Life Behind the Iron Curtain
Explore thousands of files documenting every aspect of life in Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.
This collection provides a uniquely comprehensive history of post-Stalinist Eastern Europe - the perfect resource for those studying and researching politics, international relations, history and cultural studies and much more!
The Cold War Eastern Europe collection spans 1953-1982
Module I, 1953-1960 Module II, 1961-1966 Module III, 1967-1975 Module IV, 1976-1982
December 10th, 1948
Human Rights Day
On December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, and the day has since been recognized as 'Human Rights Day'. This document is a proclamation issued by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the occasion of Human Rights Day 1956. Eisenhower calls on the people of the world to look to the Hungarian Revolution and the sacrifices the Hungarian people have made "in their indominatable will to be free", and offers his prayer that "this season of tragedy for them may end in the return of rights and freedom and self-government".
'Copernicus Year' in Poland
The Polish government designated 1953 as 'Copernicus Year' and organized an official exhibition on the famous Renaissance astronomer. The exhibition is described in this report by a member of the British Embassy as being exploited as an opportunity for anti-Vatican propaganda, albeit garnering little interest from the public.
March 5, 1953
Death of Stalin
In this report, Britain's Ambassador to Moscow describes the news of Stalin's "serious illness" as having "released a bombshell into international politics". The report goes on to describe the immediate aftermath of Stalin's death, the political fall-out in the upper echelons of the Communist Party, and Stalin's lying-in-state and funeral procession.
December 23, 1953
Execution of Lavrentii Beriya
The powerful Soviet politician and state security chief Lavrentii Beriya, former head of the NKVD and First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was arrested after Stalin's death in June 1953 and executed for treason later that year. This press summary describes the acts of treason with which Beriya was charged and ultimately executed for.
Formation of the KGB
The KGB, the Soviet Union's main security agency throughout the Cold War, was founded in March 1954. It succeeded a number of Soviet security agencies as well as the short-lived Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) units concerned with secret political activity. This document from 1955 discusses a report that MVD Internal Troops had not been seen at the May Victory Day celebrations as expected, and interprets this as a sign that the relative seniority and responsibilities of the Soviet Union's security agencies - including the new KGB - had changed.
During the 1956 popular uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary, British Embassy staff sent back frequent telegrams reporting on events as they unfolded. In this example from October 26, details are given of the fighting and heavy fire as Soviet military forces moved in to suppress the uprising across the country. Large crowds of Hungarians are described as resisting by throwing up barricades from anything "on which they can lay hands" and it is speculated that "the people could not have resisted so long and so successfully without help from the Hungarian Army".
First manned space flight by Yurii Gagarin
A file of correspondence, reports, and press material concerning the Soviet space programme. The document covers Vostok III and IV, two Soviet spaceflights that marked the first occasion on which two manned spacecraft were in orbit at the same time; and the question of whether Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, should send a message of congratulations to the Soviet government.
Construction of the Berlin Wall
In August 1961, East German authorities began construction on the Berlin Wall to stem the tide of emigration from East Germany into the West. The building of the wall precipitated a spree of escape attempts, many of which ended tragically due to East German border guards having orders to use deadly force to prevent crossings. This brief telegram gives an emotionless account of what would later become one of the most infamous killings. On the 17th August 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter was shot while attempting to scale the Berlin Wall and lay bleeding to death for an hour without medical assistance in full view of border guards and crowds in the East and West.
Cuban Missile Crisis
This report, produced by Humphrey Trevelyan, the British Ambassador for the Soviet Union, covers the Cuban Missile Crisis, described as "a milestone, if not a turning point in the history of communism". Trevelyan's view was that the Soviets did not expect the American government to respond so firmly to the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Assassination of John F Kennedy
A file of correspondence, reports, and press material concerning the Soviet reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the American president. The documents discuss the British observation that the initial Soviet reaction to Kennedy's death was one of genuine "concern and sympathy"; and the opening of a book of condolence at the American embassy in Moscow, signed by leading Soviet politicians including Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, and Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, who appeared "visibly upset".
Brezhnev becomes new Soviet leader
Following a conspiracy among the Communist Party leadership, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. This document is a telegram from Britain's ambassador in Moscow, assessing the evidence for Khrushchev having resigned voluntarily against the evidence that he was forced out in a coup. It is part of a wider file discussing the transition of power, speculating on its cause, and assessing the likely impact on Soviet domestic and foreign policy.
Start of American ground war in Vietnam
The Vietnam War provoked reactions ranging from sympathy to active support for North Vietnam across the Eastern Bloc. This letter from the British Embassy in Budapest details responses in Hungary to the war. It reports that the official press and radio had been "relentless" in their commentary on the war, and had issued a "stream of anti-American propaganda". In wider society, nationwide "solidarity" meetings had condemned US intervention in Vietnam, and a demonstration outside the American Legation had caused "considerable damage".
In 1968, Czechoslovakia experienced a brief period of liberalisation under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Reforms included greater freedom of expression for the press, a revised constitution, and plans for democratic elections. In August 1968, this attempt to introduce "Socialism with a human face" was crushed by an invasion force of half-a-million Warsaw Pact troops. This document is the first page of a report assessing Dubček's first 100 days in power, including steps Dubček had taken towards achieving his goal of "a new political system based on 'socialist democracy' and national unity". These included the abolition of censorship in January and the issuing of an "action programme" in April to guarantee freedom of speech, opinion, assembly, association and foreign travel.
Sino-Soviet Border Conflict
Throughout 1969, the Soviet Union and China engaged in a seven-month undeclared conflict over the disputed territory of Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River. This document is the record of a conversation held in June 1969 between the USSR's ambassador to Britain, Mikhail Smirnovsky, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. In this conversation, Smirnovsky presented the Soviet Union's current position on the Sino-Soviet dispute and asserted their wish to find a diplomatic solution.
Four Power Agreement on Berlin
In 1971, the four wartime Allied Powers, the USA, USSR, France and the UK, reached a new agreement which improved ties between the two halves of Berlin and laid the foundation for further East-West Agreements. This document is a letter from the Chancellor of the Federal German Republic, Willy Brandt, to the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, welcoming the Berlin Agreement and committing to further negotiation with the German Democratic Republic.
In 1980, the Summer Olympics were hosted in the Soviet Union. 66 countries, including the USA, boycotted the games due to the Soviet-Afghan War and economic reasons. This document provides the minutes of a meeting held in February 1980 between US President Carter's Advisor on Olympic Affairs, Mr. Cutler, and members of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in which the US strategy of lobbying for a change of venue and influencing various National Olympic Committees to support them is discussed.
Martial Law in Poland
In an attempt to stamp down on the popular Solidarity movement and other opposition groups, Poland's communist rulers imposed martial law on the country from December 1981 to July 1982. This report from May 1982 provides an update on the situation in Poland, including the continuation of military rule and protests against it, and the failure of talks between Solidarity and the government.
Death of Leonid Brezhnev
After 18 years at the helm of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982. This page is an extract from a longer report by Britain's Ambassador in Moscow, in which the ill health and death of Brezhnev and public reaction to his death is described and contrasted with the death of Stalin thirty years previously. The report goes on to describe the lying-in-state and funeral and reception held by Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, in detail.
Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England
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"Cold War Eastern Europe is a truly indispensable resource for students and academics alike studying the history of Eastern Europe, Communism and the Cold War. Due to the high quality of British diplomatic reporting, the collection will immensely enhance comparative research of the Soviet Bloc countries' history"
Csaba Békés, Research Chair, Centre of Social Sciences, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest.