History has already happened; however it has not always been written. And debates continue to emanate around different historical situations. With that in mind, and as the authors of a few of our own books, we shall occasionally be reviewing books on this site.

Russian cavalry and infantry entering the Polish city of Wilno (Vilnius) after joint German-Russian aggression against Poland. Public domain image available  here     

Russian cavalry and infantry entering the Polish city of Wilno (Vilnius) after joint German-Russian aggression against Poland. Public domain image available here


And the first book that we shall be reviewing is on a harrowing subject, that of the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland. The book we are looking at is by a man who has written many history books to date, Nick Shepley. His book details the political machinations that led to the deal between Stalin and Hitler to divide Poland, a relationship of convenience between two sides of the totalitarian coin. The book starts well with an overview of World War II, including some interesting facts. For example, I don’t think that it is widely known that the Soviets had plans to invade France and Italy in 1945 that were put to one side after Stalin saw the power of US nuclear weapons.

Anyway, the book starts by discussing the Nazi-Soviet Pact, especially the secret agreement that was included in that deal. There is an interesting overview of the thinking within Germany over the years before the invasion of Poland and how it led to the Nazis organizing activities to encourage the German people to support an invasion of Poland. The book then discusses the massive German invasion of Poland and how it was followed by a Soviet invasion some weeks later. Often, though, it is the small details that make this book interesting, such as the terror that the German bombing raids brought to Polish towns and cities. It is easy, after all, to forget that bombing raids were still a very new method for defeating opponents on the battlefield at the time. As well as terrifying civilians.

With the invasion looked at, the book moves on to the perhaps even grimmer area of what happened to Poland when two of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century divided it in two. This included ethnic cleansing, massive crimes against the Jews, and the building of Auschwitz. The Nazis also killed many of the Polish elite and the book describes these events in some detail. It also looks at what the Soviets did to Poland - they were just as brutal as the Nazis in their own way.

As an added extra, the book also considers the Soviet attack on Finland.

All told, the book is a good size to explain the nature of events in Poland over these years, it is written at a very good place, and contains appropriate detail for an introduction to history. I think that it would be a particularly useful book for anybody that wants to learn the basics about these harrowing years in European history. After all, the invasion of Poland is sometimes not given enough attention in general texts on World War 2.

By George Levrier-Jones


If you would like to find out more about this book and/or buy it, you can click here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


More books by this author are available through Amazon or at www.explaininghistory.com.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In this article, we look at a very odd museum in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan.

Earlier this week, I came across this article (1) on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty site. The article describes how the Museum of Political Oppression in Dolinka, Kazakhstan, formerly head of the KarLAG prison camp system through which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens passed during the Stalinist-era terror, had recently begun conducting ‘night time tours’. To provide visitors with an ‘authentic’ Gulag experience, the article went on to describe how:

“… actors performed a mock interrogation scene in which a young woman is pressured to denounce her father. The group also witnessed performances that included an inmate who was hanging by his hands while being mistreated by a guard. To have a better taste of being a prisoner at KarLAG, the visitors were also offered gulag-type meals. The museum initially planned to offer visitors the chance to become “Stalin-era prisoners” for one night, but museum director Svetlana Bainova told RFE/RL the plan was scrapped following a request by local officials. She said the officials argued that such an experience could scare or even psychologically traumatize the participants”. 


Museum employees at
 the  Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan  demonstrate  how prisoners were
 tortured  to extract confessions. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original
 article  for the full photo gallery here:  http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-gulag-tour/24991694.html

Museum employees at the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan demonstrate how prisoners were tortured to extract confessions. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here: http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-gulag-tour/24991694.html

The photo gallery that accompanies the article shows that the museum’s exhibition hall contains a number of informative displays including prison files and information about the impact of the great Soviet famine of 1930-33, while the Hall of Remembrance pays tribute to those individuals who died in KarLAG. However the photos also depict real life ‘actors’ – museum employees – playing the roles of prisoners undergoing interrogation, torture and demonstrating hard labor, while others play the role of the uniformed prison guards.

I must confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the thought of this. I realize that dark tourism (or ‘thanotourism’, defined by the iDTR as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’) will always be a subject that evokes controversy. Sites that commemorate and educate about the ‘darker’ aspects of human history play an important role – speaking as a ‘tourist’ who has actively visited numerous such sites, including Auschwitz Birkenau, The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin and the controversial TerrorHaza (Museum of Terror) in Budapest, I do agree with the often cited argument that while visiting the sites of former atrocities can be a rather harrowing experience, the experience can help bring these historical events alive in a very different way from studying academic texts, or even reading the memoirs of those who experienced these terrible events first hand.

As a historian, I recognize the importance of acknowledging, remembering and commemorating the darker aspects of human history, as well as celebrating our more glorious achievements. And – stepping down from the moral high ground and speaking as a realist – I also understand that ‘money talks’. Economic benefits must be taken into consideration, as popular demand for thanotourism is potentially lucrative, with high visitor turnover injecting much-needed cash into the local economy. But does the Museum of Political Oppression risk crossing the line between education and schadenfreude? Having actors playing the part of tortured and exploited Gulag inmates and offering tourists the chance to experience ‘authentic Gulag conditions’ feels like unnecessary theatrics, designed to create an environment akin to a macabre theme park, which is particularly dangerous given that the horrors of the Stalinist-era remain within living memory for many today, including those who experienced the hardship and suffering of KarLAG first hand and survived to tell the tale and out of respect for the memories of the many who lost their lives.

An employee of the
Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan depicts a tortured KarLAG
 prisoner . Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full
photo gallery here: http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-gulag-tour/24991694.html

An employee of the Museum of Political Oppression in Kazakhstan depicts a tortured KarLAG prisoner. Photo by Elena Weber, RFE/RL. See the original article for the full photo gallery here:http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-gulag-tour/24991694.html

However, the Museum of Political Oppression is not the only Gulag-related ‘attraction’ to blur the boundaries. Grutas Park sculpture park (also known as ‘Stalin’s World’) in Lithuania, combines extensive exhibitions featuring Soviet sculptures, artwork and museum artifacts with a mini-zoo (‘fun for all the family!’). The park also features a recreated Gulag camp, complete with wooden paths, guard towers and barbed wire fences, among its exhibits, but original plans to transport visitors to the park packed into a ‘Gulag-style train’ were blocked. In 2006, Igor Shpektor, Mayor of Vorkuta, – one of the most infamous outposts of Stalin’s Gulag where over two million deportees passing through the camp 1932-1954 – was criticized for plans to charge foreign tourists over £80 per day to ‘holiday’ in an ‘authentic’ Soviet-era prison camp. Shpektor’s plans to renovate an abandoned prison complex, complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labor were condemned by camp survivors as ‘sacrilege’. But Shpektor defended his plans, arguing this would provide a much-needed cash injection for the depressed Vorkuta region as: ‘The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners … A whole trainload of people turned up in autumn last year wanting to go to such a concentration camp, for money”.

In 2006, a re-created Stalinist-prison camp near Vilnius, Lithuania hosted 400 students from 19 EU countries in a role playing exercise designed as a ‘live history lesson to foster deep reflection of the common past of European nations and people’. During their stay in the camp:

“The students are “forced” to travel for one hour in an “authentic Soviet truck ZIL157K” to a forest bunker … Then, for the next two hours, they live through the experience of being “political prisoners”, which includes being interrogated by NKVD (security service) officers, shouted at and insulted by the guards. The roles are performed by professional actors. The “excursion” ends with the announcement of Stalin’s death and subsequent amnesty.”

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a couple of hours of role-playing equates to the ‘authentic’ reality experienced by Gulag inmates, many of whom endured lengthy sentences spanning several years or even decades, having been interred for imaginary or fabricated crimes, not knowing if they’d ever live to see release, or what the fate of their families had been. Some of the student participants seemed to agree, with one participant (rather worryingly!) commenting that:

“I think that everybody can do this. We really enjoyed the deportation day, but I would prefer something more difficult, with more blood and maybe lasting for one week and not just one day.”

So, why does the idea of ‘experiencing’ the Gulag – an instrument of repression, fuelled by brutality, where millions of Soviet citizens lost their lives – hold such appeal for many people? Would you want to spend ‘Saturday night in the Gulag’? What limits – if any – should be applied to the ‘performative aspects’ of tourist attractions such as these?


By Dr Kelly Hignett

Kelly is the owner of The View East blog – here.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Two of the focus areas of our blog are 20th century history and Communism. In this article, Brian Schmied looks at the struggles that the Church faced in the Soviet Union in the Communist period, and argues that it has become a powerful force in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.


The Russian Orthodox Church is an integral part of Russian society, and a powerful political force. Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. The Russian Orthodox Church has moved out from under the heel of brutal suppression and near extinction, to political dominance within the lifetime of most people reading this.


The Soviet Era Church

Communism, with its state atheism, had an official policy of religious tolerance that permitted the existence, but not the propagation of religion. Its rise resulted in the confiscation of the vast lands and property of the Orthodox Church. It was illegal to criticize atheism and to proselytize, and there were massive government led efforts to end religion[1] through education and persecution.

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

Destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, 1931

It did not help that the Orthodox Church opposed the rise of Communism, encouraging believers to fight against the new regime. When Lenin abolished religious education and the privileges and legal status of the Church, the Patriarch excommunicated the government, which led to mass executions of clergy. 

Almost 600 convents and monasteries were liquidated and the inhabitants executed in those first few years, and it only got worse with time. In 1929, the USSR outlawed all distribution of religious materials and proselytization. Special taxes implemented for the clergy raised their total taxes to over 100% of their income. Debtors were carted off to Siberia. Then Stalin came to power.

He purged the Russian clergy in 1938, executing an estimated[2] 100,000 of them on the spot, and arresting the rest. Just as it looked like religious expression may be fully stamped out, World War II broke out and brought it back. The Nazi invaders reopened churches in conquered Russian territory. Stalin, fearing that this might make the still largely religious Russian populace sympathetic to the Germans, ended his campaign of persecution and reopened the churches.

The number of churches recovered to over 20,000 within a decade, but, like the war, it did not last. In the late 1950’s Nikita Khrushchev, resumed the persecution. All of the previous laws were enforced again, and a few new ones added. By 1963, it was illegal to bring a child to a church service, and to administer the Eucharist to a child over the age of four.

Time wore down the conflict, however. The Russian Orthodox Church ended its feud with the state, endorsing its various accomplishments and integrating with the KGB[3] to ensure their survival. The Russian state granted reprieve, weakening restrictions, allowing theological schools to open and train clergy, and allowing people to privately fund churches and hire priests for their communities.

It wasn’t until the Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, however, that ownership of some Russian churches was returned to the institution.


The Post-Soviet Renaissance

The Russian Orthodox Church has bounced back. While Russians are not overly religious, with only about 15-20% practicing Orthodoxy[4], far more Russians identify with the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian nationalism has become tied to the religion, driving many conservatives, neo fascists and anti-foreign elements, into the arms of the Church.

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

The inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012

Perhaps because of his ties to the former KGB, Vladimir Putin has built a strong bond between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State. He has voiced support[5] of increasing the political influence of the Church, and the Church has voiced their support of him in turn. The Patriarch, rather than fearing execution, like his predecessors, now walks the halls[6] of the Kremlin in return for bringing the votes of the faithful.

The orthodox people of Russia no longer fear the desecration of their holy sites by their government, but rather call for support in protecting them. There are scientologists are facing possible legal action on behalf of the Orthodox Church against their worldwide expansion efforts[7]. Russians protesting these Scientology proselytization efforts claim[8], “…anyone who cares about the survival of Russia must join the body of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Mere decades ago the same statement would have brought the KGB to your door.

Already by 2006, Russia boasted an impressive 27,000 Orthodox parishes and over 700 monasteries. Religion is uncharacteristically popular with the youth[9], as it helps them establish a cultural identity and connects to the international Russian community. As of 2007, the Moscow Patriarchate has brought the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which split off when the Soviet Union cut Moscow off from the world, back into the fold[10].


Do you agree? Has the Church really become a major force in modern Russia? Let us know your thoughts below..

Brian Schmied loves to learn about the history of religion and politics. He has a B.A in political science, and enjoys writing because it pushes him to think analytically and objectively, and to learn new things.

If you enjoyed that article, and want to find out more about religion’s struggles in the Soviet Union, a great book is Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my favorite writers. Get the book - Amazon US | Amazon UK



[1] Kowaleski, David. Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR. Russian Review, 1980. Vol. 39, No. 4. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/128810?uid=3739648&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102530492637

[2] Yakovlev, Alexander. Paul Hollander transl. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2004, Pg 165.

[3] Meek, James. Russian Patriarch ‘was KGB Spy’. Guardian News and Media Limited. 12 February 1999. http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/feb/12/1

[4]The World Factbook: Russia. Central Intelligence Agency, 10 July 2013. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html

[5] Grove, Thomas. Church should have more Control Russian Life: Putin. Thomson Reuters, 1 February, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/01/us-russia-putin-church-idUSBRE91016F20130201

[6] Bennets, Marc. In Putin’s Russia, Little Separation Between Church and State. The Washington Times, LLC, 13 August 2012.http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/aug/13/putin-russia-little-separation-church-state/?page=all

[7] Creating an New Era of Expansion. Church of Scientology International, 2013. http://www.scientology.org/david-miscavige/creating_a_new_era_of_expansion.html

[8] Robinson, Robert. Orthodox Rally in Moscow condemns Scientologists. 1 July 2013. http://worldcultwatch.org/orthodox-rally-in-moscow-condemns-scientologists/

[9] Orthodoxy in Russia Today. The Mendeleyev Journal, 30 March 2012. http://russianreport.wordpress.com/religion-in-russia/orthodoxy-in-russia-today/

[10] Kishkovsky, Leonid. After 80-plus Years, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Reconcil. The Orthodox Church News Magazine, 2007. Vol. 43. http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/fr-kishkovsky/after-80-plus-years-the-moscow-patriarchate-and-the-russian-orthodox-church