So you want to learn about Eastern European history ….


I’ve been asked many times how I became interested in Eastern European history. First, disclaimer: I am a historian, I have always been interested in history, and my education was in medieval history.  I’ve never not been interested in history because that is always been a lifelong passion of mine. So it became a dream job of sorts when I was a research fellow for Dr. Leonard Latkovski. Problem is, what I knew of European history, particularly Eastern European, was only in connection to the medieval period.

So how did I go from knights and lords of the 1300s to Soviet gulags and the USSR in the 1900s?

Books. Lots of books.

And some podcasts.

I’ve mentioned the Eastern Border Podcast in the past, but there’s also Mark Schauss’s Russian Rulers History Podcast. Mark is not a historian by profession, but he has given years of his time to study each individual tsar and ruler of Russian history, going back to the ancient Rus to today and how the Russians have battled against the Germans, the Polish, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, the Mongols, and many more. While Russia is its primary focus, the sheer size of the nation allows Schauss to cover the history of nearby neighbors.

If you want to go more into the culture and less the history, there is no greater way to do this than to learn the language itself. You can’t go wrong with Duolingo for a quick fifteen-minute daily session. But also check out Mark Thomson’s Russian Made Easy. He not only goes into detail of pronunciation, but the nitty-gritty grammar of syntax, declensions, grammatical cases, and so on. He makes it all understandable, and you’ll actually feel comfortable speaking по-русский.  А вы можете етот понимать!

For the readers out there, I could go on and on with a list of literally a hundred books from linguistics (like dictionaries) to memoirs and primary sources. I’ll break it down and give at least the top 5 or so books for each category, including general histories to memoirs.

collage 2

Hopefully, this will help on your journey!

Tsarist History
Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert Massie (1981)
The Romanovs: the Final Chapter by Robert Massie (1996)
The Romanovs 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016)

Soviet History
Khrushchev Remembers by Nikita Khrushchev (1970)
The Collapse of Communism by Bernard Gwertzman and Michael T. Kaufman, eds (1990)
The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West by Oleg Kalugin and Fen Montaigne (1994)
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003)
Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman (2003)
The Unknown Stalin by Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev (2006)
Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Frederick Kempe (2011)
Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service (2011)

Gulag History
I Was a Slave in Russia by John Noble (1970)
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1975)
Testament from Prison by Georgi Vins (1975)
The Gulag Handbook: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Soviet Penitentiary Institutions and Terms Related to the Forced Labor Camps by Jacques Rossi (1989)
I Lived Through Hell on Earth by Helena Latkovska Wojtuszkiewicz (1998)
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2004)

Latvian History
The Latvians: A Short History by Andrejs Plakans (1995)
Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar (2013)
Latvia: A Short History by Mara Kalnins (2015)

Hungarian History
Seven Days of Freedom: The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 by Noel Barber (1974)
The State Against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe by Grzegorz Ekiert (1996) 
Nationalism and the Crowd in Liberal Hungary, 1948 – 1914 by Alice Freifeld (2000)
Hungary by Raymond Hill (2004)
A Good Comrade: Janos Kadar, Communism, Hungary by Roger Gough (2006)
One Day That Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Its Legacy by Paul Lendvai (2008)
Imre Nagy: A Biography by János Rainer (2009)

Post-USSR Russia
Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life by Leon Aron (2000)
Midnight Diaries by Boris Yeltsin (2000)
First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President by Vladimir Putin (2000)
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen (2013)
The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev (2016)

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Music Monday: “One Like Putin”


It’s become a meme the last several years that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a strong, handsome macho-man who discovers 6th-century Greek urns or having an entire calendar dedicated to him. Not to mention the casual shirtless expeditions.

The Russian electro-pop band Singing Together (Poyushchie vmeste) did it first.

“One Like Putin” debuted in 2002, and topped the Russian Music Chart that year. You can watch the entire video, with English subtitles, above. Clearly it’s satirical, but it still gives a sense of what Russia thought of their new leader who succeeded to the presidency two years earlier: a man who quote-unquote saved Russia from the incompetent Boris Yeltsin.

Real satire stands the test of time – this video is just as relevant today as it was 16 years ago.



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Russian Journalists and Security of the Nation

In early November last year, it came to the attention that state-sanctioned news site RT must register as a foreign agent in the United States. It was a move that was condemned by RT and Moscow, claiming it was unconstitutional. (Forget the fact that others like Chinese and Korean media also had to register as foreign agents.) The Editor in Chief of RT proclaimed, “Fake news has turned into fake accusations.” Within a couple days, Russian legislators wanted to do the very same thing.

Now Latvia has joined the mix.

From the English-language news service TASS:

Russia urges OSCE’s action over expulsion of Russian journalists from Latvia

MOSCOW, January 5. /TASS/. Russia expects the OSCE to take concrete steps and to voice a clear position with regard to the deportation of Russian journalists from Latvia, Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday.

“As a full-fledged member of the OSCE, Russia expects OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Dasir to voice a clear public position and to take concrete steps in response to the deportation of Russian journalists from Latvia,” she said.

“During his recent visit to Moscow, Mr. Desir repeatedly stressed that the principle of mutuality in this kind of issues is the way to devastation of the information environment. Now it is in his power to fulfill the obligations he undertook to resolve such situations,” Zakharova said in a statement, which is published on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

Deportation of Russian reporters

On January 3, a reporter of the Russian TVTs television channel, Anatoly Kurayev was deported from Latvia.

Kurayev arrived in Riga on January 1 and stayed in a hotel. He was detained in a shopping mall and told that he “was banned for lifetime to cross into Latvia.”

On January 4, Kurayev’s wife Olga, who is also a journalist, was blacklisted and deported from Latvia.

In an interview with the Baltcom radio, Kurayve said he was told that he was posting a threat to Latvia’s national security.

In December 2017, three Russians, who arrived in Latvia to hold an international airsoft tournament, were detained and deported from the country as they had been blacklisted from entering the country.

The similarities here are more striking than the differences. The whole 2016 election/Russian fiasco aside, there is little doubt that Russia – and Putin in particular – are opportunistic. That includes any false friendship they may have toward the United States. They are not our ally – not like other nations – and they do

The tension between the former Iron Curtain and the former Soviet Union may very well increase in the coming decades.

The United States will be at the forefront of it.

Posted in Current Events, Latvia, Russia | 4 Comments

The Hungarian Catholic Church: a Strong Church in the Margins

A video from Rome Reports briefly mentions the news that Pope Francis recently met with the Hungarian bishops as part of their annual ad limina visit, where bishops from each region of the world meet with the pope to discuss current events.

Among the topics discussed were “the reception of immigrants,” a potentially major source of tension among the bishops and the anti-immigrant party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (That being said, in 2015 the bishops actually disagreed with papal opinion, so perhaps church and state are not separated here.)

One of most fascinating topics, whether in Hungary or out, is how countries realigned after the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late-80s and early-90s. A militantly atheistic society, taking anti-theism to an extreme, these Eastern European countries – Hungary, as well as Russia, Poland, Ukraine, among others – have become one of the most religious countries in Europe, compared to the secularized West.

Take, for example, the 2001 census in Hungary. 71 percent of the population identified as Christian – 50 percent identified as Catholic, followed by Calvinist. Approximately 15 percent at that time identified as “no religion.” The 2011 census reported similarly, though those identifying as Christian decreased by twenty-percent (“religion not stated” increased about 10 percent, while atheism/no religion was only a slim increase). No matter the actual percentage, it’s clear that Hungary in particular, and Eastern Europe in general, owe much of their culture to Western Christianity.

But like Hungary itself, the Hungarian Catholic Church has always been on the margins of both the East and the West, trying to identify themselves between Catholic Europe and Orthodox Russia. The Hungarians themselves, religion or not, are finally starting to get a hold on what it means to be “Hungarian.” The Church is following likewise.

Throughout its history, the Hungarian Catholic Church has been almost sidelined compared to other churches in the region. There has been no pope from Hungary (the closest was Pope John Paul II from neighboring Poland), and the first time a pope had ever visited the country was in 1991, after the communist government fell. Orthodox Russia and the Greek Orthodox Church seem to be mammoths compared to the Hungarian Catholics.

Still, where there’s ostracizing, there’s a chance of finding a unique identity.

In 1945, when the atheistic Soviet Union invaded Hungary, communism, which ran on the belief of anti-religion and anti-faith other than the state, took complete and utter control. Soon, the Hungarian Working People’s Party (MDP) was the only authority of the country (besides the Kremlin, of course), and anything that MDP say was gospel.

One of the first and most prominent victims of the Hungarian communists was Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, who was arrested as being a pro-fascist sympathizer (false) and for simply being a high-ranking and influential cleric (true). According to the maniacal leader at the time, Mindszenty was “a reactionary force in our country, supporting the

József Mindszenty 1974.jpg

Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty

monarchy and later the fascist dictatorship of Admiral Horthy.” He was imprisoned after a false confession for eight years, until the Uprising in 1956. However, when the Uprising fell two weeks later, he sought asylum at the American Embassy in Budapest, where he stayed until 1971 as part of a compromise between the warming communist government and then-Pope Paul VI.

There will be a future article specifically about Mindszenty, but he gives a sample to the wider context of the Hungarian Catholic Church in the twentieth century. “The Catholic Church has weathered many a storm. It does not go into hiding when storms are rising: it always stands in the forefront,” Mindszenty wrote in his memoirs.

It was true for the Hungarian Catholics, as well as the Hungarians themselves and larger Eastern Europe. Ancient theologian Tertullian once said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” If there were a place to look for the faithful, look no further than the Christians behind the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.

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99 Years Ago, Latvia was Born

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A postcard displaying the Latvian flag. The caption reads, “We the small tribe shall be as grand as our will.”

Today, November 18, 2017, marks the 99th anniversary of the independence of Latvia.

I had previously written about this holiday – officially called Republikas proklamēšanas diena (Day of Proclamation of the Republic of Latvia) – here, which explains the history behind it, but this year is the final year where Latvia is in the double digits.

Next year, this small country will be among the giants.

It’s surprising how much has happened to Latvia – Eastern Europe in general, as well – in these 99 years. A world war, invasions from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, occupation from the Soviet Union, dissolution of the Soviet Union. Entry into NATO, the UN, and the EU. A nation the size of West Virginia, and it has endured so much for its freedom and independence.

And lest some think that Latvia is simply one of those forgettable countries that don’t really matter, yesterday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement on this historic day:

On the Occasion of Latvia’s National Day

On behalf of the United States government, I congratulate the people of Latvia on the 99th anniversary of your independence.

The relationship between the United States and Latvia is strong. This strength is anchored in our shared commitment to upholding democratic values and the unity of our transatlantic community. Latvia is a valuable partner and a vital NATO Ally. In 2017, our two countries shared many successes, including two meetings between Vice President Pence and Latvian President Vējonis. Vice President Pence underscored the United States’ ironclad commitment to NATO and collective defense under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Our relationship is strong across many fields, including security and defense, trade, entrepreneurship and innovation, and cultural and academic exchanges, and will continue to broaden through the deep connections between our people.

As you begin to light your candles in Riga and across Latvia to celebrate 99 years of independence, I also want to wish you a great start to your centennial independence celebrations in the New Year. The United States is looking forward to celebrating with you in 2018 as you mark your 100th anniversary.

Next year, Latvia will turn 100, starting a new era for a people who always fought for independence.

Dievs, svētī latviju!

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Heeding the Warning of Ignoring History

One of the first acts of the Hungarian Uprising was to behead a larger-than-life statue of Stalin

The old cliche that always bears repeating – “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” – is relevant and will continue to be relevant. It is a testament to the importance of history, where not only does one learn about the past, but learns about the future. Those who grew up in

In late 2016, the Russian polling company Levada asked 1,600 people throughout 48 regions about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. It was a grassroots, mainly college-aged revolution against the ruling Communist government in late October. The Soviet Union had had the Hungarian nation in their grips ever since their quote-unquote liberation during World War II in 1945.

In 1956, through the tyranny of a Stalin-like figure named Matyas Rakosi, the Hungarian people had had enough being under the Soviet grip, and in late October, protests and armed insurrections erupted through the country.

Time Magazine named the “Hungarian Freedom Fighter” the Man of the Year in 1957

Two weeks later, in early November, the Soviet tanks came in, and the Uprising was violently suppressed. Leaders were arrested, summarily executed, and dumped like trash in unmarked graves.

(For those who may be curious to learn more, I highly recommend Noel Barber’s Seven Days of Freedom: The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 (New York: Stein and Day, 1974), which gives a minute-by-minute account of the three or so weeks of action with striking and sometimes graphic detail.)

Now in the 2010s, decades after the event, what do people know about this? How was it taught? That’s what Levada wanted to figure out. When Russian nationalism is at an all-time high, and the drums of war have been sounding in Crimea and Ukraine for years, these questions are just as important now as they were in the past.

And the results are disheartening. Nearly 60 % of those polled had not heard of the Uprising at all, and of the slim margin who did know, most agreed that it was justified to suppress.

The next generation of Russians? Probably won’t know a thing about this, and probably won’t care.

That’s an issue.

From polling company Levada:
(my translation)


Yes I know them well – 5%
I heard about and read about them – 16%
I can’t say for sure – 22%
No, I know nothing of them – 57%

[of those who know or have heard of it] WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS HAPPENING IN HUNGARY?

Subversive actions of the West, an attempt to split Socialist countries – 20%
Trying to put anti-Soviet and revolutionary forces in Hungarian leadership to pull the country away from socialism – 16%
A counter-revolutionary rebellion raised by opposition – 16%
Uprising of the people against the Soviet Union – 15%
Disorganized masses against communist leadership in Hungary – 4%
Other – 1%
Difficult to answer – 23%


Definitely yes – 15%
Somewhat yes – 35%
Somewhat no -18%
Definitely no – 6%
Difficult to answer – 27%


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In the News: Bono in Lithuanian trouble!

With all that’s going on these days with calls of corruption or foreign dealings, some may not want to be on the international spotlight.

U2’s Bono knows how that feels.

From BBC News:

A Lithuanian shopping mall partly owned by U2’s Bono is under investigation for potential tax avoidance, following a probe prompted by the Paradise Papers.

The mall allegedly avoided paying 47,000 euros (£41,500) in local taxes using an unlawful accounting technique.

The company running the mall, in the city of Utena, denies any wrongdoing.

The leaked documents show that Bono owned a stake in a Maltese holding company that bought the mall, via a Lithuanian holding company, in 2007.

In a statement, the Irish entertainer and anti-poverty campaigner, also known as Paul David Hewson, said he had been “assured by those running the company that it is fully tax compliant”.

He emphasised that he had previously campaigned for more transparency surrounding the ownership of offshore companies, and was in favour of public registries.

Earlier, a spokeswoman told reporters at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that Bono was a “passive, minority investor” in the Maltese entity, which was “voluntarily wound up in 2015”.

Read the rest there at the link above.

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A Century of Communism: The Bolshevik Revolution 100 Years Ago

File:Kustodiev The Bolshevik.jpg

The Bolshevik, Boris Kustodiev, 1920

It was one hundred years ago today that the Bolshevik Party, led by the formerly ousted and exiled Vladimir Lenin, forcibly seized and took control of the buildings of the provisional government.

Thus starts the formation, implementation, and execution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR. The Soviet Union, for the next decades until its dissolution in 1991, went to war against Nazi Germany, went to war against the United States, and went to war with its own citizens, oppressing millions of their own people. The Ukrainians, the Latvians, the Poles, the Hungarians, the Russians themselves: all were under the grip of the USSR through tyranny.

The Bolshevik Revolution is sometimes called the October Revolution. Russia at the time was still using the Julian Calendar, which was approximately two weeks behind the Gregorian Calendar, which practically everyone else in the world was using. To the Russians using the Julian Calendar, the Revolution took place on October 25, 1917, and ended two days later on October 27 (November 9). In shorthand, many historians differentiate between the two in text by using “old style” (the Julian Calendar) versus “new style” (Gregorian).

The entirety of 1917 could be described as nothing but long-winded. The First World War was at a stalemate. Everyone was tired, and when the Americans joined, the war had been three years old and had killed millions already. The beginning of the year in Russia marked a turning point, however, during the February Revolution. Soviet historiography called it the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, when, on February 22 (March 8 n.s.), protests erupted in the capital Petrograd, clashing with police and royal guards. Several days later, Russian forces joined the revolutionaries, resulting the in abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the formation of the Provisional Government.

On March 16 (n.s.) , the last day of the Revolution, the New York Times published a frontpage headline in bold type: “REVOLUTION IN RUSSIA; CZAR ABDICATES; MICHAEL MADE REGENT, EMPRESS IN HIDING.” Most of the articles in that daily paper concern the revolution (“Russian Embassy Shocked by Revolt”, on page 3). One article in particular on page 10 was poignant: “The New Birth of Russia.” Months later, the Provisional Government declared Russia a republic, the first time in its history where it was completely cut off from the monarchy that ruled for a millennium.

It was unpredictable that, eight months later from February, there would be a second Revolution to practically undo the first. The provisional government, 100 years ago today, was occupied and dissolved. The Soviet Russian Republic took its place (it was later renamed in July 1918 as Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic), with the Russian Communist Party soon taking complete control of the government. If there was any official opposition, it was purely for show. This could clearly be seen decades later. Life magazine reported in 1958 that “a fantastic 99.97% of the total electorate, as against 60.4% turnout in the US election of 1956” voted in the Soviet Union’s election. However, “99.57% approved the handpicked candidate” of Nikita Khrushchev.

Now that’s democracy.

To use an classic line from The Who, “Meet the old boss, same as the new boss.” Though with good intentions, the provisional government failed against the agitation of the people and the socialists. This led to the formation of one of the most powerful empires in the world.

One hundred years ago today changed the very fabric of global politics, in a manner that can still be felt today and will be felt for the foreseeable future. As long as Russia is on the world stage, we can look to this day in 1917 as the start of Russian dominance.

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A Year Ago Today

One year ago today, founder and manager of the Latgale Research Center, Dr. Leonard Latkovski – professor, mentor, and, most of all, a best friend to many – died at the age of 72. 

A day doesn’t go by where I am not grateful for all that Dr. Latkovski taught me. His expertise in Latvian and Russian history inspired me – not just on an educational level, but on a level to become who I am today. It goes without saying that he inspired all of his students. 

And he will continue to inspire for years and lifetimes to come. 

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A Note and Update


As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything for about a month. Don’t worry, I’m alive!

About a month ago, I have begun another position as a historian and researcher which has taken up my time from here.

As for an update, the article I wrote in conjunction with the International Conference last March is currently in the peer-review process. It’s unknown how long that’ll take. I’ll certainly update as that progresses.

Scott Mauer

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