Separation Anxiety – Berlin Beyond The Wall (Northern Poland & Berlin #15) 

Berlin has become a city of the future. It is the hub of hip Germany with a youthful vibe. Creative types from all socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities come to the city looking for inspiration and to reimagine the world in which we live. Berlin is also the capital of a reunified Germany which has spent the past thirty years cultivating peace and prosperity, in a largely successful effort to escape its deeply disturbing past. Like the rest of Germany, Berlin has become a forward-facing city. The dark shadows of history will always be there, but Berlin has proven that they do not have to define you. The future for Berlin and the rest of Germany holds challenges, but it is as bright as it has ever been.

For someone like me whose frame of reference for Berlin is the Cold War and the immediate aftermath, it is almost impossible to see Berlin as anything but as a product of the past. In Berlin history is ever-present and palpable, at least for my generation. A weird thing happened to Berlin on the oath to peace and prosperity, its history has now aged. The past no longer holds the city hostage. In Berlin, history can still be found on many a street corner, but that history is now more likely to be found in a textbook. The Berlin Wall is distant and remote. It can even seem antiquated as I found out during my recent visit to the city.

Moving along – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse

The Unthinkable – Distant History
When I first visited Berlin in 2008, I could hardly wait to catch my first glimpse of the Berlin Wall or what little was left of it. The Wall was iconic for my generation. I grew up during the 1980’s, a time when the Cold War was constantly in the news. And if the Cold War was in the news, then Berlin was not far from the headlines. The Cold War may have matured by the time I was a teenager, but tensions between the United States and Soviet Union still escalated to frightening levels. Many have forgotten just how fraught relations were between the two superpowers in the early 1980’s. The paranoia of Soviet leaders, in particular Yuri Andropov, coupled with the anti-communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan were a toxic combination which threatened to spiral into an armed confrontation. The U.S.- Soviet relationship was marked by mutual mistrust and assumptions about the other side’s behavior that could have led to a catastrophic miscalculation.

The tensions of that time are obscured by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his superpower summits with Reagan which went a long way towards de-escalation, arms control and eventually the collapse of communism. Thankfully, the Berlin Wall was a casualty of that historic event. Less fortunately for history enthusiasts, much of the Wall was obliterated. For those who lived through the final decade of the Cold War and its strangely peaceful conclusion, the Berlin Wall was a tangible link to that period and the city of Berlin’s role as the epicenter of that conflict. Berlin without the Wall was once unthinkable. That was true even after the Wall fell. While small portions of it were preserved and still stand today, those hardly did justice to the Wall’s influence upon the city. The Wall was Berlin for twenty-eight years and will always be that way for cold warriors.

Past Is Present – Where the Berlin Wall Once Stood

Dividing Lines – Points of Contention
Berlin could have always existed (and did) without the Wall, but the Cold War could not have existed without it. I can say with confidence that if those of my generation were asked to name the one thing that comes to mind when the Cold War is mentioned, most historically aware individuals would say the Berlin Wall. For younger generations it is difficult to imagine Berlin’s centrality to the Cold War and the Wall’s centrality to Berlin. There were airlifts, military standoffs and multiple diplomatic crises in Berlin from 1945 – 1961. The Wall’s construction was the culmination of these events. It became the static symbol of geopolitical separation anxiety. Television films, news shows, and documentaries all hammered home the point that Berlin could be the trip wire for World War III. The Wall kept two warring ideological views of the world at arm’s length from one another in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

Divided Berlin had been a point of contention since the end of World War II and would continue to be until 1989. The Berlin Wall was symbolic of a divide that stretched all the way across the world. Berlin was the epicenter of that division. Tensions radiated outward from there. For those living in Berlin the wall was a physical barrier separating the eastern and western parts of the city. To the world, the Berlin Wall was the dividing line between American and Soviet spheres of influence. For the average American, the Berlin Wall was a psychological barrier. East of it was a forbidden world of police states and oppression, west of it was the free world. In my teenage mind, everyone was forced to choose sides. It was an either/or proposition. Either you were for us or against us. 

Fading shadows – The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse

Passing Away – A Quaint Notion
Returning to Berlin, I could not help but be struck by how in my mind the Wall has transformed from a living entity to a piece of distant history. The physical and psychological barrier that once loomed larger than anything else in the world had now shrunk into the distant past. The Wall seemed like a quaint notion, one that had grown less relevant with the passage of time. I no longer felt an intense urge to go see it as soon as I arrived in the city. My travel companion, who unlike me had lived through the entire period of the Wall had no interest in visiting it. He said, “I heard about it every day for years.” That had been enough for him. It was a different matter for me. Despite my growing indifference I decided to go visit a section of the Wall. This visit would be less about what I might see and more about what I might feel, if anything.

Coming soon: Forgetting To Remember – Backs to The Wall In Berlin (Northern Poland & Berlin #16)

Loss of Control – Russia & Eastern Europe 2014 – 2022 (From Peace To War #4)

All dictators are control freaks. They have good reason to be. Dictator’s lives and livelihoods are contingent upon the amount of control they can exercise over their subjects. The most important level of control is exercised within their own national borders. Without this they are dead men (and they are almost always men). A dictator’s control often dissipates beyond their own borders. Only the most mendacious or powerful dictators can exercise control of other countries. For instance, Josef Stalin’s influence over Eastern European nations following the end of World War II. Stalin used the Red Army and control of each nation’s Interior Ministry to destroy political opposition and implement a communist system shaped in his image. It was a diabolical task, but Stalin and his henchmen were up to it. They solidified Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc to such an extent that it would last four and a half decades. That was until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Iron Curtain was sundered, and Eastern Europe finally freed itself from the yoke of totalitarianism and tyranny.

Westward movement – Pro-EU demonstration in Kyiv 2013 (Credit: Evgeny Feldman)

Regimes & Revolution – Euromaidan
The Soviet Union could not withstand the forces of history pulling it apart. The once massive empire fractured into fifteen different nations. At some point during his long reign as Russia’s neo-tsar, Vladimir Putin decided to try and reassemble the pieces. This took on various forms of political, economic, and armed coercion. During his first years in power, Putin had trouble doing this because his focus was on centralizing control of Russia. In 2008 he began to take active military measures to reassemble parts of the old Soviet Empire, but under a different guise. Putin began a historical mission to create a Greater Russia. One that led to the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the emasculation of Belarus to the point that it became a client state, and constant meddling in Ukraine’s affairs. The latter bore fruit for Putin when despite the 2008 Orange Revolution, Kremlin support helped get pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych elected as Ukraine’s President in 2010. A Putin puppet was now ensconced in Kyiv. While seen as a victory for the Kremlin at the time, this was really the beginning of the massive rupture in Ukraine’s relations with Russia that would eventually lead to the largest war in Europe since the end of World War II.

Viktor Yanukovych was everything the Kremlin wanted him to be. Corrupt, compliant, and thuggish. He was also weak with extremely poor political instincts. Ukrainians in many parts of the country loathed him as a Russian stooge. He misread the Ukrainian population’s mood which was to align with the rest of Europe rather than Russia. When Yanukovych waffled over signing an association agreement with the European Union, the situation exploded into protests across much of the country. This led to Euromaidan in 2014-15 where Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. He escaped into the arms of the Kremlin. They could not reinstall Yanukovych as president. Instead, Putin would be forced to deal with Yanukovych’s hapless successor, Petro Poroshenko. The latter was an oligarch, but at least he was an anti-Russian one. The problem was that like all oligarchs, Poroshenko’s self-interests came above those of the state.

Ready for change – Euromaidan protests in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv (Credit: Helgi)

Unsettled Affairs – War in the Donbas
Meanwhile, Putin decided to take advantage of Ukraine’s political upheaval by sending Russian troops without insignia to occupy Crimea. This was a bold stroke that helped Putin overcome two problems at the same time. The occupation and annexation of Crimea proved to be wildly popular in Russia. This sent Putin’s approval rating soaring to levels that other leaders could only imagine. It also led to more political turmoil in Ukraine. The Ukrainian state was too weak at the time to challenge the land grab. The international community was caught flat footed. This lack of action only led the Kremlin to go even further in their attempt to destabilize Ukraine. Military action by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region were supported by the Kremlin. Russian forces crossed into the Donbas where they helped prosecute a war on Ukrainian soil.

The Russians did not seek to win the war outright. Instead, their military forces were the vanguard of a policy to perpetually destabilize the Ukrainian government. Putin wanted to ensure a weak government in Ukraine with autonomy for the self-styled Russian puppet states of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Now Ukraine not only lacked territorial integrity, but it was also forced to fight a war on its own territory for eight years. Today, that War in the Donbas is viewed as a lower intensity version of the current conflict. One that is on the verge of stretching to the ten-year mark with no end in sight.

Revolutionary undertaking – Euromaidan clash between police and protestors in Kyiv
(Credit: Mstyslav Chernov)

Turn of Events – The Ultimate Proof
War in the Donbas from 2014-2022 settled absolutely nothing. The conflict suited the Kremlin’s interest. The same kinds of frozen conflicts without a lasting resolution had been fomented by the Kremlin in both Transnistria (Moldova east of the Dniester River) and South Ossetia inside Georgia’s territory. This was a divide, but not quite conquer strategy. The unsettled nature of these conflicts benefitted no one other than Russia. The affected nations were still beholden to Russia. Frozen conflicts arrested their development. Nowhere was this truer than in Ukraine. The country could not develop into a stable democracy with a strong orientation towards the west amid an unresolved war.

The situation would have remained this way if not for the unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia that began on February 24, 2022. Putin thought this would resolve the Ukrainian situation in the Kremlin’s favor. Instead, it has led to the exact opposite of what he expected. Russia is now bogged down in a major war that threatens to destabilize it as well. The Ukrainians have been boosted by western support. Ukraine may be a war-torn nation, but it is now more united than at any point since gaining independence in 1991. Putin’s plans for a Greater Russia that rolls back NATO and the European Union in its near abroad is in tatters. While the war’s outcome is uncertain, one thing has become apparent. Russia’s attempt to reassert itself in Eastern Europe has failed. Their political and military defeats in Ukraine are the ultimate proof.

Separation Anxiety – Eastern Europe & Post-Soviet Russia 1991 – 2000 (From Peace To War #2)

When the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991 there was a decided lack of consternation. The Soviet idea was exhausted. Communism had been exposed as a hollow ideology that was delivering little more than misery to Soviet citizens. The constituent parts, including Russia, were ready to go their own way. Russia would still be closely aligned with Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Armenia. The Central Asian states would also be allies. Azerbaijan less so. Moldova was an odd outlier that would take some getting used to. The Russians assisted separatists in Transnistria, but they did not try to destroy Moldovan statehood. Anything west of the Dniester was deemed beyond their interest at the time. As for the Baltic states, they were ready to move closer to northern Europe and Scandinavia, giving the cold shoulder to anything that reeked of the Soviet Union and that included Russia. No longer would they be subservient states. Now their languages and cultures could finally flourish.

Separation Anxiety – Chechen fighter in Grozny during the First Chechen War
(Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

The Baltic States – Going Their Own Way
In the case of the Baltic states a westward shift in geopolitical orientation was to be expected. Not only had they achieved statehood between the First and Second Worlds Wars, but they were ethnically distinct from Slavs. Even though the Baltics large proportions of Russians that had been resettled there in the decades following World War II, they had differing ideas from Russia on politics and economics. Their cultures were also exclusive of the dominant Russian culture which had been imposed upon them for four and a half decades. The break was not clean or easy, but the Baltics managed to pull away from Russia in the post-1991 environment.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would eventually achieve membership in both the European Union and NATO. Russia did not like their movement towards the west, but during the 1990’s it had major economic problems that were much more pressing than trying to keep a tight leash on the Baltics. The fact that the Baltics went their own way and the Russians failed to put up without much of a fight fooled many into thinking that Russia was becoming a normal state. That their imperialist and nationalist impulses were fading. This was not true as later events would show, but internal problems kept Russia from causing many issues with their near abroad in the immediate post-Soviet period.

Going their own way – Riga in Latvia is the largest city in the Baltics (Credit: Diego Delso)

Falling Apart – Tumultuous Times
The oddest and most incredible thing about the Soviet Union’s disintegration was how quickly it disappeared without the usual spasms that occur when empires fall. Other 20th century empires that had collapsed were laid low by violence and societal upheaval. The German and Austro-Hungarian Empires both fell apart due to the strains caused by World War I. The Soviet Union’s predecessor, the Russian Empire, came to an extremely violent end. First on the Eastern Front during World War I, then during the Russian Civil War where millions lost their lives. Even the British Empire’s collapse saw violent excesses committed in Kenya and other former colonies. The Soviet Union’s breakup into a multiplicity of nation-states did not lead to the kind of chaos and calamity that might have been expected. Russia – now in the throes of a neo-imperialist war in Ukraine – was too distracted in the 1990’s to deeply involve themselves in the affairs of Kyiv, Minsk, Tbilisi or Yerevan.

Russia’s leadership was trying to keep it from falling apart in the same manner as the Soviet Union. To that end, the Kremlin felt compelled to fight a war in Chechnya against separatists. This did not result in a resounding victory, instead a humiliating defeat ensued. This showed just how weak the Russian state had become. That weakness had a great deal to do with Russia staying away from adventures beyond its own borders. Up until the turn of the 21st century, post-Soviet Russia was too weak to control its near abroad. This weakness was mistaken by the western world for a general movement towards normalcy. The imperial impulse in Russia seemed to be the preserve of a crazed nationalist fringe. There were similarities with post-1989 Eastern Europe where nation-states freed from the yoke of communism all seemed to have an uber-nationalist element. In these cases, words spoke louder than actions.

The lack of follow through had a great deal to do with the size of Eastern European nations. For instance, in Hungary there was a proportion of the population that would have loved to recover Transylvania and southern Slovakia. The problem for these nationalists was that Hungary never had a population of more than ten million people. No matter how many Hungarians felt that their nation had been wronged by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, Hungary did not have anywhere close to the resources needed to recover these territories even if a majority of the population would have supported it. Thus, the nationalists were limited to lamenting the loss of Greater Hungary. The same was certainly not true for Russia, a nation with vast natural and human resources. Any leader that could harness these resources to a nationalist ideal could take action to attempt a recreation of a neo-Russian empire. This is what many in Eastern Europe feared, nowhere more so than the Baltic states which would not stand a chance against a revanchist Russia. The same was true for smaller states such as Georgia and Armenia.

Headed in a different direction – Boris Yeltsin & Vladimir Putin

The Rise of Putin – Authoritarian Tendencies
When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia had a leader who could restore the power of the state to make it formidable, not just inside Russia, but also in its near abroad.  This was the beginning of a movement that would lead to a Russian resurgence in militarism. Russia was not able to get its own house in order during the 1990’s. Nowhere was this clearer than in Chechnya. The First Chechen War had been a debacle that exposed Russia’s military and political weakness. Putin knew if he wanted to stay in power for long, the first thing he would have to do is reestablish central control of the country. The best way of doing this was by being completely ruthless. Weak rulers that do not display a take no prisoners mentality – such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin – often end up on the wrong side of Russian history. Putin was determined that this would not happen to him. He set about consolidating his power.

Click here for: A Game of Risk – Eastern Europe & Russia 2000 – 2013 (From Peace To War #3)

Sidestepping War – Eastern Europe’s Long Peace 1945 – 1991 (From Peace To War #1)

There is no doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continued prosecution of the war has set some very dangerous precedents. One of the most worrisome is that the taboo of large wars in Europe has been broken. This is a direct threat to Europe’s stability because it has the potential to unleash another period of violent conflict. The last time this happened, Europe came closer to complete destruction than at any time in history. It is worth remembering that Europe had a long period of peace prior to the First World War. This era was marked by great strides in economic, industrial, and cultural development.

Peace gives birth to prosperity and prosperity provides an incentive for nations to avoid wars. This does not mean that Europe completely sidestepped wars in the century between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and World War I in 1914. On the contrary, there were many wars in Europe, but none of these engulfed the entire continent. The closest they came was due to the revolutions in 1848. Compared to the two World Wars, the fighting was contained. The same could be said for the Wars of German Unification and the Balkan Wars. This period of relative peace came to an end in the most violent manner possible beginning in 1914 and did not end until 1945.

Long Peace – Preserved part of the Iron Curtain in Czech Republic (Credit: Marcin Szala)

Keeping The Peace – A Tenuous Process
Contemporary Europe is largely an outcome from the reaction to two World Wars. The long and successful unification project of the European Union was, as it still is today, an effort to ensure large wars in Europe never happen again. Whether or not that will be the case beyond the Ukraine-Russia War no one knows. What has become apparent is how remarkable the post-1945 period was in European history due to the absence of large wars. The Ukraine-Russia War makes Europeans long for the peaceful period many of them took for granted. The phrase “You don’t know what you got it until its gone” applies to the mindset of contemporary Europeans. Many are shocked by the return of large wars which had supposedly been relegated to history books. That is no longer the case. The Ukraine-Russia War has been a return to the kind of history Europe managed to avoid much longer than anyone could have imagined.

One day many years from now, historians will look back at the period from 1945 – 2014 in Europe as unusually peaceful. Save for the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the Yugoslav Wars form 1991 – 1998, Europe largely enjoyed peace almost seventy years of peace. This helped create unprecedented prosperity across the continent. Even for Eastern Europe, the period was remarkable in just how few armed conflicts occurred. Of course, this came at the cost of being under the Soviet thumb. As for the Yugoslav Wars, they are now viewed as a violent aberration. Many of the nations involved have thrived since those wars ended.

Croatia and Slovenia are now in the European Union, Montenegro is in much better shape than it was for many centuries. Kosovo won its independence and diplomatic recognition from much of the world. Even the biggest losers in the Yugoslav Wars have had a better-than-expected existence since those wars ended. Serbia has been largely stable with a decent economy. Politically, Bosnia and Herzegovina may still be a mess, but disputes have been resolved through diplomatic means. While tensions continue to threaten another conflict, cooler heads have prevailed. The Balkans is no longer a powder keg ready to explode.  Because the Yugoslav Wars are still within living memory for most of the region’s inhabitants, this has been a powerful incentive to ensure peaceful resolution of disputes.

Countries in the European Union (Credit: BBC)

Walled Off – Keeping War At A Distance
For the Balkans, the memories of the Yugoslav Wars are so horrific that either the successor states have decided to focus on economic progress in putting the past behind them or the memories of the conflicts were so horrific that those who experienced them dare not allow a repeat performance. The same could be said of Europe after the end of World War II, the apocalyptic nature of the fighting left the continent in shambles. Both western and eastern Europe focused on reconstruction, but in very different ways. Though there were times when war threatened to break out over Berlin, cooler heads prevailed due to fear of nuclear apocalypse and no one wanting to reexperience the same sort of destruction visited on Europe that had so recently occurred. The psychological trauma of World War II manifested itself to such an extent that it produced a peace dividend. The American military’s role in protecting Europe west of the Iron Curtain cannot be overlooked. There is no doubt that it helped keep the peace.

The closest Europe came to a complete combustion during the Cold War was in Berlin. Ironically, the Berlin Wall’s construction created the stability that had been lacking before then. For all its symbolism as divisive, the wall kept the two sides at a distance and delineated spheres of influence. There were no more showdowns at Checkpoint Charlie. West Berlin and West Germany were free to continue their economic development. East Germany was resigned to keeping its citizens locked inside a worker’s paradise and spying on them. The shadow of war hung over Europe, but the situation was manageable. Europeans now can look back to the Cold War with a fair amount of confidence that it might serve as a template to manage the relationship with Russia after the war in Ukraine comes to an end.

Revolution in progress – Germans crossing the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Credit: Sue Mead)

Miraculous Feat – The Curtain Falls
The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Iron Curtain were strangely peaceful. World historical events that accord a complete change in ideological, political, economic, and cultural systems for an entire region hardly ever occur without massive violence. The incredible thing was just how little conflict resulted from the upheaval. The worst violence occurred Romania where somewhere between 700 -1300 were killed and 3,200 wounded in fighting during its nine-day revolution in December 1989. Considering that Mikhail Gorbachev could have decided to use Red Army troops stationed in Eastern Europe to quell uprisings, the change of system from communist totalitarianism to democratic capitalism was nothing short of miraculous. No one could possibly have predicted the lack of a violent counterrevolution. The situation would be somewhat similar in the Soviet Union two years later, but in the decades that followed extremely different.

Click here for: Separation Anxiety – Eastern Europe & Post-Soviet Russia 1991 – 2000 (From Peace To War #2)

Beyond the Grave -– The Soviet Exhumation of Timur at Gue-i-Amir (Part Two)

The Curse of Timur’s Tomb sounds like something straight out of a low budget horror film. There is one big difference though. For those who believed in the curse it was anything but fictional. They feared the curse and acted accordingly. That fear rose all the way to the upper echelon of the Soviet leadership. No less a historical figure than Joseph Stalin may have acted on that fear. It was Stalin who had issued the order to exhume the remains of Timur (Tamerlane) – the famed Central Asian conqueror of the late 14th-early 15th century – just before the outbreak of World War II. Stalin was also the one who ordered that Timur’s remains be reburied. Whether this was because of the Curse of Timur’s Tomb is an enduring mystery.

Out of the darkness – Gur-e Amir illuminated in Samarkand (Credit: Wiggum)

Opening Remarks – The Curse of Timur’s Tomb
Mikhail Gerasimov was a man of science rather than superstition. He had an academic’s interest in Gue-i-Amir, the mausoleum of Timur. His mission was to first excavate Timur’s remains and then sculpt the most lifelike rendition of him. Gerasimov’s version of grave robbing was done in the interest of science. Science was rational and reasoned, unlike the supernatural which could not be explained nor cataloged. Gerasimov had his orders from Stalin and the fate of anyone who disobeyed Stalin was just as bad as anyone who crossed Timur five and a half centuries before. Thus, Timur’s remains would be taken from his tomb in Samarkand and hauled back to Moscow where they would undergo a thoroughly scientific examination. This would allow Gerasimov to specify Timur’s physical characteristics. The details would certainly have interested Stalin, but a mere two days after Gerasimov’s team opened Timur’s tomb, the German Army invaded the Soviet Union launching the most lethal conflict in human history.

An ominous inscription found on Timur’s tomb in Gue-e-Amir says, “When I rise from the dead, the world will tremble.” These words were meant as both threat and warning. Gerasimov and his team ignored them. There was a longstanding legend that opening Timur’s tomb would wreak havoc on those responsible. Usually, such a curse would mean bad things happening to those involved. In the case of Gerasimov’s exhumation of Timur’s remains in June 1941, some believe the curse fell on those parties ultimately responsible for opening the tomb. This meant Stalin’s Soviet Union. No greater curse would ever come to the nation than the war which resulted in the deaths of 25 million Soviet citizens. For those of a superstitious or conspiratorial nature, the curse of Timur’s tomb seemed all too real.

Exhumation & recreation – Mikhail Gerasimov

Last Remains – Timur the Lame
This did not stop Gerasimov’s work on specifying the physiognomy of Timur.  This included his height of 177 centimeters (5’8”) which was above average for the time. The most interesting discovery was that Timur, who was also known as Tamarlane or Timur the Lame, did indeed suffer from physical defects. One of his legs was shorter than the other. Likewise, one of his arms was withered and useless. These details helped form a more complete picture of Timur, whether knowing this was worth opening his tomb is another question altogether. Gerasimov was so fascinated with physiognomy of ancient and medieval peoples that for him this justified raiding Timur’s tomb. On the other hand, the story goes that Gerasimov began to have doubts about what he had done. Especially since the tomb’s opening coincided with the German invasion which threatened to doom the Soviet Union.

Gerasimov is said to not have taken the curse of Timur seriously. At least not prior to the exhumation. There are accounts that he ignored warnings from local leaders prior to the exhumation. Nevertheless, it is believed that some time afterwards, Gerisomov began to have second thoughts about having removed Timur’s remains. Some have hypothesized that this was due to the curse. Whatever the case, Gerasimov later tried to contact Stalin about reburial of Timur’s remains at Gur-e-Amir. Gerasimov had trouble getting in contact with Stalin for a very good reason, the Soviet leader was completely focused on the war. After a considerable delay, Stalin responded to Gerasimov. He directed that Timur’s remains be returned for reburial at Gur-e-Amir. It is not difficult to see why. Stalin was extremely paranoid and superstitious. Whether he believed in a curse or not, there was no reason to tempt fate. Of course, both Gerasimov and Stalin’s opinions on the curse are based on conjecture. No one can really say what they did or did not believe. The facts show that Stalin ordered the reburial. This lends some credence to those who support the theory that the curse had spooked him.

Timur’s remains were returned to Gur-i-Amir after 18 months. In December 1942, their reburial took place. The timing of this roughly coincides with the Battle of Stalingrad, where the Soviets destroyed the German 6th Army and turned the tide of war on the Eastern Front decisively in their favor. Some believe that the reburial of Timur’s remains was a mysterious force that led to victory in that fateful battle. Most likely the timing of Stalingrad and the reburial was a coincidence. The same could be said for the outbreak of war and the opening of Timur’s tomb. Coincidences or not, speculation is bound to continue.

The Conqueror of Central Asia -Timur

Career Paths – Cursed by History
The exhumation did nothing to hurt Gerasimov’s career. He would continue to work diligently on sculpting facial reconstruction of people from the past. Timur was among the most notable of over two hundred personages that he recreated. His work was also boosted by carnage on the Eastern Front. During the war, Gerasimov worked at a Soviet military hospital where he was able to meticulously study the skulls of people from all over the Soviet Union. As for Stalin, he eventually emerged victorious. Stalin turned even more ruthless after the war. The gulag population continued to swell until he died in 1953. Stalin showed an equivalent cruelty to that of Timur. Just like Timur, Stalin’s political legacy would be short lived. Timur’s empire vanished in the century after his death. Stalin’s vanished even sooner. Both men’s legacies were cursed by history.

Tomb Raiders – The Soviet Exhumation of Timur at Gur-i-Amir (Part One)

When I was a child, magazines were a device that could transport me to another place and time. I loved the glossy, full color images that covered many of the pages. These would often lure me to read an article about a topic I would not otherwise have found of interest. Magazine articles were just the right length to satisfy my curiosity. They were much shorter and less time consuming then reading a book, but an article could still add depth to a topic. Magazines fed my love for travel. Since our family could not afford to visit exotic, foreign locales, reading material was a passport to adventure. They allowed me to access some of the most fascinating places found on earth.

One of my favorite magazines was World. Published by National Geographic, World was the kid’s equivalent of that famous publication. Though I was never really interested in science during my time in school, World made it seemed more interesting because science was sometimes connected to places and their history. From the pages of World, I learned that science was not just biology, chemistry or physics. Those were subjects I found intimidating. Conversely, archeology fascinated me because it combined, places and history with scientific techniques to unearth the past. This had led to incredible discoveries.

The face of fear – Timur (Credit: shakko)

Forbidden Entry – The Curse of History
One of my lasting memories of World concerned the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. I remember an illustration showing a man with a torch stepping inside the tomb when it was first discovered in 1922. This set a mysterious precedent in my mind. The accompanying article talked about the tomb’s discovery. Despite my fascination, one aspect of that article frightened me. This was the curse on those who unearthed the eternal resting places of pharaohs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. I surmised that anyone foolish enough to step inside a forbidden place could trigger supernatural consequences. Being superstitious by nature, this had quite an effect on me. I realized that some places are better left untouched. Doing otherwise tempts fate and leaves a person at the mercy of invisible forces that can be detrimental to their life. I recalled these feeling not long ago when I learned about the 1941 Soviet exhumation of Timur’s (also known as Tamerlane) tomb. Known as Gur-i-Amir, the tomb of this great Central Asian conqueror located in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.

Timur’s name may not be as well known in the west as that of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan, but he was every bit the equal of those bloodthirsty conquerors. His reputation in Central Asia proceeds him. Timur led forces that rampaged through Central Asia, the Middle East, and all the way into Turkey. Anyone who resisted was destroyed. Many of those who did not resist were also destroyed. His conquests resulted in the deaths of an estimated five percent of the world’s population during the late 14th and early 15th century. Timur did not leave any great political or administrative legacies, but he was fond of religion and culture. To this end, the bounty of his conquest went into building up his capital at Samarkand. The astonishing range of architecture treasures Timur and his descendants bequeathed to posterity can still be seen there today. That includes his burial place at Gur-i-Amr.

Culture warrior – Timur in the gardens of Samarkand (Credit: Sharuf ad-din Ali Yesdy)

Daring Disturbance – A Life & Death Matter
Transformative figures in human history are prone to see themselves in larger-than-life terms. Megalomania is a helpful attribute for those who want to rule the world. Those who suffer most from it are dictatorial types who have a belief that nothing should stand in their way. Such people feel they have few, if any equals on earth. They often look to the past for inspiration from historical figures who transformed civilization. Timur was such a transformational figure, he was also a deadly one. His exploits have become the stuff of both history and legend. Those who want to remake the world can find a kindred spirit in Timur. Josef Stalin may well have been one of them. It was Stalin who allowed Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov to lead a team to exhume Timur’s remains from Gue-i-Amr. The reason was to scientifically study Timur’s remains so a lifelike replica could be made of him.

As you might imagine, Timur was not a man anyone would want to upset in life or death. Unfortunately, the latter was what Gerasimov and his team of archaeologists set out to do in mid-June 1941. The exhumation took place at a time that which would prove fateful for the Soviet Union. Those involved had little idea at the time of the historical events that were about to transpire or the ramifications for their exhumation. In retrospect, they would have been better off leaving Timur alone. They could not say that the locals did not warn them. Later reports said that many in Samarkand thought opening the tomb would only result in bad things happening to those who dare disturb Timur’s remains. Whether this is true or only part of an apocryphal tale has yet to be determined. There is little doubt that the Soviet Union was only a couple of days away from catastrophe at the time when the exhumation occurred.

Medieval mausoleum – Timur’s tomb in 1910 (Credit: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii)

One of a Kind – Raising the Dead
There was only one Timur in history, a singular figure of legendary magnitude. The closest anyone would come to recreating him, at least in the flesh was Mikhail Gerasimov. The Russian anthropologist/archaeologist made a name for himself in the field by being able to study bone structures and recreate the faces of historical personages. Gerasimov’s work transformed the field to the point that his techniques are still in use today. His first order of business was to find the exact location of the tomb. By sleuthing through historical clues, the team found Timur’s remains on June 19th. The next day, they opened the tomb and were confronted with an overpowering odor of the oils that had been used to embalm Timur’s body. Those odors had been trapped inside the tomb for centuries. This must have been both a fascinating and frightening moment. A sensory message being sent from beyond the grave. This did nothing to detain Gerasimov from his course of action.

Click here for: Beyond the Grave – The Soviet Exhumation of Timur at Gue-i-Amir (Part Two)

A Re-creation of Communism – Kherson’s Soviet Experience (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #232)

The Battle of Kherson has been looming large for weeks now. Some military analysts believe that it could become Ukraine’s Stalingrad and result in Vladimir Putin’s Waterloo. Kherson has been emptied of civilians by Russian authorities while their army sends in fresh troops from its recent mobilization. Kherson is too important for either side to ignore, as it is located at one of the most important geo-strategic points in Ukraine. Hugging the western bank of the Dnipro River, Kherson is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) from where the Dnipro flows into the Black Sea. As Ukrainian forces creep ever closer to the city’s outskirts, a violent urban battle is anticipated. That could lead to one of the most decisive victories of the war for Ukraine. Whether or not this happens, we are likely to soon find out. In the meantime, I decided to learn more about an otherwise obscure city that now occupies the minds of Ukrainian strategists and Russian neo-imperialists.

Independent minded – Protest in Kherson after the Russian occupation of the city

A Moment In Time – The Complete Guide To The Soviet Union
My first stop on the path to learning more about Kherson started with a bit of armchair travel amid the pages of an old book. In this case, the book’s pages were rather crisp rather than tattered. That is because old in the sense of this book only went back to 1991. “The Complete Guide To The Soviet Union” was published in that fateful year of that troubled political entity’s rapid demise. The book was more than just a travel guide, it was also a time capsule in the form of text, maps, and pictures. They captured a moment in time, illuminating the essence of Soviet regions and cities for visitors. Little did the authors know that this creation of communist ideologues was on the verge of vanishing forever. The Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of the same year in which the book was published. No one could have predicted its precipitate and relatively peaceful decline, certainly not the book’s authors. Their laser sharp focus was on rendering the history and sites associated with each Soviet city in hundreds of details large and small. A vast storehouse of information covers every one of the volume’s 691 pages.

In the Complete Guide, Soviet cities are rendered intelligible for an English language audience of would-be travelers. The upshot is that the volume offers a window into Kherson on the cusp of a massive political, economic and cultural upheaval. The book offers important details of the where, when and why of places not to be missed in a nation that sprawled across two continents and one-seventh of the earth’s land mass. The Soviet Union consisted of what would become fifteen different nations after its collapse. The book covers every part of the country, along with hundreds of cities scattered across it with encyclopedic thoroughness. The entry for Kherson is exhaustive by the standards of travel guides and serves as a reminder that one way the Soviet Union placed its stamp on cities was through naming conventions. This was most pronounced in the naming of streets where heroes of Soviet communism were given pride of place. Naming streets, squares, monuments and parks after famous communist figures acted as a daily reminder to Kherson’s 355,000 citizens of a glorified past.

By the book – The Complete Guide To The Soviet Union

The Name Game – Deifying Ideologues
The Soviets were not about to waste an opportunity to deify their most esteemed revolutionaries and ideologues. In cityscapes, heroes of the regime were not hard to find. Kherson was not unique in this respect. Public spaces in Soviet cities were intensely politicized. This habit manifested itself in Lenin, Marx, Gorky and Rosa Luxembourg streets crisscrossing the city center of Kherson.  As the founding father of the Soviet Union, there were obligatory statues of Lenin. Ironically, one could be found in Svobody (Freedom) Square. According to communist ideology, Lenin freed the masses from the tyranny of capitalism. No mention was made of the millions who died as a result of this movement. Nevertheless, every Soviet city ensured that Lenin was an omnipresent figure. Not only had Kherson’s oldest park been renamed in honor of Lenin, but there was also a statue of him to greet visitors outside the main gate.

Monuments were another way of celebrating what would turn out to be the temporary triumph of communism. In Lenkomosol Park, there was a 19 meter (63 foot) high obelisk that paid homage to Kherson’s first young communists. Soviet officials also went to great lengths to honor not only famous figures, but also lesser lights of the communist movement. That is how Alexander Tsiurupa’s marble bust secured a prominent place on Rosa Luxembourg Street. Tsiurupa grew up just across the Dnipro River from Kherson in Oleshky. The town was renamed Tsiurupynsk in his honor the same year of his death in 1928. That name survived the Soviet Union’s collapse, but finally reverted to Oleshky in 2016 due to the post-Maidan decommunization movement in Ukraine. While obscure today, Tsiurupa was anything but that to hardcore communists. He worked his way up the ranks during the Revolution. A leading party figure and statesman, Tsiurupynsk became famous for his introduction of food rationing and five-year plans. In the film, “Lenin in 1918”, the characterization of Tsiurupa includes him fainting from hunger in Lenin’s office. This might have been from his food rationing policy.

Occupational hazards – Flags of Russia & the Soviet Union flying in Kherson

Back To The Start – Independent Ukraine
Kherson’s time in that prison of nations, better known to us as the Soviet Union, lasted from 1922 – 1991. By the end of that period, the city’s population had grown eightfold mainly due to industrialization. Modern Kherson was a center of shipbuilding, textiles, and grain exports. The ethnic composition of the population had also undergone dramatic changes, with Ukrainians increasing from one-third of the population to 75%. The preferred language of Kherson’s inhabitants was more evenly divided between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Despite the glorification of communism, there was no love lost for the Soviet Union in Kherson. In the Ukrainian independence referendum held in December 1991, nine out of every ten voters in Kherson preferred that their city become part of Ukraine. It was that decision which Vladimir Putin wants to undo. Despite an illegal annexation and the efforts of the Russian military, it looks like Kherson will eventually go back to where its citizens want to belong, a free and independent Ukraine.

Click here for: Staying Power – The Ghosts of Kherson (The Russian Invasion of Kherson #233)

Stepping Away From The Nuclear Ledge – Mikhail Gorbachev: An Appreciation or Lack Thereof (Part Two)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy is extremely complicated. That is not surprising since he allowed much of Eastern Europe to part freely from the Soviet sphere of influence and presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Of all the various aspects of Gorbachev’s time as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, nothing causes more approbation and consternation as his involvement with nuclear affairs. On one hand, his summitry with American Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ushered in an era of drastic cuts in nuclear armaments. On the other, Gorbachev was part of the Soviet disinformation apparatus which initially denied the severity of the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This led to loss of life and a massive blow to public confidence in the Soviet government. The mixed verdict on Gorbachev ‘s legacy is torn between his ability to negotiate breakthrough agreements in nuclear arms control, while also playing a lead role in the initial cover up of the greatest nuclear disaster in human history. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s achievements in helping make the world safe from nuclear destruction – at least for a little while – were considerable and should not be overlooked.

Coming to terms- Mikhail Gorbachev & Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik (Credit: White House Photo Collection)

Silence Is Deadly – A Failure To Communicate
Chernobyl was a disaster unlike anything seen in human history up to that time. The meltdown of Reactor Four at the Nuclear Power Plant, followed by an explosion and fire on April 26, 1986, spread radiation across a wide swath of the Soviet Union and further afield in Europe. Damage control from Soviet leaders meant not telling the truth about what had happened. At least not right away. Gorbachev refrained from issuing any warnings in the days after the explosion even though the city of Pripyat – five kilometers from the power plant – had to be evacuated a day after the accident. No one knew what effect the radiation would have as it began to disperse. Gorbachev and Soviet officialdom’s silence was deadly. The failure to take the proper precautions unnecessarily put millions of lives at risk. This failure included not canceling the May 1st parade in Kyiv where everyone from children to the elderly were exposed to higher levels of radiation. Eventually the truth came out.

Gorbachev finally spoke about the accident on May 14th, almost three weeks after the meltdown occurred. This led to a loss of confidence in Gorbachev and the government at a time when many Soviet citizens were already skeptical. It is impossible to quantify how badly Gorbachev’s reputation was damaged by his failure to be forthright. It certainly did not help him when he was trying to convince the Soviet masses that communism could be reformed under a more trustworthy government. His credibility in this regard was dubious. Gorbachev’s evasion of the truth was a symptom of the overall credibility problem the communist government had in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens had endured decades of lies, along with poor living standards and a bureaucracy that actively worked against the people’s best interest. Gorbachev did not help to build confidence by staying silent for far too long.

They were that close – Mikhail Gorbachev & Ronald Reagan say goodbye in Reykjavik

Personal Diplomacy – The Power of Differing Perspectives
Gorbachev’s initial handling of the Chernobyl disaster was then, as it still is today, unconscionable, but on other nuclear matters he would meet with a degree of success that few could have imagined when he took power in 1985. During that same year, Gorbachev attended a superpower summit in Geneva, Switzerland where he met with the American President, Ronald Reagan. This was the first of four summits that would occur between the two leaders from 1985 to 1988. These summits would yield unprecedented breakthroughs in nuclear arms control that no one thought possible between two men who were ideological opposites. Gorbachev was a true believer in the communist system. He thought it offered the best way to solve society’s problems. Reagan was a fervent anti-communist and free marketeer. He believed the Soviet Union and the communist system it represented was an odious and oppressive system, one that would collapse under pressure. Oddly, Gorbachev and Reagan connected on a personal level and discovered that when it came to arms control their interests coincided.

At a spontaneous superpower summit that was put together in a matter of weeks, the two met at Reykjavik, Iceland. They came within a hair’s breadth of an agreement to phase out all nuclear armaments in ten years. The sticking point was the American Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as Star Wars), which Gorbachev demanded be put on hold. Reagan would not budge on the matter. Tragically, they could not come to an agreement. Nonetheless, this is as close as any leaders have come to abolishing nuclear weapons. The summit did lead to a later agreement that banned all Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces.

While both men should get credit for their roles, Gorbachev had less to bargain with and more to lose since the Soviet Union by the 1980’s largely relied on nuclear weapons to project power. Gorbachev knew the Soviet Union could not compete with the United States economically, but he wanted to rebuild and restructure the Soviet economy by getting rid of the astronomical sums of money being spent on nuclear weapons and other military expenditures. A comprehensive arms control agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons would have certainly helped the Soviet economy. Better yet, it would have benefitted humanity for generations to come.

Man With A Vision – Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva summit in 1985 (Credit: White House Photo Office)

A Lasting Achievement  – Making The World Safer
Gorbachev’s willingness to cut the Soviet nuclear arsenal was not just done in the interests of economics, he was also keen to spare the world a catastrophic nuclear war. Gorbachev had a humanitarian streak that eluded his predecessors. He cared a great deal about the common person. Perhaps this came from the fact that he had grown up in hardscrabble circumstances in a farming region of southern Russia. The fact that a Russian provincial and an American who hailed from a small town in the heartland of United States came close to ridding the world of nuclear weapons defies belief. In this aspect of his Soviet political career, Gorbachev deserves the highest commendation.

His work led to the threat of a nuclear war in Europe receding, paving the way for the satellite states of Eastern Europe to break free of the Soviet yoke. Gorbachev was not about to use nuclear weapons to coerce smaller, less powerful nations to stay within the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps his aversion to nuclear weapons was an outgrowth of the Chernobyl accident. Gorbachev had first-hand experience of nuclear catastrophe. He never wanted to see it happen again. On his watch the world became a much safer place. For all his failures, Mikhail Gorbachev got the most important thing right. Humanity has him to thank for it.

A Hole In The Heart of Europe – Belarus: An Uncrossed Border (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #37)

Belarus, the word evokes different thoughts, many of them quite distressing. Thoughts of autocratic rule, thoughts of a last refuge for the Soviet system in Europe, thoughts of an ossified, anti-democratic dictator able to bend the people’s will to his whims. From a political standpoint, there is not much good to say about Belarus’ history since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then again there was not much good to say about Belarus during Soviet times either. One is the only number anyone needs to know when it comes to post-Soviet Belarus. That is because Belarus has had just one leader, Alexander Lukashenko, since it became independent. That number is an expression of how far democracy has come in Belarus.  And that is not far at all. An opportunity has been lost.

Last of The Soviets – Government House in Minsk (Credit: Nuno Godiho)

Dueling Identities – History & Mystery
Belarus is an obscure nation, even for someone like me conversant in Eastern European history and travel. It remains a nation of mystery and history, a land of confused and dueling identities. It is not quite Russia, though sometimes it is hard to tell. It is in Europe, but not really of Europe. At least, not the Europe of humanism and progress. This is a Europe that most of us are unfamiliar with, one of totalitarianism and regress. Belarus is an enigma, an Eastern European version of no man’s land covering a crucial region that lies on a geopolitical fault line between Poland and Russia. Paradoxically, this no man’s land is home to nine and a half million people. They live in an insular state. Rather than a bridge between east and west, it is more like an island unto itself. While there is a great deal of Russian influence when it comes to Belarus, Russia has not been able to assimilate it. The two nations are not one and are certainly not the same.

To the rest of Europe and the world, Belarus is a baffling place, a question mark that lies at the heart of Eastern Europe. The questions it poses are still awaiting an affirmative response. How much longer will totalitarianism rule this benighted land. Will Belarus ever be free of interference from big brother Russia? Will it ever become a popular rather than a pariah state? Answers continue to elude Belarusians. At least ones that would include respect for the human dignity and civil rights of all Belarusians. So much of the little that we know about Belarus is intensely negative. Will that ever change? History teaches us that nothing stays the same, but Belarus for the past thirty years has been changed, not for the better, but for the worse. At best, it has stagnated. At worse, it has ossified. Attempts to renew the country have been met with belligerence and brute force, tear gas and truncheons. The future does not look bright, but this is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, Belarusians had a rough time of it.

East of center – Belarus and surrounding nations

All The Wrong Reasons – Looking Down On The World
With Belarus making headline news once again for all the wrong reasons, I have asked myself what do I really know about the nation? Beyond negative news blurbs and a handful of guidebooks, the only other things I know about Belarus comes from a series of disconnected experiences with the people and country. These are anecdotes, either personal or political, that provide a blurred window into a nation that seems to defy logic. I have started scouring my mind for anecdotal evidence of Belarus. After so many trips to Eastern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that Belarus is still such a mystery. A nation that is a gaping hole in the heart of my Eastern European travels, an uncrossed border, a chance not taken because of fear and logistics.

Coming close to Belarus and meeting Belarusians is the experiential evidence I have of the country. This has been the only way I could get beyond the dire drip feed of negative news emanating from the country. I have never visited Belarus and for obvious reasons do not plan too anytime soon. I am rather proud that I came as close I did on two separate occasions. The first was while visiting Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. Ukraine’s border with Belarus was within a few kilometers of those sites. It is another in that seemingly endless series of tragedies that has befallen Belarus, that much of radiation from Chernobyl ended up on the Belarusian side of the border with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.

The visit to Chernobyl did afford me a window into a natural world that ignores borders. This tip of Ukraine was heavily forested. It is even more so across the border in Belarus. Later, while flying from Kiev to Riga, my Baltic Air flight traveled over Belarus. I looked down from 20,000 feet at a nation of trees. From the air it was easy to see that forests covered a good deal of the country. Some 40% of Belarus is forest, including a swath of wilderness along the border with Poland that contains some of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. The forest cover makes for good hiding places. This cover allowed the partisan units of Belarus during World War II to wreaked havoc on the German supply lines and occupation forces. From above, the forests in Belarus added another layer of mystery. I could see the forests, but not the trees. This is an apt metaphor for Belarus. A foreigner can see the dictatorship, but not the people who suffer under it.

Undiscovered Europe – Strusta Lake in northeastern Belarus (Credit: zedlik)

The View From Vilnius – Democracy & Dictatorship, Freedom & Oppression
The only other time I came close to Belarus was on this same trip. While staying in Vilnius, I became cognizant that Belarus was too close for comfort. Looking at a map made me realize just how close Belarus was to the Lithuanian capital. And the comparatively smaller sized Lithuania looked like it would not stand a chance if Belarus ever descended into geopolitical belligerence. This realization was different from how I felt while close to the Belarusian border in Ukraine. The latter has the size and resources to keep the Belarusians at bay. If anything, Ukraine is seen as a threat by the government in Belarus. Lithuania as an annoyance.

Belarus had a strange effect on my mentality while in Lithuania. It was hard to believe that two nations could be so politically different from one another, despite their proximity. To go from democracy to dictatorship was a thirty minute drive from Vilnius. For most people a thirty minute drive might mean going to another village, town or county. For people in this part of Europe, it was the difference between freedom and oppression. This was a trip that I would not dare to take.

Click here for: An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 the quality of life in Eastern European nations has undoubtedly improved. Incomes have risen, consumer products are readily available, freedom of speech and press is now the law of the land (though there has been a great deal of backsliding on both of late) and fear of arbitrary arrest has all but disappeared. Communism was an economic, environmental and human disaster. Planned, highly centralized economies led to stagnation. Heavy industry was kept up by state subsidies. Not only was it terribly uncompetitive, but also led to environmental degradation. Human creativity was quashed. Millions were arrested and died at the hands of dictatorships purporting to represent the proletariat. Politics became an extremely narrow, toxic and often deadly business to be avoided at all costs. State sponsored corruption was endemic to the system, leading to societies where a small group of elites ruled over the masses.

Even in the countries which were ostensibly better off during this era (1948 – 1989), such as Hungary which was home to Goulash Communism and Yugoslavia where Titoism ruled with a much softer fist, the system could only be kept alive and quality of life improved (i.e. shelves with consumer products) by large loans from the western world. By the 1980’s both countries were deep in debt with economies that would have collapsed if the Iron Curtain had not first given way. And these were the supposedly successful communist countries. Yet for all this misery and the unsustainability of communism, it was also at the tail end of this era that the population of most Eastern European countries reached its greatest extent. Communism may have spread misery, but it certainly did not stop people from procreating enough to sustain the population. The same cannot be said today. While the quality of life has certainly improved, there is not nearly as much human life as there once was in these nations.

An Alarming Trend – Failure To Procreate
It is doubtful that many Hungarians would say that 1981 was a peak year in their nation’s history. At that time, Janos Kadar’s increasingly geriatric administration was in its 25th year. Hungary had attained the title of happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc” due to a decent economy and its relative openness to the wider world. Conversely, the country was still in the grips of an ossified totalitarianism that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. It was also in that 1981 that the population of Hungary hit its highest level ever at 10.7 million. Since then the population has either declined or been stagnant for thirty-seven consecutive years. In 2011 the population of Hungary dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century. It is unlikely to ever reach that level again, at least not in the 21st century.

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary’s population has dropped by over half a million people. While this sounds dire, Hungary has plenty of company from other fellow Eastern European countries. In 1990, the year after the Ceaucescu dictatorship was overthrown in Romania, there was another reason for the nation’s citizens to celebrate. Romania’s population hit an all-time high at 23.2 million. Since that time, the population has fallen by over three and a half million. This is an alarming rate of decrease, due to many factors. The fact that communism could no longer keep Romanians hemmed into their own country meant that hundreds of thousands could immigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Many have found just that and are unlikely to return.

Then there is the case of Bulgaria which does not offer any reason for optimism. People have been disappearing from this mid-sized Balkan nation since the year after communism’s collapse. The population of Bulgaria rose to unprecedented heights, an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1989. The very next year Bulgaria lost over 200,000 people. Perhaps they were obeying the tenant of that old wise saying of “getting out while the getting is good”. Amazingly, 1990 was not the most precipitous one year population drop of the post-communist period, worse was yet to come. In 2002 there were 280,000 less people in Bulgaria then the year before. In percentage terms Bulgaria has lost at least one out of every five citizens (other sources say one out of every four) since the rickety rule of long-time communist leader Tudor Zhivkov came to a peaceful conclusion.

Russian Cross - The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate

Russian Cross – The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate (Credit: Lihoborka)

Plummeting Population – Economic Growth, Demographic Decline
No Eastern European nation could escape the curse of a plummeting population, including ones that experienced a successful transition from communism to capitalism. For example, Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era. Economic reforms enacted in the early 1990’s have led to steady growth. When the rest of Europe went into recession following the financial crisis, Poland was the only country to sustain economic growth. One would assume that the demographic situation would also have been much better for Poland. That was not the case. The Polish population did increase for several years following the collapse of communism. Poland gained 550,000 people between 1990 and 1998 when the population peaked at 38.6 million. It has been all downhill from there. The current Polish population is now back to where it was in 1989. That trend will almost certainly continue in the years to come.

Further north and east the situation has been nothing short of alarming. Latvia has lost a quarter of its population since the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia almost one-fifth. Russia suffered as much or more than anywhere else. The demographic decline there has been symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Russian Cross. This is where the birth and death rates are portrayed on a line graph. In 1992 – the year after the Soviet Union collapsed – the lines crossed as the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The situation stayed that way up through 2013 until the lines re-crossed. During that time span, Russia’s population dropped by 5.2 million. Put another way, Russia lost the equivalent of Norway’s entire population over a twenty-one year period. That is more than a crisis, it is a human catastrophe. Such dire examples beg the question of what exactly have been the causes of this demographic decline in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Click here for: Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)