A Natural Death– Biełaviežskaja Pušča:  Viskuli, Belarus & The Extinction of the Soviet Union

Many people assume the Soviet Union was created after the Russian Revolution in October 1917, they are mistaken. It was not until after the Russian Civil War ended in 1922 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to declare supremacy over a large part of the Eurasian land mass.  The Soviet Union was only then unified into a singular political entity. On the eve of New Year’s Eve, December 30, 1922 the Soviet Union was officially declared to the world from the stage of one of Russia’s most venerated institutions, the Bolshoi Theater. It was unified under the Treaty of the Creation of the Soviet Union which was signed by the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, the Transcaucasus and Belarus. Oddly enough it was in the latter republic sixty-nine Decembers later, that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. The scene of its denouement was far from the glittering prominence of the Bolshoi stage. Instead, it occurred in a remote section of a provincial outpost, on the extreme western frontiers of an empire that would soon cease to exist. Less than ten kilometers from the Polish border in the Biełaviežskaja Pušča, which contains the last remnant of Europe’s primeval forest, a group of six dignitaries put the Soviet Union out of its misery. The location for this historic event could not have been more ironic, nature is eternal, the ideology of man is mortal.

Viskuli - the hunting estate that was the scene of the Soviet Union's dissolution

Viskuli – the hunting estate in Belarus that was the scene of the Soviet Union’s dissolution

Lost In The Woods – The Paradox Of Progress
Communism was a contagious idea for many reasons, one of which was the appeal of creating an entirely new world. Industrial strength and the proletarian masses were to lead the way. Of course that was not what happened. Whether it was Lenin or Stalin, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, communism had an element of tyranny and anti-reform that planted the seeds of its own destruction. This brave new world was at the point of collapse by the late 1980’s all across Eastern Europe.  It held on for a little longer in the Soviet Union, but by December 1991 the last rites of communist totalitarianism were being prepared just as a long cold Russian winter was turning the world to ice. The document which would put an end to an almost seven decade long experience in human misery would be signed at Viskuli, a hunting estate in western Belarus.

Viskuli had been constructed as a dacha complex used for vacationing by communist officials from the Soviet Union. In itself, that was nothing special. It was the forest that stretched out in all directions from Viskuli which made the area rare and unique. Before man conquered nature this same type of primeval forest covered the entire northern European Plain, but human “progress” over thousands of years had eradicated almost all of it. Much of the forest was turned into farmland or transformed into villages and cities. Even today on the periphery of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca farming still threatens this World Biosphere Reserve’s health. Pesticides and fertilizers seep into the area through run off from farms. Yet despite such threats, this oldest of the old growth European forest has managed to survive, quite unlike the political entities that have made it their playground at one time or another down through the centuries.

The way it used to be - Biełaviežskaja Pušča

The way it used to be – Biełaviežskaja Pušča (Credit: Ralf Lotys)

Death Brings Renewal – The Paradox of the Primeval
The history of protection of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca goes back all the way to Lithuanian and Polish Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries that first set it aside as a hunting reserve. They issued decrees to protect its wildlife from poachers. The actions of a 17th century Polish king who displayed progressive foresight in dealing with the region’s peasantry would have been lost on the historically myopic apparatchiks who spent their holidays pleasuring in Viskuli during the Cold War. In 1639, King Wladyslaw IV freed all peasants in the forest from serfdom and taxation on the condition that they become royal foresters. For the next century and a half this arrangement worked rather well. Such a radical act of progressivism towards the dispossessed puts the Soviets social achievements to shame. It was only when the forest came under the control of the Russian Tsars in the late 18th century that these royal forester’s rights were abolished. It was not long though before the Tsars realized the reserve’s value as a refuge for wildlife. In was once again given protected status.

The warfare and ensuing political upheaval that scarred Europe so badly in the first half of the 20th century also detrimentally affected the reserve. By the end of World War I, German occupation had resulted in the extermination of all European bison in the forest.  Railroads and lumber mills built to support the occupiers brought unwelcome development. Poland did designate it as a national park in the years between the World Wars, slowly reintroducing the bison, but Polish oversight of this area was soon swept away by another World War. The 240 inch thick oaks and luminous undergrowth became breeding grounds for partisan warfare.

Modern industrial armaments brought death and destruction, but the bodies of soldiers and partisans would not find renewal in the decay of these dark woods. A different kind of death had long been integral to rejuvenating the forest. Approximately 6,000 species in the Bielaviezskaja Pusca subsist on decaying logs. Over half the forest at any one time is dead. And it is this death that leads to life. In an odd sense the same thing happened with human influence on the forest at the end of the war. The Soviet takeover led to decrees that protected the forest. This slowed to a halt the forest’s degradation by human indicatives. At least this time, the communists proved that they were much like those they were against. The forest was preserved just as it had been by kings so long ago. Of course this was as much by indifference as it was reverence.

The end of an empire - The signing of the Belavezha Accords

The end of an empire – The signing of the Belavezha Accords (Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image 848095 U Ivanov)

Eternity In The Woods – Survival Beyond The Soviets
A new period in the history of the peoples of what would become known as the former Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991 when the Belavezha Accords was signed at Viskuli. This dissolution also meant a new overlord for much of the forest, the nation of Belarus (Poland oversees a smaller portion of the forest.) Those who signed the accords on that frosty December day were thinking of politics not nature, but they would have done well to contemplate the forest that surrounded Viskuli. It had survived kings and dictators, empires and ideologies as well as several millennia of climatic change. On the other hand, the Soviet Union could not even survive the same century it had been born into. Eternity was still standing amid the woods of the Bielaviezskaja Pusca, while mortality was inherent to the systems of man.


Alone At A Funeral – Moment Of Surrender: The German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

In Berlin the past never seems remote. There are remnants of the Berlin Wall, churches that World War II bombers crashed into, buildings constructed by Kaisers, Communists and Nazis. Almost anywhere you look the past is still palpable. There are also more remote sites that many would just as soon forget. Where the past is extremely painful and nothing good can come from reopening an old wound. One of these sites lurks in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood, the kind of nondescript setting that one usually does not equate with a history making event. Yet this is Berlin a place where war, defeat and division are all within living memory.

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Credit: Anagoria)

The House Of Capitulation – A Less Than Impressive Impression
On April 30, 1945 in an underground bunker beneath Berlin, Adolf Hitler blew his brains out. Forty-eight hours later the flag of the Soviet Union was raised over the Reichstag. As remarkable and decisive as these two events were in the German capital, neither signaled the official end of the war. Though the Red Army was in the process of finishing off the last remnants of the German Army and the Battle of Berlin would conclude on May 2, 1945, the war would not officially conclude until six days later. The surrender would take place far from the center of Berlin, in an eastern suburb of the city known as Karlshorst. The same place where the surrender was signed, known today as the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Deutsch-Russische Museum Berlin-Karlshorst), can still be visited.  I discovered the place devoid of tourists on a beautiful spring day. In retrospect it is not surprising to me that only 40,000 people visit this site each year.  Just finding my way to the museum was not easy.

The quickest route by public transport to Karlshorst is on the Berlin S-Bahn 3 line. I took it starting at Ostkreuz in East Berlin, heading further east along the line for 5 kilometers until I arrived at the Berlin-Karlshorst station. A short walk brought me to Rheinsteinstrasse, which according to my map eventually led to the museum. What followed was a pleasant walk. The tree lined street flanked on either side by pastel painted apartment buildings and villas.  It seemed almost too normal, well kempt and above all, very German. It was hard to believe that during the Cold War, Karlshorst had been dominated by the Soviets. That domination began during the Battle of Berlin at what is today the German-Russian Museum, which after twenty minutes I found. The building was less than impressive, a bland gray, two and a half story structure with a red tiled roof. It looked like what it had been prior to the Soviets arrival, an officer’s mess hall. It was hard to believe that anything important could ever have happened here.

Deadly beast - Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum

Deadly beast – Soviet T34 tank outside the German-Russian Museum (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

No Illusions – Conditions For Unconditional Surrender
Standing in front of the museum I did see one visible artifact that betrayed the Second World War, to the left of the building stood a large Soviet T34 tank. It is generally agreed that the T34 was the most effective tank built by any side during the war. Its combination of firepower and mobility was unmatched, as was the Soviet ability to manufacture 80,000 of these deadly beasts. In large part, the Soviet war machine was propelled westward to Berlin by the T34. In April 1945 the Red Army slowly fought their way into the city despite the fiercest of resistance. It was during this time that the Supreme Commander of Soviet Forces, Marshal Georgi Zhukov setup his headquarters in what is today the German-Russian Museum. From here he directed the final assault on Berlin. It would also be from here that the death certificate of German militarism would be signed.

The surrender of all German forces was a two part affair.  The Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) only wanted to surrender to the western Allies. The Wehrmacht’s leadership had no illusions about the harsh punishment that awaited them at the hands of the Soviets. An act was drawn up and signed in Reims, France on May 7th, but this did not satisfy the Soviets. Josef Stalin and the Soviet high command insisted that this act of German unconditional surrender was invalid.  Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the commanders of all three branches of the German military were flown to Berlin where they would take part in a formal surrender to the Soviets. Thus, late in the evening of May 8th, Allied, Soviet and Wehrmacht delegations traveled to the former officer’s mess at Karlshorst to sign the unconditional surrender.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German unconditional surrender at Karlshorst (Credit: NARA)

Before And After Midnight – Strokes Of Fate
Visiting the museum felt sublime. I was not really interested in any of the exhibits on offer. The true power of the place resided in the room where the surrender was signed. The room itself was a large cavernous space, a typical setting for a large dining hall. The allied delegation arrived just before midnight on May 8th while the German representatives entered the hall just after the clock had struck midnight. A new day had dawned both literally and figuratively. The ceremony took less than 15 minutes to complete, breathtakingly brief when compared to the years of planning that went into preparing for war, followed by the years of killing.

And all the horror, infamy and tragedy was ended by a few strokes of the pen in a quarter of an hour. It was the end not only for the Wehrmacht, but also the beginning of the end for two of their three signatories. In just over two weeks the man who signed for the Luftwaffe, Hans-Jurgen Stumpff would commit suicide by ingesting poison. He could not live with the shame of surrender. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel would be hanged the following year, after being convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg. His death was a particularly gruesome one. The trap door through which he fell to his death was not set right causing him to be slowly strangled to death. His fate could not have been worse than the millions of innocents who lost their lives because of decisions made by men like Keitel and Hitler’s other henchmen.

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed

Room where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces was signed (Credit: Andreas Teutsch)

Dead End – Footsteps Creaking Across The Floor
Standing in the room where World War II in Europe finally came to an end was a humbling experience. The museum is a somber memorial to the very end of a bitter, brutal war that took more lives than any other in human history. There is little to celebrate and much to mourn. No one else was visiting the museum at that time. I was all alone, standing to the side looking at the place settings. The room was setup to look like it did when the surrender took place. The only sound I could hear was my own footsteps, creaking across the floor. The effect was unsettling. A deep sadness came over me, the kind that occurs when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again. I felt like I was the only person at a funeral, on this day I was.


Stairway To Nowhere – The Chernobyl Tour: Memory Makers

Imagine for a moment a group of 10 foreigners standing around a table in a block shaped administrative building in the village of Chernobyl. In the middle of the table is a liability waiver form written entirely in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet. None of the foreigners can read the language or alphabet. Of the group, only one is ethnically Slavic, a 50-ish Polish woman with eyes as bright as her blonde hair. She finds the form just as incomprehensible as everyone else does. It seems that she has been living in Great Britain for several decades. A short, slightly balding Finnish male, who looks ten years older than his actual age, quietly stares forward at nothing in particular. His expression says “will they or won’t they. Whatever they decide to do, I will follow.” A Norwegian, who also happens to be a soldier, looks nonchalant and slightly bemused. No one utters a word. The silence is a symptom of discomfort. They could all be signing their lives away.

A pen has been laid beside the form, which has a series of blank lines awaiting signatures. Sign and the guided tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will continue for those who agree to waive liability so they can enter one of the world’s most toxic areas. Refuse to sign and it means getting left behind in the building, spending the rest of the day experiencing what the later years of the Soviet Union was like, stagnant, stolid and emotionally indifferent. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, but no one wants to go first. There is a pen that was left behind by the Ukrainian tour guide who left the room a couple of minutes earlier. He did not offer much in the way of advice. He had made an offer without really making an offer, knowing that only the foolish would refuse to sign.

I was part of this group, the lone American who suddenly felt a close kinship with a group of reticent northern Europeans. I felt a sense of relief that they were now at my side, nine other people who would make this decision easier for me.  The question that hung in the air was this: who was going to sign first? I was looking at everyone else, staring out from the corners of my eyes. Finally the husband of the Polish woman, the lone Englishman in the group put an end to our plight with a bit of quintessentially English pragmatism. “Oh just come on and sign the thing. We didn’t come all this way to turn around. No way is anyone going back without seeing it.” Tight smiles and nervous chuckles followed. Of course, he was right. We had traveled an hour and a half north of Kiev, paid almost a hundred dollars and had suffered through a foreign language film on the Chernobyl disaster that seemed to be a half-life in length. We had come to see Chernobyl and that was exactly what we were about to do, sort of.

Guide with a Geiger Counter - the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

Guide with a Geiger Counter – the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant complex can be seen in the background

A State Of Nature – Pripyat Consumed
On any guided tour, let alone one to Chernobyl, there are many fascinating attractions to see. Tourism on the dark side was my initial reason for taking this tour. By that I mean a personal fascination with catastrophe and tragedy. I have no idea why I gravitate towards tragic places. It is more about a feeling rather than a flair for the dramatic. Certain places are fraught with tension and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is one of them. It is a rather banal cliché to say that travel is about discovery, but that is true. Not so much discovery of a place, as of yourself.  There was something I needed from this place. Perhaps it was validation of my worst fears about humanity, where we have been and where we are headed when it comes to nuclear weapons and energy, a place of no return. I sensed this while walking around the eerie, modern ghost town of Pripyat, surely one of the largest, vacant urban environments anywhere in the world. I came within a kilometer of the notorious Reactor Number Four, whose meltdown and explosion contaminated an area equivalent to the size of Belgium. I ate in the power plant’s canteen and suffered no ill effects. Much of the tour was spent observing the tour guide holding a Geiger counter which did most of the talking. Its constant whine was a surreal and shrill accompaniment to the tour, rising or falling depending on the level of radiation in the air or ground. It was an alarm that would take thousands of years to turn off.

Was the tour worth it? The short answer is yes, for two very different reasons. The Exclusion Zone, specifically Pripyat, was and always be (unless man commits nuclear suicide) an experience without precedent. Little explanation was necessary. The place was the opposite of normal. Imagine an entire city being consumed by nature, absent the humanity which had labored to build it. Wilderness was slowly, inexorably overtaking the work of man. Pripyat is the ultimate example of humanity’s fleeting existence. Everything manmade eventually decays, sliding back toward a state of nature. Ironically, the longest lasting manmade thing in Pripyat happens to be radioactive contamination. It kills off man and at the same time lives on for thousands of years without him, an invisible and toxic artifact of self-destruction.

A near death experience - a ferris wheel in Pripyat's former amusement park

Near death experience – a ferris wheel in Pripyat’s former amusement park

Fossilized Remains – The Memory Makers
The tour’s value was also enhanced by one thing that had little to do with Chernobyl, the experience of interacting with other members of the group. Many of their faces, words and actions have stayed with me. What I remember has less to do with Chernobyl and more to do with the oddities and nuances of the people I traveled with. These memories – and photos I rarely ever look at – are all that I have left of that day. There was the Englishman, who looked to be his late 60’s. He was a fascinating character for two reasons and one of those reasons had little to do with him. First there was his Polish wife, who was at least a decade younger with sparkling eyes and the charismatic softness of her accented English. She had a magnetic allure, one of those women who no matter their age are sexy without even trying to be. It was hard to tell what was more mysterious, the power of her beauty or the fact that a somewhat haggard, ill dressed and rather disheveled Englishman, had somehow won her heart. He was quite the charmer though.

Like most Englishman I have met, he managed to use humor to keep everyone feeling welcome while also at a distance. He was full of verbal witticisms and clever asides. Yet he too was mysterious. When I asked him why they were travelling in Ukraine he stated an interest in fossils. When I questioned him further, asking if he was a paleontologist, all he would offer was that they were returning from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv where they had seen an important fossil. I believed him even though I had no idea what he was talking about. I tried to imagine what the famous fossil in Kharkiv might look like, all I could envision was a neo-Soviet bureaucrat.

View from a balcony - at Pripyat's abandoned hotel

View from a balcony – at Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

Soldiering On – Hugs, Kisses & Loneliness
Then there were a handful of Norwegians. The soldier was happy to talk about his duties in the Norwegian army. Basically it sounded like a good paying job, with plenty of fringe benefits, such as long holidays, learning how to play at war and getting to hang out for a living. I am sure he was a devout believer in rubber bullets. The guy seemed less like a soldier and more like everyone’s best friend. He was taking a long weekend to visit Chernobyl. This was the normal life of a single male Norwegian soldier, something definitely worth fighting for. There was also a Norwegian retiree couple who had traveled around the deep south of the United States. It did not take long for them to detect my southern accent. They regaled me with their stories of using public transport in Memphis, Tennessee. Everyone had warned them that they were going to get mugged for sure. They were surprised to be the only white people on the bus and had encountered no problems, only helpful, friendly people. They talked about this for a good half hour, fascinated with their supposed brush with danger in America.

My most distinct memories involve two people from Finland. One was a girl in her 20’s who turned out to actually be a Mexican national. She had come to Finland as part of a university exchange program, found a job and decided to stay, an icy proposition. She said the weather was dreadfully frigid and gray during the long winters. People drank too much, but the Finns were so polite, even when they were falling over drunk. She told me a story of how reserved they were emotionally. One time, she had sent her Finnish boyfriend a romantic text, something to the effect of “Hugs and Kisses.” This had freaked him out. He immediately called her, asking what it all meant.  Suffering thirty below half the year could probably do that to any man’s emotions.

There was also a stereotypically shy Finnish man. With his soft voice, unassuming nature and social awkwardness, he seemed fit for a cubicle at some Nordic computer programming powerhouse. He actually was a computer programmer who talked about the threat of outsourcing to his job. Talking to him made me both bored and nervous at the same time. He had one of the nicest cameras I have ever seen around his neck. It looked like he was born with the thing on. The lens was bigger than a baby’s head. He enjoyed traveling around the Baltic, where he visited the old trade cities of the Hanseatic League. I got the feeling that he was the kind of person who was completely content with loneliness. Loneliness was something I did not feel much of on this trip. I came to see Chernobyl and Pripyat, but ended up feeling like I was on a Scandinavian tourist junket with a witty Englishman thrown in for good measure.

Stairway to nowhere - in Pripyat's abandoned Hotel Polissa

Stairway to nowhere – in Pripyat’s abandoned Hotel Polissa

The Final Attraction – A Character Study
It was that Englishman who brought the tour to a memorable conclusion for me. One that has stuck in my memory ever since. We entered an abandoned, half ruined hotel in Pripyat. Several of us carefully made our way up a stairwell that was an obstacle course of trip hazards. One wrong step and a person could fall a couple of stories to what would most probably be a painful death. There were no barriers, either physical or mental in the place. One could go anywhere at their own risk and let their imagination run wild. I found myself standing on the precipice of an open shaft, looking down into an abyss of darkness. The Englishman came up beside me, looked around and suddenly said “just imagine being alone here in the dead of winter.” I peered down into the dark shaft nervously. Only later did I realize that here was the real attraction of the Chernobyl tour, fear and oblivion. That was what I had come to see and that was what I finally found.

Walking Backward Against The Wind – Slavutych, Ukraine: The Other Side Of Chernobyl

There is only one place in Ukraine where a visitor can travel to Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi and Moscow in a matter of minutes. They can even go to Kiev without actually being there. This can only be done in the city of Slavutych in northern Ukraine. There is one caveat. The traveler will not actually be in those cities, but instead in districts named after them. The idea sounds intriguing, if only it was not linked to one of the worst ecological disasters in human history, the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The reason districts in Slavutych were given the names of these cities is because workers came from each of them and their respective Soviet republics to build a city for those workers displaced by the disaster. A model community was constructed just 50 kilometers away from the site of Reactor Number 4, site of the cataclysmic meltdown. One might suppose that the proximity of Slavutych to Chernobyl would be too close for comfort, but in the 28 years since it was constructed, Slavutych has become known for its prosperity. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, that is except for the radioactive exclusion zone half an hour away from Slavutych.

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine – many workers and their families from Chernobyl were relocated to the city in 1988 (Credit: fraskini)

On Suspect Terrain – A Utopian Fantasy Rises From Dystopia
The popular perception of a city close to Chernobyl has been informed by Pripyat, that planned Soviet city which was abandoned 36 hours after the meltdown of Reactor Number 4 in the early hours of April 26, 1986. Pripyat’s vacant, crumbling buildings, cracked streets and eerie amusement park have become a surreal symbol of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Popular media has focused on Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to the point that Slavutych is rarely, if ever mentioned. That is understandable since Chernobyl was the signature disaster of the nuclear age, while Slavutych was a modest attempt to mitigate the massive damage wrought on the populace by upheaval and relocation. It is ironic that Slavutych is just a half hour away from Chernobyl by public transport.

How could an area so close to Reactor Number 4 not have become horribly contaminated?  The answer is rather banal, it was not downwind of the fallout cloud. Thus, the heavily wooded area where Slavutych would be constructed was relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, two meters of fresh topsoil was brought in and laid before construction started. To say that the first inhabitants of the city were moving onto suspect terrain would be an understatement. Yet the citizens of Slavutych have suffered much less than almost any community in the region. It has been one of the healthiest places to live in Ukraine. Oddly enough this has much to do with Chernobyl, as does just about everything else in the city, from the reason for its existence to its prosperity and wellness. A city built as an escape from the worst nuclear disaster in human history has become known for its youth and wealth. This is especially perplexing when measured against the fact that the city is located within thirty minutes of an exclusion zone that will likely stay uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims (Credit: mtaHarlemLine)

Prospering From Disaster – The Rise of Slavutych
The success of Slavutych is one of the world’s most improbable stories. The fact that it has thrived can be largely attributed to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. There were four working reactors at Chernobyl, only one of which exploded. The other three continued to operate as a vital power supply for Ukraine. This meant that thousands of workers would have to be housed somewhere in the surrounding area. A railroad siding called Nerafa was selected as the site for Slavutych. The new city’s name was an Old Slavic language word for the nearby Dneiper River. Construction would require clearance of a thick forest, but the river offered an uncontaminated supply of water and the pre-existing transport infrastructure offered ease of access to and from Chernobyl.

In just two years a city rose out of the forest, strangely it was designed with a younger generation in mind. This was because approximately 8,000 children who had been living close to Chernobyl would now be living in Slavutych. The new community had sports facilities, youth centers, good schools and lots of playgrounds. A total of 9,000 workers, many scientists and highly educated engineers moved into the town. They received good housing, high quality medical care and good salaries for working at Chernobyl.  As a newly independent nation Ukraine went through tumultuous economic times during the 1990’s, meanwhile Slavutych’s economy continued to hum along. The quality of life was excellent. Such problems as low wages, unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse that plagued the rest of Ukraine were minimal in Slavutych. This was a strangely successful, post-apocalyptic utopia.

In essence, Slavutych was a half-size version of Pripyat, with a trajectory that was on the upswing. Unfortunately, Slavutych had much in common with Pripyat, such as being totally reliant on Chernobyl. That ended up being a major problem. In 2001, the three nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were finally shut down. This constricted the flow of money to Slavutych. For 13 years the city had been virtually bankrolled by the entity that ran the power station. Now funding was dramatically reduced. The personnel working at Chernobyl fell from 9,000 to 3,000 workers. Slavutych has been on the wane ever since. Despite such measures as declaring the city a Special Economic Zone, with tax perks for business startups and investment, the city has stagnated. Those who work at the plant today, either help construct the new sarcophagus which will seal Reactor Number 4 for a century or dismantle other parts of the facility. The worker’s labor is now going toward putting themselves out of a job. That brutal paradox sums up Slavutych’s relationship with Chernobyl.

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine (Credit: fraskini)

The Dream & the Reality – Fleeing & Fleeting Slavutych
The fate of Slavutych is uncertain, though decline seems all but inevitable. The city and its citizens can only walk backward against the prevailing winds of history for so long. It is remarkable that the city has lasted this long, despite the fact that it was built on the fringes of what is perhaps the worst environmental disaster in modern history. Slavutych’s existence is nothing short of astonishing. The city proves that mankind can live for a limited amount of time, side by side with its worst mistakes. Unfortunately the radiation from the Chernobyl meltdown could outlive humanity. That is a reality that the best efforts of mankind, such as Slavutych, can never mitigate.

School Is Out, Forever – Pripyat, Chernobyl & Lessons On The End Of Innocence

I can still remember the exact moment when I lost my innocence. Often people will say they lost their innocence the first time they were jilted in romance or during their first sexual encounter. My experience was totally different. I lost my innocence watching a TV movie. It happened on November 20, 1983. I was 12 years old at the time and had just started junior high school. Every weekday morning I attended Mr. Connelly’s 2nd period Social Studies class. One Friday morning he mentioned that we should watch a movie that weekend. It was called The Day After and would air on the ABC television network Sunday evening. The film was about a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. I thought it sounded interesting, as did almost 100 million Americans who tuned in that Sunday night. Exactly 55 minutes and 57 seconds into the movie, the possibility of hell on earth entered my consciousness as nuclear warheads sent vortexes of fire, flame and catastrophic levels of radiation onto eastern Kansas and western Missouri. The immediate destruction was terrifying and its aftermath worse as the characters reckoned with survival, only to experience slow, painful deaths.

Chalkboard in a classroom at Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

Chalkboard in a classroom at Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

The world as I understood it died that evening. Nuclear war was no longer some vague concept, it was a distinct possibility. The worst part was that it could happen almost any minute. And nuclear war was always measured in minutes. In the time it takes to watch an average television sitcom, civilization could come to an end, for all time. I can still recall how I was barely able to sleep for several days afterward. Slowly I adjusted to this new and frightening reality. The threat of nuclear war would always be with me, as it would be with humanity. The movie started a personal fascination with nuclear war, nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters. Perhaps this was a reaction to the trauma I had experienced that evening.

Desk and chair at Middle School Number 3

Desk and chair at Middle School Number 3

Permanent Scars – Chernobyl & The Long Goodbye
An odd and horrifying thing happened in the Soviet Union that would affect all things nuclear just two and a half years after The Day After aired. Thankfully it was not a nuclear exchange, but something similar in scope occurred. Radiation equivalent to 500 Hiroshima atomic bombs was released in extreme northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. This was the Chernobyl disaster, where on April 26, 1986 Reactor Number 4 suffered a catastrophic meltdown. The news spread around the globe along with radioactive fallout. This was a nuclear disaster, the likes of which had never before been experienced by humanity. The most frightening aspect was that the effects of radioactive contamination – covering an area the size of Belgium – were going to last for thousands of years. I found myself in the school library reading newspaper and magazine articles about the accident, trying to comprehend what would turn out to be a monstrous human tragedy. Chernobyl changed the world. It indirectly helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Ukrainians and Belarusians lost faith in the communist system and the party leaders who tried to ignore the disaster.

Portraits of Communist Party dignitaries

Abandoned portraits of Communist Party dignitaries

When the Soviet Union disintegrated five and a half years later, an independent Ukraine was formed. One of the legacies of communism Ukraine would struggle with was Chernobyl. The cost of containing the damage was exorbitant in scientific, financial and human terms. Yet life was never the same for those who had lived close to Chernobyl. Tens of thousands suffered from the poisonous effects of radiation. Overlooked, but often just as insidious were the effects of upheaval on those who were forced to relocate. Many could not cope and sank into depression, which led to alcoholism or much worse. A slow, grinding death replaced the more immediate one that had occurred in the wake of the meltdown. Things never returned to normal in the area, but as the years passed the survivors moved on, scattered in apartment blocks throughout Ukraine and Belarus. The world moved on as well, but could never quite forget. Chernobyl was a blight on the earth and human consciousness that left permanent scars.

Doll at a piano in Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat

Music depreciation – doll at a piano

Ghost Of Civilization’s Past – Pripyat Middle School Number 3
In September, 2011 I traveled to Kiev for one reason, to visit Chernobyl. Foreign tourists were now allowed inside the exclusion zone. Daily tours could be easily arranged out of the Ukrainian capital. These tours included glimpses of the Chernobyl Power facility, the sarcophagus covered Reactor Number 4 and an opportunity to visit the once bustling, but now totally abandoned city of Pripyat. 49,400 people, the entire population of Pripyat, had been evacuated 36 hours after the meltdown. All the inhabitants had vanished, literally overnight. A guided tour was how I came to be standing inside Pripyat Middle School Number 3, just a few kilometers away from the now confined, but still deadly detritus of Reactor Number 4. Outside the sun was shining and the leaves were just beginning to turn autumn colors beneath a deep blue sky. Inside the school it could not have been more different. There was dust and debris everywhere, the air tasted like chalk and footsteps echoed down empty corridors. My tour group of twelve, all foreigners, except for a guide and driver, wandered about snapping photos.

Former classroom ravaged by radiation, looters and time

Former classroom ravaged by radiation, looters and time – none of which can be seen

I had never seen anything like this. The school’s look and feel had little to do with the way things were in Pripyat pre-meltdown. Looters had ravaged the place. It was a microcosm of what the world would have been like downwind of a massive nuclear exchange. At one time, Pripyat had 15 primary schools, 5 middle schools and one professional school. At Pripyat’ Middle School Number 3 hundreds of teenagers had walked the now ruined halls. On the chalk boards, ghosts of lessons were still discernible. In the gym, I peered into the corners where first kisses had once been exchanged and hormones started to rage. Songs extolling the Soviet Union would have been sung here. All of this was now in the past. It was over, but it was also frozen. This was a place where the ghost of the late Soviet Union’s past still stalked the hallways. It was a school in the truest sense of the word, since there was still so much to be learned here. There were lessons to be discerned on the frailty of human existence, the meaning of abandonment and the end of civilization. The school was a boneyard of history.

Class Project - decades later

Class Project – decades later

The Day After Every Day – An End To Innocence
I was able to discern eerie similarities between Pripyat’s Middle School Number 3 and Valdese Junior High, where I attended school from the 7th through the 9th grades. There were poster boards covered with photos from class projects, adolescent sketches and idolized depictions of the world as teenagers see it. Windows were left open for natural air conditioning, wooden desks looked much the same and the classrooms were of similar size. The difference was that I had been able to finish junior high in the same place that I started. Not long after I went off to high school, they closed Valdese Junior High down. It was old and falling into disrepair. A few years later I climbed through a broken window to get inside. What I found looked about the same as the school in Pripyat. Both schools were now closed, forever. Looters had done their dirty work. The classrooms were covered with debris.

School is out, forever - Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat, Ukraine

School is out, forever – Middle School Number 3 in Pripyat, Ukraine

It was sad, but outside my abandoned school’s walls my hometown continued to progress. It was not disrupted by a nuclear disaster. Valdese was no Valhalla, but it was not Pripyat either. The Day After was now every day in Pripyat. Nothing had been stolen from me in my school or hometown other than my innocence. The Day After had just been a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, a distant nightmare that I was able to conjure up once again in Pripyat. I was lucky, we were lucky. Pripyat could have been us. It still could be.


Fall From Grace – Catholicism, Communism & Cross Cutting at Lviv’s St. Elizabeth Church (Lviv: The Story of a City #7)

One of my first memories of Lviv was seeing the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. Like the majority of visitors to the city I arrived by train. After procuring a cab at the entrance to the station, I rode out of the parking area, down Chernivetska Street to make the turn onto Horodska Street, which is the main road leading to the city center. It was here that the soaring spires of the church suddenly appeared as a towering illumination of electric red, incandescent purple and lightning white that outlined the neo-Gothic edifice. By sheer presence the church commanded my attention.  This was not a coincidence.

Church of Sts. Olha & Elizabeth Church

Church of Sts. Olha & Elizabeth Church – illuminated at night (Credit: Lilia Sytnyk)

Tragic and Tortured – The Church Of St. Elizabeth’s 20th Century
I later discovered that the church’s placement near the main railway station was done intentionally. When it was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century, the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was built with the idea of being the first and most memorable sight to catch the eyes of new arrivals. The church was dedicated to the memory of Emperor Franz Josef I’s wife Empress Elizabeth of Austria who had been murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Thus it was given the name, Church of St. Elizabeth. From the very beginning, the church was meant to be noticed.  The design called for three spires shooting skyward, with the tallest one peaking at 85 meters. A bit more subtle, was the fact that the church was situated to impede the view of another landmark, St. George’s Cathedral.

This does not seem to make much sense today as both churches are now Greek-Catholic, but up until 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was Roman Catholic, built to serve the Polish community that made up a majority of Lwow’s (the city’s Polish name) citizens. They were determined to keep the city Polish through and through. And what could be more symbolic of the Polish, than Roman Catholicism. Conversely, St. George’s Cathedral was the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism. More than any church or building in Lviv, St. Elizabeth’s history is a direct reflection of the city’s tumultuous 20th century. The church’s proximity to the railway station did it no favors when war broke out. The structure suffered damage in World War I, the Polish-Ukrainian War, the opening days of World War II when Luftwaffe aerial bombing targeted what was one of Poland’s largest cities and later in the war as the Soviets took the city back from the German army. St. Elizabeth was also raided by its own side in the First World War, when its bells were taken and melted down by the Austro-Hungarian administration to aid in the war effort.

Church of St. Elizabeth in its early years

Church of St. Elizabeth in its early years

Crossing God – The Aspirations of Atheism
The darkest days for the church, dawned at the end of World War II, when the Poles were forcibly expelled from the city. As for the Ukrainians they to be transformed into atheists or so the ruling Soviets thought. The military conquest was complete, but the spiritual conquest was never accomplished. This was not for want of trying. In the summer of 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was shuttered. The interior was vandalized, with the confessionals and many sculptures smashed. The natural elements added to the degradation, as snow fell inside the sanctuary. No one was allowed inside, as the main entrance gate was kept locked. The sad state of the church made it no longer worthy of Queen Elizabeth’s memory. The glory of St. Elizabeth’s like that of Austria-Hungary’s halcyon days was but a distant memory by the middle of the 20th century.

What really drove the Soviets to distraction was the fact that the church was home to the tallest manmade structure in the city which was topped with a cross. This form of symbolism could not be tolerated. As long as that iron cross stood at the architectural pinnacle of Lvov (the Soviet name for the city), the communists must have felt that they failed in their aspiration for complete totalitarian rule over the city. Something had to be done about this. Short of bringing the whole church down, the Soviet leaders in the city thought they had a better idea. On a moonlit night in 1962 a man began to scale the central tower of the church with one goal in mind. He was going to cut the cross down with a handsaw. In retrospect, this was senseless madness, but the culprit’s passion was fired with ideological zealotry.

Something To Believe In – A Cross Cutter’s Final Moments
When one stands at ground level outside the church today, gazing at its apex, a feeling of dizziness takes hold. Just trying to imagine the vertigo felt by the cross cutting zealot can be overwhelming. The cross cutter would have been looking down on the flickering lights of Lvov and then upwards at a sky lit by the silver sparkles of a hundred stars. Working through the deepest hours of night until the first creeping expanses of sunlight appeared in the east. On and on he sawed. His work coming into focus as daylight exposed the cross. Meanwhile, a crowd began to slowly gather in the streets surrounding the church. They were said to have shouted threats and curses. All the while, the lonely zealot kept up his work. He held tight to the cross as he continued to saw and saw until finally, off came the cross, taking the zealot into free fall with it. He held onto it during the last moments of his life. The last thing he ever grasped was what he had so fervently rejected. The man and the cross fell to earth, but the Church was still standing.

Following this incident one would think that the ruling communists would have left the church alone. As the decades passed and the Soviet Union descended into stagnation the Soviets still would not moderate their behavior towards St. Elizabeth’s. The humiliations continued into the 1970’s when the church was turned into a cement storage warehouse. It is a wonder that the communists did not have the church demolished. They made plans to do just that, but it would have been too expensive, communism was not exactly known for efficient public works projects. The fact that the church was used as a warehouse can be seen as an indictment of communism’s inability to provide for enterprise. The powers that be were forced to utilize whatever buildings remained from the pre-communist period.

Sts. Olha and Elizabeth Church

Church of Sts. Olha and Elizabeth in Lviv (Credit: Alexander Naumov)

Spiritual Power, Staying Power
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Lvov became Lviv and the Church of St. Elizabeth was soon transformed into the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. A church that had been built for Roman Catholicism and suffered under Soviet Communism was now protected and preserved by Greek Catholicism. The power of religious tradition had trumped atheism. The cross cutter’s story became an apocryphal tale of deadly ideological obsession and foolish destruction.  A metaphor for a Soviet system that had tried to create a brave new world, but in the process had been consumed by an older spiritual one.

Lenin Leaves Lviv – From Beginning to Unending: Decommunization in Ukraine (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #5)

This past spring the Ukrainian Parliament passed four bills in an effort to decommunize the nation. On May 15th, President Petro Poroshenko signed these bills into law. They call for the removal of all communist era monuments in the country within six months. The bills were popular in the western and central parts of Ukraine while they were heavily criticized in the east. Due to the high percentage of ethnic Russians in the East and the fact that the Russian language is the region’s lingua franca, the attempt to move Ukraine away from its Soviet past and the symbolism that goes with it has been highly controversial.

Lenin statue in Donetsk, Ukraine

Worn out – a Lenin statue in Donetsk, Ukraine (Credit: Andrew Butko)

Excess Baggage – A Long & Bloody Shadow
An entire generation of pensioners looks back nostalgically on the Soviet era. They selectively recall that life was stable, people were taken care of, Ukraine was part of an empire and most importantly, Ukraine’s ethnic Russians were living under the protection of a Russian dominated polity. Most of these people lived during the latter decades of the Soviet Union, when the system was at its most ossified and stagnant. Strangely enough, these were some of the best days of Soviet rule in Ukraine. Such a statement exposes just how horrific Soviet communism was in its first three decades for Ukraine. A study done by the Institute of Demography in Moscow quantified the human catastrophe of Soviet rule in Ukraine. The Institute estimated that Ukraine suffered 7.5 million “excess deaths” due to the policies of the Soviet Union. By comparison, the much more well-publicized genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in 6.5 million deaths.

Whereas Ukraine was thoroughly denazified in the immediate years after World War II – no matter what the Putin regime and its cronies might say – the decommunization of Ukraine only occurred in fits and starts following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mainly in the western part of the country. What does it actually mean to “decommunize” in Ukraine? It is an arduous historical, civic and public works process. The historical and civic parts generally consist of expert commissions vetting people and events from the Soviet era that had places named after them. The vetting is done to see if the people or event in question was associated with murderous or anti-Ukrainian policies. The same is done for statues, sculptures, memorials and buildings raised to publicly commemorate a person or event. Statues are often the most prominent public monuments to come under scrutiny.

Unveiling of Lenin statue in Lviv

Unveiling of Lenin statue in Lviv on January 20 1952 (Credit Central State Kinofotofono Archive after G.S. Pshenychny from http://www.lvivcenter.org)

The Ghosts of Communism’s Past – Street Fights
The public works part of the process is most noticeable in the removal of monuments. Even more arduous, is the task of changing thousands of place names. The decisions on what to change and rename can often take months. This process, fraught with the politics of both present and past will be anything, but easy. In Ukraine these decisions have the potential to transform the way people not only memorialize the past, but whether or not the nation makes a decisive turn from the neo-Soviet ideas propagated by Russia’s current leadership and moves towards a more western orientation.

According to an article on the Radio Free Europe website, the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk will have a 46 person commission reviewing the names of “about 80 streets, embankments, squares, and boulevards…five of the city’s eight regions, and the name of the city itself” for possible renaming. While this is a daunting task, as mentioned earlier Ukraine has 7.5 million reasons to proceed with decommunization. Incredibly, this process seems to be just a continuation of one that started twenty six years ago in the heart of Lviv, which for good reason is known as “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.”

Bringing A Dictator Down – Lenin Leaves Lviv
Lviv’s Opera House stands at one end of Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Boulevard). This Austro-Hungarian era architectural wonder bookends the pulsing heart of Ukraine’s most Europeanized city. A large public space begins in front of the Opera House. This is an area where lovers embrace, old men spend entire afternoons in games of chess and heart shaped balloons are sold. In short, a place reserved for leisure and comfort. Near the beginning of this area, about 50 meters in front of the opera house stands a fountain. It was here from 1952 until 1990 that a fifty foot high statue of Vladimir Lenin stood. It was reputedly the only Lenin statue in Ukraine with his name written in the Ukrainian language. What this meant, was not that Lviv loved Lenin. On the contrary, western Ukrainians despised Lenin and the Soviet tyranny that placed a stranglehold on Ukrainian statehood.

The Lenin statue was imposed on Lviv just like communism was, from an unaccountable clique of Communist party bosses who had the blood of million on their hands. The charade came to an end on September 14, 1990 when over 50,000 Lvivians surrounded the space to watch as the statue was toppled and removed. It was a remarkable event that occurred over a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated. (Note: This was the second Lenin statue taken down in the Soviet Union. The first was toppled in Vilnius, Lithuania, by another nascent national movement that of the Lithuanians which had been suppressed by the Soviet Union after World War II.) This was just the beginning of a process that has been greatly accelerated by the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Since the Maidan, over 500 Lenin statues have been taken down in Ukraine. And the end is nowhere in sight.

Lenin in oblivion

Lenin in oblivion – on the wrong side of history (Credit: Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed)

Taking A Stand – The Right & Wrong Sides of History
Lenin for the majority of Ukrainians is a symbol of oppression. Yet there are those who still revere what this man and these statues stood for. The fight to keep many of these up will continue. In the rebellious, anti-Maidan, pro-Russian region of Ukraine, the so called “Donetsk People’s Republic” a Lenin statue was actually restored. Lenin has long since ceased to be a man and more of a symbol, but what that symbol stands for: tyranny, mass murder and a failed ideology is what most Ukrainians have been standing against.

The Keeper of Secrets – Valentina Istomina: Discovering Stalin’s Mistress

I have spent the last several months wondering why my post The Quiet Concubine – Valentina Istomina: Stalin’s Housekeeper has been far and away the most popular one on this blog. Just this year, the post was ten times more popular than the runner-up. What could possibly be the reason for such runaway popularity? Was there really an audience waiting to learn about the housekeeper/mistress who spent almost two decades with one of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers? The servant who neatly folded his underwear, took care of his every domestic need and made love to him, an invisible partner, who took care of the Soviet Union’s grimmest reaper, through deadly and decisive wars against his own people as well as foreign foes. Judging by the stats from WordPress it seems that such an audience is out there. After a bit of research I came up with a possible reason for the post’s popularity. Quite simply, there are very few English language sources on Valentina Istomina. Googling her name brought a paltry 11,400 hits. Compare this to Hitler’s closest female companion, Eva Braun, who brought back 14,500,000 hits and that’s just in English.

Valentina Istomina - housekeeper and long term mistress of Joseph Stalin

Valentina Istomina – housekeeper and long term mistress of Joseph Stalin

Valechka –  The Housekeeper Mistress
A large part of Valentina Vasilevna Istomina’s anonymity has to do with the society Stalin cultivated. In this world everything was a secret, the truth open to manipulation and propaganda created a new reality. The secretiveness extended to Stalin’s private life as well. The Soviet Union under Stalin came as close to total control over its citizens as any society in the history of humanity. Information about Stalin was manufactured and massaged to create a cult of personality, a man larger than life itself. Everything human about him was hidden, including the woman who came closer to being a true wife to Stalin, than either of the two women who had been unlucky enough to marry him. Yet in the giant, demonic shadow of Stalin was hidden the housekeeper nicknamed Valechka, unfailingly there for him during the final quarter of his life. It is quite incredible that the woman who spent years and years tending to Stalin’s domestic needs has gone almost entirely unnoticed by history.

With this in mind I tried to put together more information on Istomina from English language sources. This was a bit like trying to put together a puzzle with most of the pieces missing and where the few available offered little continuity. The best resources were Sebastian Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Svetlana Alliluyeva’s Twenty Letters To A Friend.  Montefiore’s book is an exhaustive account of the dictator’s private and what might be termed “court” life.  While Alliluyeva, who was Stalin’s daughter, offers a personal memoir of the fraught relationship she had with her father and anecdotes from this dysfunctional world. Montefiore devotes several pages to Valechka, more than any other book concerning Stalin. He also has several references to her scattered throughout the text. Putting together a picture of just who Istomina was and her appeal to Stalin is not easy, but the information does provide some fascinating insights.

The Blindness of Love & Loyalty
The sources Montefiore relies on to describe Valechka state that she was “cheerful” “laughed all the time” “like a kind woman from the villages” and “always smiling.” Details such as these raise the question of what exactly sparked an attraction between Stalin and Valechka. Perhaps it was the fact that they were opposites, after all no one ever accused Josef Stalin of perpetual smiles or cheerfulness. The attraction of an opposite is also evident in the fact that Valechka was said to take no interest in politics. Stalin was said to have preferred submissive women who knew and kept their place. He would brook no resistance.  Valechka certainly knew how to keep out of the way, blend into the background and do her masters bidding without attracting any notice whatsoever. She did not interject herself in affairs of state. This may seem obvious, but it is still remarkable, as she was witness to no end of incredible conversations and events that helped decide the future for much of the world. She accompanied Stalin to Yalta, Potsdam and on his postwar trip into southern Russia and Ukraine. She must have heard and witnessed extraordinary things on an almost daily basis, but never uttered a word publicly. Not while Stalin was alive and not after he was dead. His secrets were safe with Istomina. He had chosen the right woman.

Svetlana Alliluyeva (Svetlana Stalin) - spoke up about her father

Svetlana Alliluyeva (Svetlana Stalin) – spoke up about her father

One anecdote from Alliluyeva’s book conveys the blind devotion that Istomina had for Stalin. It is also a telling example of how a sheltered and secretive life influenced her view of the larger world. “The housekeeper Valechka, who accompanied my father on all his journeys, told me recently how upset he was when he saw that people were still living in dugouts and that everything was still in ruins (post World War II). She also told me how some Party leaders who later rose very high came to see him in the south and report on agricultural conditions in the Ukraine. They brought watermelons and other melons so huge you couldn’t put your arms around them. They brought fruit and vegetables and golden sheaves of grain, the point being to show off how rich the Ukraine was. Meanwhile the chauffeur of one leader….told the servants there was a famine in the Ukraine, that there was nothing to eat in the countryside and peasant women were using their cows for plowing. “It’s a wonder they weren’t ashamed,” wailed Valechka, the tears streaming down her face. ‘”To deceive your father of all people! And now they’re blaming him for it, too!” Deceiving Stalin, that master of deception and lies would have been quite an achievement. Stalin was one of the most controlling leaders in world history, and that control extended to knowledge and information over the entire Soviet Union. He would have been well aware of the situation in Ukraine. Of course Istomina, blinded by love and loyalty believed only what she wanted to. Her ability to suspend disbelief must have rivaled Stalin’s powers of manipulation and artifice. Then again her entire adult life had been lived in an alternate universe, the private world of Josef Stalin.

Stalin in death - many of his secrets were kept beyond the grave

Stalin in death – many of his secrets were kept beyond the grave

Confidentiality Agreements – In Life, Death & History
Perhaps the most interesting detail I learned from my research was that those who worked in Stalin’s household had to sign confidentiality agreements, as though the threat of being sent to the camps and ground into dust for so much as whispering a word about the personal affairs of Stalin was not enough. Istomina would certainly have signed one of these. Those lips, which on countless occasions had kissed Stalin’s, were sealed not only by officialdom and fear, but also undying affection. As Alliluyeva says, “During his last years Valechka and all the rest of them had known more about him and had seen more of him than I, who no longer felt close to him and was living in a different place. She (Istomina) had seen people from all over the world at that large table during banquets at which she always served. She had seen a good deal that was interesting, within her own narrow limits, of course, and whenever I see her now she tells me about it in the most vivid and amusing way.” Istomina may have shared those stories with Alliuyeva, but she kept them from the rest of the world. There was never any tell all memoir, there was never a diary or love letters. There was only an intensely private world that very few people ever glimpsed. It was a world never meant to be known because Valentina Istomina knew how to keep secrets. And perhaps that was what attracted Joseph Stalin to spend so much of his life with her.


Taking Temperatures – Weatherman & Revolutionary: The Short Formal Career of Josef Stalin

Long before Josef Stalin became one of the most powerful and deadly men in world history he was an itinerant revolutionary. Such a career choice meant danger, irregular hours and earning a living anyway possible. Survival was the biggest worry. To do this, meant procuring enough money just to keep going. It was not like revolutionaries actually got paid by the hour. Their pay might come from wealthy sympathizers or armed robbery. It could also come from holding odd jobs which had very little if anything to do with subversive activities. Whatever the job, as long as it allowed a revolutionary enough time to further their true profession, it could be considered adequate. Everything in a revolutionary’s life was subordinate to the ultimate cause. Josef Stalin was no different in this respect. The only regular job he ever held was nothing more than a means for providing him the time, money and lodging to continue working towards revolution. This helps explain why Stalin became a weatherman.

Tiflis Meterological Observatory

The Tiflis Meterological Observatory where Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) held his only formal job

On The Fringes Of Society – Living For The Revolution
Meteorology seems a strange career field for a man who would eventually change the world, but this was long before Stalin became leader of a superpower. As a young man, he had an excess of ambition, but little idea of where this would lead him. At the time of his 21st birthday, Stalin faced an uncertain and difficult future. He had a much better chance of ending up a panhandler on the streets of Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) or becoming a petty criminal. In 1899 he was Iosif Jughashvili, a young itinerant Georgian who needed a place to live and steady source of income. At this point a revolution seemed far off in the future. Jughashvili was a young, unemployed man with little to no career prospects. Like many a jobseeker he used a connection to help him find employment. 

Jughashvili’s connection was a friend from his hometown of Gori working at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory. The friend helped Jughashvili get hired. It was not much, but the position gave Jughashvili a roof over his head and a small salary. He was given a room beneath the observatory and a nominal salary. In return he was scheduled to work three days a week. This work involved either day or night shifts, depending on the week. Shifts lasted anywhere from twelve to fifteen hours. The work required very little, other than taking readings on the temperatures and barometers on an hourly basis. The great advantage of working at the observatory was that it allowed Jughashvili plenty of spare time to organize workers in Tiflis to strike.

Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) in 1902 - this photo was taken a year after he abandoned his job at the Tiflis Observatory

Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) in 1902 – this photo was taken a year after he abandoned his job at the Tiflis Observatory

Career Choices – The Making Of A Professional Revolutionary
When he was not on duty at the observatory, Jughashvili spent his days at a nearby railroad yard trying to mobilize workers. His efforts gained notice from the police who within a few months showed up at the observatory and arrested Jughashvili. The official reason for the arrest was his father’s failure to pay taxes. In truth, it was probably to scare Jughashvili into giving up his designs on revolution. The arrest hardly impeded his progress. Once released, he worked as hard as ever, not in studying climatic conditions, but fomenting labor unrest. This would lead to his first success. In the spring of 1900 Jughashvili led a mass meeting at night in the hills outside of Tiflis. While hundreds of workers listened he spoke passionately of the need to strike. The crowd was receptive to his charisma. The upshot of this meeting was that the railroad yard, where Jughashvili had spent so many hours, days and weeks convincing the workers of the justice of his cause, went on strike. He had successfully organized his first mass demonstration. This success had a downside though, as now Jughashvili’s name was documented in police reports. He was now going to be under constant surveillance. His next moves would be carefully scrutinized.

Meanwhile, Jughashvili continued his work at the observatory. As the seasons passed and he dutifully noted the climatic changes in Tiflis, the one constant in his life remained an intense revolutionary fervor. His initial success had made him ever more devoted to the cause. While the job allowed him ample time to stir up worker unrest, at some point Jughashvili would have to choose between regular work and becoming a full-time, professional revolutionary. The decision of which one to choose, was really no decision at all. The young Jughshvili was a fanatic, a true believer, a man with a passion for intrigue, subversion and dissent. His work at the observatory was a means to justifying an end. His choice to follow the path of revolution was also made for him by an unattended assist from the police.

Tiflis (Tbilisi) Georgia around the turn of the 20th century

Tiflis (Tbilisi) Georgia around the turn of the 20th century

Career Decision – A Total Commitment
In the spring of 1901 dissent was flaring up in Tiflis once again. The radical worker’s movement, with Stalin playing a prominent role, was planning a large and violent demonstration, a May Day riot. By now the Tsarist secret police were doing their best to track Stalin’s movements around the city. He was an exceedingly hard man to pin down. One place the secret police knew they could find him was at the observatory. In late March, over a month before the planned May Day demonstration the police decided to break up the conspiracy by arresting the principals involved. Stalin was a wanted man. The secret police surrounded the observatory to wait on Stalin to return one day. As he approached the observatory on public transport he noticed the police surrounding the observatory. He never got off at the station. He kept going and never looked back. His career as a weatherman was now over, he would never return to the observatory. This turned out to be the only formal job he ever held. This marked a fault line in Jughashvili’s life. A watershed had been crossed. From this point forward his commitment to revolution was total.


Live By The War, Die By The War – The Extraordinary Life of Maria Bochkareva (Part 2)

Maria Bochkareva entertained ideas of creating and leading an all-female force at the front. The February revolution had brought a new government to power, but the crisis was ongoing. This offered Bochkareva a prime opportunity. She would take advantage of the Russian provisional government’s need to raise morale in the armed forces.

Russian female soldiers at shooting practice

Maria Bochkareva supervises female soldiers during shooting practice

The Enemy Within – From Revolution to Civil War
The army was suffering from mass desertions and mutiny. The new leadership thought that having an all-female combat unit might shame the men into fighting. Bochkareva went to work with a force of two thousand prospective female soldiers. Due to her stern discipline and harsh training methods, over 80% of the recruits quit. What resulted was a force of 300 hard bitten, crack female troops that would form the “First Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.” It was not long before they were thrown into battle, fighting an action at Smorgon (Smarhon in present-day Belarus) against the Germans. Accounts say they performed competently. Unfortunately the battalion spent as much time fighting off their own side as they did the enemy. They faced ridicule and violence from male troops who wanted the war to end. The October Revolution soon brought the Bolsheviks to power. Bochkareva was aghast that the Bolshevik’s wanted to negotiate peace while the enemy was still on Russian soil. She turned her ferocity towards the enemy within. This would result in her arrest and near execution. Her savior turned out to be a male soldier who had once fought alongside her. She was freed, but had to leave her beloved homeland.

This started the final period in Bochkareva’s life. She undertook that long journey around the world to drum up support for the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the Whites. This was what brought her to those audiences with the American president and the British King. Bochkareva’s presentation of her story and the story of Russia’s plight under Bolshevik rule was met with sympathy by American and British leaders. She was one of many who encouraged the western Allies to provide support to help the White forces overthrow Lenin and the Communists. In the coming year both nations would send troops to Russia, but they were of little help. The White forces were disunited, separated by thousands of miles and failed to coordinate their offensives with each other or allied forces. Meanwhile, Bochkareva traveled back to Russia courtesy of the British government who paid her way.

The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death - Ready For Battle

The 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death – Ready For Battle

Staring Down The Barrel Of Fate
Only thirty years of age, Bochkareva had done enough traveling and fighting to last several lifetimes. Once back on home soil, Bochkareva’s goal was to make her way once again to Siberia, specifically Tomsk, the city she had left home for fifteen years and what must have seemed like a lifetime ago. She arrived there with the hope of starting another women’s battalion. The White forces were losing the Russian Civil War and needed all the help they could get. Their commander Aleksandr Kolchak had other ideas. He would not allow Bochkareva to create another women’s battalion. Instead she was given the duty of starting a women’s medical detachment. This had to be one of the greatest disappointments of her life. Danger soon outweighed disappointment. Bochkareva once again fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks in April 1919. This time there would be no escape.

She endured over a year of captivity, including months of interrogation while imprisoned in the city of Krasnoyarsk. By the early part of 1920 the Bolsheviks had emerged victorious in the Civil War. They now set about liquidating their opponents with extreme prejudice. Kolchak himself was executed. The label, “Enemy of the People” became commonplace. It was as much a death sentence as a label. Maria Bochakareva received a death sentence in the spring of 1920. On May 16th she was placed before a firing squad. Bochkareva once again stared down the barrel of multiple guns as she had so many times before. The difference this time was that she was unarmed. There are no details of Bochkareva’s final words. One can imagine that she most likely stared death in the face, the same way she had done on the battlefront. This final time was different. As the gunfire crackled, it signaled not the beginning of battle, but the end of both her war and life. The two had been inseparable.

Maria Bochkareva - 1889 - 1920

Maria Bochkareva – 1889 – 1920

A Deathly Paradox
Today Maria Bochkareva is barely known if at all. This is not surprising since the Bolsheviks destroyed their enemies both physically as well as historically. There was no mention of personages such as Bochkareva in official histories. Anyone who had opposed the Bolsheviks became a non-person after their death, unless that person could be used for propaganda purposes. The wars in which Bochkareva fought with honor and courage were seen as imperialistic capitalist enterprises. The old Russia had been eradicated in a six year long process that had started with its entry into the Great War in 1914. Total war had been followed by revolution which was followed by another revolution which was followed by a civil war. During this period Russia underwent a radical transformation. Millions did not survive the process. Bochkareva was one of those who did not last. Her life succumbed to a deathly paradox. She was up to the war, but not the revolution. She suffered at the hands of violence, only to co-opt it. War seemed to give her life meaning, but it eventually took her life as well. Live for the war, die by the war.