The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia


On 25th February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, led by Klement Gottwald, officially gained full power over the country. The communist rise to power was dubbed ‘Victorious February’ during the Communist era, and was celebrated each year, although since 1989 it has been more popularly referred to in slightly less positive terms, as ‘the February Coup’. It had taken just three short years for the communists to gain full control of Czechoslovakia following the end of World War II, but, by the standards of other East European countries, they were fairly late in establishing power. Just how did the communists managed to rise to the top in a country that had previously been heralded by many as a beacon of democracy and perceived as one of the most ‘Western oriented’ countries within central and eastern Europe? This article will explore some of the different factors that combined to create a climate favourable to the Communist Party’s ascension to power in Czechoslovakia after World War II.


Eastern Europe bore some of the worst experiences of World War II. It was here in the ‘bloodlands’ of Europe that the scars the war left behind were felt most keenly, and Czechoslovakia was no exception. Bradley Abrams has argued that WWII served ‘as both a catalyst of, and a lever for communism [in Czechoslovakia] … creating the intellectual and cultural preconditions for the Communist Party’s rise to total power’ after 1945 (Abrams 2004, p.105).

Although Czechoslovakia recovered most of its pre-WWII territory after 1945, in other ways things looked very different. Firstly, the ethnic and social makeup of Czechoslovakia changed significantly as a result of World War II. During the years of Nazi dominance, German ‘colonists’ began to move into the country whilst many Czechs and Slovaks were deported to forced labour camps or murdered. By 1945, 3.7 percent of the pre-war Czech population had died, including more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovakian Jews, who perished in the concentration camps (Applebaum, 2012, p.10). At the end of the war there was further significant population movement as President Benes authorised the organised expulsion of most of the 3 million ethnic Germans and Hungarians who were resident in Czechoslovakia, whilst thousands of other survivors gradually returned from labour and concentration camps. The decimation of various minority groups (including Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Jews and Roma) meant that following the end of the war, Czechs and Slovaks comprised 90% of the country’s population. This led to heightened nationalism which was subsequently manipulated by the Communist Party, ‘since they could take credit for providing opportunities for mobility and for satisfying nationalist aspirations.’ (Gross, 1989, p.203).

Economically, Czechoslovakia was also transformed by the war. During the years of Nazi occupation and dominance, many businesses were nationalized as the economy was reoriented towards the German war effort, turning Czechoslovakia into more of a ‘closed market’. When the war ended, Czechoslovakia retained a semi-nationalised domestic economy with few remaining international trade links, circumstances which made it easier for the Soviet Union to dominate Czechoslovakia’s post-war economic recovery, which ultimately, laid the groundwork for the post-war shift to Soviet style ‘central planning’. This is illustrated by the fact that, at the end of the War, returning Czechoslovakian President Eduard Benes asked Klement Gottwald, leader of the Communists, to work with the Social Democrats to prepare a decree to nationalise the remaining Czechoslovakian industry (a policy later evidenced in the April 1945 Košice Programme), which met little political opposition.
Czechoslovakia’s international relations also underwent a significant shift after 1945. The perceived failure of their previous political reliance on the West was confirmed after Czechoslovakia became the most famous victim of appeasement with the 1938 Munich agreement (which famously ceded part, and eventually all, of Bohemia to Germany), creating strong feelings of bitterness and insecurity.

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.
Neville Chamberlain, 27 September 1938.

British Prime Minister Neville Chaimberlain's declaration that the Munich agreement, ceding control over Czechoslovakian territory to Hitler, would secure 'peace in our time'. Source:

British Prime Minister Neville Chaimberlain’s declaration that the Munich agreement, ceding control over Czechoslovakian territory to Hitler, would secure ‘peace in our time’. Source:

Cashman has subsequently argued that, in many ways, ‘the events of 1938 paved the way for the imposition of communism in Czechoslovakia.’ (Cashman, 2008, p.1647). This shift was later compounded when it was the Soviet Red Army who arrived to liberate most of Czechoslovakia from German control in 1945. The fact that it was the Soviets who, as Winston Churchill famously acknowledged, had ‘torn the guts out of Hitler’s war machine’ and secured Czechoslovakia’s freedom, increased Communist prestige in Czechoslovakia. The power and brutality many Czechoslovaks experienced at the hands of the Red Army during and after their liberation (in Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere in ‘liberated’ Eastern Europe, numerous cases of theft, violence and rape committed by Soviet soldiers were recorded) created an aura of fear and admiration around the USSR, as Applebaum remarked ‘The Red Army was brutal, it was powerful and it could not be stopped’ (Applebaum, 2012, p.32).

Finally, there was also widespread popular enthusiasm for social change in Czechoslovakia, which broadly supported a general political shift to the left and towards a more radical, socialist agenda at the end of World War II. Jo Langer described the change in public feeling after 1945, as ‘now the task was to erase the interruption and effects of the war and to help this country ahead on the old road to an even better future’ (Langer, 2011, p.27) while Marian Slingova suggested that ‘socialism in one form or another was the goal for many in those days. In Czechoslovakia, a revolution was in progress.’ (Slingova, 1968, p.40). Heda Margolius Kovaly explained how many who had lived through World War II ‘came to believe that Communism was the very opposite of Nazism, a movement that would restore all the values that Nazism had destroyed, most of all the dignity of man and the solidarity of all human beings’ (Kovaly, 2012, p.64). This all translated into increased levels of support for the Communist Party, who won 114 out of 300 contested seats, and 38 % of the popular vote in the May 1946 election, which, coupled with the support of their socialist allies, gave them a slim political majority of 51%. Robert Gellately has acknowledged that while non-communists were ‘shocked’ by this result, they ‘admitted that the [Czechoslovakian] elections were relatively free and not stolen, as they were elsewhere in Eastern Europe’ (Gellately, 2013, p.233).


Following World War II, a National Government was formed in Czechoslovakia, comprised of 25 ministers, 9 of whom were Communist Party members. From the outset, the Communists were in an influential position, controlling some of the most important government ministries, with a political mandate to launch a sweeping programme of post-war, reform, with explicitly socialist and nationalist aims. Several key post-war politicians, including President Eduard Benes and Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, initially hoped they could work with the communists, while holding out hope that the Western powers would not simply stand by whilst Czechoslovakia fell to Soviet control, despite their bitter experience in 1938 (Lukes, 1997, p.255).

While many Czechoslovakians broadly supported the communist agenda, they hoped for the freedom to develop their own, independent, ‘national road to socialism’. However, between 1946-1948, the Czechoslovakian communists came under increasing Soviet pressure, both to secure sole power, and to conform to Stalinist-style socialism. In July 1947, Stalin’s show of displeasure with the Czechoslovak government’s initial willingness to accept U.S. Marshall Aid forced an immediate reversal of their decision, firmly illustrating the nature of the relationship between the two states. Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister (and non-communist) Jan Masaryk summed up his feelings, about the enforced refusal of Marshall Aid, when he declared that : “I went to Moscow as the Foreign Minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a lacky of the Soviet Government.”’ (Lukes, 1997, p.251). Stalin also used the founding conference of the Cominform in September 1947 to publicly criticise the French, Italian and Czechoslovakian Communist Parties for ‘allowing their opportunity to seize power to pass them by’, while the subsequent expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform in June 1948 sent a clear signal to the Czechoslovak communist leadership that the “national roads” policy was no longer supported by the Soviets.

Portraits of Klement Gottwald and Joseph Stalin at a 1947 meeting of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Source:

Portraits of Klement Gottwald and Joseph Stalin at a 1947 meeting of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Source:

The mechanisms and intrigues surrounding the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia have been well documented. During 1947 – 1948 the Communist Party positioned themselves tactically, and one CIA intelligence report recognized that, ‘Having won the key cabinet positions in the May 1946 elections … the Communists have since steadily extended their control of the positions necessary for seizure of the government.’ (CIA, 1948).

By 1948, it appeared that the tide was starting to turn against the Communists, as their coalition partners became increasingly critical of their political tactics. In January 1948, controversy erupted after the communist controlled Minister of the Interior sacked a number of police officials who were not Communist Party members, leading their coalition partners to call for a full cabinet investigation Following this, on 10th February 1948, the socialist minister for the Civil Service won government support for a pay deal that had been strongly opposed by both the communists and the trade unions. However, Klement Gottwald successfully delayed the cabinet from returning to this issue until finally, on 20th February 1948, government ministers from the National Socialists, People’s Party and Slovak Democrats all resigned, in the hope of forcing new elections to reduce the communist’s influence in government. However, the Social Democratic ministers chose to side with the communists and refused to resign, which meant that together the two parties retained over half of the seats in parliament. Gottwald’s position was strengthened by the outbreak of large pro-communist demonstrations in Prague – largely orchestrated by the communists, but with some degree of popular support – so that rather than calling new elections, on 25th February President Benes agreed to the formation of a new government, dominated by the communists and their socialist allies.

As Klement Gottwald triumphantly addressed the crowds, Heda Margolius Kovaly recalled one elderly man’s reaction ‘the old gentleman was standing at the window, looking down at the crowded street. He did not even turn around to greet me. He said, very quietly, “This is a day to remember. Today, our democracy is dying” … Out in the street, the voice of Klement Gottwald began thundering from the loudspeakers.’ (Kovaly, 2012, p.74).

Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald, addressing the crowds in Wenceslas Square, Prague, on 25 February 1948. Source:

Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald, addressing the crowds in Wenceslas Square, Prague, on 25 February 1948. Source:

Within weeks the socialists had agreed to formally merge with the communists and the subsequent elections in May 1948 (which were considerably less free than those of 1946!) resulted in the Communist Party gaining over 75 percent of the seats) and on 9 May 1948 a new constitution defined Czechoslovakia as a ‘People’s Republic’ (Swain & Swain, 1993, p64). A one party state had been created in Czechoslovakia, which was rapidly brought under firm Soviet control. From 1948 the Communists were forced to abandon any remaining efforts to retain ‘national’ socialism in Czechoslovakia, in favour of ensuring their country firmly fitted the Stalinist mould.

You can hear more about the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia in this video from the US National Archives.


SAM SKELDING recently completed his BA (Hons) in History at Leeds Beckett University and will graduate in July 2015. During his final year of study, Sam specialised in the study of Communist Eastern Europe. His history dissertation explored the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia, and was titled “‘Our Democracy is Dying’: The Rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia and its Immediate Aftermath, 1945-1953”. Sam has been awarded a postgraduate bursary at Leeds Beckett, and will begin studying for an MA in Social History in September 2015.

Applebaum, A, (2012), Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Allen Lane
Abrams, B (2004) The struggle for the soul of the nation : Czech culture and the rise of communism. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Maryland.
Abrams, B (2010) ‘Hope Died Last: The Czechoslovak Road to Socialism’ In Tismaneanu, V. Ed. Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East Central Europe. Budapest: Central European University Press pp.345-367
Cashman, L (2008) ‘Remembering 1948 and 1968: Reflections on Two Pivotal Years in Czech and Slovak History’, Europe-Asia Studies, 60/10, 1645-1658.
C.I.A (1948) ’62 Weekly Summary Excerpt, 27 February 1948, Communist Coup in Czechoslovakia; Communist Military and Political Outlook in Manchuria’[Internet]<>%5BAccessed on 9 April 2015]
Gross, J, ‘The Social Consequences of War: Preliminaries for the Study of the Imposition of Communist Regimes in East Central Europe’, East European Politics and Societies, 3 (1989) pp.198-214.
Gellately, R. (2013) Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kovaly, H. (2012) Under a Cruel Star: My Life in Prague 1941-1968. London: Granta
Langer, J. (2011) Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist. London: Granta.
Lukes, I (1997) ‘The Czech Road to Communism’ In Naimark, N and Gibianskii, L The Establishment of Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe 1944-1949. Westview Press.
Slingova, M (1968) Truth Will Prevail, London: Merlin Press.
Swain G and Swain N (1993) Eastern Europe since 1945. Basingstoke: Macmillan

July 21, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday Night in the Gulag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone.


Concluding the first week of the student showcase, Samuel Threlfall takes a look at criminal subculture in the Stalinist-era Gulag camps in this article about the Vory v Zakone – a small brotherhood of criminals with a distinct  code of conduct, rituals and method of communication. While the Vory gained notoriety for asserting a significant degree of authority within the camps during the 1930s and early 1940s, following the Second World War their numbers were decimated in a violent conflict between different criminal factions within the Gulag.


The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone

By Samuel Threlfall.


The Vory-v-Zakone (‘thieves in law’) were a small brotherhood of criminals who consolidated their power in the Soviet Gulag camps in the years leading up to World War II. Many aspects of their criminal culture can be traced back to the Tsarist era but it was during the 1920s and 1930s that the Vory became firmly established as a distinct group.[1] The Vory were composed of many different kodlo, (crime groups or ‘families’), but all adhered to the same criminal subculture within the Gulag camps, demonstrated by their strict code of conduct, secret initiations, rituals, their own private language (fenia) and visual communication through coded tattoo art. Prior to World War II the Vory easily asserted their authority over the other muzhiki (working convicts), particularly members of the intelligentsia and political prisoners. Margaret Werner, an American woman held in the work camp in Burepolom, even stated that the camps were ‘unofficially run by the criminals’.[2] In the aftermath of World War II however, the influence of the Vory began to decline as they increasingly found themselves under attack.


The Vory-v-Zakone


Not just anyone could join the Vory. Many criminals served years of ‘apprenticeship’ before they were recommended for full inauguration into the criminal fraternity. New members had to be formally recommended by an existing Vor and then inaugurated at a special skhodka (meeting or ‘thieves court’) where they would swear an oath of loyalty to the brotherhood. Once inaugurated the novice had to change his name – a new criminal nickname was required to show that the thief was prepared to leave his old life behind and make the full transition to criminal life.[3]


Members of the Vory adhered to a strict set of rules. This Code bonded them together and established basic principles for them to live by, including the provision of moral and material support for other members of their criminal ‘family’. Conversely, the consequences for any thief who broke the code were brutally severe: they would be cast out as a traitor and labelled a Suka, a literal ‘bitch’, something which often resulted in their execution. Any conflict between members of the Vory would be resolved at a skhodka. The code also stated that a Vor must live off his criminal profits, prohibiting him from working. Gambling was allowed, although a Vor must honour his debts and have the resources to pay whatever he owed. It was customary that if a thief lost all his money playing cards and wanted to carry on playing, he would bet fingers or other limbs, mutilating himself during the game and then playing on.[4]


The criminal code also stated that a Vor had to be proficient in fenia, the language of the thieves. Shalamov stated that while in Kolyma he met a criminal called Williams who ‘answered with that peculiar accent characteristic of so many of the thieves’.[5] This was fenia – a criminal slang which resembled the nineteenth century dialect used by Russian peddlers but also incorporated colloquialisms from other languages including Yiddish and Romanian. Specialist criminals were known to have their own personal vocabulary, for example, pickpockets had roughly four hundred colloquialisms and gamblers had two hundred.[6]


The Vory communicated visually as well as verbally, using an intricate system of tattoo art. These tattoos provided a very visible sign of a Vor’s commitment to the fraternity. Particular tattoos denoted rank (generally speaking, the more tattoos a Vor had, the more respected he was) and highlighted individual criminal specialities, but the meanings of certain images could also change depending on where they were placed on the body. For example, pickpockets traditionally bore the image of a cat to denote their trade. However Kot (cat in Russian) was also an acronym for Korennoy Obitatel Turmi, meaning ‘I am a native to the prison camps’.[7] There was an urban legend within the camp that many thieves had tattooed Stalin and Lenin on their chests so that if they were executed in the camps, the firing squad would give them a painless death by shooting them directly in the head to avoid hitting the ‘sacred images’.[8]There were also strict regulations governing the wearing of tattoos, and criminals discovered wearing ‘unnacceptable’ or inappropriate tattoos were often punished by execution.


Example of A tattoo commonly used by the Vory – the image of a cat (kot) generally indicated that the wearer was a proficient pickpocket – image from Danzig Baldaev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II, 141.


Hand and finger tattoos were common amongst the Vory – Danzig Baldaev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II, 133.


While not religious, many criminals did believe in dukh, the idea of ‘personal spirituality’. Wearing homemade aluminium crucifixes were believed to improve their dukh and also illustrated their unity and loyalty to one other. One of their rituals was known as ‘earthing’. When a member had broken the Code, he would be rotated several times to remove his dukh before being backed into a wall where he would be stabbed multiple times.[9]


Life in the Gulag


As their code prohibited submission to any state authority or engaging in ‘legitimate’ labour, the Vory refused to work in the Gulag. According to Shalamov, thieves tried to avoid work by faking illnesses, bribing or threatening the camp doctor to send them to hospital. However, they would induce physical symptoms if this failed and this often involved some form of grievous self-injury, including eating shards of glass and metal or swallowing fish hooks to tear their insides. One Vor even blinded himself with styptic powder from a pencil.[10] For this reason, many Vory boasted of their high pain tolerance. Because the camp doctors had the ability to get them out of work unpunished, the thieves often applied a code of ‘morality’ to them. Doctors were often given presents and money in exchange for helping the thieves, and it was widely known that the thieves would not steal from medical personnel.[11]


However, their relationships with other prisoners in the camps tended to be far more antagonistic. Many political prisoners have recounted their experiences with the Vory in their memoirs, stressing their brutality and ‘inhuman’ nature. During her journey aboard the S.S Dzhurma, Evgenia Ginzburg, a political prisoner, came into contact with female criminals who were ‘covered in tattoos’. These women ‘openly stole what little provisions the politicals had, whilst most of the guards refused to intervene’.[12] Elinor Lipper also encountered some particularly violent criminals whilst on a transport ship, the Dalstroi, heading to Kolyma who ‘raped the women, starved the old, and murdered any men who tried to stop them’. Again, Lipper notes that many of the guards had been bribed to turn a blind eye, and on some occasions they even encouraged the Vory.[13]


Another prisoner, Janusz Bardach, described playing cards with a group of Vory who cheated him to rob him of all of his possessions. After he confronted them they beat him, and took what little he had left, making threats if he refused to hand over future rations. Later, during his incarceration at Kolyma, Bardach also came into contact with a pickpocket, Ruchka (‘Little Hand’), who did little to no work and constantly abused him for being a political prisoner. When Bardach attempted to strike back, he was taken to the guards who threw him straight into the isolator without even questioning Ruchka.[14] In his collection of drawings from the gulag, Danzig Baldaev has illustrated the torturous treatment many of the politicals faced at the hands of the Vory, illustrating prisoners having their clothing stolen from them, and depicting the frequent abuse and gang rape of women. If another prisoner insulted the Vory they would retaliate by ‘plugging the throat’ where a spike was forced into a prisoners mouth and hammered down:


‘Plugging the throat’ – a common punishment for any camp inmates deemed to have insulted one of the Vory – image from Danzig Baldaev, Drawings from the Gulag (London: Fuel, 2010), 136


However, relations were not always antagonistic. The Vory Ginzburg later encountered while working on a camp medical ward were more peaceful, demonstrating respect for her and asking her to tell them romantic tales.[15] Bardach also came across a prominent Vor known aspockmarked’. Again, in exchange for storytelling, ‘pockmarked’ made the other thieves return his stolen possessions, and made Bardach his personal guest at mealtimes, generally a privilege reserved for criminals only.[16] Almost all Vory were illiterate which would explain why storytelling was a valued commodity in the camps. For the most part though, memoirs tell of the contempt, animosity and brutality the Vory displayed towards other prisoners, unless they had something to offer them in return.


Such‘Ia Voina: The Bitches War 1948-1953


By the end of the 1940s, the situation had changed. The Second World War proved to be a turning point in the Vory’s influence over the Gulag camps. The thieves’ position in the camps was weakened by the large influx of prisoners in the immediate post war years. According to Varese between 1944-1947, over 600,000 were sentenced to the Gulag. Whereas the zeks of the 1930s were largely comprised of the intelligentsia and ‘politicals’, these new camp inmates were ex-soldiers and former prisoners of war, men who had combat experience. One camp inmate commented that these prisoners were ‘not the shy type’ and were ready to face the criminals who tried to rob them.[17] Many camp documents describe tensions between the Vory and the other inmates, as relations became so strained that riots frequently broke out.  In 1951, in the Obskii MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) labour camp, roughly 400 prisoners revolted against the thieves and their stranglehold over the camp and in 1953, in the Vanino transit camp, guards had to resort to using their firearms to quell a riot between convicts and thieves. These were by no means isolated phenomena; other reported incidents saw prisoners dismantling their beds and forging weapons out of the materials to fend off the thieves.[18]


The underworld was also riven by internal divisions following World War II as the criminal fraternity became divided between the traditional Vory and a growing number of Suki (bitches). Many Vory had been drafted into the Red Army, but after the war, many returned to the Gulag, either because the authorities refused to grant them their promised freedom, or because they had committed new crimes after release, so were re-arrested. On arrival back in the camps, they were shunned by the traditional Vory, who viewed them as traitors who had betrayed the criminal code by serving on the front line.


By 1948, a full scale civil war had broken out between the rival factions, the Such’Ia Voina (Bitches War). In the battles that were fought within the camps, the Suki were generally victorious, as the guards often supplied weapons to the Suki whilst the Vory remained unarmed. Some incidents occurred where 150 armed Suki fought 100 unarmed Vory massacring the majority of them.[19] The Suki were often encouraged by the guards to attack the Vory, and were ‘rewarded’ by being offered supervisory roles.[20] As a result, the Suki adopted a revised criminal code, one with fewer constraints which allowed for collaboration with the camp guards. The Suki then became the ‘storm troopers of the Gulag’ as they ruled over the other camp inmates under direct orders from the guards.[21]




World War Two marked a clear turning point in the Vory-v-Zakone’s influence over the Gulag camps. Prior to the outbreak of war the Vory enjoyed a privileged position at the top of the camp hierarchy. However, after the war, the influence of the Suki was on the rise. After Stalin’s death in 1953 over four million prisoners were released within the first five years, and by 1960, the Gulag had been reduced to a fifth of its former size.[22] Many of those released during the post-Stalinist amnesties were veteran thieves and during the 1950s the Suki moved outside the walls of the Gulag. The traditional Vory had been replaced by a new breed of criminal, one willing to work with the state authorities. Their revised criminal code allowed the Suki retain many of their old criminal traditions while also forging lucrative links in the corrupt shadow economy, creating a new breed of organised crime.[23]  By 1975 Vladimir Bukovskii estimated that only a few dozen traditional Vory were left throughout the entire Soviet Union.[24]


About the Author:


Samuel Threlfall has just completed his BA in History and American Studies at Swansea University. In his final year of study, Samuel researched and wrote a History Dissertation entitled ‘Unity and Divide, The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone and Underworld Crime in the Russian Gulag’.


[1] Vyacheslav Razinkin, “Thieves in Law” and Criminal Clans (Moscow, 1995), 3; Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, in Galeotti M (ed) Russian and Post-Soviet Organized Crime (Dartmouth, 2002), 516.

[2] Karl Tobien, Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, The Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2006), 189.

[3] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 517.

[4] Yuri Glazov, ‘”Thieves” in the USSR – A Social Phenomenon’, in Galeotti M (ed) Russian and Post-Soviet Organised Crime (Dartmouth, 2002), 149.

[5] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (Penguin, 1994), 41

[6] Sergei Cheloukhine. ‘The roots of Russian Organized Crime: from Old-Fashioned Professionals to the Organized Criminal Groups of Today’ Crime, Law and Social Change, Vol. 50, No. 4-5  (June 2008), 353-374,  357.

[7] Danzig Baldaev, Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume Three (Steidl, 2008), 141

[8] Alix Lambert, Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle, (Atglen P.A Schiffer, 2003).48.

[9] Yuri Glazov, “Thieves” in the USSR, p. 145.

[10] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales,  408-410.; Yuri Glazov, ‘“Thieves” in the USSR’, 149.

[11] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, p. 408.

[12] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into The Whirlwind, (London: Collins/Harvill, 1967), 268.

[13] Elinor Lipper, ‘The God That Failed in Siberia: A Tale of a Disillusioned Woman’, in Critchlow. Donald and Critchlow Agnieszka (ed), Enemies of the State, Personal Stories From Within the Gulag, (Chicago: Ivan. R. Dee, 2002)., 26.

[14] Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf to Man, Surviving Stalin’s Gulag (London: Scribner, 2003), 149, 211-212.

[15] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into The Whirlwind, 277.

[16] Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf To Man, 154.

[17] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 528.

[18] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 528.

[19] Yuri Glazov, “Thieves” in the USSR’, 153.

[20] Alexander Dolgun. Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag (New York: Random House, 1975), 147.

[21] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago, 126; Serio,‘Thieves Professing the Code’, 74.

[22] Miriam Dobson, Gulag Returnees, Crime and the State of Reform After Stalin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 109.

[23] Patricia Rawlinson, From Fear to Fraternity, (London: Pluto Press, 2010),  160.

[24] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 527.

June 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era


The next post in the 2012 student showcase explores how the terror and repression of the Stalinist era had an impact which extended far beyond those directly targeted by the regime. Stalinist propaganda claimed that the USSR was the best place in the world to raise a child, presenting childhood as an innocent, happy and fulfiling time. However this was not the case for the millions of children whose parents were caught up in Stalin’s terror. Some of these children were raised in the Gulag camps, some in state orphanages. Some were sent into exile with their families and others were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. All found themselves dispossesed, displaced, marginalised and rejected. In this article Victoria Bird discusses the experiences of these children, Stalin’s ‘Littlest Enemies’.


‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era

By Victoria Bird.

The Stalinist era was characterized by extensive terror and repression, with large numbers of the Soviet population living in fear of the ‘knock on the door’ that could signify arrest, exile, imprisonment or execution. This climate of fear even extended to young children, many of whom were terrified of the day when their parents would ‘disappear’. Children who lost their parents as a result of Stalin’s Terror were affected in a number of different ways. Some were interned in Gulag camps along with their parents; some were deported to live in exile in remote regions with their families and some were forced into Soviet orphanages. Those who were left behind were stigmatised and ostracised, often even by other family members who feared punishment if they were seen to be helping the child of an ‘enemy of the people’, so were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. Whatever their ultimate fate, these children all found themselves marginalised, persecuted, rejected and forgotten by mainstream society. Instead their lives became dominated by a daily battle for survival, a battle that sadly many did not win.


‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin for a Happy Childhood!’


Stalinist propaganda worked very hard to present childhood as a happy and positive time. Children were presented as the loyal socialists of the future, and Stalin was portrayed as the ‘little father’ raising the next generation of new Soviet men and women. Posters showing children praising Stalin were put up everywhere, often including the caption ‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood’, while communist youth groups such as the Young Pioneers (for children aged 9-14) and the Komsomol (ages 14-18) were set up to provide children with a range of extra-curricular activities including parades, theatre outings, sporting events and summer camps which many would otherwise not have had access to.


“Thank you, Comrade Stalin for our Happy Childhood!” (1936) available online at:


Catriona Kelly argues that the state was attempting to back up the claims of the ‘fairy tale reality’ that supposedly characterized life in the Soviet Union, with sentimental visions of childhood pervading throughout all propaganda and claims that the Soviet Union was the best place in the world for children to grow up.[1] But, this fairy tale concealed the dark reality of many children’s lives during the Stalinist era, something which is illustrated by the image below. This famous photograph, entitled “Friend of the Little Children” was published on the front page of Izvestia in 1936, showing a happy, smiling young girl being lovingly held up by Stalin. However, the young girl’s smiles hide her dark background. Her name is Gelya Markizova, and her mother was mysteriously murdered after her father, Ardan, was shot for allegedly plotting against Stalin during the Terror years. Her real story was, of course, hidden by the state’s propaganda machine to perpetuate the vision of happy childhoods that Soviet propaganda was desperate to portray.


“Friend of the Little Children” (1936)


Gelya’s tale illustrates a much wider issue: that while some children do recall their Stalinist-era childhoods with fond memories today, their experiences were far from universal.  Many other children were marginalised, rejected and persecuted. Far from having the happy childhoods that they were supposedly entitled to, they were instead faced with great hardships and a struggle for survival.


Children of the Gulag


As a result of Stalinist terror and mass repression, hundreds of thousands of parents were arrested and placed in the infamous Gulag camps.  Resolution No 2213 stated that children up to the age of two must be kept in confinement along with their mothers, so many young children were taken to the Gulag and placed in camp nurseries.[2] Other children were actually born in the Gulag, because some prisoners were pregnant on arrival while others became pregnant in the camps (for more on pregnancy and childbirth in the Gulag see the previous blog post HERE). Life for children who found themselves in the camp nurseries was horrendous. They were often forced to live in extremely unhygienic conditions, in the coldest, oldest barracks, with a shortage of blankets, while the meagre food rations provided lacked essential nutrients and vitamins. The quality of care provided was terrible; children were neglected and given minimal attention with reports that nurses would feed the children scalding hot food and often left them sitting for hours on their potties causing many to suffer from prolapsed rectum.[3] As a result, the rate of infant mortality in the Gulags was extraordinarily high and those children who survived suffered extensive physical and psychological damage. In her memoir, Evgenia Ginzburg commented on how shocked she was on discovering that many older children in one camp nursery would not even speak, communicating instead via inarticulate howls.[4]


Children in a Gulag camp nursery being fed – image from Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 311


In 1935 the introduction of Article 12 of the Criminal Code also permitted children from the age of twelve to be sentenced as adults and interned in the Gulags. This law was used to round up the children of those who had earlier been arrested for political crimes based on the belief that ‘an apple never falls far from the tree’.[5] Many street children, the waifs and strays, commonly known as Bezprizorni also committed crimes (most commonly theft) and many were sent to the camps as punishment, where they found themselves living in bare, dirty cells in a brutal world where they mixed with older, more dangerous criminals. Oleg Khlevniuk described how many older criminals treated these youngsters brutally, often using them for sexual favours or forcing them into prostitution.[6]


Identity photographs of arrested children – image taken from Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia 1890-1991 (Yale University Press, 2007), 235


Banished: Childhood in Exile


Many children also had to face the terrifying prospect of exile. Those commonly targeted included devout religious followers, ethnic minorities and ‘kulak’s’ (peasants who resisted collectivisation). Numerous families were rounded up and forcibly relocated to remote and uninhabited regions in Russia’s far north, such as the Urals, Northern Siberia or the open steppe of Kazakhstan. Many families were given little more than an hour to gather together sufficient food and provisions for their ‘new lives’. Antonina Golovin recalls her mother quickly wrapping her in a warm woollen shawl when the order came to leave, but this was removed and she was not allowed to take it, even though they were heading for Arctic conditions.[7] The journey into exile was arduous and exhausting, with families packed into overcrowded, under-heated and filthy cattle trucks for days or weeks on end. One letter to the Chairman of the VTsIK told how thousands of children died of starvation or disease during the journey into exile, to be buried in mass unmarked graves.[8]


Unmarked graves of ‘special settlers’ who perished – some are only 4ft long. Image taken from Cathy Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 103


On arrival, the surviving settlers had to make do with living in primitive zemlianki, mud holes that had been dug out of the ground and covered in branches and mud to keep in as much heat as possible.[9] Whilst digging out these cold, damp shelters, the exiles also had to struggle to find food for their families: they arrived with few tools or other provisions to aid them and many settlements were completely cut off by the snow. This meant thousands more children died from starvation. Exiled children also faced a variety of other life-threatening diseases. The lack of vitamins caused scurvy and malnutrition, while many fell sick with typhus, malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia with no prospect of medical aid. As Werth explains, the situation in exile was critical for children, who were the chief victims of disease and death. For example, in one settlement consisting of 350 families, 180 children died during the first few months due to an epidemic of scarlet fever. On another island settlement, of the 14,000 deportees who died there between June and August of 1931, 76% of them were under 12 years old and one report in January 1932 recognized that in the Narym region, mortality for children under three years old was as high as 12% per month, with Siberia becoming the setting for a huge amount of child deaths.[10]


Stalin’s Orphans


Homeless children along ‘children of the enemies of the people’ increasingly found themselves being placed in state-run orphanages, where their fates were far from happy. Alan Ball argues that conditions in some Soviet orphanages were just as bad, if not worse, than life on the streets, and Deborah Hoffman agrees that during the Stalinist era the high influx of children into state-run orphanages (absorbing 5,000-10,000 children each year during the 1930s; while in Moscow alone, by June 1st 1938, 15,347 children of repressed parents had been sent to orphanages) meant conditions became increasingly dire, leading to overcrowding and severe shortages.[11]


Starvation and malnutrition were a routine occurrence in the orphanages with many children forced to raid nearby rubbish bins to find sustenance and there were reports of children lapping thin soup directly from cupped hands due to the shortage of bowls.[12] Shortages of clothes and shoes meant that children often had to go around barefoot in the snow and in one orphanage an inspector recorded 46 children who were suffering from frost-bitten feet.[13] Three to four children would often be required to share a filthy mattress lacking any blankets, while others slept in stoves or huddled on the bare floor, covering themselves with whatever came to hand, such as old curtains. One orphanage in Viatka even issued sacks for the children to sleep in.[14]


The institutions themselves had crumbling walls, no heating and a total lack of washing facilities which resulted in orphanages being increasingly referred to as ‘cesspools’. Children only received baths at intervals of several weeks; one group of children even wrote of how they were only allowed to visit the bathhouse every other month, and were given clean underwear even more rarely. Many orphanages had no lavatory so children would relieve themselves in yards, hallways and even their own beds.[15] Orphans commonly suffered from diseases such as typhus, malaria, dysentery, scurvy, rickets, ringworm and lice as a result of their dire surroundings and poor hygiene. Former inmates described how the bodies of those who had died being stacked in piles, where they were kept until there were enough to be taken away and cremated, while one inspector’s report described how he had witnessed children having to live and sleep for several days in the same bed as the corpses of other children. Mortality rates among children in some Ukrainian orphanages actually stood at one hundred per cent.[16]


Those who managed to survive disease and death in the orphanages were also faced with the threat of beatings, abuse and bullying from the older inhabitants, while there are also countless stories of the warders in charge violently assaulting the children or even raping the young orphans in their care. Many children received brutal beatings from their directors, while others remember being thrown into ‘punishment cells’ for the slightest offence. One child told of how the director would frequently drag children out of their beds by their hair, bang their heads against the wall and then threaten them with his revolver.[17]


Bezprizorni: Life on the Streets


Some children avoided life in the orphanage by running away. These gangs of homeless children or Bezprizorni became a common sight in Soviet cities during the Stalinist era. Most scraped a living through scavenging, begging, pickpocketing, petty theft and prostitution. Many quickly became addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine in an attempt to escape from the terror and hardships of their everyday lives. They lived in appalling conditions, particularly during the freezing winter months, dressed in ‘lice-ridden, grimy garments’ with ‘bare feet wrapped in newspapers’. To keep warm at night, the Bezprizorni would sleep in dirty cauldrons, rubbish bins, public toilets and some even buried into the earth into shallow dugouts.[18]


Gang of street children sheltering in a dirty cauldron – image from Alan Ball, And Now My Soul is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia (University of California Press, 19914), 118


Initially, the state made some attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ Bezprizorni, through the establishment of special children’s homes, communes and colonies which aimed to re-educate and reintegrate homeless children into respectable society.[19] However, most Bezprizorni stubbornly refused to enter these institutions and those who were forcibly rounded up fled by the thousands, returning to life on the streets. From 1935, a special Soviet decree extended full adult penalties to juvenile criminals, which meant any Bezprizorni who were apprehended could simply be imprisoned.




While Stalinist propaganda may have presented an idealised ‘fairy tale’ image of Soviet childhood characterised by happy innocence, for some the reality was very different. Many children were ripped away from their families, condemned to the Gulags, forced into exile, sent to orphanages or left to fend for themselves on the streets. Most of these children endured severe physical and psychological trauma and those who survived often carried this stigma with them into adulthood.


For more information see:  Film: Children of the Gulag (Java Films)

About the Author:

Victoria Bird has just completed her BA in History at Swansea University, UK. In her final year of study Victoria specialised in the history of communist Eastern Europe and she also researched and wrote her History Dissertation about “Bezprizorni: The Result of Mass Arrests and the Labour Camp System”.


[1] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890 – 1991 (Yale University Press, 2007)

[2] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Penguin Books, 2004), 292; Cathy A Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 310 – 313

[3] Evgenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind (Collins Harvill, 1989) 4; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 241

[4] Evgenia Ginzberg, Within the Whirlwind, 4

[5] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 237

[6] Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Yale University Press, 2004) 124

[7] Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, 95

[8] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 100 – 103

[9] Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies: Children in the Shadow of the Gulag, (Slavica Publishers, 2008), 41

[10] Nicholas Werth, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag (Princeton University Press, 2007), 44-56

[11] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia 1918-1930 (University of California Press, 1994) 98; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies,81; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary life in extraordinary times; Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 150

[12] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115

[13] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 254

[14] Jehanne Gheith, and Katherine Jolluck, Gulag Voices, Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 125; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115

[15] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 116; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies, 98

[16] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 58, 117; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 201

[17] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 56

[18] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 30 – 32 , 72

[19] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia, (Vanguard Press, 1928), 100

June 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Day in the Life Of…”: Women of the Soviet Gulag


The second in this year’s series of student authored articles considers some key aspects of women’s experiences in the Stalinist Gulag camps. Proportionally, women made up a small but significant percentage of the Gulag population and a rich body of written memoirs and personal testimony from surviving female inmates is available  today. In this article Katryna Coak draws on some of these accounts to argue that while women may have been subjected to broadly similar conditions as those experienced by male inmates, there were distinctly gendered aspects to the female Gulag experience, particularly relating to women’s experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood in the camps, which could be both uplifting and traumatic in equal measure.


“A Day in the Life Of…”: Women of the Soviet Gulag.

By Katryna Coak.


During the 1930s, the escalation of Stalinist terror and repression (particularly during the Great Terror of 1936-1939) meant that the population of the Gulag labour camps continued to grow. Anne Applebaum estimates that over 18 million people passed through the Gulag in total, and many women were sent to these labour camps, including large numbers of political prisoners, many of whom were sentenced under Article 58, their only crime being their association as ‘wives of enemies of the people’. However, proportionally their numbers remained relatively small in relation to the male population: for example, Mason estimates that in 1939 women only comprised 8.4 per cent of the total Gulag population, while Anne Applebaum has estimated that in 1942 only around 13% of Gulag inmates were female.[1] Initially many camp commanders were reluctant to accept women, as they believed they were weaker than men, so would take longer to fulfil the work norms set by the Gulag administration. In February 1941 the central camp administration even sent a letter to the NKVD and camp commanders ordering them to accept convoys of women and listing jobs that women could be particularly useful for, such as textiles, wood and metal work and light industry.[2]


However, despite their relatively small numbers and despite the fact that men and women had to endure broadly similar living and working conditions within the camps, women’s experiences of the Gulag were also distinctively different to those of their male counterparts in a number of ways, as depicted by the accounts in numerous female memoirs and personal testimonies.


Camp Life


Many women’s first memories of the Gulag tell of their fear, embarrassment and degradation. On arrival at their assigned camp, women were generally led to the bathhouse where they had a rare opportunity to wash. This was often an embarrassing and shocking experience. One former zek recalled how: ‘The personnel were all male. You had to overcome the shame and humiliation, clench your teeth and control yourself, to endure the dirty jokes calmly and not spit at those hideous faces, or punch them between the eyes’.[3] Another former prisoner drew the scene of humiliation, revealing that women were made to wait for their turn naked in the snow:


A drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, a former Gulag prisoner, available via Gulag: Soviet Forced Labour and the Struggle for Freedom:


The humiliation did not stop there: guards often exploited the situation to ‘inspect’ the new arrivals, as women were a rarity within the Gulag: ‘After the bath, we had to wait a while for our clothes, which had been taken to be disinfected. This period of waiting was the worst…our guards came in under the pretext that one of us might attempt to escape’ recalled Anna Cieślikowska.[4] The disinfection of prisoner’s clothing was generally ineffective anyway as the water used to wash the clothes was often not hot enough to kill the parasites and merely served to excite them further. In order to reduce the incidence of lice, women therefore endured further embarrassment as their heads and pubis were shaved. This procedure was supposed to be carried out by a female doctor, but they were rarely available, so male guards and doctors gleefully stepped in.


Some women resisted: ‘I was so shocked about it that at first I refused…soldiers kept my hands behind my back, while another forced my legs apart’.[5] But women also had to submit to regular physical searches: ‘They searched our hair, our mouths and even our…[they] were carried out solely to frighten and humiliate us’.[6] This sense of humiliation is also depicted in another drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, illustrating a physical search party, where it is evident that the women are hanging their heads due to the shame and awkwardness of this situation:


A drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, a former Gulag prisoner, depicting a late night search of women, available online via Gulag: Soviet Forced Labour and the Struggle for Freedom:


Yet, other women quickly adopted a more pragmatic approach to their new situation. Speaking about the regular physical searches, Elinor Lipper argued that, ‘What we hated worse than the confiscation of the little things we needed, worse than the humiliation of the whole procedure, was the fact that we were robbed of our all-too-brief night’s sleep’ – something which was essential due to the toll taken by the physical labour that all Gulag inmates were subjected to in one form or another.[7] Some women appear to have adjusted to camp life more quickly than others as practical concerns took precedence. Furthermore, other women spoke about how they quickly became more adept at concealing the few personal possessions that they had, utilising fish bones from their daily soup to create needles in order to repair clothing and fashioning knives from bits of metal. Eleanor Lipper, a former Gulag inmate, claimed that ‘women are far more enduring than men…and also more adaptable to unaccustomed physical labour’, while Anne Applebaum has argued that camp women formed more powerful relationships with one another and helped each other in ways male prisoners did not such as by sharing food rations.[8] Kseniia Dmitrievna Medvedskaia also spoke of how she feared ostracism after a stint in the punishment cell, however her apprehensions were quickly dispelled as on her return to the barracks the other women greeted her warmly and shared the food they had saved for her.[9]


Despite this camaraderie however, many women found life in the Gulag to be a demoralising and defeminising experience. Solzhenitsyn commented that due to the toll of regular manual labour in the Gulag, women’s bodies became worn and ‘everything feminine about them ceased to be, both biologically and physically’.[10] Many women also described the shock they felt when they caught a rare glance of their reflections in a broken piece of glass or a mirror.  With shaved heads, lose fitting men’s clothing and skeletal bodies, they appeared genderless. Ginzberg described how, while watching another female work brigade: ‘As we continued to watch the files of workers passing by, an inclination of a joke left us. They were indeed sexless…this sight appalled us and took away the last remnants of or courage’.[11] Serving time in the Gulag proved to be a dehumanising experience for many women, many of whom felt they were forcibly stripped of their femininity.


Camp Relationships, Pregnancy and Motherhood


Life in the camps, Anatoly Zhigulin argues, was not all bad: ‘Sometimes people ask me whether there were ever any good times in the camps…of course there were…there were good, even joyful moments that had nothing to do with material comforts’.[12] This comfort could come in the form of a friend or a lover. Sadly, many women were physically abused by male inmates and camp guards, with horrific accounts of rape and abuse a frequent issue in Gulag memoirs. Some women therefore took ‘camp husbands’ to offer them protection, while others deliberately sought out sexual encounters with guards in order to receive physical protection, higher rations and time off work. Elinor Lipper described how ‘women who once dreamed of hearing the phrase “I love you” know found the words “butter, sugar and white bread” a proper substitute’, while another former Gulag inmate explained ‘(‘[I] don’t think that this is the place for love and commitment…I wasn’t in love with Victor. I stayed with him because it isn’t safe for a women to be alone’.[13] However, genuine relationships also formed within the Gulag: In Minlag camp, male and female prisoners sent notes to each other via their friends in the camp hospital. In other camps coded letters were thrown over the fence dividing the two sexes. Some lovers were even ‘married’ across the barbed wire.[14] These relationships could give a prisoner hope in what often seemed to be a hopeless situation.


Pregnancy was therefore a relatively common occurrence in the camps and stories of children and motherhood are a common theme within female memoir literature. Shapalov argues that for many, children symbolised ‘normal’ life and made prisoners feel as though they were on an equal footing with ‘free’ women, something which could have helped some women to regain a sense of femininity and purpose in a hostile environment, [15] while Hava Volovitch spoke of how: ‘our need for love was so desperate that it reached the point of insanity, of banging one’s head against the wall, of suicide. And we wanted a child – the dearest and closest of all people, someone for whom we could give our own life’.[16]


Potentially, there were practical benefits to pregnancy too. A decree of January 10, 1939, stated that female zeks were allowed thirty-five days off work before the birth of their child and twenty-eight after their child was born.[17] Pregnancy could save a woman from beatings and even from execution. Rumours circulated that pregnancy could ensure an early release, as amnesties for pregnant women were implemented at various points. However, pregnancy was seen as a camp offence and many inmates were forced to have abortions, even though the practice was made illegal in the Soviet Union in 1936.[18] Camp officials often took the decision to forcibly terminate a women’s pregnancy so that she could continue to work, in the interests of reaching production targets. There were also some women who attempted to end unwanted pregnancies themselves: Anna Andreevna talks of how she witnessed one woman stabbing herself with needles until she began bleeding heavily, signifying the end of her pregnancy. Even those terminations performed by camp doctors were often unskilled and dangerous.[19] Therefore, pregnancy could be a scary time for expectant mothers.


The survival rate of babies born in the Gulag was extremely low and children were often born in terrible, unhygienic conditions.  Hava Volovich retcalled her experience of giving birth to a daughter in the Gulag:


‘She was born in a remote camp barracks, not in the medical block. There were three mothers there, and we were given a tiny room to ourselves…bedbugs poured from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the child. During the day we had to go to work and leave the infants with any old woman…these women would calmly help themselves to the food we left for the children’.[20]


Children were not allowed to stay with their mother for long: after the birth they were quickly transferred to a camp nursery and the mothers were sent to a camp for mamki (nursing mothers). Despite ‘official’ camp regulations Mamki were often forced to return to work almost immediately after giving birth, and were only allowed to breast feed their babies at specific times. Mothers were only permitted to visit their children regularly if they were breast-feeding so sometimes camp commanders would claim that a mother had stopped lactating in order to get them back to work earlier. If a woman missed their feeding ‘appointment’, their child would generally go hungry.


The high infant mortality rate in the camps is therefore understandable. Giuli Fedorovna Tsivirko recalls her experience of being a mother in the Gulag: ‘my son died after eight months. He died. He was born weighing one and a half kilograms, blue. He looked at me with the eyes of a grown person. I felt that he was doomed’ And Hava Volovich watched her child slowly turn into ‘a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips’.[21]


If a child did survive, they would be removed from the camps within two years. This operation was usually carried out at night to take the mothers by surprise and to avoid emotional displays: ‘Then came the order to take the children away from their mothers and send them to a nursery away from Solovki. We were heartbroken! There were so many tears!’ recalls Anna Petrovna Zborovskaia.[22] On discovering that their children had been taken, many women would fling themselves against the barbed wire in an attempt to take their own lives. Once removed from the camp, the address of a child’s whereabouts was usually omitted from the mother’s records making it almost impossible for a mother to trace her child even after she was released.


Not all women in the Gulag camps embraced motherhood: Solzhenitsyn has claimed that some women used pregnancy to ensure early liberation from the Gulag and once freed, they would leave their children on the nearest porch or train station bench, as they no longer had any need for them.[23] However in their memoirs, many female zeks appear to have viewed their children as a humanising force in a dehumanising situation and a way of reclaiming their identity. The birth of a child could will a woman to survive for the child’s sake. However, these children were unlikely to survive, and if they did, ultimately they would be forcibly taken from their mothers. So pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood within the camps could also be an extremely traumatic experience that had the potential to leave both physical and psychological scars.


About the Author:


Katryna Coak has just completed her BA in History at Swansea University. During her final year of study, Katryna specialised in the study of communist Eastern Europe and also researched and wrote her History dissertation about the experiences of Women in the Stalinist-era Gulag camps. Katryna will commence postgraduate study at the University of East Anglia in September 2012.


[1] Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, Melanie, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, (Palgrave: 2001); Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 287

[2] Anne Applebaum, Ibid, 287

[3] Anna Cieślikowska, ‘Fragments,’ reproduced in Jehanne Gheith and Katherine Jolluck, Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile, Palgrave Macmilian: 2011).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Solomon, Magadan, (Vertex Books: 1971)

[6] Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, ‘My Journey,’ reproduced in Simeon Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, (Virago Press: 1999)

[7] Elinor Lipper, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps (London: Photolith-Merchana, 1950) 206

[8] Elinor Lipper, quoted in Robert Conquest, Kolyma: The Artic Death Camps, 177; Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (London: Penguin Books, 2003) 284.

[9] Dmitrievna Medvedskaia, ‘Life is Everywhere,’ reproduced in Veronica Shapovalov, ed., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001) 232

[10] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 235-236

[11] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind, 300

[12] Anatoly Zhigulin, ‘On Work,’ reproduced in Anne Applebaum, Gulag Voices: An Anthology, (Yale University Press, 2011)

[13] Elinor Lipper, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps (London: Photolith-Merchana, 1950) 119; Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin’s Gulag (London: Simon and Schuster, 1998) 296 and 298

[14] Anne Applebaum, Gulag, 291; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 248; Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, 141

[15] Veronica Shapovalov,  Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001)

[16] Hava Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Vilensky, Simeon, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag (Indiana: Virago Press, 1999) 260

[17] Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, (Palgrave: 2001)

[18] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, (Penguin Books: 2003)

[19] Ibid, 294

[20] Hava Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Simeon Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag (Virago Press: 1999)

[21] Interview with Giuli Fedorovna Tsivirko, ‘Surrounded by Death,’ May 1988, reproduced in Gheith, and Jolluck, Gulag Voices, 95; Volovich, ‘My Past,’ reproduced in Vilensky, Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag.

[22] Anna Petrovna Zborovskaia, 291; Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, 144

[23] Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, (Harper Collins: 1973)


June 19, 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

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

The Death of Stalin’s Daughter


“Wherever I go, I always will be a political prisoner of my father’s name.” – Stalin’s daughter, speaking during an interview with Wisconsin State Journal, in 2010.




Last week, news broke of the death of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, aged 85. Born Svetlana Stalina in 1926, Stalin’s only daughter by his second wife Nadezhda (who committed suicide in 1932), Svetlana adopted her mother’s surname after her father’s death in 1953, and would later claim that Stalin’s ‘loneliness’ after her mother’s suicide may have contributed to the ruthless barbarity displayed during his rule.


Stalin’s troubled relationship with his two sons has been well documented: his oldest son, Yakov, committed suicide while interned in a German concentration camp during the Second World War (after Stalin had refused to secure his release, in exchange for that of a prominent German General), while his younger son Vasili was a notorious alcoholic who died in 1962. However, Stalin appeared to dote on his only daughter, giving her the nickname ‘Little Sparrow’ .  Svetlana’s early childhood was privileged and indulgent; she was feted as the ‘little princess of the Kremlin’, a ‘Soviet Shirley Temple’.


Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's 'Little Sparrow', pictured in her father's arms during a holiday at their country dacha.


However, as she grew older and more independent, Svetlana too suffered at her father’s hands, later claiming in interviews that Stalin had ‘broken her life’.  He had insisted that she study History rather than her preferred choice of Literature at Moscow University (Stalin contemptuously dismissed literature as ‘too bohemian’).  He didn’t approve of her first love Aleksi Kapler, a much older Jewish filmmaker either, so Kapler was swiftly dispatched for a ten year stretch in a Siberian Gulag camp, where he died. In his later years, Stalin became distant and his behaviour towards Svetlana was described as increasingly violent and unpredictable.



In 1967, during a trip to India, the world was stunned when Svetlana gave her KGB minders the slip and walked into the US Embassy to seek political asylum. Svetlana claimed she had defected due to the ‘denial of self-expression’ inflicted upon her in the USSR, publically burning her passport, condemning communism and denouncing Stalin as a ‘moral and spiritual monster’. However, she may also have been motivated by more personal concerns: after all she had lost many of her former privileges after Stalin’s death as the implementation of Destalinisation in the USSR meant the label ‘Stalin’s daughter’ became something of a curse rather than a blessing, and she had been further alienated by the Soviet authorities’ harsh treatment of her lover, Indian communist Brajesh Singh (who she was forbidden to marry) who had died in 1966.


Regardless of her true motivations, Svetlana’s defection was highly embarrassing for the Soviet communist party – there are suggestions that the KGB even considered the possibility of orchestrating a revenge assassination, while Svetlana herself later claimed that ‘my father would have shot me, for what I have done’ – and constituted a huge Cold War propaganda coup for the USA. After gaining US citizenship and remarrying in 1970, Svetlana adopted the name Lana Peters. She went on to write two memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967) and Only One Year (1969) – both became best sellers, making millions of dollars – and gave numeorus media interviews about her experiences.




Svetlana declared that her new life in the USA was ‘free, gay and full of bright colours’, but she frequently complained of loneliness and exclusion. This was exacerbated by the fact that she never settled in one place for very long and found it difficult to maintain lasting relationships. In 1984 she briefly returned to the USSR in a blaze of publicity, ultimately settling in Tblisi, Stalin’s Georgian hometown, but she  returned to the USA in 1986. Svetlana settled in the UK for a while in the 1990s before returning to America, where she spent her final years. In later interviews, she claimed that she always felt ‘caught somewhere in between’ the USA and Russia, and that her life had been hampered because she had always been forced to live in her father’s shadow: ‘I don’t any longer have the pleasant illusion that I can be free of the label ‘Stalin’s daughter’’, she claimed in an interview conducted in 1990, and ‘you can’t regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter’. In other interviews, she defended Stalin  – remembering how his face had shone with fatherly pride the first time she learned to drive a car, claiming she had loved and respected him, and that ‘many other Soviet officials’ also shared responsibility for the attrocities that had happened during his rule.


One of the last known photographs of Lana Peters, Stalin's daughter, taken in Wisconsin last year.


During the final years of her life, Svetlana settled in Wisconsin, where she largely faded from the public eye, until her death last week spurred a final flurry of media attention. For more insights into her life, see this fascinating obituary, published in the New York Times, while over at the London Review of Books, Inigo Thomas remembers her own meeting with Svetlana during her brief residence in London in 1992 in  ‘Tea with Stalin’s Daughter’. Finally, over at the Financial Times, Simon Seabag-Motefiore’s article ‘Enduring Lessons of Stalin’s little sparrow’  provides a compelling account of Svetlana’s childhood, while also drawing wider parallels between her troubled life and the children of other notorious dictators: to be the daughter of a titan may be a burden, he concludes, but to be the son, a curse.



December 3, 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