Tblisi in November 2011. The centenary of Reagan's birth was celebrated throughout the former communist block in 2011.


Today, citizens of the former East Block tend to view Reagan much more kindly than his Cold War counterpart, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who celebrated his 80th birthday back in March. Still feted in the West, Gorbachev was the guest of honour at a celebratory birthday gala in London and and was also personally congratulated by current Russian President Medvedev, receiving a Russian medal of honour. In a series of interviews, Gorbachev claimed he remained proud of role in ending communism, although for many, his legacy remains muddied.  April 2011 saw the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while August 1991 marked the twentieth anniversary of the failed military coup launched by communist hardliners hoping to depose Gorbachev from power and halt his reforms and finally, the 25 December 2011 was 20 years to the day since Gorbachev announced his resignation from power and the formal dissolution of the USSR. Recently released archival documents have also provided historians with more detailed information about the dying days of the Soviet Union as a desperate Gorbachev tried to hold the USSR  together.


March 2011 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting to celebrate his 80th birthday. Gorbachev was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia's highest honour.


Half a Century Since the Construction of the Berlin Wall


August 2011 marked 50 years since the construction of the famous wall which divided Berlin 1961-1989 and became one of the most iconic symbols of Cold War Europe. The anniversary was commemorated in Germany as I discussed in my earlier blog post here and was also widely covered by international media including the Guardian and the BBC here in the UK. I particularly enjoyed these interactive photographs, published in Spiegel Online, depicting changes to the East-West German border. In October, the CIA and US National Archives also released a collection of recently declassified documents relating to the Berlin Crisis of August 1961, which have been published online here.


13 August 2011 - A display in Berlin commemorates the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.


Thirty Years Since Martial Law Crushed Solidarity in Poland


13  December marked 30 years since General Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981, as the emergent Solidarity trade union was declared illegal and forced underground. NATO have released a fascinating series of archived documents relating to events in Poland 1980-81 which have been published online here.  Today Jaruzelski still argues that he ordered the domestic crackdown to avoid Soviet invasion, claiming in a recent book that  his actions were a ‘necessary evil’ . but intelligence contained in the newly available NATO reports suggest that the Soviet leadership were actually ‘keen to avoid’ military intervention in Poland. Fresh attempts to prosecute 88 year old Jaruzelski for his repressive actions were halted due to ill health in 2011, as the former communist leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and has been undergoing regular chemotherapy this year.


13 December 2011 marked 30 years since General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of Martial Law in Poland, designed to crush the growing Polish opposition movement, Solidarity.


The Communist-Era Secret Police


Stories about communist-era state security are always a crowd pleaser and 2011 saw a series of new revelations from the archives of the notorious East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. I particularly liked the archived photos that were published in Spiegel Online, taken during a course to teach Stasi agents the art of disguise, as discussed in my previous blog post here and, in a similar vein, information from Polish files about espionage techniques used by Polish State Security which was published in October. In November, new research published in the German Press suggested that the Stasi had a much larger network of spies in West Germany than was previously thought, with over 3000 individuals employed as Inofizelle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial informers’, to spy on family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The Stasi even compiled files on leading figures such as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and former East German leader Erich Honecker, gathering information that was later used as leverage to force his resignation in October 1989. A new book published in September also detailed the extent of Stasi infiltration in Sweden, with information published in the German media suggesting that Swedish furniture manufacturer  IKEA used East German prisoners as a cheap source of labour in the 1970s and early 1980s.


‘Tourist with Camera’ – a favoured disguise used by Stasi surveillance agents, unearthed from the Stasi archives and part of a new exhibition that went on display in Germany earlier this year.


The Death of Vaclav Havel


2011 ended on something of a sombre note, as news broke of the death of communist-era dissident and former Czechoslovakian/Czech President Vaclav Havel on 18 December. An iconic figure, Havel’s death dominated the news in the lead up to Christmas, (only eclipsed by the subsequent breaking news about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17!) with numerous obituaries and tributes to Havel and his legacy appearing in the media (such as this excellent tribute in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received widespread media coverage. In recent interviews, such as this one, given shortly before his death, Havel commented on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab revolutions and the global economic crisis. RIP Vaclav – you will be missed.


December 2011 - News breaks of the death of playwright, communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hundreds of candles were lit in Prague's Wenceslas Square in his memory, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects and tributes poured in from around the globe.


The Growth of Social Networking


The use of social networking as a tool for organising and fuelling protest and opposition movements has also been a regular feature in the news throughout 2011 with particular reference to the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the recent ‘Occupy’ movement. Many more universities and academics are also now realising the potential benefits of using social media sites to promote their interests, and achievements, disseminate their research to a wider audience and engage in intellectual debate with a wider circle of individuals working on similar areas of interest, both within and beyond academia.  The potential benefits of Twitter and other social networking sites for academics has been promoted by the LSE and their Impact Blog during 2011, including this handy ‘Twitter guide for Academics‘.  On a more personal note, promoting The View East via Twitter has also helped me develop a much stronger online profile and contributed to an increased readership in 2011, something I discussed further in a September blog post here.


Was 2011 the year of the 'Twitter Revolution'?


As 2011 ends, our twitter feed @thevieweast is heading for 500 regular twitter followers; most days The View East receives well over 100 hits, the number of regular email subscribers has almost doubled and I’ve been able to reach a much wider audience – some older blog content I wrote relating to Solidarity was recently published in a Macmillan textbook History for Southern Africa and in the last twelve months I have given interviews to ABC Australia, Voice of America, and Radio 4, all in relation to subjects I’d written about here at The View East. So, as 2011 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented, followed and re-tweeted from The View East in 2011 – A very Happy New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2012!


Happy New Year from The View East!

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia


In Russia today, Josef Stalin’s historical legacy remains a controversial topic  – should Stalin be remembered primarily as a strong, heroic leader, responsible for leading the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany or as a cruel dictator, responsible for the death and suffering of millions of his own people? This article, by guest author John Harman, analyses some of the problems faced by those who attempt to memorialise and publicly mourn victims of Stalin-era repression in contemporary Russia; exploring the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the dominant heroic myth of WWII and the darker aspects of Stalinism in the contemporary Russian psyche.


Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia.

By John Harman.


‘If the problem in Western Europe has been a shortage of memory, in the continents other half the problem is reversed. Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw, usually as a weapon against the past of someone else ~ Tony Judt.

Arseny Roginsky  labels the memory of Stalinism as primarily the ‘memory of state terror’, a system of state rule that used terror as a universal instrument for solving any political and social task. For many people today, the word ‘Stalinism’ remains most synonymous with the execution, exile and traumatisation of millions of Soviet citizens. Revelations shedding light on the many crimes of Stalinism have been a feature of Soviet historiography ever since Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing Stalinist terror in 1956. The trickle of information that first began during Khrushchev’s ‘Destalinisation’ later became a flood: gathering pace during Gorbachev’s glasnost in the dying days of the USSR and further increasing due to the release of previously-classified information following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, while many aspects of the Stalinist era still spark contestation and controversy, the crimes of Stalinism can be documented more clearly than ever before.


Despite this, nostalgia for the despotic leader appears to be ever more apparent. Research undertaken by the Levada Centre in Moscow indicates that, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards Stalin are becoming increasingly positive. In a poll taken in 2005, nearly 19% of respondents said they would either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote for Stalin in Russian elections if he were alive today, an increase from the findings of 2003 and 2004 when only 13% answered in the same way. In 2008, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian  in history, during a public poll held by Rossiya, one of Russia’s largest TV stations. More recently a poll commissioned by VTsIOM (All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) in April 2011 showed that more than a quarter of those surveyed felt that Stalin’s wartime leadership means that he did ‘more good’ for the country than bad, a rise of 11% from a similar poll in 2007.


The contested nature of historical memory about Stalinism runs more deeply than the publication of controversial popular opinion polls, however.  On October 30 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev published a post on his official web portal to coincide with the annual Russian ‘Remembrance Day of Victims of Political Repression’. His blog post condemned continued public ambivalence towards Stalin’s legacy of mass repression, and was written in response to growing concerns about nostalgia for and glorification of the Stalin era in contemporary Russia. However, the State’s official policy towards Stalin has also frequently been called into question,  particularly following the publication of Alexander Fillipov’s history textbook  in 2007, which formed part of the official government-approved curriculum in Russian schools. The textbook portrayed the mass terror of the Stalin years as essential to ensure rapid modernisation in the face of military threats from Germany and Japan; avoided any attempt at a moral assessment of Stalinism and strongly implied that the (victorious) ends of World War II justified the repressive means of the pre-war years.  The memorialisation of Stalin-era victims is also the subject of a contentious ongoing dialogue between the state and those who seek to commemorate the darker aspects of the Soviet past. In 2008 Vladimir Putin ordered the confiscation of digitally archived material from Memorial, a non-governmental organisation which aims to aid the process of memorialisation of state terror in Russia. Memorial representatives believed that the raid was not justified in any juridical sense, but constituted a state-sanctioned act of sabotage against their attempts to document and disseminate knowledge about the crimes of the Stalinist era (for more information about Memorial see their website HERE).


Negative Memorialisation: Terror and Repression


In Adam Hochschild’s The Unquiet Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1994) Hochschild records a conversation he had with a clinical psychologist from Moscow. The psychologist described a former patient who had recently returned to him seeking treatment – she was in deep distress, because newly published accounts had described how her father, a former diplomat, had been responsible for the denunciations (and subsequent imprisonment and deaths) of many people during the Stalinist era. As a result of his actions, her father had not only remained alive but had even been promoted whilst most of his colleagues had perished. Her father was already dead, but now the woman had to confront and come to terms with his memory all over again.


This case illustrates an important point. During the Soviet terror, the line between victim and perpetrator was often blurred: the persecutors often became the persecuted. For example, the CPSU regional committee secretaries of 1937 were responsible for sanctioning many death sentences, but by November 1938 half of them had fallen victim to the terror themselves. Even Stalin’s feared secret police were purged, with Nikolai Ezhov, feared NKVD chief and leading orchestrator of the terror arrested and executed in 1940. During the Stalinist era, life for many people was never black or white, but instead comprised of shades of grey. Many people engaged with Stalinism, passively if not actively. Today, widespread public reluctance to confront the past can therefore be attributed to more than just general ignorance: in some cases outward ambivalence stems from a deep-rooted fear of uncovering atrocities committed by close friends and family members, or even confronting ones own past culpability, therefore leading to a greater sense of guilt about the past.


These ambiguities are also reflected in attempts at public commemoration. Memorial  have compiled a database of all known monuments which are archived in its online ‘virtual gulag’. At first glance, the number of monuments and exhibits appear impressive: listing 109 museum exhibits and 337 monuments relating to Soviet-era mass repression. However, none of these monuments have been overseen by the central government, but were developed through the efforts of local communities and independent organisations such as Memorial. The location of the monuments are also telling: within cities, these monuments and commemorative signs are not located in central areas, but are overwhelmingly found in more remote locations. The choice of location may at times serve a function; for example, the Mendurskoe Memorial, located 13 Kilometres from the city of Yoshkar-Ola within the Mari El Republic, marks the mass grave of 164 prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937. However, one should question the lack of memorialisation in more central areas, which may also hint at a low level of state enthusiasm for such memorials,  especially since Soviet era street names directly linked with state-sanctioned repression  – such as Checkist Street (honouring the forerunners to the NKVD) in St Petersburg – still exist.


The Mendurskoe Memorial marks the mass grave of 164 Soviet prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937.


The contentious dialogue surrounding negative memorialisation is also reflected in the design of such monuments, which are largely depoliticised. Alexander Etkind has used the term ‘aesthetic minimalism’ to describe such monuments which regularly consist of plain granite stones and raw crosses. This aesthetic, created somewhere between the need for memory and political confrontation may hinder popular memory as a certain amount of accountability or even historical truth is lost in transmission. This confused representation also extends beyond ‘hard’ physical monuments, as illustrated by Etkind’s study of the Russian 500-ruble banknote, issued in the late 1990s and remaining in circulation today. The artwork on the bill depicts the Solovki monastery, a historical complex on an island in the extreme north of Russia. The architecture of the monastery dates to the 1920’s, a time of peak development of the Solovki camp, one of the earliest and most significant camps in the Soviet gulag.


The 500 ruble note depicts the Solovki Monastary, site of one of Stalin's notorious Gulag camps.


Despite the existence of 337 Russian museum exhibits relating to mass repression, in reality only a few of these are specifically dedicated to the history of the terror. Roginsky argues that the exhibitions relating to the Gulag camps and labour settlements are usually embedded within wider displays relating to Soviet-era industrialisation, modernisation and economic development. The repressions themselves (i.e. the arrests and executions) are generally consigned to biographical stands and window displays. This, he argues, serves to represent the terror in a fragmented manner, creating the image of a succession of ‘localised disasters’ rather than the unified image of a national catastrophe. Today, there is still no national museum of state terror, which could play an important role in crystallising the image of the terror in popular consciousness.


Positive Memorialisation: Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’


Monuments are often used as a positive political tool, to demonstrate the continuity of the political tradition of a nation state and to represent its (perceived or desired) identity. Etkind describes monuments as ‘materialised forms of patriotic sentiment’, which create the future by ‘distorting the past’. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that attempts at negative memorialisation have been limited in post-Soviet Russia. In the search for a ‘usable’ or ‘promotable’ past, recent Russian administrations have thus relied heavily on the myth of the Second World War – Russia’s  ‘Great Patriotic War’ – above the memory of the terror, for obvious reasons.


The memorialisation drive over the Great Patriotic War began during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), and has evolved to become the greatest legitimising myth of Soviet history: mythologizing Soviet victory over Germany, presenting the USSR as the saviour of the world from fascist enslavement and the Red Army as the liberators of Europe, a hard-fought feat that was achieved through the spilling of large amounts of Russian blood, with limited outside help.


The memory of the Second World War therefore, serves important functions for the Russian state in a way that the memory of the terror could never do.  Nina Tumarkin argues that the key functions of the narrative that has emerged around World War Two in Russia are as follows:

Respect for the Armed Forces and Russia’s Militaristic Past – the USSR defeated fascism because of their strong army, while the sheer number of Soviet casualties in World War Two (est. 20-25 million) promotes Russia as a country who understands the price of war.

A Rise in National Self-Esteem and Hard Work – war time victory, bolstered by the notion that Russia had to overcome all the odds in order to fight back after the surprise German invasion of June 22 1941.

Moral Courage – generated by nostalgia for a time before the uncertainties of post-communism, when it was made clear what (and who) was good and bad.


The absence of memorials dedicated to the victims of mass repression is further highlighted by the grandiose and hyperbolic nature of memorialisation dedicated the heroic triumph of the Red Army, although since the fall of the USSR the status of many Soviet war monuments has been challenged across Eastern Europe and the FSU (for more on the contested status of Soviet war memorials, see the previous blog post HERE). Such monuments rarely attempt subtlety: the famous ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in Volgograd was the largest statue in the world at the time of its public dedication on October 15, 1967 and the central monument in Moscow’s Victory Park conveys a huge dragon covered with swastikas, curled beneath a towering obelisk adorned with Nike, the goddess of victory engaging in battle with St. George on horseback – and this is but one part of the park complex whose museum also boasts the ‘Hall of Glory’, listing all names of the wartime ‘heroes of the Soviet Union’.


Monument to commemorate Soviet Victory in the Second World War, Victory Park, Moscow.


The scale of these monuments is nothing short of breathtaking. In contrast to the ‘collective amnesia’ often displayed when confronted with memories of terror and repression, the memory of the Great Patriotic War is actively commemorated with pomp and circumstance, in the form of the annual Victory Parade in Moscow each May 9th, illustrated in this recent VIDEO.


The immense pride in Soviet victory during the Second World War thus provides one of the most important bases for contemporary support for Stalin, particulalry amongst the older generations, effectively marginalising the darker aspects of Stalinist rule. The drive for truth and reconciliation, which constitutes a key part of the memory of Stalinist-era repression and terror, comes into direct conflict with this heroic ‘war narrative’. Some steps have been taken to revise elements of the Russian ‘war myth’ in light of new evidence available in the post-Soviet period, such as the 2009 publication of formerly secret documents relating to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned as ‘immoral’. In April 2010 the Russian Federation also published documents relating to the true nature of the Soviet role in the massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest. When the mass graves were uncovered in 1943 the Soviet Union blamed the murders on the Nazis, and it was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. The recent publication of these documents confirmed that the massacre was designed by Beria (head of the NKVD) and directly approved by Stalin. This was followed in November 2010 by the Russian Parliament’s adoption of a statement recognising Soviet responsibility for the massacre and condemning Katyn as ‘an act of lawlessness of a totalitarian regime’. Public acknowledgment of this crime may serve as indication of a renewed policy towards popular national memory, however it may be seen as an act of appeasement towards the west – and more specifically the Poles, especially in light of the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski (for more on Katyn see the previous blog  post HERE).


However, the Russian leadership have indicated that they will only allow historical revisionism to go so far. In response to mounting criticism from neighbouring states regarding elements of Russia’s ‘war myth’, in 2009 President Medvedev declared the creation of a special commission ‘to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermines the interest of Russia’.  Any deviation from the dominant state-sanctioned war narrative in Russia was thus deemed hostile and against the national interest. This stance also makes it difficult for many people to combine the popular image of Stalin as a heroic wartime leader with their memories of Stalin as a murderous autocrat.


Concluding Remarks


Unsurprisingly, since 1991 successive Russian administrations have chosen to emphasise aspects of the Soviet past that they view as ‘worth remembering’, in order to convey particular values and ideals, which sustain a positive identity. The dark chapter in their recent history involving terror, mass repression, denunciation and death does not fit with the heroism promoted by the dominant narrative of war memorialisation. Despite some indications that the current leadership are refining certain elements of Stalinist-era history, any revisionism must be state-sanctioned and thus transparency remains limited.


As Stalin’s popularity continues to rise in opinion polls it is difficult to predict how future Russian generations will approach the darker aspects of their Soviet past. Any true condemnation of Stalinism also requires closer scrutiny and possibly further reappraisal of the Soviet role in the Second World War, which may undermine its place in popular memory. The dichotomy of the Stalinist era is not one that can coexist peacefully, particularly while a significant proportion of the population hold some kind of personal attachment to the horrors of Stalinism. At the current time, the Stalinism that represents an era of glorious victory and great achievement outweighs the Stalinism of a criminal regime responsible for decades of terror.


About the Author:


John Harman is currently completing a Masters degree in History at Swansea University, UK. His MA dissertation considers changing perspectives on the commemoration and memorialisation of Stalinist-era repression from the post-Stalinist USSR to post-Soviet Russia.




September 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Twitterstorians at Two


Today marks the second anniversary of the Twitterstorians – two years ago today Katrina Gulliver began compiling a list of historians on Twitter, using the #twitterstorian hashtag. Last year, to mark our first anniversary, I wrote a short blog post about the virtues of using Twitter for academic networking and praising its ability to allow me to connect with other historians which you can read HERE.


Everything I wrote a year ago remains true today. Social networking remains controversial in some respects and my own friends, colleagues and acquaintances provide an interesting and illustrative sample spectrum: polarised between some who enthusiastically and actively engage with social networking; some who dismiss Twitter as ‘an utter waste of time’, and all of those who fill the void in between: occasional users, passive tweeters (those who use Twitter to follow others rather than tweet themselves) and some who use Twitter for a clearly defined aim, tweeting on a strictly professional or strictly personal basis. 2011 has been a year which has seen Twitter hit the headlines: initially praised for its role as a tool facilitating the organisation of protest movements and resistance during the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and then swiftly denigrated for its alleged use by rioters during the unrest that swept London and several other UK cities in July (although drawing on evidence from my own timeline, I saw no examples of Twitter being used as a tool for spreading unrest, but several examples of Twitter being utilised for positive ends during the post-riot clean-ups that were spontaneously organised in many UK cities, such as THIS campaign, which I personally contributed to).


The UK Higher Education Sector are increasingly recognising the potential benefits of using social networking as a medium for communication, publicity, self-promotion and information exchange. In the current climate universities are keen to explore cost effective ways of promoting themselves to and engaging with potential and current students, while academics are increasingly urged to demonstrate the wider ‘impact’, engagement and relevance of their research – this includes Historians, who, even within academic circles, often have the reputation for being behind the times and resistant to change! Last September I began a Lectureship at the History and Classics department at Swansea University. Since then, the department has established its own twitter feed HERE and several of my colleagues have also become regular ‘tweeters’.


Over the last year, I have continued to use Twitter as a tool to promote and publicise The View East. The Blog’s Twitter Feed @thevieweast now has over 300 followers, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you who have re-tweeted links and comments of interest I’ve posted during the last year! Publicising new blog posts via Twitter enables me to reach a much wider audience. As a result, today The View East is receiving a greater number of ‘hits’ than ever before, with my blog stats indicating that traffic directed via Twitter is consistently one of the highest sources of viewings (along with Google searches). This summer I hosted a ‘student showcase’ on The View East – the first in what I hope will become an annual event – publishing a series of blog posts authored by final year history students from Swansea University. This initiative was widely promoted on Twitter (not only on @thevieweast and my own personal twitter feed @kellyhignett but also via @SwanseaUni and @SwanseaHistory) and via the main university website. Over the last twelve months, my own blog posts at The View East have led to several media engagements, consultancy opportunities, conference papers and other research-related activities, as well as bringing me into contact with a number of people working in related areas.


The list of Twitterstorians has continued to grow over the last year, so here are just a small selection of some of my favourite Tweeters relating to modern history and contemporary affairs (largely Russia/FSU/Eastern Europe):


@HistoryCarnival – Highlights the best in history-related blogging each month (and the September issue includes The View East!)

@CWIHP – Cold War International History Project

@nickblackbourn – Author of the Twitter based  ‘Cold War Daily’ which can also be viewed HERE

@coldwarpenguin – For general Cold War related links

@BASEES – British Association of Slavonic and East European Studies

@UCLSSEES –School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL

@UCLSSEESLibrary – SSEES Library, based in London, hosting the UK’s largest open access collection on Russia and Eastern Europe and site of many of my own research visits!

@RFERL  – International media service, including some fascinating articles relating to the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

@MoscowTimes – For Russian related news (in English)

@RT_com (Russia Today) – For Russian related news (in English)

@ria_novosti – For Russian related news (in English)

@Russianist – Tweets and blogs on Russian history and literature

@EdwardLucas – Tweets about Central Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Cold War, especially crime &  intelligence

@MishaGlenny – Tweets about history, politics and media, including Central Eastern Europe, the Balkans, organised crime, technology

@MarkGaleotti – NYU academic and blogger, tweets about Russian security, crime, corruption and policing.

@MattPotter – Author and journalist, tweets about crime, politics, media

@MDRBrown – Academic, tweets on Cold War history, international relations, Eastern Europe

@andrewholt – Academic tweeting on Cold War History, C20 British Foreign Policy

@Lemberik – Blog about minorities and human rights in Central and Eastern Europe

@Horia_Victor – Tweets about minorities and human rights in Russia/FSU and Eastern Europe

@polandww2 – Tweets about Poland, WWII, the Eastern Front

@JohnsonRussiaLi – Johnson’s Russia List, for a wide range of Russian-related info

@RussianSphinx – Tweets on Russia

@kremlinologist_ – Tweets on Russia

@siberianlight – Tweets on Russia

@AskSiberia – Tweets on Siberia and the Far East

@globalvoices – For a range of interesting links and articles

@brainpicker – For a range of interesting links and articles


So, as we enter the ‘terrible twos’ – Happy Birthday, fellow #Twitterstorians!





September 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Monumental Makeover in Bulgaria Illustrates the Contested Status of Soviet-Era War Memorials

On the morning of 18 June 2011, residents of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, awoke to discover that one of their monuments had been treated to a rather colourful makeover. The Second World War Monument to the Soviet Army (Pametnik na Savetskata armia), built in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Nazi-allied Bulgaria and depicting Red Army soldiers heroically fighting alongside the Bulgarian people in typical socialist-realist architectural style, had been spray painted by an anonymous artist (subsequently dubbed ‘the Bansky of Bulgaria’ by the media). The tarnished, bronzed, Red Army soldiers had been transformed into popular American icons including Superman, The Joker, Captain America, Ronald McDonald and Santa Claus. The flag held aloft by the soldiers had also been adorned with the US stars and stripes. A telling slogan was boldly written in black spray paint below the monument to accompany the statue’s makeover: ‘Moving with the Times’.


This photograph illustrates the recently repainted Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia Berlin (above) compared to its usual appearance (below).


A wonderful 360 degree panoramic of the repainted monument can also be viewed here (click on the arrows to circle around!):


The newly painted statues proved popular with many, quickly becoming a tourist magnet as people flocked to have photographs taken with them. However, not everybody was amused by the monument’s impromptu makeover. Bulgarian Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov quickly denounced the re-sprayed statues as an ‘act of vandalism’ and said he ‘considered it a crime’. The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning ‘the hooligans behind the vandalism’ for their ‘mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers who died in the name of freeing Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism’ and urging the Bulgarian authorities to ‘expose and punish’ those responsible. The fact that the 22 June marked the 70th anniversary of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the German invasion of the USSR, made the timing of the incident particularly sensitive.


The monument retained its new look for a few days, before being quietly cleaned and restored to its former state. However, the nature of the re-spray has prompted questions about the true motivation behind the makeover. Was this art or vandalism? Does the slogan hint at a more political message? Was the artist suggesting that American pop culture icons were the ‘new heroes’ of Eastern Europe? Or was the true message to suggest that today, in post-communist Bulgaria, one ‘imperialist ally’ has simply been replaced with another?


Conflicting Interpretations of Soviet-era War Monuments


In the aftermath of Soviet victory in World War II, a proliferation of monuments were erected across the territories of the (newly-enlarged) USSR and across Eastern Europe. During the communist era, these were protected by law, so although citizens often privately referred to the monuments in rather derogatory terms (such as the ‘Looters Memorial’ or ‘Tribute to the Unknown Rapist’) there were relatively few serious attempts to tamper with them. In the post-communist period however, many Soviet monuments have become targets for vandalism and graffiti (which is often much less sophisticated than the recent Bulgarian makeover!).


The status of these Soviet-era war monuments has also fuelled political debate, both within many former Soviet bloc countries and between their national governments and the contemporary Russian leadership, as both sides attempt to tentatively negotiate and re-negotiate their communist pasts. At the heart of this debate lie two very different interpretations of history.


One of the best known Soviet war memorials stands in Treptower Park, Berlin. A 12 foot tall bronze Russian soldier holds a young German girl in his arms while his sword cuts through the Nazi swastika, which he crushes underfoot. The monument was removed for renovation in 2003 but restored in 2004.


Russia maintains that the monuments symbolise Soviet sacrifice and heroism in World War II, celebrating the prestige of their hard-fought victory over Germanyand their historic role in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazi tyranny. Lev Gudkov argues that victory in World War II remains ‘the most potent symbol of identification’ in present-day Russia. This is supported by evidence from a variety of other quarters. In 2003 87% of Russians surveyed mentioned victory in the Second World War in response to the question ‘what makes you personally proud in our history?’ and in a list of the most important events shaping Russia’s fate in the twentieth century compiled in 2005, victory in World War II was named by 78% of respondents. Statistics such as these have led to allegations that today, many Russians continue to promote their victory in World War II as a means of legitimising or justifying many of the darker aspects of the Stalinist era.


In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of the establishment of a new Commission to ‘guard against the falsification of History’ specifically related to attempts to revise, question or challenge certain aspects of the Soviet role in World War II in the post-communist era. When announcing the formation of the Commission, Medvedev emphasised that: ‘We will never forget that our country, the Soviet Union, made the decisive contribution to the outcome of World War II, that it was precisely our people who destroyed Nazism and determined the fate of the whole world’. Medvedev even suggested that expressing doubts that the Soviets came to Eastern Europe in any other guise than that of liberators at the end of the Second World War should be considered a criminal offense, similar to that of Holocaust denial. The importance of World War II for many contemporary Russians is also illustrated  by the continuation of the traditional Soviet-era ‘victory parade’ in Moscow on 9th May each year in the post-Soviet period, a military spectacular that was traditionally designed to act as a combined celebration of Soviet victory in World War II and a contemporary display of Russian military might (for some video coverage of the most recent parade in May 2011, see HERE ). 


Many of the countries from the Former Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe who gained independence from Soviet influence when communism collapsed take a rather different stance however; viewing the Soviet-era monuments as symbolic of occupation and repression following World War II and as a painful reminder of the hardship they endured under communist rule. Reuben Fowkes argues that after 1945, war memorials were erected for primarily geo-political reasons across Eastern Europe, to ‘mark on the map the area liberated by the Soviets and to claim that territory as part of the Soviet zone of influence’. Fowkes goes on to suggest that it was ‘no coincidence that some of the earliest monuments were erected at the extremities of Soviet military activity … and often have a visibly aggressive character’.


Speaking in an interview conducted by RFE/RL in 2007, Kadri Liik, a journalist and analyst at the Estonian International Center for Defense Studies, succinctly summarised the views held by many across the former Soviet bloc when he explained that, in the Estonian case:
“It [the monument] was erected in the 1940s to commemorate the so-called liberation of Tallinn … the Soviet troops entered Tallinn in 1944, in autumn. And they called it liberation. Estonians have always regarded it quite differently. Liberators leave — occupiers do not … The Soviet “liberators” stayed inEstonia until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991″.


Since the collapse of communism and the break-up of the USSR, several countries have moved to displace or destroy Soviet war monuments, a policy which has persistently prompted strong objections from Russia. This forms part of a wider policy to remove communist-era monuments and symbols (such as the traditional hammer and sickle) from public buildings, however the status of war monuments has been particularly contested, for obvious reasons. The recent Bulgarian ‘paint job’ is thus far from the first controversial case to hit the headlines in recent years.


Perhaps the best documented example is that of the 2007 Estonian decision to move their ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Second World War’ – a 2 metre (6.5ft) statue unveiled by Soviet authorities in September 1944 to mark the third anniversary of the Red Army’s entry into Tallinn, which was more commonly known as ‘the Bronze Soldier’ – away from its original location in the centre of Tallinn to a small military cemetery on the outskirts of the capital. This decision proved particularly contentious given the sizeable Russian minority still resident in Estonia (accounting for around one third of the total 1.3 million Estonian population today). The relocation of the statue provoked two days of violent rioting and widespread looting inTallinn, during which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, ultimately resulting in one death, 153 injured and over 800 arrests.


The 'Bronze Soldier' in Tallinn, Estonia. The monument depicts a Red Army soldier in uniform, his helmet in one hand, his head slightly bowed and his rifle slung over his back. Relocation of the statue in 2007 led to several days of violent protests and rioting in Tallinn.


A second recent example was the December 2009 demolition of a World War II Soviet war memorial in the Georgian city of Kutaisi, a towering 46 metre high concrete and bronze structure which was built to commemorate the estimated 300,000 Georgians who were killed while fighting for the Red Army. Despite sustained protests by Russian officials, Red Army veterans and pro-Russian political groups in Georgia, the government decided to destroy the monument and build a new national parliament on the site. The demolition of the monument, already a politically sensitive issue, was then further marred by the violation of safety regulations during the controlled explosion, which led to flying chunks of concrete killing two people and wounding another four. Following the destruction of the monument Russian Prime Minister Putin condemned the move as ‘another attempt to erase the former Soviet peoples’ memory of their common and heroic past’ and announced that a replica of the monument would be built in Moscow.


The 2009 demolition of a monument in Kutaisi, Georgia, a towering 46 metre high concrete and bronze structure which was built to commemorate the estimated 300,000 Georgians who were killed while fighting for the Red Army caused controversy, particularly as the violation of safety regulations led to two deaths.


Such politically and emotionally charged issues clearly need to be handled with sensitivity, particularly while the impact of World War II and its aftermath remains within living memory for many in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Certainly, Soviet sacrifices in World War II – in terms of both soldiers and civillian casualties – should not be disregarded, with a total Soviet death toll estimated at around 27 million, more than the combined death toll of all of their wartime allies. Many contemporary Russians thus perceive attempts to displace and destroy Soviet war memorials as a humiliation and an attempt to desecrate the memory of those who died. However, Nina Tumarkin is correct when she states that the traditional Soviet version of their ‘Great Patriotic War’ contains a mixture of ‘truth, lies and unforgivable blank spots’. Much of the historical evidence that has come to light in the post-Soviet period demonstrates that this can no longer be ignored. For citizens of the Baltic states, which were first ‘claimed’ by the Soviet Union in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (something which the Soviet Union continued to deny for decades afterwards) and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union after their ‘liberation’ from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II; or for citizens of the East European countries where communism was imposed and maintained – at times forcibly, most obviously in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 – as a result of Soviet dominance until 1989, it is easy to see how the aftermath of the Second World War soon came to be viewed less as a ‘liberation’ and more as an ‘occupation’, something which the continued presence of Soviet-era memorials may serve to emphasise.

 06/07/2011 – Edit:

In the last couple of days I have also come across these two timely, recently posted online articles:

This short post on Maria Popova’s excellent ‘Brainpickings’ blog in relation to Spomenik, a compilation of photographs of communist-era monuments in the Balkans by Jan Kempenaers

This interesting article published by Transitions Online, where Ioana Caloianu demonstrates, using a number of examples of monuments from across the East European and Central Asian region, the ways in which statues and monuments can represent ‘an uncanny guide to a people’s vices, grievances and insecurities’.


A Few Further Articles on this Topic:


Reuben Fowkes, Soviet War Memorials in Eastern Europe

‘Getting Involved in the Messy Politics of War Memorials’ in the European Voice

‘Why is the Bronze Soldier so Controversial?’ in The Times

M Ignatieff, ‘Soviet War Memorials’, History Workshop Journal, 17 (1984), 157-163

K Bruggemann and A Kasekamp, ‘The Politics of History and the ‘War of Monuments’ in Estonia’, Nationalities Papers, 36/3 (2008) 425-448

M Evans, ‘Memories, Monuments, Histories: The Re-thinking of the Second World War Since 1989’, National Identities, 8/4 (2006) 317-348

S Kattago, ‘Commemorating Liberation and Occupation: War Memorials Along the Road to Narva’, Journal of Baltic Studies, 39/4 (2008), 431-449.



July 4, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments