Seeing Double – The Enver Hoxha Hoax: Two Faces In The Mirror

The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia “as an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” It is hard to argue with the OED, which acts as the ultimate reference work on the English language. Nevertheless, I feel one corrective is necessary. Rather than “an imagined state or society”, what about a real one. A prime example immediately comes to mind: Albania from 1944 – 1985. These dates delineate the reign of Enver Hoxha, a man who crafted a state that was the very definition of dystopia. There were collective farms so unproductive that they led to malnutrition and near famine. Widespread shortages of almost everything except for concrete bunkers. The range of communal activities included mass purges and labor camps. Scores of crumbling apartment blocs, a nightmarish reminder of an existence characterized by bleakness and blight. Hoxha’s Albania was an ideological apocalypse on a national scale.

Albania’s dystopian society also produced its fair share of mad tales. How could it not? The system inverted human nature and created a logic all its own, infecting everyone and everything with Hoxha’s own peculiar brand of sinister paranoia. Suspicion was the driving force behind the government’s actions and Hoxha was the driving force behind the government. His actions were spectacularly malevolent. Hoxha went through Ministers of the Interior the way King Zog went through cartons of cigarettes. Hoxha, once an instructor of morals at a Tirana Gymnasium, shuttered churches and persecuted priests with a demonic virulence that would have made Stalin proud. It was Hoxha, or perhaps it was his double, who smiled and waved at the Albanian people he treated with complete contempt.  It was also Hoxha’s double, or the lack thereof, which became the most spectacular story to leak out of the country following communism’s collapse.

Double Vision - Enver Hoxha

Double Vision – Enver Hoxha (Credit: Adam Jones)

Extreme Makeover – A Twin Killing
While doing research on Enver Hoxha a few weeks ago, I was perusing entries found under his name in the index of Robert Carver’s insightful travelogue, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania. Thumbing through the pages, I soon came across a story so startling that I read and reread it multiple times. According to the book Hoxha had a double (sosi in Albanian), a man who impersonated him in public to ensure the chronically paranoid dictator’s safety. His job included more than just handing out awards, attending parades and celebratory events. The double had also been forced to give up any pretense of his former life. His wife and daughter were no longer allowed to see him. He underwent cosmetic surgery that transformed his face into a mirror image of Hoxha’s. He was given intensive training so he could speak and act like Hoxha. He was force fed a daily diet of the same food, in the exact same quantities that Hoxha ate. Those who had helped transform the double into a mirror image of Hoxha were sworn to eternal secrecy by being placed in a bus and driven off a cliff into the Adriatic Sea.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of this tale was the double’s life after the real Hoxha died in 1985. His first instinct was to go searching for his wife and two daughters. The double’s family had been the one hope left in his life during decades of forced servitude. Tragically, he was told by his handlers not to bother since they had been murdered a week after he was forced into servitude as Hoxha’s double. As if his life could not get any worse, it soon did.  Wherever the former double went, he was either feared or despised. He was nearly hounded to death by irate Albanians, being either attacked by those who loathed Hoxha or shunned by those who ran away frightened. It seems the only place he could find respite was in a labor camp surrounded by prisoners who had never seen Hoxha’s likeness. Eventually he attempted to flee Albania by entering the West German embassy, but other Albanian refugees attacked him with barely disguised hatred. Left to his own dismal devices, the double mutilated himself to alter his looks once again. With his raison d’etre long since stripped from him by fate and misfortune the double returned to the labor camp where he lived out his life.

Biografi: a traveller's tale - Lloyd Jones

Biografi: a traveller’s tale – Lloyd Jones

Too Bad To Be True – A Traveler’s Tale
The story was so intriguing that I forgot it might be too bad to be true. I began to research other sources that would support the tale of Hoxha’s double. Instead, I was soon doing a double take. The story turned out to be an infamous fit of fiction courtesy of New Zealand novelist/travel writer Lloyd Jones. I should have known better since Hoxha and hoax go together quite well. The fabulous Mr. Jones had concocted a story from a kernel of truth that fit the ambitions he had for “Biografi: a traveller’s tale”. While traveling around Albania for work on the book, Jones had heard about Hoxha’s double. He supposedly spent a great deal of time hunting him down. He finally found the double, a former dentist by the name of Peter Shapallo, then interviewed him at length. This resulted in the core story of Biografi, which was picked up by publishers in several major markets. Only when reviewers and publishers began to question the veracity of his tale, did Jones come clean. Well sort of. He stated that the book was a combination of fiction and fact. He left the reader to decide which was which. This did little to derail Jones’ career and may have given it an added boost. As for Shapallo, he most likely never existed.

Picture perfect - Enver Hoxha

Picture perfect – Enver Hoxha

Did Enver Hoxha have a double? Almost certainly and probably more than one. A man as paranoid and suspicious as Hoxha would be especially attuned to his personal safety. Whether or not Peter Shapallo ever existed seems beside the point. The fact that such a story could come out of Albania and be taken as the truth is a telling sign. The dystopian world of Enver Hoxha’s Albania was one where the real and imagined interbred. The incestuous relationship between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction made one indistinguishable from the other. The fictional Peter Shappalo was the product of this relationship, so was the real Enver Hoxha.

Suspicious Minds – Enver Hoxha & Albania: A Cult of Capriciousness

To put it simply, the Balkans has a bad reputation. Much of this is due to the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. To outsiders, it is a region of ferocious blood feuds, historical grievances and xenophobic politicians ready to surface at any time. Those of us who have spent time in the Balkans find that it is a pleasant place to travel. The scenery is spectacular, the food magnificent, the people generally warm hearted and the history incredible. It is a shame that the Balkans has been tarred with the bad reputation brush, but it is easy to see why. The years following the Cold War were filled with ethnic cleansing, brutish warfare and a series of authoritarian leaders who whipped their countrymen into violent feeding frenzies.

Amid the crazed discourse and horrific warfare, it was easy to forget about another Balkan nation that had just finished experiencing its own dreadful dictatorship, Albania. In the early 1990’s, what had once been Europe’s hermit kingdom awoke from a long nightmare to find itself a half century behind the modern world. The bizarre stories that began to leak out of the country were obscured by the fractious fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Albania was such an anomaly that it was almost forgotten. This was just the way its long time Stalinism on steroids leader, Enver Hoxha, would have wanted it. Hoxha’s name hardly rings a death knell when it comes to communist leaders. He might as well be a ghost, but the lost decades under his rule still haunt hundreds of thousands of Albanians who suffered one of the most bizarre and vile dictatorships in the annals of modern Europe.

A Fistful of Malevolence - Enver Hoxha

A Fistful of Malevolence – Enver Hoxha (Credit: Forrasjeloles Hasonlo)

The Hermit Nation – Taking A Hard Line
To understand the bizarre nature of what Albania suffered during Enver Hoxha’s long and terrible reign a single word will suffice, beards or to be more precise, the lack of them. The Hoxha regime’s most enduring trait was paranoia on a scale that would even put Stalin’s obsessive suspiciousness to shame. Outside (i.e. western influences) were strictly prohibited. In 1967 the banning of beards was enshrined in the Albanian constitution. This meant that all men had to be clean shaven or else. The consequences for those who failed to obey were dire. Often the police would shave the offender than subject them to severe beatings, time in prison or even worse. To have a beard was tantamount to a capital offense. It meant you were non-conformist or religious (Muslim or Orthodox Christian, it did not matter). The puppet master in chief Hoxha and his ever-evolving retinue of marionettes would not tolerate either. The idea that facial hair was subversive could only have been the work of someone as paranoid as Hoxha.

Hoxha’s paranoia extended well beyond Albania’s borders. When the Khrushchev government proceeded to call out Stalin’s excesses and normalize Soviet relations with the free world, Hoxha ended the alliance that had first sustained his power. He did the same with China after Mao decided to restore relations with the United States.  A hard line could not be hard enough for Hoxha. By the late 1970’s, Albania was by far the most insular state in Europe and one of the most isolated in the world. It was North Korea in the Balkans. Albania became as mysterious as Hoxha. The latter’s rise to power near the end of World War II still baffles historians. It is not the only thing. Documenting the life of Hoxha has been a difficult task. It took thirty years after Hoxha’s death for the first English language biography of him to appear in print. Unfortunately, the book was more an endless litany of Hoxha’s crimes rather than an incisive portrait of the man.

The Good Old Days - Enver Hoxha's as a partisan in 1944

The Good Old Days – Enver Hoxha as a partisan in 1944

Equality of Tyranny – Arrested Development
Historians are still mystified as to many of the basic facts surrounding Hoxha’s life, including why he was chosen to lead Albania’s communist movement.  Adding to this knowledge gap is the fact that anyone who helped Hoxha acquire power was later purged. Outside of his immediate family, Hoxha spared no one. This was a man who had his own brother-in-law put to death. Constant surveillance, mass arrests, party purges, labor camps and summary executions were the means by which Hoxha exercised power for 41 years. The repetitive nature of Hoxha’s terror regime meant that everyone was considered suspicious and no one was above arrest. Hoxha’s own paranoia was inculcated to an entire nation. Understanding the source of Hoxha’s paranoia remains elusive, but its horrific effect on Albanians was all too real.

The cliché, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, pertained to life in Albania for both outsiders and insiders. The average Albanian lived in austere conditions at best and abject poverty at worst. By the end of Hoxha’s life in 1985, Albania was one of the world’s poorest countries with famine prevalent in the countryside. Meanwhile, those in power were privileged in only the most superficial sense of the word. They lived in a special area of the capital Tirana, known as the Block. This heavily guarded zone was replete with all the fashionable goods from the West denied to the rest of Albania’s population.
On the other hand, living in the Block made one a prime target for the next purge which was always forthcoming. Family, friends and confidantes fell from favor, often ending up in a labor camp or worse.

The Last Bunker - Enver Hoxha's Grave in Tirana

The Last Bunker – Enver Hoxha’s Grave in Tirana (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

A Land Ruled By Paranoia– Bunker Mentality
The capricious nature of Hoxha’s ruling style only made matters worse. He could strike at any moment, Adherence and adulation were never enough to avoid falling out with Hoxha. A cult of personality was cultivated by his henchman, but like many a dictator this did little to ameliorate the effects of Hoxha’s deep rooted insecurities which manifested themselves in state sponsored terror. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, both near and far. The ultimate expression of his fear were the concrete bunkers he ordered built all over the country to defend against an invasion which was imminent only in his own mind. They also happened to be his greatest legacy. These were the harbingers of a doom and gloom mentality. The bunkers were supposed to keep Albania safe from external invaders, but who was going to keep Albanians safe from Hoxha.

Concrete Constructions – “Bunkerization” in Albania: Monuments To Megalomania

It is said that every country gets the leader it deserves. That is not quite true, because no country in the world deserved the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s forty-one year reign of staggering mismanagement and political malevolence in Albania was downright appalling. The regime he led was most notable for a backwardness not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The Hoxha regime provided a new definition to the phrase “regression to the mean.” The Albanian government was dishonest and depraved. The people were to be controlled rather than ruled, everything was done to keep power in the hands of one man, Enver Hoxha. For that, Albanians suffered grave injustices

Relief only came with Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the collapse of Albania’s communist government in 1990.  The nation finally had a chance to move on or at the very least to move forward. Unfortunately for Albania, a large proportion of its population, some 800,000 fled the country in the years since communism’s collapse. As for those Albanians left behind, there is always something left to remind them of the dreadful Hoxha years. Specifically, Albania is covered in concrete bunkers. These unsightly edifices pockmark the country’s otherwise beautiful landscape. To say that they are a constant reminder of the Hoxha regime is an understatement.

Bunker mentality - Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania

Bunker mentality – Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania (Credit: Jeroenverp)

Hunkering Down – War On Every Front
Some dictators secure their legacy by building monuments to themselves, Enver Hoxha built bunkers. At the midpoint of his long and terrifying tenure Hoxha became infatuated with bunker building. He ordered concrete bunkers constructed across every square kilometer of Albania. It was an infrastructure project of depressingly epic proportions informed by a dangerous combination of megalomania and stupidity. Meanwhile, Hoxha and his henchmen did not bother with building decent roads, because their construction efforts were consumed, quite literally, by a bunker mentality. The upshot was a profligate symbol of paranoia in almost every place imaginable. There are more concrete bunkers in Albania than the population of all but two of its cities.  From remote mountain passes to beaches, city streets to cemeteries, concrete bunkers grew like mushrooms. The policy that led to their construction was dubbed “bunkerization.” The kind of idea that a paranoid megalomaniac might find appealing.

The reasoning behind the bunkers was both ridiculous and predictable. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, not only on the streets of Albania, but also casting covetous eyes on the nation’s territory. The Greeks were supposedly eyeing territory in the south. The Italians wanted to pounce on Albania’s Adriatic coastline. In the north stood Marshal Tito, a man who Albanians were told wanted to make their country another Yugoslav province. Hoxha’s vision of Albania’s future was the opposite of peace and prosperity. His dream would be most leader’s nightmare. It consisted of a multi-front war which would be led by NATO or Warsaw Pact forces looking to destroy Albanian independence. Thus, he needed to ensure his people’s preparedness at all costs. This was the reasoning behind the policy of bunkerization. Never mind that the policy made no sense.

The countries Hoxha claimed were potential invaders of Albania could never have afforded to occupy and rebuild a nation that by the standards of modern civilization was in a complete state of ruin. Members of Albania’s military and political apparatus who knew better did not dare voice their disapproval of Hoxha’s permanent state of war policy. Dissent was a virtual death sentence. Hoxha’s minions feared for their lives and marched in lockstep behind him as he led Albania into oblivion. It was an entirely emasculated nation. Hoxha’s diabolical leadership style was marked by regression rather than progression. Concrete bunkers were just the most recognizable symptom of a terrible illness that Albania contracted from Hoxha’s hard line brand of communism.

Getting defensive - Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery

Getting defensive – Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Destructive Constructions – In Favor of The Imaginary
Building the bunkers was part of a decades long process to militarize the populace. Civil defense was taken with the utmost seriousness. Twice a month Albanians were required to take part in drills that often lasted for several days. They were even issued guns. Of course, the authorities kept the ammunition out of their hands. In Hoxha’s mind, Albania had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice and they were. Living under Hoxha’s regime required a wartime mentality, the only problem was that the real enemy was within. Albania’s government inflicted grievous wounds upon the citizenry. For instance, the spending on concrete bunkers came at the expense of nearly everything else in the economy.

Despite incessant professions of militarism during Hoxha’s campaign to keep Albania on a permanent wartime footing, the armed forces were badly equipped, poorly clothed and lacked modern weaponry. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure fell further and further into disrepair. Every pound of concrete that went into the bunkers was a pound less that could be used to improve horrifically potholed roads. The concrete was also needed for building apartment blocks to alleviate a housing shortage. One bunker used enough material to build a two-room apartment. Unfortunately, the people had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, ordinary citizens were commandeered to keep the bunkers clean. Reality was ignored in favor of the imaginary.

The bunkers became hot spots for sex or other illicit activities kept from the prying eyes of state control. In truth, this was probably the sanest use of these structures. Scarcely any of Hoxha’s henchman cared to analyze their military efficacy. One Defense Minister who did publicly question their utility was promptly executed. The most common type of bunker was the pre-fabricated, dome shaped QZ Qender Zjarri (“firing position”) which could house one or two men at most who would fire out of a slit. Anyone trying to defend one of these bunkers in a shooting war would have been a sitting duck. The QZ was one of several types of bunkers Hoxha had installed across the country to fend off the invasions which were only imminent in his mind.

Scene stealer - Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona

Scene stealer – Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Nowhere To Hide – Every Man Against Himself
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and most of his worst ideas went with him to the grave. Bunker construction was halted not long after his death. In a tragic bit of irony, the bunkers were finally used in a shooting war during the early 1990’s as Albanians fought one another in a civil war to decide who would rule the country after communism collapsed. What no one seemed to notice is that Albanians had been fighting each other during the entirety of Hoxha’s reign. For forty-one years there was nowhere for Albanians to hide, not even in the concrete bunkers which covered their country.


Inspiration By Attempted Assassination– Zog: The Man Who Would Be King 

There is a tendency to discount Albania’s King Zog as a rather ridiculous pseudo-monarch. His popular bio goes something like this: a foolish incompetent, bad at almost everything except for deadly feuds, miraculously avoiding assassination and corruption on a breathtaking scale. It does not help Zog’s reputation that his name is ludicrously memorable. One cannot help but think that no self-respecting king would ever allow themselves to be called Zog. He had a comic strip character kind of name, except that the joke was on whoever crossed him. Zog was lethal when it came to his enemies.

As for his real name, Ahmet Mehtar Zogolli, it was much more difficult to pronounce or remember. The name smacks of something straight out of the Orient, with the usual connotations of despotic behavior and lurid intrigues. Not since Pepin the Short has a monarch been so degraded by his name. It does not help his reputation that Zog led Albania, a nation that was perhaps the most backward in Europe at the time, into oblivion. He fled in the face of Italian invasion, never to return. Zog lived out his life abroad on the proceeds of his thievery.

Bulletproof - Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania

Bulletproof – Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania (Credit: Attila Terbocs)

A Game Of Survival – Forms of Chicanery
With the gift of hindsight, Zog’s misrule in Albania seems rather harmless in comparison to the hardline Stalinism that would come to later dominate the country. In other words, Zog’s rule was bad, but it could have been much worse. His time in power moved Albania towards achieving a national identity, with a central government and modest improvements in communications and transportation. That may not sound like much, then again considering the state of Albania at the time – rampant poverty, mass illiteracy, epidemic levels of malaria and tribal violence – Zog was something of a minor success. He was a formidable politician, despite or more likely because of his inherent flaws. Zog’s greatest success was reserved for himself, as was the Albanian treasury. He had an ability to cheat death. Most famously by surviving more assassination attempts (55), than any head of state in modern history. Zog may have survived, but leading Albania during the 1920’s and 1930’s also meant taking a few bullets. Most famously on some stairs inside the Albanian parliament in Tirana on February 23, 1924.

To say that Albania during the 1920’s was a nation in flux would be a massive understatement. Its existence was hardly assured. Albania had only been a nation-state since 1912. In the aftermath of the First World War it looked as though it would become subsumed in a greater Italy or a greater Greece or a greater Yugoslavia. Instead it was left as it was, a struggling nation surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal discord. Its politics were riven by tribalism, blood feuds and endemic corruption. In other words, Albania, was a terrible mess. Trying to bring order to this chaos would take a leader the likes of which had not been seen in the land for centuries. That leader was nowhere to be found. The man who rose to the top was Zog. He did this through every form of chicanery known in the annals of bad government. Threats, assassinations, torture, payoffs, Zog would go to any lengths in building a base of power. His enemies largely played by these same rules. The difference being that Zog was much better at it.

Take a bow - King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Take a bow – King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Crisis Management – A Moving Target
By 1923, the Albanian government was in crisis. This was nothing new, since the government during this period was always in crisis. A vote was to take place that would hopefully lead to a decisive majority that would enact constitutional reform. Zog, who was Prime Minister at the time, hoped to expand his power through this process, but first he and his allies had to win the election. The opposition’s fear was that if Zog won, he would make himself a virtual dictator. The outcome was fraught with uncertainty, as the Zogist’s came within a whisker of winning a majority. Zog took to dispensing favors in the hopes of gaining enough allies to form a new government. The vote for one would take place in late February. This was a great opportunity for Zog, as well as for the opposition which felt it was their last chance to stop him.

Assassination was politics by other means, specifically violent ones. Zog certainly knew this since he was a target for assassins throughout his political career, including on the mid-afternoon of February 23rd.  Zog was making his way up the stairs to parliament where he was to rally support in the vote for a new government. While making a turn in the stairwell, an opposition supporter fired shots at him. Two bullets struck Zog. He was hit in the wrist, abdomen and thigh. This did not detain him from making his way to Parliament. A shocked crowd of deputies watched a reeling Zog make his way to a seat. Rather than call for immediate medical care which he obviously needed, Zog instead prepared to make a few remarks. While this dramatic scene was taking place, more shots rang out. The assassin had managed to make his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired rounds from inside of it. He would eventually be forced to surrender. The greatest drama was back in parliament.

A chestful of medals rather than bullets - King Zog

A chestful of medals rather than bullets – King Zog

A Question Of Respect – Profile In Courage
The fact that the man who had just shot him was holding out did not keep Zog from saying a few words. Amazingly, considering the situation, these were delivered in his typically laconic fashion. “Gentlemen, this is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened in a parliament. I ask my friends to leave it alone and deal with it afterwards.” He then proceeded to stay seated for several minutes. When his personal physician arrived, Zog finally allowed himself to be treated. He then made his way out of parliament under his own power. It was a crazy display of courage that would become legend to his supporters.

Meanwhile, the opposition must have wondered how they would ever rid themselves of Zog. Fortunately for them, political missteps in the coming months by a recovering Zog would lead to him fleeing the country a year later. This was but a brief respite. Zog would be returned to power a year later by Yugoslav troops. He would rule Albania for the next fourteen years. Zog was a remarkably resilient man, both physically and politically. He may not have been a great leader, but he was not a ridiculous one either. Any man who can give remarks a few minutes after taking bullets deserves respect, both then and now.

An Empire State of Mind – The Albanian Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire

In the center of Tirana stands a monument to Albania’s greatest hero, Skanderbeg.
It is not surprising that Skanderbeg would be venerated in this small Balkan nation’s most sacred public space. He is universally revered as both a freedom fighter and symbol of resistance against the Ottoman Turkish onslaught during the 15th century. Following Skanderbeg’s death, the Turks occupied and administered Albania for over 500 years. Skanderbeg’s military and political skills were the only things keeping the Turks at bay. He was a unifier, bringing more Albanians under his leadership than anyone up to that time. This was as close as the notoriously fragmented Albanians would get to unification until the 20th century. Thus, the Skanderbeg Monument occupies the most prominent space (Skanderbeg Square) in the nation’s capital –- just as he occupies the most important place in Albanian hearts. There is also the fact that any man reduced to a single name in the Balkans (for example: Tito) is a historical figure of outsized importance. Skanderbeg was certainly that. His life, legacy and legend dwarfs that of all other Albanian historical figures.

An Albanian Original - Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana

An Albanian Original – Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana (Credit: Wolfgang Pehlemann)

Ottoman Albanians – Hard to Find Heroes
Skanderbeg is the essence of Albanian national heroism. This is in stark contrast with the most prominent national figures of modern Albania, King Zog and Enver Hoxha. They are viewed as either ridiculously corrupt or horrendously malevolent. Men who put their own self-interest over the national one. Ironically, their faults and foibles make Skanderbeg’s historical legacy shine that much brighter. Strangely enough, though Skanderbeg was a Christian fighting Muslim, Albania is now a majority Muslim nation venerating a Christian. Five centuries of Ottoman rule transformed Albania. Yet there were also many Albanians who transformed the Ottoman Empire. Consider that other than Skanderbeg, the most famous and powerful Albanians in history were the numerous Grand Viziers this small Balkan territory produced. The position of Grand Vizier in the Ottoman Empire was essentially a Prime Minister, conducting the most important imperial affairs.

By one calculation, there were 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers, 49 of these were of Albanian origin. This was second only to ethnic Turks in holding the empire’s second most powerful position. The position of Grand Vizier afforded a long list of Albanians the opportunity to exercise an unprecedented amount of influence over the empire. A Grand Vizier had power over all military and administrative appointments, as well as being the empire’s supreme judicial official. Grand Viziers could also command the army in battle. One Albanian family, the Koprulus, provided some of the most powerful Grand Viziers in Ottoman history, so much so that an entire era was named after them. The Koprulu era (1656-1683), saw several members of this powerful Albanian family reassert the empire’s dynamism through a series of reforms. These included anti-corruption measures. The empire was revived and expanded under their rule.

Survival of the Greatest - Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Survival of the Greatest – Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Grim Realities – The Grand Executions
Since Grand Viziers served at the Sultan’s pleasure, they could also be deposed at any time. This made their position precarious, if not downright dangerous. For instance, the aptly named Selim the Grim went through seven Grand Viziers during his eight years as Sultan. One of those was the Albanian, Dukakinoğlu Ahmed Pasha, who held the office for only two and a half months before Selim had him beheaded. While Grand Viziers executed affairs of state, they were also liable to end up the recipient of a very different execution. 44 Grand Viziers were executed and another 11 killed during rebellions. They were often sacrificed by the Sultan as scapegoats for campaigns or policies gone wrong. Albanian Grand Viziers were certainly not immune to this unkind fate. Take the example of Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, who on multiple occasions attempted to save himself by resigning. After falling from favor due to lurid court politics, Kara Mustafa was executed on the orders of Sultan Ibrahim “the mad”.

One of the most intriguing Albanian Grand Viziers was Mere Huseyin Pasha. He was given the name Mere, which means “take it” in Albanian because he used this word when ordering his henchmen to behead enemies. Reputedly, Mere was the only Grand Vizier who did not speak Turkish. He served in the role twice with the second time proving fatal. No one knows if Sultan Mustafa I gave the order for his Grand Vizier’s execution by saying “Mere.” Not every Albanian Grand Vizier met a deadly end, one even managed to live a long life while holding down the job multiple times. Koca Sinan Pasha managed to survive all five of his terms as Grand Vizier from 1580 – 1596. The fact that he died in peace with a large fortune speaks to his talents as a politician and administrator.

Grand Viziers were not the only high-level Ottoman officials to come from Albania. There were also approximately one hundred Grand Masters of the elite janissary guard. They also dominated much of the upper ranks of the bureaucracy and military right up until the Empire’s waning days. To give but a couple of examples, two of the five Ottoman generals at the Battle of Gallipoli were Albanian. Two Ottoman Prime Ministers during World War I were also of Albanian descent. Some historians also believe the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may have been an ethnic Albanian.

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers - Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers – Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ottomania – An Albanian State of Affairs
All these examples lead to one overarching question: Why were Albanians so prominent in the upper echelons of the Ottoman Empire? After all, Albania is not a very large place and its population base was smaller than many other areas of the Empire. One reason may be that Albanians were more willing to convert to Islam than other ethnic groups within the empire. This was a path to upward mobility that Albanians often followed. It was also a way to avoid extortionate levels of taxation that were imposed from the 17th century onward to religious minorities. Meanwhile, converts to Islam would not only pay lower taxes, but also receive land grants.

At a time when society and the economy were chiefly based around agriculture, free land was a major draw. Albanians took advantage of all these paths to gain an exalted place in imperial affairs. Yet five hundred years of Ottoman rule retarded economic and social growth in Albania as well as the development of a national consciousness. Paradoxically, since Albanians held many powerful positions within the Ottoman Empire they partly had themselves to blame. All the way to the end, they were as Ottoman as anyone in the empire.

An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

The First Frontier – Leitha River: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Divide

The sun began to fade as evening slowly settled upon the Burgenland.  We were traveling along the eastern extremity of Austria, the non-touristy part where the Alps are a distant dream that evaporated long ago into the western horizon. The chill of autumn was in the air. It was just me and my travel companion, a fellow history buff, who a half hour earlier had been inspecting the Roman ruins at Petronell-Carnuntum. Now we were speeding eastward along the A1 motorway in Austria, racing against the dying light so we could make it back beyond the Hungarian border to our accommodation before nightfall. The border between Austria and Hungary was still many minutes away, when I spotted a highway exit sign for Bruck an der Leitha. The end of that name sparked a reminder. One that made me recall another border, one both internal and historical that was marked by the River Leitha.

My travel companion on this trip was an extremely knowledgeable American who was well versed in European history. The problem was that European history in the American education system is code for the history of Western Europe. Russia was also thrown in for good measure due to its historical heft. The idea of studying Austria-Hungary was anathema except for academics and armchair historians. The extent to which the history of Austria-Hungary has been taught in American schools falls somewhere between very little and not at all. It sometimes makes a cameo in discussions on the outbreak of World War I when some self-important Archduke gets gunned down in Sarajevo. Other than that, Austria-Hungary is viewed as an antiquated and almost anonymous empire, an aristocratic anachronism not worth bothering about. All this may seem like an exaggeration, but it is not. In all seriousness, even the most educated American history buff knows next to nothing about Austria-Hungary.

A Fluid Frontier - The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit Wolfgang Glock)

A Fluid Frontier – The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit: Wolfgang Glock)

A Little River – A Big Empire
None of that stopped me from pointing out to my friend that we were about to pass over the River Leitha on the A1. I told him that this had been the main internal border between Austria and Hungary during the Dual Monarchy. My comment elicited a rather bland reply of “Yeah.” The indifferent and perplexed tone of his voice was understandable. Indifference, because the Leitha is not a large river or especially notable in anyway. We could see little of it from the highway. Perplexity, because my friend knew nothing of this tepid river in reference to an empire that no longer existed. The border between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was marked by this little river. The Austrian half was known as Cisleithania, while the Hungarian half was Transleithania. The River Leitha thus played an outsized role in the split personality of the empire.

The Leitha’s role in dividing an empire is now largely forgotten. Since the border had long since disappeared in a political sense, it meant nothing to him or the tens of thousands of travelers who pass over it each day. It was strange to think that something which had been rather important not only to Austria-Hungary, but also to the frontiers of those two countries for upwards of a thousand years was now little more than what it had originally been, a small river. And at times, not even that. Due to canals and agricultural projects it is sucked pretty much dry by the time it arrives downstream. I knew that there was so much more to the Leitha than a dry stream bed. Such as its defining role in the region’s history.

In a Dry Season - The Leitha River without water

In a Dry Season – The Leitha River without water (Credit: Peter Haas)

Centuries In The Making – The Situation Is Fluid
The current situation, where the Leitha River no longer demarcates part of the border between Austria and Hungary, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the past thousand years of history in the area. The Leitha does demarcate a border today, but it is part of an internal Austrian provincial one between Lower Austria and Burgenland. This is quite a climb down from its historical role as a border between the Austrian lands and the Hungarian ones. At times, the Leitha as a border was just as fluid as the river itself. It all started with the Hungarians’ arrival in east-central Europe during the 9th century. They kept conquering westwards into the lands which now consist of Austria and Bavaria. This encroachment into German lands was finally stopped in the mid-10th century at the Battle of Lechfeld. Not only was the Hungarian advance halted, but the Germans began to reconquer parts of what is present day Austria. This counter movement to the east stagnated along the eastern shores of the Leitha.

Little did anyone know at the time that a near perpetual border had been set in place. To get an idea of just how long ago this was, consider that Hungary was not yet a Christian Kingdom, instead it was a principality. To its east was the Margravate of Austria, the easternmost appendage of the Duchy of Bavaria. The idea of nation-states did not exist during the Middle Ages, but borders did, even if they were as fluid as a river or in this case were made up of a river. One can easily imagine that the Leitha was much more wild and impressive in those days. A great deal more difficult to cross, especially in the springtime when the river flooded. This made it a formidable barrier, a more natural rather than political one. The Leitha as a political border in a legal sense was still many centuries in the making.

A Defining Relationship – The Other Side Of The Border
Fortresses were constructed on the Austrian side of the Leitha during the 12th century, helping to stabilize and solidify the border. Measures to secure it, made it that much more recognizable. Legal recognition of the border came in the early 15th century when a deed issued by the Hungarian King Sigismund set its placement. Yet it was the Austrians not the Hungarians who grew much more powerful in the region over the ensuing centuries. This allowed them to to define the terms of their relationship with Hungary and by extension, the Leitha as a border.

Bosnia’s Beachhead – The Neum Corridor: A Not So Croatian Coastline

The morning I left Mostar the sea might as well have been a thousand kilometers away. The only water within view was the emerald flow of the Neretva River beneath the city’s famous 16th century Stari Most (Old Bridge). In Mostar, the Ottoman Empire seemed closer than any ocean. The landscape around the city was rocky and rugged. As the bus made its way out of the city and headed southward, the prospect of the Adriatic’s ebullient waters was still a long way off. The landscape of Herzegovina (the lesser known half of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was as harsh and unforgiving as the history that had set this land and its people on fire not so long ago. There were still visible signs of the Yugoslav Wars, such as the half-ruined house pockmarked with bullet holes that slumped sadly within sight of the highway. The structure was an unforgiving reminder that Bosnia and Herzegovina were still riddled with the residue of modern conflict. Soon though, Croatia was on the horizon in the form of a border crossing.

Running the Border - Highway to Neum

Running the Border – Highway to Neum (Credit: Anto Quahadi)

Stops for passport control at border crossings are still obligatory in the Balkans. While much of Europe has moved toward a world of porous borders, the Balkans are still a region where entry and exit is closely monitored. Only Slovenia has borders where one can whisk through at a hundred kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, this only applies to their borders with Austria and Italy. Meanwhile, Bosnians and Croats, Montenegrins and Macedonians. Serbs and Kosovars wait for permission in the form of a passport stamp to see them through to the other side. I received multiple reminders of the vagaries of borders and passport controls on the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik. This was where borders had not yet collapsed. On the contrary, they seemed to close in from what seemed like all sides. It was also where I first came across a geographical and geopolitical anomaly, the coast of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia By The Sea – Balkanized Borderland
When I think of Bosnia’s geography, rugged mountain landscapes, rocky canyons and crystalline rivers come to mind. One thing that doesn’t, the Adriatic Sea. In the Balkans, the Adriatic is a Croatian or Montenegrin or Albanian sea. There is an even a sliver of coastline abutting the Adriatic in Slovenia, but the idea of a huge blue body of water lapping up on a Bosnian shoreline seems unimaginable. And yet it exists today. I saw it for myself not long after the bus closed in on the Croatian coastline. Soon we were pulling up to another border crossing, something we had just done less than an hour before. I did not understand why we were having to do another passport check. This made little sense unless Croatia had some kind of internal border to deal with a security risk. Soon I discovered that we were leaving Croatia to enter Bosnia or more appropriately, Bosnia by the sea.

Balkanization - The Neum Corridor

Balkanization – The Neum Corridor (Credit: Tomobe03)

Studying a map of Bosnia closely, one notices that the country’s border begins to dip southwestward until it gets close to the coastline. Almost all of the border never quite dips down to the sea. The long, thin strip abutting the coastline is part of Croatia with the exception of a 20 kilometer section where Bosnia juts forth and touches the Adriatic. This area is known as the Neum Corridor. I figured that the corridor must have been the product of a stitch up following the Yugoslav Wars. Terms such as enclaves, exclaves, corridors and autonomous territories are still alive and well in the former Yugoslavia. Why should the Neum Corridor be any different? My assumption that the corridor was a modern concoction turned out to be completely wrong.

The genesis of the Neum Corridor goes all the way back to the late 17th century. The three entities responsible for it, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice and Ottoman Empire all no longer exist, but their geo-political maneuverings over three hundred years ago still demarcate one small stretch of shoreline. Back then the Ragusans sided with the Ottomans in their war against the Venetians. Much to the Ragusans displeasure, the Ottomans lost and ended up relinquishing a great deal of their territory in the Balkans. This placed the Ragusans under mortal threat from their great rival. To protect themselves, the Ragusans ceded strips of land both north and south of their republic to the Ottomans. The strip to the north is now called the Neum Corridor and was passed down through the centuries from Ottomans to Habsburgs to Yugoslavs. Today it falls within the boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, much to the chagrin of Croatia.

The Bosnian Coast - Town of Neum

The Bosnian Coast – Town of Neum

Border Control – Entry & Exit Strategies
The major issue with the corridor is that it acts as a barrier to commerce and tourist traffic traveling along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As I discovered, passing through the Neum corridor is not exactly easy. Travelers first exit Croatia, then enter and exit Bosnia before reentering Croatia all in the space of 20 kilometers. A stretch of highway that in normal circumstances would take no more than 15 minutes to traverse, can take hours to pass through during the peak tourist season. Prior to Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2013, passing through the border was a much more relaxed affair. On many occasions, border officials would wave vehicles through without checking passports. That has changed now that Croatia aspires to dismantle border controls with fellow EU members in order to join the Schengen Area of passport free travel. The EU demands stricter control of external borders and Croatia has willingly complied.

Fortunately, I passed through Neum in early October at a time when the busy season was over. Traffic was light and the border guards were indifferent. The entire crossing took only a few minutes. It was more a novelty than a nuisance, one that may not last much longer for those who want to avoid the corridor. The difficulties of travel along this strange Bosnian beachhead are due to be alleviated in the future. Croatia has received funding from the EU to build a bridge across the corridor to avoid this small stretch of Bosnia. The Bosnians are none too happy about the Croatians trying bridge the divide. They vehemently oppose its construction. Bosnia believes the bridge would hinder the development of port facilities at Neum. The situation will undoubtedly linger for years. Whatever the future may hold for this strange stretch of land, the Neum Corridor is sure to make its presence felt. History always manages to get in the way when it comes to Bosnia and the Balkans.

A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

The Bezdany Raid came to me as a gift, falling into my mind on a mid-winter’s day. Like the most fascinating aspects of history, it left me wanting to learn more. The raid was Eastern European history at its finest, shrouded in obscurity, a lesser known mystery. I knew the main man behind it, Jozef Pilsudski, that great Polish patriot and founder of modern Poland. What I did not know was how the raid at Bezdany brought Pilsudski and several others to prominence. It had also led to the development of a viable Polish military force. All this from the robbery of a single treasury train on the frontiers of the Vilna Governorate (present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). This information came to me, as so many things do, while I was reading about something entirely different. The path to Bezdany started with Ekaterine “Kato” Svanidze (Joseph Stalin’s first wife). Svanidze’s story led me to the famous 1907 Bolshevik Bank Robbery in Tiflis (present day Tbilisi, Georgia). Then the Tiflis robbery brought up the subject of other famous turn of the 20th century robberies in Eastern Europe. That was where I stumbled upon the Bezdany Raid.

The Power of Place - Bezdonys Train Station

The Power of Place – Bezdonys Train Station (Credit: Aleksandrs Timofejev)

Staying Power – Living On The Edge
My path to the Bezdany Raid was short and serpentine, simple and sublime. I had not planned on reading about anything other than Stalin’s first wife and her death from typhus. In the process, I found a reference to the Tiflis Bank Robbery which Stalin helped mastermind. This landmark historical event provided the Bolshevik movement with badly needed funding. The robbery was also illustrative of the extremes to which men like Stalin would go to in support of their ideological values. Little did I know that Pilsudski would do much the same thing. The difference is that Pilsudski and his fellow Poles’ actions are viewed as supporting a worthy cause, an independent Poland free from foreign occupation. Maybe that was why I found the raid so fascinating and decided to write about it. In my opinion, Pilsudski and the Poles were the good guys, lovable underdogs who risked their lives for an admirable ideal – the Polish nation – which is still with us today.

Speaking of today, the sleepy little village of Bezdonys, Lithuania (in Polish it is known as Bezdany thus the name of the raid) is still there awaiting rediscovery. While the village is within an easy of commute of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, the size and scale of the place looks to have changed little over the past century. It also has one attraction of interest to anyone intrigued by the life and legacy of Pilsudski, its railway station. The station’s exterior has changed since the early 20th century, but it is likely the same sub-structure and stands in the same place as its predecessor. The fact that a railway station still operates in Bezdonys is worth noting. If nothing else, it is a symbol of staying power. This despite massive geo-political upheavals that have seen Bezdonys change from Russian to Polish to Soviet to Lithuanian territory in little over a century. Lithuanians and Poles have a litany of historical grievances, but what happened with the Bezdany Raid is not one of them. Throwing off the Russian imperial yoke was in both their interests. As for the village today, it remains forgettable and obscure. That, along with its historical value, put it on my travel radar.

Pilsudski's & Poland's Past - Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Pilsudski’s & Poland’s Past – Bezdany Train Station in the early 20th century

Back To The Start – A Product of the Imagination
A bit of research showed me that I could visit Bezdonys to relive or reconstruct the robbery. Following the trail of this obscure and important history would be a trip to remember. Such an immediate undertaking was out of the question, but that did not stop me from imagining a trip to Bezdonys. My eventual goal would be to stand where Pilsudski and his accomplices made the heist that was integral to creating a free and independent Poland. It was worth a visit, if not in the flesh, at least within the realm of imagination. And let’s face it, every journey starts somewhere in the imagination. Making imagination into reality is as much a matter of belief as it is of having enough time or money for travel. Would I really spend several thousand dollars traveling to Lithuania to visit a railway station in a non-descript village halfway around the world just because something historically important happened in and around there? Absolutely.

The railway station that stands today in Bezdonys looks much the same as the one that preceded it a century ago, a one-story structure that stands adjacent to railroad tracks. The present station has a much more striking exterior than the earlier iteration. Most of it is painted a dark yellow, with brown trim around the bottom and topped by a bright red roof that has two chimneys protruding from it. The rustic looking station fits well with the area. This is a land of deep forests, serpentine watercourses and small lakes. The kind of terrain that lends itself to hiding out. It is also land that has not changed much since the early 20th century. The landscape is as important as the station in understanding how Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators were able to escape from the authorities.

Those looking to get an idea of what Pilsudski and his fellow conspirators experienced on the historic night of September 26th, should focus their energies on the surrounding area as much as the railway station. While the station is obviously important, it has also been revamped. Pilsudski spent less than an hour at the station, whereas he spent the rest of the night and early morning hours making his way through the forests back to safety. The woods offer people like me a path back to the past. I could see myself traveling to Bezdonys on a late autumn evening in the future. It would be best to visit at the same time of year as when the raid occurred, this way I could experience the woods and waterways just as Pilsudski did. Standing within sight of the train station, I could listen for the whistle of an approaching train then plunge into the woods. From there I would attempt to make my way back to the outskirts of Vilnius.

Train Spotting - Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

Train Spotting – Jozef Pilsudski and friends at a train station

A Mad Enterprise – The Trackless Trail
Of course, following the trackless trail of the Bezdany Raid is a mad enterprise.  By turns, insane and inane, the kind of passion pursued by a person who knows plenty about the past except what it really felt like. A passion that only a delusional and devoted history buff looking not only for accuracy, but also authenticity would care to undertake. The idea of traversing Lithuanian woods at night, wading through watercourses and stumbling through the backyards of people who could not begin to fathom my objective would be foolhardy in the extreme. Then again so was the Bezdany Raid and look at how that turned out.

Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

It is one thing to commit a crime, it is quite another to get away with it. With the gift of hindsight, most historians view the Bezdany Raid/Train Robbery by Jozef Pilsudski and his 19 fellow conspirators as a justifiable crime. There was no other way for the future father of modern Poland and his fellow Polish nationalists to find the funding necessary to support development of a military force that might one day free Poland. Historical perspective shows the raid as a great success, but nothing was assured at the time. As soon as Pilsudski and his men disappeared into the darkness of the countryside surrounding Bezdany (present day Bezdonys Lithuania), Russian authorities and Cossack soldiers were hunting for them. Escape was not inevitable for the Poles, while the consequences of getting caught would likely result in death. Pilsudski knew he and his co-conspirators faced long odds of survival, let alone ultimate success. Nonetheless, as they scattered into the night each hoped to live and fight another day. It is amazing how many did.

From beginning to end, the train robbery in Bezdany was supposed to last no longer than 45 minutes. The signal to take the money and literally run occurred when the next train – an hour behind the treasury train – due to arrive at the station came within earshot. When Pilsudski heard its whistle blowing, he called his men off. It was time to make for the exits, which in this case consisted of woods and wilderness, marshes, rivers and two tracks. The Poles melted away into the countryside. It was easy to get out of sight, not so easy to get out of mind. Soon there would be Cossack soldiers scouring the roads and paths in an all-out effort to capture the conspirators. Some took a boat to Riga in Latvia, others found their way through the darkness to safe havens, miraculously nearly all the men – save one – evaded capture that night.

Impenetrable - Forest on the edge of Bezdonys

Impenetrable – Forest on the edge of Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

A Harrowing Escape – The Flight To Safety
Robbing the train at Bezdany was much easier than getting the stolen money to a safe place. Some of the robbery’s proceeds were taken away on horseback, but the majority were carted away by Pilsudski and a veteran of his movement. They made their way slowly along the poor roads. The two wheeled cart buckled under the weight of over a thousand pounds of silver coins. The horse pulling the cart was moving incredibly slow. Pilsudski and his colleague were not far behind. Their ultimate destination was a cabin where Aleksandra and another woman awaited. The two men fought fear, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion the entire way. If Cossack horsemen located them, there would have been no escape. It would have been a virtual death sentence for Pilsudski. Fortunately, the Cossacks went in the wrong direction when setting off for the Poles. This mistake likely saved Pilsudski’s life. That did not make his ordeal any easier.

After several harrowing hours in the darkness well before dawn, they made it to safety. Seeing Aleksandra must have been a great relief for Pilsudski, but this also meant much more had to be done. Several holes were dug where the proceeds were hidden away. Then Aleksandra and Pilsudski took a train toward Kiev. They were lucky to get out of the Vilna Govenorate alive. The Russian authorities were casting a wide net in trying to capture Pilsudski, who was fast becoming one of the most wanted men in Russia. From there it was on to Krakow and the relatively liberal lands of the Austro-Hungarian ruled part of partitioned Poland. It would not be until winter that Aleksandra, but not Pilsudski, returned with several others to dig up the buried treasure outside of Vilno (present day Vilnius Lithuania). It was a long trip that proved emotionally and physically exhausting for Aleksandra. The ground was frozen solid, causing no end of difficulty with the excavation. Then the coins and currency were packed and hidden in luggage that miraculously was transported all the way back to Krakow. When all was said and done, the money proved to be enough to support the development of a Polish military force. Ironically, the money taken during the robbery may well have been worth less than the publicity.

Into the wild - Landscape around Bezdonys

Into the wild – Landscape around Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

Fame & Misfortune – Polish Patriots & Prisoners
Sensational news reports of the robbery went out across Russia and Europe. Many of these were grossly exaggerated, providing Pilsudski and the Polish cause free publicity. While the monetary total of the robbery according to Pilsudski’s own accounting was 200,000 rubles, newspapers inflated that figure by a factor of five. Pilsudski quickly achieved superhero status, both at home and abroad. He became the face of Polish nationalism and resistance, living proof of what could be achieved through grit and guile. Those in the Polish Socialist Party who had questioned his courage and credentials were silenced. From this time forward, Pilsudski became the main figure in the movement to overthrow Russian rule. The image of a Polish David standing up to the Russian Imperial Goliath fit a narrative that had many in Europe cheering for the underdog. None of this would have been possible without the Bezdany Raid.

What became of the other men involved in the train robbery? In the early morning hours after the raid, one man was caught. An intense interrogation followed his arrest, but he could not provide very many helpful details to the authorities. The plan had kept many of those involved nameless, compartmentalizing the damage and keeping the conspirators mostly anonymous to one another. Eventually 5 of the 20 people involved would be apprehended. They were sentenced to an icy exile in Siberia which would not end until after the Russian revolution. Three of the conspirators – Tomasz Arciszewki, Aleksander Prystor and Walery Slawek – went on to become Prime Ministers of Poland after the nation was reconstituted following World War One.

Complete Focus - Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Complete Focus – Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Springboard To Power – The Legacy Of Bezdany
As for Pilsudski, he was blessed over the coming years with more successes than setbacks. He lived to first see an independent Poland reconstituted and then ruled over it as a virtual dictator. The Bezdany Raid was the springboard that elevated Pilsudski to a position as the most powerful Pole in modern history. It is quite possible that no other figure in modern history ever benefited as much as Pilsudski did from armed robbery. His role in the Bezdany Raid created a legend and eventually a nation.

Click here for: A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)