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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


Conflicting Interpretations of Soviet-era War Monuments


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 06/07/2011 – Edit:

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

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

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


A Few Further Articles on this Topic:


Reuben Fowkes, Soviet War Memorials in Eastern Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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



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