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

A Visit to Vilnius


Earlier this month I visited Vilnius, to participate in a conference, ‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’, organised by Melanie Ilic (University of Gloucestershire) and Dalia Leinarte (Vilnius University). The conference centred around exploring the implications of using oral testimony, memory studies and life writing when researching aspects of everyday life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The two day conference comprised a fantastic mixture of interesting and thought-provoking presentations on a diverse range of research projects relating to broader themes including identity construction, gender, nostalgia and trauma studies. I delivered a paper entitled ‘Conversations about Crime in Communist East Central Europe’, focusing on my own use of oral testimony during my research into crime in late-socialist era East Central Europe, and the resulting question and answer session was pretty lively, giving me lots of food for thought about popular perceptions of morality and criminality under communism! In addition to a series of 20 minute papers delivered in the ‘traditional’ conference style, we were also treated to a reading from the transcript of an interview-style conversation between Barbara Alpern Engel and Anastasia Posadskaya, two scholars who conducted several interviews for their seminal study A Revolution of Their Own: Voices of Women in Soviet History (Boulder, Colorado, 1998). This was followed by a question and answer session with Barbara Engel herself, who joined us live via Skype.


‘The Soviet Past in the Post-Soviet Present’ – conferencing in Vilnius.

Melanie’s toast at the conference dinner.


I stayed on for an extra day to explore Vilnius after the conference ended –  as I only had 24 hours there I confined myself to exploring the Old Town and surrounding areas, but still found plenty to see and do and I’d certainly recommend visiting if you have the chance! Vilnius itself was lovely, thoroughly charming and quietly cultivating a relaxed ‘shabby chic’ feel as the post-communist renovation of the city’s stunning architecture gradually continues (Vilnius Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004), combined with more modern developments. The contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Vilnius was particularly apparent when looking out across the city from the top of Gediminas Castle:


‘Old Vilnius’ – the Old Town gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994.

‘New Vilnius’ – view across Šnipiškės, the principal business district.


This contrast was also visible when wandering around the city, as the more ‘modern’ feel of the broad streets and designer fronted stores along Gedimo prospect juxtaposed with the more traditional narrow, winding, cobbled roads leading past the smaller souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants snaking down Pilles Street and throughout the University quarter.


Souvenir shopping on Pilles


Of course, I visited several of the main tourist attractions including the Cathedral, the remains of Gediminas Castle, St Annes Church (along with several other beautiful churches) and the Dawn Gate. I also enjoyed sampling some traditional Lithuanian cuisine!


Cepelini (Zeppelins!) – traditional Lithuanian dumplings with pork mince, sour cream and crackling.


Vilnius also had a very ‘arty’ feel to it, something that was particularly apparent as I wandered through Uzupis, a bohemian city district that declared itself an independent republic in 1997! However, I also enjoyed stumbling upon the street art dotted around the old town, and was intrigued to spot several trees that appeared to be ‘dressed’ in brightly knitted jumpers. I know we’re heading into autumn and that the Baltic winter is notoriously cold, but do the trees really need cosy knitwear?! A quick enquiry on Twitter when I returned informed me that the tree jumpers were an example of ‘yarn bombing’ or ‘guerilla knitting’ a form of urban art that I hadn’t seen before!


Tree Jumpers – yarn bombing in Vilnius!

Teapots on Bernardinu

Open Air Gallery – street art on display on Literatu.


The quiet, relaxed feel to Vilnius belies its turbulent recent history, however. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the visit for me was exploring some of the lingering traces of Soviet occupation. This was most evident in the Soviet-era kitsch on sale in the many flea markets and souvenir stalls set out (similar to that I’ve seen elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc) and the tall Soviet statues which remain proudly standing at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green Bridge), over  the river Neris.


Goodbye Lenin! A portrait of Lenin for sale at a small flea market in Vilnius

“Welcome to Vilnius, Comrade!” – Soviet-era statues still stand at the four corners of Žaliasis tiltas (Green bridge)


However, there is an argument to be made that the brutal nature of Soviet occupation means that the psychological legacy rather than the physical traces of communism lingers longest for many Lithuanians. With that in mind, one particularly striking aspect of my time in Vilnius was my visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, an extensive exhibition housed in the former KGB headquarters on Gedimo prospect, which charts the oppression and suffering of the Lithuanian people under successive foreign occupations between 1939-1991. The exhibition takes you through periods of successive Soviet (1940-1941), German (1941-1944) and Soviet again (1944-1991) occupations, although the Nazi occupation receives a lot less attention that the years of Soviet domination –  this is a sobering tale of suffering and oppression, charting partisan warfare, collaboration, opposition, dissent, imprisonment and mass deportation.


Letters written by Lithuanian citizens who were interred in prison camps during the Stalinist era. The letter on the left has been censored by the camp authorities.

Old KGB-branded stationary, on display in the Museum of Genocide.

“How to be a spy” – illustrations from an old KGB manual.

“How to be a spy” – illustrations from an old KGB manual.


The final part of the exhibition guides visitors down into the basement, formerly used as a prison by the KGB, where visitors can tour the cells, prison exercise yards and even visit the former ‘execution room’. By now, I think of myself as something of a veteran visitor to such sites – I regularly read and teach about the ‘darker aspects’ of totalitarian regimes, and have visited Auschwitz, the Stasi Headquarters in Berlin and Budapest’s ‘Museum of Terror’ in recent years. However, the tour of the former prison still affected me on a personal level (more so, I found, than similar visits in Berlin and Budapest, but less than my visit to Auschwitz , which was emotionally draining, an experience I previously blogged about HERE). There was something about the heavy feeling that settled in my stomach while my footsteps echoed down the dark, dank, narrow corridors (the fact that I was entirely alone in an otherwise deserted basement prison probably contributed to this!). I felt increasingly unnerved and unsettled as I peered through the cell doors to view the ‘punishment cells’ set up to demonstrate how prisoners would be forced to stand on narrow platforms surrounded by  icy water for hours on end (inevitably to plunge into the freezing water when they lost their balance or lost consciousness); illustrating how prisoners condemned to isolation were incarcerated alone in cramped, dark boxes for days (and sometimes weeks) on end and how padded walls were installed in some cells to block out the sound of cries of pain from prisoners subjected to physical torture. All of this was accompanied with information about various individuals who had spent time (and sometimes even died) whilst in the prison.  I’d certainly recommend visiting the museum if you are in Vilnius, but I must confess that I was glad to escape out into the fresh air and the sunshine when my tour ended.


A sense of dark foreboding pervades the former KGB prison in the Museum of Genocide, Vilnius.

Sacks of torn KGB files – when Lithuania declared independence from Soviet rule and communism crumbled, the KGB attempted to hide their worst ‘crimes’ by destroying incriminating evidence.

In Memoriam – names inscribed into the walls of the Museum of Genocide.

A monument to victims of Genocide, outside the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius.




September 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’


Today Katyn remains a contentious and highly emotive issue, one that casts a long shadow over Russian-Polish relations. In recent years, some important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Katyn massacres – the mass execution of over 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite and their burial in mass graves in the forests around Smolensk during April-May 1940 – have been plugged. Developments in the post-Cold War period have tended to focus upon the information that has slowly (and often reluctantly) trickled out from the Russian archives, particularly in April 2010, when publication of key documents confirmed beyond any doubt that the mass executions had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD, acting on the direct orders of leader Josef Stalin. It is generally accepted that Stalin approved the massacre to ensure there would be no organised domestic resistance to the extension of Soviet control over Poland after World War II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives has focused attention on a new and previously under-discussed perspective of this tragedy; assessing the extent of US and UK complicity in hiding the truth about Katyn.


The newly declassified documents, released on 10th September 2012, confirm that both the US and UK authorities were aware of strong evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for Katyn soon after the initial German discovery of the forest graves in 1943, but deliberately chose not to question Soviet claims that it was the Germans who were responsible for the slaughter, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, due to the importance of maintaining good wartime relations with Stalin. Even after the end of World War II, they chose to remain silent about much of what they knew. Several years later, after the wartime alliance had irretrievably broken down and Cold War battle lines had been drawn, a Congressional Committee (‘The Madden Committee’) was established to review the available evidence relating to Katyn. Their official report revised the US stance, determining after a series of hearings held 1951-52 that the NKVD had been responsible for the executions, which the report described as ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’ However, the material indicating the full extent of western wartime knowledge of Soviet involvement in Katyn was concealed, and although the committee recommended that the Soviets face trial at the International World Court of Justice, this was never pursued. The Soviets continued to deny any responsibility until the dying days of the USSR, and as recently as 1992, the US State Department maintained that prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s official admission of Soviet guilt in 1990, they had ‘lacked irrefutable evidence’ to substantiate claims that it was the Soviets rather than Nazi Germany who had carried out the massacre.


Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, pictured at the Yalta conference in 1945. By this point, the western leaders knew that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn massacres, but chose to ignore the evidence and focus on attempting to maintain good relations with Stalin.


The documents released yesterday tell a very different story: comprised of detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government; reports from U.S. diplomats; US army intelligence and testimony from two American Prisoners of War – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr – all of whom provided strong evidence suggesting Soviet culpability. The testimonies provided by Stewart and Van Vilet Jr are particularly compelling. Theit accounts describe how they were taken to Katyn (which had recently passed from Soviet to German control) by their Nazi captors in May 1943. The bodies they viewed were all already in an advanced stage of decay, indicating that they had been killed prior to the recent Nazi occupation of the area. This was further supported by the good state of the men’s boots and clothing (suggesting they had not remained alive long after their initial capture by the Soviets) and the fact that none of the personal items found on the corpses  – including letters and diaries – were dated beyond the spring of 1940. The two men reported all of this in coded messages which were sent back to Washington, expressing their conviction that the evidence of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was ‘irrefutable’. However, their testimony was supressed. At a time when the allies remained desperate for Soviet military assistance, neither Roosevelt or Churchill were willing to risk confronting Stalin. Realpolitik took precedence over any sense of moral responsibility, as illustrated by one telegram Roosevelt sent to Churchill in June 1943, where he  strongly urged suppression of any evidence suggesting Soviet complicity at Katyn because ‘The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary’.


Thus, when the Polish government in exile in London called for an investigation into the Katyn massacres, Roosevelt advised Churchill to ‘find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London … to act with more common sense’. In a letter dated May 1943, British Ambassador Owen O’Malley explained how ‘We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom’ and acknowledged that ‘We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre’.



A memorial inWarsaw, commemorating the 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite who were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)


The US documents do not contain any radically new information or earth shattering revelations about Katyn. Rather, they simply confirm what most historians have long suspected. However, they do add to our knowledge of events, suggesting that both British and American administrations were aware of the truth about Katyn at an early stage (from at least mid-1943) but chose to conceal the truth, in a deception that extended up into the highest political levels. For this reason, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth’ believes that the information revealed in the US documents is ‘potentially explosive’, suggesting that the US decision to cover-up the truth delayed a full understanding about the true nature of Stalinism in America, while George Sanford, author of ‘Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory’  compared western attitudes towards Katyn to their unwillingness to accept or act on early information received about the killing of Jews in Auschwitz in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.


As Dmitry Babich, a commentator for the Voice of Russia surmised in respnse to the latest findings, ‘No one looks particularly pretty … the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically’. The information contained in the US documents could be used to support those who argue that it was Western ‘abandonment’ of the East European countries that left them helpless to resist Soviet expansion after World War II, condemning them to fifty years of enforced communist rule. There have also been suggestions that the new documentary evidence has the potential to  negatively influence contemporary Polish relations with the US and UK, although any serious ‘cooling’ in relations seems unlikely.


The documentation released by the US National Archives can be viewed online HERE.

The final report from the Madden Committee (dated 22 December 1952) can be viewed HERE.


September 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 Bluff of the Century: Sputnik and the Cold War.


Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs … This is our generation’s Sputnik moment”

The quotation above, taken from US President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address on 26 January 2011, relates to his plea for the necessity of continued US investment in research and technologyin the contemporary world. His words also serve as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy left by the successful Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik on 4 October 1957. The launch of Sputnik ignited the Cold War Space Race in earnest; as George Reedy, an aide to US President Lyndon Johnson famously declared: ‘the Russians have left the earth and the race for control of the universe has started’.

In this article, guest author Harry Hopkinson argues that Sputnik actually functioned as something of a ‘military boomerang’ for the USSR – temporarily boosting Soviet prestige but at the expense of galvanising America’s own technological and military development in the longer term and ultimately pushing the Soviets into making technological and military commitments that they would struggle to maintain – while also considering some of the ways in which Sputnik’s influence permeated the Cold War beyond the military and technological spheres after its launch in 1957.


The Bluff of the Century: Sputnik and the Cold War.

By Harry Hopkinson.


Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, was successfully launched on the 4th of October 1957. Serving as a demonstration of Soviet technological advancement, its launch was met with a response of shock, awe and fear which reverberated across both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sputnik spent a total of 3 months orbiting the Earth, emitting a simple signal that was picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. The satellite weighed 184 pounds, and the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik into orbit was capable of generating 1,120,000 pounds of thrust.


Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, was successfully launched by the Soviet Union on the 4th of October 1957.


Soviet technology thus appeared to be firmly in the ascendency, with the implication that the Soviet Union was now also capable of launching a long-range nuclear strike. In the political climate of the Cold War, Sputnik proved to be a huge propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. Soviet prestige was bolstered while the United States faced political and national embarrassment due to perceptions of their lack of comparable technology. However, the initial embarrassment that the United States experienced as a result of Sputnik’s success had a galvanising effect on American attitudes towards competition with the USSR, the exploitation of Space and the development of nuclear weapons. As a result, while Sputnik is traditionally perceived as being an off-shoot or catalyst for the Cold War arms race, as well as kick-starting the Space Race, the satellite also left a much wider legacy. The Sputnik launch and the response of the United States set the tone for the remaining years of the Cold War, and many aspects of Sputnik’s wider legacy continue to reverberate to this day. 


VIDEO: ‘Sputnik beeps overhead: Americans in awe’



Sputnik: The Soviet Bluff

Following the Second World War, the creation of advanced technological weaponry in the form of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that was powerful enough to launch a nuclear warhead thousands of miles was a key aim shared by both the USA and the USSR. Sputnik’s launch seemingly demonstrated to the world that the Soviet Union had attained this goal, and was capable of threatening the USAwith nuclear ICBMs. This short animated video, shown on an American News programme, provided a simple demonstration of the science behind the Sputnik launch:



The reality of the situation however, was that the powerful R-7 rocket that lofted Sputnik into orbit possessed many problems that made it unsuitable as an ICBM. The key problem was that the heat shield that would protect the warhead from the heat of atmospheric re-entry had not been sufficiently developed. This meant that the R-7 could not function as a nuclear weapon. Khrushchev himself later acknowledged that the R-7 was a ‘symbolic threat’ and that it was ‘reliable neither as an offensive or defensive weapon’ (Quoted by Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon: Sputnik and the Rivalries that United the Space Age, Bloomsbury: 2007). Though the rocket would continue to prove an excellent motor for Space exploration (and would also be used to propel Yuri Gagarin into orbit during the first manned space flight in April 1961), as a weapon it was clearly not capable of threatening the United States when Sputnik was launched in 1957, while in contrast, the United States had assembled a large bomber fleet that was capable of striking at the Soviet Union from bases within Europe and America.

The Sputnik launch can therefore be seen as something of a bluff on the part of the Soviet Union; giving the illusion that Soviet rocket technology and its nuclear capability was more advanced than it actually was. From a Soviet perspective, the ability to bluff an ICBM advantage was important as this could deter the USA from any pre-emptive strike on the USSR in the event of a nuclear war.  By bluffing about their nuclear capacity and creating the illusion of capability to ensure ‘mutually assured destruction’ the Soviet Union thus sought to bolster their own security. The concept of nuclear deterrence was crucial for Soviet foreign policy at a time when Khrushchev was actively seeking to establish a policy of rapprochement with the USA. The Sputnik bluff thus helped to set the stage for the doctrine of ‘peaceful co-existence’ between the USA and the USSR. 


Sputnik: The American Response

Although the Eisenhower administration recognised that Sputnik did not dramatically shift the nuclear balance of power, they still reacted sharply to the technological achievement demonstrated by the Soviet satellite and implemented several changes to existing policy in direct response to Sputnik. One immediate change was the revamping of the USA’s ICBM and satellite programmes. The Navy’s experimental missile project Vanguard was tasked with launching a satellite, despite the fact that its rocket had still not been fully tested. The accelerated launch of an American satellite was intended to placate public concerns that the USA had fallen behind the Soviet Union technologically. Unfortunately the experimental Vanguard rocket exploded spectacularly on its launch pad on the 6th of December 1957, prompting wide-spread derision from the American media. The New York Times referred to the debacle as ‘Sputternik’ (7th December 1957), while Time Magazine dubbed it ‘Project Rearguard’ (7th December 1957). Following Vanguard’s failure, missile development and satellites became a highly politicised issue, fuelled by the popular public perception that the USA were in danger of falling further behind the USSR.

Public concern about Sputnik was also exploited by the Democratic Party for political gain. Senator Lyndon Johnson proclaimed of the Russians ‘Soon, they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cards from freeway overpasses’ (Quoted by Paul Dickson,  Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, Berkley: 2001) while Charles Bewton, a Democrat senatorial aide, drafted a memo for Democrat George Reedy stating that ‘the issue (Sputnik) is one which, if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic party and elect you President…’ (Quoted by Walter McDougal in The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, John Hopkins University Press: 1985).

The Democrats repeatedly argued that a ‘missile gap’ existed between the USA and the USSR, and this became a decisive issue in John Kennedy’s winning election campaign in the run up to the 1960 Presidential elections. That Kennedy’s presidency was won on this premise illustrates that the Democrats were able to use Sputnik for political ‘leverage’: exploiting the concerns of the general public, who worried that America may lose power, prestige and international leadership.

The Sputnik bluff was therefore initially successful: it boosted Soviet prestige at the expense of the USA; marked a triumph for Soviet science and technology and changed world perceptions of the Soviet Union. Being the first into space meant that the USSR was viewed as a serious rival to the USA. This was later compounded by the Space Race, where the USA actively competed with the USSR for scientific and technological supremacy. The idea that America thus had to compete with the Soviet Union, not just militarily but in every walk of life, was established by Sputnik. Sputnik can therefore be seen as an ideological victory for the Soviet Union as it changed American perceptions of the USSR and set the tone for the remaining Cold War.


This cartoon, by Edwin Marcus, accurately illustrates the impact that Sputnik was perceived to have had, by 'waking up' the USA.


Sputnik also had a galvanising effect on American missile development and by 1960 the USA had begun to overtake the Soviets in numbers of ICBMs, while also retaining its large nuclear bomber fleet. Sputnik precipitated this galvanisation and so ironically, actually helped to put more nuclear pressure on the Soviet Union. As Sputnik served to strengthen America’s position in real terms while offering only the illusion of strength to the USSR, as a bluff it was ultimately to be to their detriment. This gulf, between the perceived Soviet capabilities that Sputnik granted and the reality of the situation, would go on to have several further influences on the Cold War.


Sputnik: The Wider Impact

One key impact was that Khrushchev sought to address the growing nuclear imbalance by placing missiles in Cuba, sparking the now infamous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. A Soviet memorandum from the 24th May 1962 outlined Soviet plans to place launchers and a missile division on Cuban soil. Placing missiles in Cuba marked a shift, as the Soviet Union now had missiles capable of threatening the USA with nuclear strikes. Khrushchev stated that levelling the nuclear balance of power was the principal aim of his decision to place missiles in Cuba in his memoirs. He asserted ‘We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean’ and went on to acknowledge how unfavourable the nuclear balance of power between the USA and USSR was at that time because ‘The United States had already surrounded the Soviet Union with its own bomber bases and missiles. We knew that American missiles were aimed against us in Turkey and Italy, to say nothing of West Germany’ (Khrushchev Remembers, Penguin, 1977). This suggests that the skewered balance of power created by Sputnik was a primary motivation for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Sputnik bluff also created tensions between the Soviet Union and its allies. China was highly critical of Soviet attempts to make overtures towards ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the USA, instead pushing Khrushchev to adopt more aggressive political manoeuvring, given their perceived technological ‘superiority’. Ultimately, part of the reason for the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 was because the USSR would not share nuclear technology with China. Arguably then, the Sputnik bluff gave the Chinese an inaccurate view of the true nuclear capacity of the USSR in relation to the USA, and while this was not the sole reason for the split, it was influential. Polish leader Gomulka also sent a letter to Khrushchev on 8th October 1963 arguing against Soviet proposals for a non-proliferation treaty with the USA. Gomulka asserted that the presence of missiles in Europe due to NATO would still threaten Eastern Europe and the Warsaw Pact, and argued that the USSR should share nuclear weapons with China. Gomulka does not encourage the use of nuclear missiles but does assume that the USSR is capable of dealing with the USA as an equal.

By 1963 the USSR was beginning to ‘catch up’ with the US in terms of its own missile production; however the sheer volume of nuclear weapons that the USA possessed by this point made any war so potentially devastating that there was no political incentive to fight one. Although Sputnik had given the illusion of the Soviet power equalling that of the USA, in reality their ability to use their nuclear force for political gains had sharply decreased. Therefore, the Sputnik bluff gave the Soviet Union’s allies an inaccurate view of the nature of the nuclear balance of power between the two super-powers and created a false impression of Soviet capability to use nuclear missiles to barter for political concessions with the USA.


Assessing Sputnik’s Legacy

The Space Race kick-started by Sputnik would open up further space exploration and go on to shape a generation of technology.  Due to the reorganisation of research and development under Eisenhower, the USA was better poised to exploit the technology it developed, while the USSR remained rigidly bound by its centralised bureaucracy and did not throw its economic, technical and human resources  in to such projects to the same extent as the USA. The subsequent success of NASA in the space race would ultimately go on to influence Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in 1983, making the prospect of a space-based weapons platform seem possible, if not entirely feasible. The extent to which Regan’s SDI was the main motivator in Gorbachev’s subsequent disarmament efforts is debatable. However this provides another example of Sputnik’s continual influence throughout the Cold War period, as it introduced the possibility that a second, space-based arms race could occur between the USA and the USSR in the 1980s, before the disarmament overtures made by Gorbachev squashed this.

Sputnik inadvertently locked the USSR into an arms race that was mirrored in a technological race between the two super powers to exploit space. The USA came out ahead in both of these races. Sputnik then, can be seen as a bluff that, while initially successful, ultimately back-fired. Militarily it was a ‘boomerang’: Sputnik temporarily boosted Soviet prestige but at the expense of galvanising America into a vast military build up. Despite initial Soviet success, the USA would also go on to dominate space through its use of satellites and the influence of NASA. The USSR struggled to catch up with both of these movements, so in many ways Sputnik can be seen as pushing the USSR into technological commitments that it would subsequently struggle to meet. Therefore, Sputnik’s influence set the tone for the Cold War from its launch in 1957 until theSoviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Sputnik can thus be seen as a turning point in the dynamic between the USA and the USSR, due to its role in changing American perspectives of the USSR and its pivotal involvement in the arms race between the two countries. Ultimately then, Sputnik allowed the USA to become more scientifically advanced while the USSR would go on to stagnate.


About the Author:

Harry Hopkinson recently completed his BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University, graduating with First Class honours in July 2011. Harry is particularly interested in the history of science, the Cold War and the Soviet Union and during his final year of study at Swansea he decided to combine these interests, to good effect! The result was an extremely accomplished history dissertation, Sputnik: Bluff of the Century. Harry is currently travelling in America and is considering  undertaking further historical research in the future.


For more information on this topic, see:


David Scott & Alexei Leonov with Christine Toomey, Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race (Simon & Schuster: 2004)

Hardesty, Von & Eisman, Gene Epic Rivalry: The inside story of the Soviet and American Space Race (National Geographic: 2007)

Brzezinski, Matthew Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the space age. (Bloomsbury: 2007)

McDougall, Walter A.  A Political History of the Space Race…The Heavens and The Earth (The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1985)

Siddiqi, Asif A.  Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge and The Soviet Space Race with Apollo (University Press of Florida: 2003)


July 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Budem Zdorovi! Na Zdravi! Prost! The Uses and Abuses of Alcohol in the Communist Bloc.

A new study claims that heavy drinking and cases of alcoholism were widespread in communist East Germany. Extracts from a forthcoming book by Thomas Kochan, The Blue Strangler: Drinking Habits in the GDR, recently published in Deutsche Welle describe how drinking to excess was ‘the norm’ in the GDR, with alcohol consumed ‘at the workbench, in the office and at party headquarters’. Kochan also estimates that by the close of the 1970s around 5% of all adults were suffering from alcohol addiction (four times the rate in West Germany) and that by the 1980s the average GDR citizen was drinking 23 bottles of liquor (double the average in West Germany), 12 litres of wine and 146 litres of beer annually. Recently, I too have been reading about the uses and abuses of alcohol in the communist bloc, in relation to an article I’m writing about social deviance under communism, so news of Kochan’s study caught my eye. The GDR was by no means an isolated case however, and many of Kochan’s findings can be more broadly applied across the Soviet bloc.

Thomas Kochan's new book 'The Blue Strangler' explores drinking habits in the GDR, where Kochan claims that drinking to excess was 'the norm'.


Alcohol Consumption in the Communist Bloc.

Kochan’s analysis of drinking habits in the GDR paints a rather contrary picture to the image that the East European regimes attempted to cultivate. Alcohol dependency was presented very much as a ‘western problem’. Alcohol, it was claimed, was used as something of a placebo, to dull proletarian perception and inhibit the formation of revolutionary consciousness, while excessive drinking was portrayed as a product of the inequalities and frustrations of capitalist society. Under communism, the authorities confidently predicted that levels of alcoholism would soon begin to decrease.

Even gauging the true level of alcohol consumption in the communist bloc is something of a difficult task however. Only limited statistical information is available. Sales of alcohol were often recorded under the more general classification of ‘other foodstuffs’ (a category which also included ice cream, coffee and spices) and the official statistics collated also failed to account for the popular consumption of samogon – varieties of illegally produced ‘homebrew’, distilled from potatoes, grain and sugar – which was cheaply produced and readily available on the black market. By the 1980s samogon is estimated to have accounted for up to 50% of total alcohol consumption in the USSR (Treml, Alcohol in the USSR, 1982). From the 1960s no statistics relating to alcohol production, consumption or addiction were openly published and the state-controlled media gave only occasional coverage to drunkenness, which tended to be presented as a small scale ‘aberrant’ behaviour, only afflicting a minority of citizens.  

However, the available evidence points to a clear increase in the consumption of alcohol generally and in cases of alcohol abuse and dependency more specifically, throughout the communist bloc. McKee’s study Alcohol in Russia (1999) suggests that Soviet consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, when the average annual level of alcohol consumption reached 15.2 litres per person. Stephen White’s book Russia Goes Dry (1996) estimates that during the 1970s expenditure on alcohol accounted for 15-20% of the average households disposable income in the USSR (a figure he describes as ‘exceptionally high by international standards’), and from the 1970s to the 1980s legal sales of alcohol rose by a total of 77%. A similar trend was also recorded across Eastern Europe: between 1960 and 1985 levels of recorded alcohol consumption tripled in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and doubled in Bulgaria and in Poland during the 1970s, food spending increased by just 4%, while spending on alcohol increased by as much as 45%! (Volgyes, Social Deviance in Eastern Europe). Although this increase can partly be explained by inflation and general price rises, these figures still represent a disproportionate increase in consumption.

"нет!" - Communist propaganda discouraged excessive drinking but in reality levels of alcohol consumption remained high across the communist bloc.


I’ve been giving some thought as to why levels of alcohol consumption may have remained so high in the communist bloc:

Social Acceptability: Although the regimes’ officially tried to discourage heavy drinking, in practice social attitudes remained much more tolerant. Alcohol continued to play a significant role in the social sphere under communism, remaining popularly associated with a wide range of public holidays, festivities and celebrations involving family, friends and workmates. Social drinking was common practice regardless of an individuals’ socio-economic status, level of education, age or gender. While heavy drinking was traditionally perceived as being a male activity, it also became increasingly acceptable for women to drink socially and cases of alcoholism among women increased across the communist block For example, in 1940 only 4% of women were classed as ‘heavy drinkers’ in the USSR but by the early 1990s this had increased to 15%, while almost 90% of women admitted to more moderate consumption of alcohol on a regular basis (White). In The Blue Strangler Kochan even talks about womens’ magazines promoting a ‘Vodka and Sausage Diet’ to East German readers in the 1980s!

Economic Function: Good quality Russian vodka, Hungarian palinka (fruit brandy) and French cognac were all popular commodities on the communist-era black market, with bribes involving alcohol commonly used to ‘grease the wheels’ of economic exchange. Kochan points out that in the GDR, a good imported cognac cost around 80 marks at a time when the average workers salary was only 500 marks, so was a popular ‘gift’, often presented to those in positions of authority or influence as a mark of respect, to secure favours and establish beneficial relationships. For those who could not afford access to such ‘luxuries’ however, the black market also provided ready access to the aforementioned samogon – illegally distilled, cheaply produced and often highly concentrated ‘moonshine’.

Escapism: Many individuals who drank heavily claimed they did so because alcohol provided them with a means of escapism; a temporary refuge from the deprivation, drabness and frustrations of everyday life under communism. One report, compiled in 1970s Bulgaria, suggested that ‘the monotonous lives led by many youngsters, disillusionment and imitation of bad Western habits’ encouraged high levels of youth drinking, while a second report, compiled by Charter 77 in 1983, claimed that alcoholism in Eastern Europe was ‘aggravated by the drabness, monotony and regimentation’ of everyday life under communism.

 The Hangover.

The latter decades of communism saw increasing official concern about levels of drunkenness and alcohol dependency across the communist bloc. Lower levels of economic production were blamed on excessive alcohol consumption. Absenteeism from work was frequently the result of alcohol-related illness and it is noticeable that levels of absenteeism tended to spike on days directly following payday and public holidays! The growing practice of drinking during working hours was also blamed for increasing the number of accidents in the workplace. More broadly, drunkenness was often cited as a causative factor for other social ills including divorce, juvenile delinquency, crime, suicide, illness, birth defects and rising mortality rates. Drunkenness was cited as the biggest single cause of accidental drowning inEastern Europeand each year during the harsh winters there were numerous reports published about hapless drunks who had fallen asleep outside and died due to exposure to the elements.

As time wore on the economic and social ‘hangover’ became increasingly difficult to ignore. However, state policy remained primarily reactive, based on a combination of promoting re-education, disseminating anti-alcohol propaganda (leaflets with such enticing titles as How Drink Corrupts Man were frequently distributed in schools, workplaces and subway stations, while some fine examples of Soviet anti-alcohol propaganda can be viewed here!) and attempts to restrict the availability of alcohol through legal channels. A number of ‘sobriety clubs’ were also promoted across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Some short-term custodial care was provided, most commonly in the form of meditsinskii vytrezvitel or ‘sobering up stations’, which operated in many communist bloc countries including Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR. These ‘stations’ aimed to get drunkards off the streets and provide them with a hot shower or steam bath and a bed for the night while they sobered up, in exchange for a nominal charge. A handful of more intensive rehabilitation centres were established but were under-funded and under-resourced. Generally, little in the way of longer-term treatment to reduce alcohol dependency was developed because ideologically, alcoholism continued to be viewed as a ‘culpable deviancy’ rather than as a medical sickness.

Soviet Anti-Alcohol Propaganda: the caption on the poster reads "Prisoner".

Anti-Alcohol Campaigns.

As early as 1958 however, Soviet Premier Khrushchev called for a ‘more determined struggle against alcoholism’. Memorandums encouraged Communist Party officials to ‘set a good example’ by not publicly indulging in heavy drinking or attending drunken parties! Despite this, several communist leaders gained reputations as voracious drinkers – one of Brezhnev’s contemporaries described how, in the evenings, he ‘laced into vodka at a terrifying rate’. A number of ‘anti-alcohol’ campaigns were implemented in various countries across the communist block throughout the 1970s and 1980s but these early campaigns were half hearted at best and met with very limited success, as they failed to tackle the root cause of the problem.

It was under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev during  the final years of the USSRthat the most serious state-led attempt to reduce alcohol consumption occurred, in the form of the infamous Anti-Alcohol campaign launched in May 1985. Gorbachev’s campaign introduced stricter legislation regulating the production and sale of alcohol, higher prices, promotion of a new propaganda campaign and the emergence of a temperance movement which came to boast 12 million members. At the same time, the Glasnost of the 1980s provided the first real indications that the scale of alcohol dependency in the communist bloc was significantly higher than the regimes had previously allowed, as the media began to publish stories that really addressed the true extent of the problem.

Although launched with the best of intentions, the campaign was deeply unpopular, quickly earning Gorbachev the derogatory title of the ‘mineral’nyi sekretar’ – the ‘Mineral-water Secretary’. Long queues formed outside of state sanctioned liquor stores during the limited hours when they were open and illegal alcohol production became ‘big business’. Gorbachev’s campaign thus had an effect similar to that of prohibition in 1920s America, as illegal distillation was quickly taken over by criminal gangs. Methods of production became increasingly sophisticated and much more extensive – even leading to a sugar shortage in 1986-87! As a result, the number of samogon producers prosecuted in the USSR increased from 80,000 in 1985 to 397,000 by 1987 (Tarschys, The Success of a Failure: Gorbachev’s Alcohol Policy, 1985-88, 1993). Many of the most desperate drinkers turned to other substitutes, consuming cleaning products, cologne and narcotic drugs, which placed a larger burden on the already overstretched medical sector. Between 1986-1987 more than 10 million individuals were arrested for violation of the new anti-alcohol legislation. Perhaps most damaging however, were the economic results of the campaign. Between 1960s-1980s sales of alcoholic beverages in theUSSR had nearly quadrupled in value and by the mid-1980s receipts from alcohol equated to about 1/3 of total government revenue (White). The anti-alcohol campaign thus led to a total estimated loss in revenue to the Soviet state of 50-100 billion rubles, at a time when economic revitalisation was seen as a priority. Little wonder then, that the campaign was prematurely abandoned in October 1988!



June 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Did Brain Illness Affect Stalin’s Actions?

Newly released diaries kept by Alexander Myasnikov, one of Joseph Stalin’s personal physicians at the time of his death in 1953, claim that the Soviet leader – who was famed for his brutality and paranoia – may have suffered from a degenerative brain illness that impaired his decision-making and contributed to the ruthlessness of his rule.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953 at the age of 74 after suffering a stroke. Now excerpts from Myasnikov’s diaries, published for the first time in Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets on 21 April 2011 and subsequently quoted in UK newspaper The Independent, outline Myasnikov’s belief that:

“The major atherosclerosis [hardening of arteries] in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness – which had clearly been developing over a number of years – affected Stalin’s health, his character and his actions … Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid … I would suggest that the cruelty and suspicion of Stalin, his fear of enemies… was created to a large extent by atherosclerosis of the cerebral arteries. The country was being run, in effect, by a sick man”.

Myasnikov’s diary was thought to have been seized by the KGB when he died in 1965 but was recently recovered from the state archive by his family and is now set to be turned into a book called I Treated Stalin.

The causes of Stalin’s ruthless and murederous actions have long been debated by historians, with numerous factors suggested as having possibly influenced his later policies including genetics, an unhappy childhood and the suicide of his second wife in 1932. However, these new diary excerpts have given rise to fears that Myasnikov’s diagnosis may lead to new attempts to ‘whitewash’ Stalin – who is generally considered to be responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens during his rule 1928-1953 – by allowing pro-Stalin revisionists to claim that his actions were caused by his medical condition.

In truth, we’ll probably never know what it was that really made Stalin tick and the available evidence suggests that Stalin’s psyche  was far too complex to be explained by any single cause. Even if Myasnikov’s diagnosis suggests that medical factors may have contributed to the cruelty and paranoia Stalin displayed, particularly during the latter years of his rule, he also suggests that Stalin’s condition would have ‘exaggerated’ pre-existing character traits. So even if his illness may have exacerbated certain aspects of his personality, from his early years as a Bolshevik revolutionary and through the cunning tactics which allowed him to rise to power after Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin clearly always demonstrated that he had the capacity for violence and ruthlessness when he deemed it necessary.

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s Historic Legacy

Celebrations are being held today to mark the 50th Anniversary of the first successful manned space flight. At 09.07 am (Moscow Time) on 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off into orbit around the earth uttering the word ‘Poyekhali’ (‘Here We Go’); thus ushering in the era of human space flight. In the fifty years since Gagarin’s pioneering journey, more than 500 other men and women have followed him into space.


Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, pictured in the command capsule of his Vostok space craft, 12 April 1961.


Yuri Gagarin spent a total of 108 minutes in space, before making a safe re-entry and landing after he bailed out from his capsule and parachuted to earth near the Volga river. His first words back on the ground reported that he was well and had no injuries, before receiving official congratulations from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The success of Gagarin’s flight was a major propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, following on from their successful launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the Soviet press made much of the fact that Gagarin was ‘the son of humble peasants’ (his parents worked on a collective farm).


Archival documents released in the post-comunist period have demonstrated that Soviet desperation to beat the Americans by putting a man in space led to a number of technical ‘short cuts’ before the launch. There was no time for the development of safety precautions in case of fire or failure to launch, for example. The Soviets were thus taking something of a gamble by going ahead with the launch on 12 April and the success of Gagarin’s flight was by no means assured. Two days before take off, engineers removed some of the electronics from the Vostok to lighten the craft (including sensors for monitoring temperature and pressure levels), after belatedly realising that the combined weight of Gagarin, his spacesuit and his seat was 14 kilograms over the allowed limit. This ‘tinkering’ caused a short circuit which was hurridly patched up the night before the launch. During the flight itself, Gagarin was also beset by a series of malfunctions: portions of the control system failed 156 seconds after lift off; the engine switched off 15 seconds too late; Gagarin struggled to open the breathing valve in his spacesuit after a cord became tangled and towards the end of the flight the temperature in the capsule rose to such a degree that he almost lost consciousness.


The Soviet gamble paid off however, and after the success of his space flight, Gagarin was awarded numerous medals, including that of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. He became an international celebrity, appearing on the cover of TIME magazine on 21 April 1961, and travelled widely abroad but remained most feted within the Soviet Union, where he attained heroic standing. Numerous monuments were erected to honour his achievement and streets were named after him in many Soviet cities. Gzhatsk, the town where he spent much of his childhood, was even renamed Gagarin.


Yuri Gagarin pictured on the cover of TIME Magazine, 21 April 1961.


However, Gagarin never returned to space.  The success of his initial mission and his heroic status made him too valuable for the Soviets to risk losing. Instead he began re-training as a fighter pilot and became deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow, which was founded in his honour.


Gagarin was killed in 1968 during a flight training exercise and his ashes were buried in the Kremlin walls on Red Square. His memory lived on however,  providing enduring inspiration for Soviet pop culture with commemorative postage stamps, watchbands, music, posters, cards and coins dedicated to preserving his image:


1960s Soviet postcard, celebrating Gagarin's space flight.

Commemorative Soviet postage stamp, issued to mark Cosmonaut Day, on 12 April 1971.

Special Soviet ruble, issued in 1981 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Gagarin's space flight.


Yuri Gagarin’s popularity and heroic standing have survived the collapse of the USSR unscathed and his achivements remain widely celebrated today.  Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently described Gagarin’s flight as a ‘revolutionary’ event that changed the world and 50th anniversary celebrations in Russia today will be marked by a number of ceremonies, parties and an honorary 50-gun salute at the Kremlin.

To see the world ‘through Gagarin’s eyes’ as it were, you can watch this wonderful film; First Orbit, which provides a minute by minute recreation of Gagarin’s flight using original mission radio communication, synchronous footage of the Earth shot from the International Space Station and accompanied by a beautiful original composition by Philip Sheppard:

More information about First Orbit can be found here:

The Guardian Newspaper also has a webpage which allows you to ‘Follow Yuri Gagarin’, hosting the First Orbit video and also accompanied by a full written record of communications between Gagarin and Ground Control here:

The BBC have a page dedicated to Gagarin here:

To hear more about Gagarin’s enduring cultural legacy in the USSR, watch the short video, ‘Jukebox Hero: Yuri Gagarin’s Pop Culture Legacy’, by RFE/RL here:

Finally, Google have also celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight with the creation of a special ‘Google doodle’ on 12 April 2011!

Image taken from 12 April 2011

April 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment