I am among those who eagerly awaited the publication of Erika Monahan’s book, The Merchants of Siberia. For a number of years I’ve been developing a study of what one might call (if one were inclined to use flamboyant catch phrases to draw popular attention to scholarly subjects) The Early Modern Silk Road. This is essentially a study of Central Eurasia’s position at the heart of overland networks of exchange during a period when most have assumed that they had diminished to the point of insignificance, and few have thought to look and see if that assumption was correct. The Merchants of Siberia advances a related argument and marshals a substantial amount of original evidence to support it. Erika Monahan was kind enough to provide me with working drafts of select chapters as her project was coming to a close. But it was only when I had the published book in my hand that I was able to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. Continue reading
There’s a moment in The Merchants of Siberia that I suspect will call forth a sigh of weary recognition from nearly any historian—or perhaps only from any historian working on the early modern world, or perhaps even only from any historian working on early modern Russia. Erika describes a “scandal” at Lake Yamysh when a trade dispute turned into an occasion for slander, insult, and “mutinous shouts.” The situation was serious enough that “Moscow, predictably, ordered an investigation.” More than a hundred witnesses were questioned, and the result was a 144-page long report “that, unfortunately, contains no resolution” (198). I have so much sympathy, and remembered frustration, for that one word, “unfortunately.” Archival files so often seem to promise the key to an argument but then simply end before they get there. Or they turn out to be illuminating in some way, as in the case reported here, but still leave the reader frustrated for lack of a proper conclusion to their story. Continue reading
Dry your tears, Ryan! Fur is important and absolutely belongs in any history we tell of Siberia. It’s just not the whole story. To me, this is epitomized visually in the 4-panel illustration of the Russian embassy to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1576. We all know the image: the Russian entourage with men bearing finely assembled forties of sables and other furs. It appears on the cover of one book, in texts, etc.
If you’ll make allowances for my admittedly myopic perspective, I’d say that to the extent that there are iconic images for early Russian history, this is among them. But, the whole image actually consists of 4 panels.
Merchants of Siberia complicates and enlivens our evolving picture of commerce and trade in early modern Russia. Noting the links between Russia’s growing involvement with European trading partners and trading activities on Muscovy’s southern and eastern frontiers, Erika Monahan calls for a closer focus on the role of the Russian state and Eurasian merchants as facilitators of east-west and north-south trade. As part of this move, she emphasizes that, from the point of view of both merchants and agents of the Muscovite state, Siberia was far more than just a store of natural resources, highlighting in particular its place as “a node in important trans-Eurasian routes.” This is a productive avenue of exploration. Erika’s work examines western Siberia’s under-appreciated early modern connections with Central Asia. Muscovy was indeed connected to diverse states along its multiple frontiers. Reading about these interactions, but coming at these same issues from the point of view of a historian of the nineteenth century, made me wonder, what standard do we have for calling a particular trade vibrant and a particular route or set of routes important?
Importance seems to be a relative concept. Continental trade to and through Siberia was important – undoubtedly so, I would argue, to the communities that resided there. As for transit trade, it was surely important as well, but the difficulty – not to mention the sheer length – of the routes made long-distance transport daunting and time-consuming under the best circumstances, and of course expensive. The routes between Siberia and east and central Asia all came with a set of challenges and risks. Climatic conditions compelled trade in Siberia to follow a seasonal rhythm – making passage of goods impossible for months at a time. The fact that these trade routes nonetheless persisted seems to point to both the dearth of alternatives and the reality that there were parties who had a vested interest in these routes, whatever the economic calculations. Continue reading
Welcome to our new blog conversation on Erika Monahan’s remarkable The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell University Press, 2016). Erika’s book is a comprehensive study of the structure and logistics of trade in Siberia, which is a ground-breaking accomplishment based on considerable archival research. I expect that her analysis of Russia as an “activist commercial state” will become the standard framework for explaining the Russian economy in the future studies. One of the features that is most exciting about the book is that Erika effectively moves between a local history of Siberia and a global view of the Eurasian economy, offering new ideas and interpretations for scholars of Russia and world history. Continue reading
Although my academic work gives no hint of this, I’ve always been oddly fascinated by the interwar period. I know exactly where the fascination came from: mystery novels. No, even more specifically, British mystery novels, where the specter of war is rarely foregrounded but often there, from poor (well, not poor) shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey to clever and displaced Hercule Poirot. I even love more recent mystery novels that take interwar Britain as their setting—an awfully popular setting, really, perhaps because everyone is trying to recapture the allure of Sayers and Christie.
Because I’m me, there is one extra thing I always notice in these novels—the random Russian émigrés who show up around the edges of the stories, making their lives in the wider European world. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase the murder victim is a young Russian émigré working as a professional dancer at a resort hotel. In her Strong Poison Lord Peter visits the smoky rooms of hipster Bloomsbury, where Russians fry sausages and play atonal music.
Yesterday I got a book out from the library that made me think about those Russians wandering about interwar Europe. On the surface, there’s no reason for the book to lead me there—it’s a history of the colonization of Siberia, by V. I. Shunkov, from 1946. But the book had this stamp:
It says Библиотека русских шофферов, or the library of Russian chauffeurs, and gives an address in Paris. Well, of course I had to find out a little bit more about that. Continue reading
As I’ve spent time reading files and writing about Ivanovo, one of the things I’ve wondered about is how exactly the spate of manumissions that first created this odd part-serf/part-industrial society happened. Obviously it happened when a group of serfs gained their manumission, but that’s not actually a simple thing. Manumission was not in general an unknown part of serf life, and a number of accounts of Ivanovo note that the Ivanovo serf E. I. Grachev had received his freedom back in 1802. But that had been a single instance of manumission, and since then Ivanovo had been developing into a major textile center without additional cases over the next two decades. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the 1820s, something changed, as a dozen or so serfs gained their freedom over the course of just a couple of years. The short time period in which this number of serfs gained their freedom is still a clear sign of some specific event.
Part of the answer to this question almost certainly has to do with something that has nothing to do with Ivanovo itself: Sheremetev’s age. Born in 1803, and orphaned just a couple of years later, he only gained control of his estates from his guardians in the middle of the 1820s. Before then, he had just barely begun to think of manumitting serfs. In 1819, his former wetnurse, Anna Danilova, and her family, were granted freedom through Sheremetev’s personal desire. This was an isolated incident, though, and because at that point he was still a minor, Emperor Alexander himself had to approve the manumission. Continue reading
I have a memory from graduate school of driving up to Northwestern University to hear a talk by Sheila Fitzpatrick. This is a little bit odd because I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and therefore had ample opportunity to hear Sheila speak. I know I went with my friend and fellow graduate student Jenifer Stenfors, and I think it was the lure of a day, or at least an afternoon, away from school playing hooky, or so it felt, that was the real pull. I remember stopping in at the Bahai temple on the way, still the only time I’ve been in that space, and being struck by the contrast between its opulent exterior and the very ordinary chairs scattered about its interior. Even there, I’m not sure of why we stopped—had we planned it, or were we running ahead of time and decided to stop, on a whim? (And, in fact, I now realize, looking it up to give a link, that it is not on the way, but past Northwestern, and so we had to have made some decision about going there.)
At the talk Sheila said something—or at least, I remember her saying something—that has stuck with me ever since. This would have been sometime between 1995 and 1997, and so Stalin’s Peasants had recently come out and Sheila must have been working on Everyday Stalinism. My memory is that Sheila mentioned that she was thinking of writing a book that looked at the relationship between Stalin and Molotov—clearly an early version of the project that became On Stalin’s Team—and that one of the reasons the idea appealed to her was that as a social historian she was constantly seeing little bits of people’s lives, but only little bits, never a full story, never people you could really know. In contrast, focusing on just a couple of figures, and well documented figures, to boot, would let her get to know these people in a way that writing social history didn’t allow. Continue reading
Ivan Baburin’s intransigence completely puzzled the Ivanovo estate administration. In the archival files he comes off as completely unconcerned with the fact that he had just decided to stop paying rent, and was therefore maintaining a presence in Ivanovo totally illegally. In reports from the administration, Baburin seems to have believed—or at least claimed—that he was totally justified in his actions. He had faithfully paid rent while using the buildings. Now that they no longer existed, he felt no need to pay for them. He also told the estate administration multiple times that he was planning on going to St. Petersburg in person to talk to Sheremetev, implying that they could work something out man to man. Of course, he told the estate administration this in 1842, claiming that he would go as soon as he got back from the Makar’ev market… and then told them the same thing in 1844, when he had not gone. Clearly, he had no intention of doing anything other than staying in Ivanovo, not paying rent, and rebuilding.
In response, the administration sent reports. And occasionally petitions. And mostly didn’t know what to do about him. Continue reading
A couple years ago one of my Soviet history students, Jessy Mwarage, said he wanted to do a bit of extra work at the opening of the semester, so I gave him some Russian census data from 1897 to play with. He turned the data into very elegant pie charts.
I should add one caveat. I’m not absolutely positive about the quality of the data, but I think it’s reasonably good. Above all, it will give students a sense of the diversity of the population in the Russian Empire.
Russian Census Data, 1897
Total population: 125,640,021 people
Sex: 50.2 % female; 49.8 % male
Urban: 16,828,395 (13.4%); Rural: 108,811,626 (86.6%)
Literacy: 29.3% of males; 13.1% of females were literate
Nationalities (as determined by language)
- Russian Orthodox: 69.34%
- Muslims: 11.07%
- Roman Catholics: 9.13%
- Jews: 4.15%
- Lutherans: 2.84%
- Old Believers and others split from Russian Orthodox: 1.75%
- Armenian Gregorians & Armenian Catholics: 0.97%
- Buddhists, lamaists: 0.34%
- Other Protestants: 0.15%
Peasants and Cossacks: 99.8 million (79.4% of the total population)
Towndwellers: 13.4 million (10.7%)
Total lower classes: 113.2 million (90.1%)
Merchants, honored citizens: 0.6 million (0.5%)
Church estate: 0.6 million (0.5%)
Nobility: 1.85 million (1.5%)
National minorities [inorodtsy] incl. Jews: 8.3 million (6.6%)
Foreigners: 0.6 million (0.5%)
Source of Income of Main Breadwinner
Agriculture (incl. livestock prod., fishing, forestry): 74.57%
Manufacturing & crafts (esp. sewing, construction, metal, textiles, woodworking): 9.34%
Servants and daily manual workers: 4.61%
Transport and communications (nearly one half were horse and cart drivers) 1.55%
Army and navy: .99%
Public administration (state & local authorities): .75%
Living on capital income: .72%
Religious institutions (including clerks & janitors): .63%
Medicine, education, science, literature, and legal practice: .61%
Largest Cities of the Russian Empire:
- Saint-Petersburg — 1,264,900
- Moscow — 1,038,600
- Warsaw (now Poland) — 626,000
- Odessa — 403,800
- Łódź (now Poland)— 314,000
- Riga (Latvia) — 282,200
- Kiev (Ukraine) — 247,700
- Kharkov (Ukraine) — 174,000
- Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) — 159,600
- Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) — 154,500
- Saratov — 137,100
- Kazan — 130,000
- Rostov-on-Don — 119,500
- Tula — 114,700
- Astrakhan — 112,900
- Katerynoslav (Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine) — 112,800
- Baku (Azerbaidjan)— 111,900
- Kishinev (Chişinău, Moldova) — 108,500
- Helsinki (Finland) — 93,000
- Minsk (Belarus) — 90,900
Data from Wikipedia (English and Russian) and other sources. Pie charts by Jessy Mwarage.
This week Pietro Shakarian posted an article on Russia Direct that addresses the issue of the ethnic composition of the Russian Empire in 1897 as it relates to current crises in Ukraine, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and Trans-Caucasia. To my mind it is very informative and would be a good article for students to read if one also gave them good maps. (Shakarian is apparently a PhD student at Ohio State University.)
The British expat community found living in Russia to be a great hardship, regularly complaining about the inhospitable weather and its remote location. Even worse, Russia was expensive, especially for prominent foreigners who expected access to some of the finer things. The British envoy to Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Charles Whitworth ) was one of those men. Fortunately, we happen to have access to a couple of his shopping lists (for 1705 and 1706) that provide some insights into the sorts of luxuries a diplomat needed to maintain his position in society. These items were also treated a special project for his staff to acquire, suggesting they weren’t always available in the local markets.
All the items below are on his list from July 1705. In Moscow, Whitworth instructed the British consul to purchase:
6 hogshead of good claret (1 hogshead is about 300 liters)
1 hogshead of good French white wine
1 hogshead of Languedoc or any other good wine
1 or 2 chests of Florence if they are to be procured
1 barrel of English ale
2 dozen drinking glasses
10 dozen of lemons
5 dozen China oranges
A quantity of Dry Sweatmeats Continue reading
The story I’ve set up so far has three elements: first, a huge fire that caused massive damage to the village, and perhaps particularly to the merchant entrepreneurs and their economic interests; second, a lingering issue over land tenure based in the terms of most of the local merchants’ manumission; and third, the specific ways one particular merchant, Ivan Baburin, interacted with his former owner and his former fellow serfs.
At first, in the aftermath of the fire, Baburin tried to use the good relationship he had built with the larger village community to his advantage. In early 1840 (so, the year after the fire), he petitioned Sheremetev asking to have his rental agreement renegotiated. As he put it, ever since his manumission he had been faithfully paying 1,000 rubles each year for use of the factories he had built. Now, though, after the fire, he was faced with a problem: he had to rebuild, and this was going to be extremely expensive. Given that he had even gone beyond the requirements of his manumission agreement, acting in the best interests of the local community by doing things like building a bridge for general use, he asked, could Sheremetev and the estate management see fit to reduce his yearly dues until he had rebuilt and was once again manufacturing at full capacity.
Baburin hoped that the good relationship he had built with the local peasants would stand him in good stead, and lead them to recommend leniency. He was soon disappointed. The peasants of Ivanovo met at a skhod to discuss his case, but although they claimed to sympathize with Baburin, they argued that the fire hadn’t hurt his trade enough to warrant a reduction in his annual payments to the estate. As a result, they reported to the Sheremetev administration that Baburin ought to be held to the terms of his original agreement, and the administration agreed.
If that had been where the matter ended, this wouldn’t be much of a story. But instead, a couple of things happened that make this case interesting: first, how Baburin reacted, and second, what the Sheremetev estate was then able to do in response. First, Baburin engaged in what was essentially an act of civil disobedience: he stopped paying his dues. And second, despite the vaunted power of Russia’s serf-owners over their own serfs, the Sheremetev estate found itself unable to do anything about it. Continue reading
This intriguing 2014 documentary takes place in an obscure part of the former Soviet Union called Abkhazia – a tiny sub-tropical mountainous region on the coast of the Black Sea (“Letters to Max,” https://vimeo.com/89560258). This country of 242,000 residents, most of them ethnic Abkhazians who practice Eastern Orthodoxy and who speak Russian, is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia. But like many former Soviet territories, simmering ethnic tensions exploded as the Soviet Union disintegrated, turning into a brutal civil war in 1992 and 1993. The Georgian forces were defeated, leading to the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and a ceasefire in 1994 enforced by a combination of United Nations and Russian peacekeepers. Abkhazia’s independence, however, has only been recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru. The forces of Abkhazia periodically clash with the Georgian army as the nation-in-formation, with Russia’s help and in opposition to the United States, seeks international recognition.
Abkhazia’s fate provides a window into two processes. The longer-term process is the formation of modern nation-states, which invariably involves competing forces who claim to represent the “real nation” and who seek backing for their claims. The second is the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s attempts to build national communities within the confines of its vast borders. It was a project that simultaneously promoted and suppressed a bewildering array of national identities and various levels of cultural and political autonomy for hundreds of ethnic groups. The tensions and conflicts created by Soviet policies were contained only by Soviet authoritarianism and by the communist party of the Soviet Union. When both the party and the Soviet Union collapsed, unresolved national tensions, exacerbated by various land grabs by newly independent and former Soviet national republics, produced a number of frozen conflicts along the Russian Federation’s borders – in Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, just to name a few.
The documentary tells the story of Abkhazia’s search for legitimacy through a diplomat named Maxim Gvinjia, whose mission since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been to establish Abkhazia’s place in the community of recognized nation-states. During the course of filming “Max” occupied various positions inside and outside Abkhazia’s Foreign Ministry, eventually becoming Foreign Minister in 2013 for a brief period. The filmmaker (“Eric”) uses the narrative device of the letter to tell his story, filming Max as he opens letters from “Eric” in Paris in which Eric asks Max a question regarding his job and life. The film consists of Max’s responses to those questions, set against the backdrop of Abkhazia and Max’s daily routines.
Max is an amiable and interesting narrator, with the detached and wry sense of humor of a person (and people) whose experiences defy clichéd conceptions of liberation, democracy, national sovereignty, and progress. The film opens with Max wondering about Eric’s question of where exactly he is. His philosophical answer touches on one of the central dilemmas of the modern nation-state, namely, that most people’s identities and sense of self do not match the ideas about identity projected by the state that purports to embody their “will.” Max points out that there are many recognized countries, such as Somalia, Afghanistan or Yemen, which make little sense as nation-states. The way various peoples within those states self-identify rarely match state conceptions and often are violently at odds with official political visions. Max claims that Abkhazia, in contrast, is unique in the relative perception by its citizens and state leaders of a united community of interests and identity.
Abkhazia is a beautiful country, situated in a mountainous region that hugs the Black Sea Coast. The spectacular coastline views combine with a human-built world which, like much of the former Soviet Union, is in a state of exquisite decay and dilapidation – a place frozen in a Soviet past, similar to the frozen political conflicts that provide the political and social equivalent of a landscape. For Max, the state of decay is a starting point for his own discourse on nostalgia for the Soviet period, when the Abkhazian sea city of Sukhum (known in Soviet times by the Georgian Sukhumi) was a meeting point of cultures and peoples, and also a resort town for Soviet citizens. With its harbor, Sukhum in the Soviet era was far more open to the world and various peoples than other parts of the Soviet Union. That openness contrasts with the city’s current isolation in the post-Soviet world – yet another one of the many ironies highlighted by Max in his letters and discourses on camera.
The director is careful to ask tough questions of Max, especially regarding the fate of Georgian refugees, who are unable to return to the Abkhazia that their families for centuries called home before the war of 1992-1993. Does creating a new Abkhazia mean erasing their memory? Is the coherence of Abkhazia as a nation-state, in which the identity of its citizens seems to match ideas about identity projected by the state, a result of ethnic cleansing? Max’s very surprisingly honest and apolitical answer — perhaps one reason for his being sacked as Abkhazia’s foreign minister — is both yes but also that the fate of Georgians is part of the tragedy and irreversible change in Abkhazia as a result of the Civil War. There can be no return to the Soviet period, though Max admits he would love to do so, when ethnic harmony was supposedly far more the norm than the exception. With regard to a question regarding whether Abkhazia has escaped from Georgia only to be eaten up by Russia and become a playground for Russian Oligarchs, Max is unequivocal. Russians, says Max, are the ones willing to buy Abkhazian products, spend tourist dollars in Abkhazia, and support Abkhazian independence. Given the limited range of options for Akbhazians, and the reality of Russia’s presence, Abkhazia has no choice but to align itself closely with Putin and the Russian Federation. The Mexicans say, “It’s the same hell only with a different devil.” For the Abkhazians, aligning with Russia is not quite the same hell, and perhaps preferable to Georgia, but few Abkhazians would mistake Russian leaders and oligarchs for saviors.
In my first post about Ivan Baburin, I concentrated on the ways that he likely felt at odds with the estate administration or with Sheremetev—he was a prosperous man by nearly any measure, having purchased his freedom and entered the Moscow merchant society, apparently quickly moving into the first guild. His consistent success allowed him access to the status of honored citizen, as well. At the same time, however, he paid dearly to continue to manufacture in Ivanovo. And more troubling, he paid more dearly than his fellow former serfs by a considerable amount. Given his success, some extra payment might have seemed acceptable, but it’s hard to imagine that he did not feel some resentment at the degree to which he was burdened by payments to his former owner in comparison to others.
There is, however, another way to view the story of Ivan Baburin’s experience after his manumission, one that focuses not on sources of resentment, but instead on a much more positive view of his relationships in Ivanovo. This vision of Baburin’s later role in the village focuses not on his relationship with Sheremetev and the administration, but on his relationship with the Ivanovo serfs, with his own workers, and with his fellow factory owners.
When looked at from this point of view, Ivan Baburin seems to have been both well respected and well liked in Ivanovo after his manumission. Although his decision to join the Moscow merchant society as opposed to one of the more local merchant societies of Shuia or Vladimir might have marked him as someone with hopes of social advancement and therefore separation from his former society, in the middle of the 1830s he was instead described as a model factory owner in the village. Continue reading
While I was moving some stuff around my office, I rediscovered my copy of Kazan’s Mother of God icon. I haven’t really thought about it since I wrote my first book, but I had recently come across some interesting pieces of misinformation about the icon that cropped up in eighteenth century sources. Before I can relate the later stories, here’s a brief summary of what I know about the icon.
According to a manuscript version of the miracle tale from the beginning of the seventeenth century, during a fire in Kazan’ on June 23 June, 1579, the icon appeared in a vision of a young girl, instructing her to take shelter in Church of Nikolai Tulskii the Miracle-worker. The tale informs the reader that the appearance of the icon during the fire was a reward from God for the Orthodox faithful in Kazan’ for their ongoing battle against “non-believers” (inovernye). Following the first appearance, the icon performed a number of miracles – about ten, the number varies slightly in different versions of the tale. Its miracle-working powers were sufficiently well known that a copy of the icon was carried into battle against the Poles in 1612, where it was recorded as having performed new miracles which, in turn, were recorded in the edifying tale, “About the Advance of the Kazan’ Icon of the Mother of God toward Moscow.” With a proven reputation, Kazan’s Mother of God icon acquired a national festival on July 8, 1633. Continue reading
The massive 1839 fire clearly caused upset among the local manufacturers of Ivanovo. They hoped to get greater recognition of their important role in the local economy, but found their proposals shut down by Sheremetev. Most seem to have accepted this, perhaps with some bad feeling, and rebuilt either locally or on purchased lands outside the village.
One of the merchants, however, continued to fight.
Ivan Aleksandrov Baburin was freed in late 1833 along with his wife, Anna Ivanova. This made him one of the last of the serfs freed during the initial burst of manumissions made by Sheremetev at the end of the 1820s and beginning of the 1830s. According to the notice sent from the St. Petersburg chancellery of the Sheremetev estates to the Ivanovo estate administration, Baburin was allowed to continue to live in Ivanovo for twenty years (counting from the beginning of 1834), and also agreed to pay “five hundred paper rubles for the lord’s income, and the same amount to the village to help the poor.”
This was a fairly standard agreement for the time, but it was unusual in one important way: Baburin agreed to pay much more than others freed around the same time. An 1843 register of freed serfs with agreements to continue living in the village makes this absolutely clear. Twenty former serfs were listed (actually slightly more than twenty, as several pairs of brothers had been freed together and were still running their business as a partnership). One, Anton Nikolaev Shodchin, was paying 300 rubles to Sheremetev and 100 to the village. Another, Nikandr Ivanov Posnikov, was paying 150 rubles to Sheremetev and 50 to the village. One pair, Petr and Nikon Mefod’ev Garelin, were paying 25 rubles to Sheremetev and the same to the village. Everyone else on the list was paying either 50 or 60 rubles to the village. Continue reading
Just this week a new online journal for Russian Studies arrived, The Journal of Frontier Studies/Zhurnal frontirnykh issledovanii. It is being edited by a group of scholars at Astrakhan State University, and aspires to put Russian and Western scholars into conversation. They are planning on publishing articles in English down the line.
By way of disclaimer, I’m on the editorial board, but if there’s a new forum to publish articles on the relationship between Russia and Iran in the imperial era (as an article by V. O. Kulakov does in the first issue), then I really am on board with the journal!
Two links of interest to researchers!
First, the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced its call for applications for summer 2016 work.
Second, the Russian State Library (aka Leninka) has just announced that as of today library users may freely photograph most materials. Check out the announcement for the limitations, but this is remarkable news!
Historians often say that at least twenty years must pass before people can begin to grasp the true significance of an event. The passage of time dampens the passions, permits a more objective view, reveals new documents, and provides some sense of the long-term impact of the event. Yet the passing of more than a quarter century since communism’s demise in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has produced more light than heat. The documentary entitled simply “1989” provides a valuable eyewitness perspective on the collapse of communism.(http://www.budapesttelegraph.com/news/788/1989:_new_documentary_features_miklos_nemeth’s_help_bring_down_berlin_wall) It suggests the vital role of one small communist nation, Hungary, in setting into motion a chain of events that led, willy-nilly, to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. At the center of this story – known previously but not so clearly and compellingly conveyed as it is here in this hour-long documentary — is Miklos Nemeth, the last prime minister of the communist government of Hungary. Forty years old at the time, Nemeth seemed like the perfect party scapegoat for an intractable economic crisis brought about by a severe financial crisis. Hungary had been unable to pay back Western banks for millions of dollars of loans that had replaced Soviet subsidies through the 1980s.
As with many dramatic political upheavals – including the French Revolution of 1989 — a budget crisis precipitated the chain of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system in Eastern Europe. As a professional economist, the technocrat Nemeth seemed a logical choice to handle Hungary’s economic crisis – or at least to find a way to service that debt and avoid larger political repercussions. Western banks in the early 1980s had financed consumerism in Eastern Europe. They believed that communist governments in Eastern Europe provided an ideal customer for their loans, as the communist governments, immune to democratic political pressures, seemed likely to service the debt. The Soviets, for their part, were happy to allow Western banks to subsidize Eastern European consumerism, thereby shifting the burden of empire maintenance to the capitalist enemy (echoes here of Lenin’s dictum that the capitalists would give the Bolsheviks the rope with which they would hang the fat cats in top hats). But as with Germans banks and Greece more recently, the Western banks began demanding payment on their loans which the Eastern European nations simply could not provide; and as with Greece in 2010 the burden of servicing massive debt triggered an existential political crisis that went far beyond the economic and political fate of Hungary itself. Combined with Soviet-driven reform efforts under Gorbachev, and the ensuing political instability, the economic crisis created a perfect storm that resulted, contrary to anyone’s expectations, in the dramatic end of communism in Europe – the reverse domino effect.
In Hungary, the panicked party leadership handed the mess over to the unknown Nemeth as the new Prime Minister in November 1988 – just one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which it is safe to say no one, and certainly not the CIA or secret services of the Communist states, would have predicted. Few believed Nemeth could survive – the proverbial lamb fed to the lions. Desperate to trim state expenses, one of the first things that he did was to scour the budget line items for areas where he might save money. He noticed a large, mysterious and recurring expenditure. It was labeled with a secret code that he did not understand, which turned out to be for maintaining the electrical fence that kept Hungarians behind the Iron Curtain. It was badly in need of repair, as he discovered when he inquired about this line item with party bosses, and the Soviets, facing their own budget crisis, had recently refused to provide spare parts and money to maintain it. So the Hungarians had been turning to France, spending what little money the government had, which was also borrowed from Western banks, to maintain a critical part of the Iron Curtain that even the Soviets had little desire to maintain. It is a curious footnote to the history of the late Cold War: the role of Western banks in first propping up communist states in Eastern and Central Europe and then in prompting the political crisis that brought them down when the bill for loans came due.
As a budget saving measure, Nemeth decided to curtail this expenditure in December 1988, though actually tearing down the fence proved more problematic. Understandably, he encountered stiff resistance from the party leadership and then discovered another surprising fact that turned him against the system he was appointed to serve: the news that Hungary since the 1970s – contrary to official claims that denied nuclear bombs on its soil — had housed nuclear bombs pointed at Italy.
Nemeth, meanwhile, traveled in March 1989 to Moscow with grave doubts and fears, given his own family experiences and trauma associated with the brutal suppression of the 1956 attempt by Hungarian reformers to gain some independence from Soviet control. His father, a farmer, had been an advocate of the revolution of 1956 crushed by the Soviets. Nemeth claims he joined the communist party in the early 1960s to try and change it from within. His father did not speak to him for six months but eventually reconciled himself to his son’s decision, telling him only that he must tell the truth to his people and to the world if he were to attain a position of power. He took that advice when he traveled to Moscow to meet Gorbachev, nervous but determined to discuss his reform plans, including holding free elections that would almost certainly result in the victory of non-communists and to remove the fence that the Hungarian treasury could no longer maintain. To his great surprise, Gorbachev greeted him with a firm handshake rather than the sloppy kiss and warm embrace typical of Brezhnev’s encounters with Eastern European counterparts. Gorbachev, incidentally, preserved the practice of the lip kiss and warm embrace for more reactionary communist party bosses in Eastern Europe, suggesting that the wet kiss, in semiotic terms, signified a certain unequal power relationship between Moscow and Eastern European leaders, whereas a firm handshake, absent the kiss and hug, indicated a new kind of political relationship. At any rate, Gorbachev assuaged Nemeth’s fears, promising not to send troops and also endorsing Nemeth’s plans to take down the fence (telling Helmut Kohl later that Nemeth was a “good guy — khoroshii chelovek“). Nemeth then grasped an important dynamic of the developing political situation: he would have to rely on Moscow for support and face his stiffest resistance from old line Stalinists and Brezhnev cronies back in Prague, East Berlin, and his own capital of Budapest.
Nemeth’s decision to open the border with Austria in May of 1989, by tearing down a 40-year old electric fence that guarded the border with Austria, soon triggered an exodus of Eastern Europeans and a refugee crisis, especially from East Germany, which was still under the control of the hardliner Erich Honecker. That refugee crisis spilled into Western Europe when the Hungarian government decided in September 1989 to allow all East German refugees to pass across the border and into Austria. How much Nemeth understood the momentous political impact of that decision remains unclear, though the East German communist party boss Erich Honecker seems to have been acutely aware of its potential effect on his own power. The West German government had promised housing and support to all East Germans. Tens of thousands accepted that offer, travelling through Hungary in their Trabants and the now open border and then making their way to West Germany to collect their Deutschemarks and free housing. The exodus, involving many of East Germany’s most highly qualified professionals, who believed they had good prospects in West Germany, enraged the East German leader Honecker, as well as the remaining hard liners still in power in Bucharest, Prague, and Sofia. As in 1960, when there was a mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany in Berlin, the East German government demanded that the Soviet Union plug the hole in the Iron Curtain that was allowing the best and brightest in East Germany to leave. But unlike Khrushchev, who responded by building the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev refused to stop the mass emigration, consistent with his promise to Nemeth earlier that he would not interfere in plans to remove the electric fence between Hungary and Austria whose absence now provided an exit path for East Germans. That refusal set into motion the dramatic events that led first to Honecker’s ouster in October 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the disintegration of communist control in Eastern Europe shortly thereafter.
Among the other dramatic moves made by Nemeth was to exhume the body of the executed leader of the 1956 Hungarian reforms, Imre Nagy, who had been buried secretly after his execution by the Soviets. His body was exhumed and given a public ceremonial burial in Bucharest in June 1989, against the wishes and thinly veiled threats of the old party diehards. Nearly 200,000 attended the event, which Nemeth’s security people thought might result in an assignation attempt on his life (they instructed him to keep moving his head to avoid having a sniper blow a hole in his brains). The re-burial catalyzed opposition to the communist party and helped to mobilize the movement that resulted in the electoral dismantling of the communist one-party system in Hungary and eventually throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. It turned out in some ways to be the burial of the Soviet system.
The story is narrated by Nemeth and the point of view is almost his exclusively, though he comes across as honest and reflective, especially regarding his own inability at the time to understand the larger implications of his decisions. Would communism have collapsed without the specific decisions of Gorbachev and Nemeth? History is not written in the conditional tense, as they say, so it is impossible to answer that question. But the evidence from the documentary certainly suggests the critical role of individual leaders and decisions in determining the specific timing and outcome of events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Those dramatic events almost always unfolded in unintended ways and to the astonishment of those, like myself as a student in Moscow in 1989, who believed that the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, whatever its clear weaknesses and problems, would last for a very, very long time.
As a prologue to this story, Hungary in 2015 began constructing a fence along its border with Croatia and Serbia to handle another refugee crisis — this time one involving Syrians trying to get into the EU.
The documentary’s celebration of barrier demolitions should be placed into the context of this new border fence. Fence and wall builders once again have seized power — in Hungary as in Israel and all along the US-Mexico border. Perhaps some may say it is inappropriate to make such connections between Cold War walls and present ones erected by the supposed winners in the Cold War, but one thing is clear: the era of fence and wall demolition seems to have been very brief, a mere quarter of a century. The brevity of the fence-dismantling era reinforces the point made in the beginning of this post — that the true significance of an event only becomes apparent with deep hindsight.