Historian Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu: Anti-Soviet resistance was platform that ensured changes

Each nation or region that was under Soviet occupation had own periodization of the anti-Soviet resistance. At the same time, this resistance had also different forms of manifestation, from inactive, nonviolent ones to the armed ones. The anti-Soviet and anti-communist resistance was massive and was often crushed with cruelty and had significant effects on the dissolution of the USSR and should be recognized, in particular, as an antidote to nostalgia for the  USSR. The “Reasons, forms and effects of the anti-Soviet resistance” was the title of a video interview conducted by IPN with university lecturer Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu, doctor of history, head of the Contemporary History Department of the Institute of History.


IPN: The contemporary people know something about the anti-Soviet and anti-communist resistance by its intellectual forms. What other stages and forms except the intellectual one did it have?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
There was a wide range of forms: from the inactive ones up to the forms related to civic engagement, involvement of the intellectuals, dissidence, groups that maintained particular anti-Soviet narrative by their works, by different theatrical forms. These all were classed as nonviolent forms, but today I would like to draw attention to the armed resistance as one of the most acute forms of anti-Soviet and anti-communist resistance. Each nation or region that was under Soviet occupation after World War II had own forms and stages. In general, I would mention a decisive moment that marked these movements. It is the year 1953, when tyrant Joseph Stalin died. Things started to change then. The Soviet regime entered the stage of collapse and reached dissolution.

IPN: You spoke about typical forms and features. Does this mean that each republic, each region had its specific features?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
Surely, it depended on the experience of the nation and on the experienced circumstances. We speak about a category of countries that were occupied after World War II following the odious Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and its secret annex, which were transformed into union republics. Other countries were turned into subdued states under the Kremlin’s control, where communist regimes similar to that in Moscow were established. Each society developed the own resistance mechanisms, depending on the clashes witnessed inside it. If we speak about Romania, things there developed gradually. First of all, we speak about the establishment of the pro-Soviet government of Petru Groza, then the driving away of the king, the reforms. It primarily went to pressure on property, justice, education, culture. All these surely generated resistance, reactions in society. Resistance groups were even formed immediately after the war. In Bucovina, groups were constituted in 1944 to counteract the abuses and infiltrations of the Red Army in Romania. Later, this unit “Bucovina” turned into a series of resistance groups that existed until 1962. There were groups practically in all the regions of Romania. We should also mention Ukraine as this problem at the moment is topical and we are looking for an answer to the question: where did this nation find power to put up resistance in such a harsh war.

IPN: Do the roots come from there?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
Yes, the roots come from there. I speak about the organization of Ukrainian nationalists created in 1936. This nationalist organization consisted of officers and politicians who copied particular processes happening all over Europe, including gravitation to the totalitarian-authoritarian regimes as one of the solutions and one of the replies given to the  failure of the democratic regimes and the revolution that was to take place on this territory. Representatives of the organization entered the war somehow unprepared and even took several steps towards Hitler’s regime, believing that Fascist Germany would offer them the occasion for establishing a national Ukrainian state. On the very first days of the war, it became clear that this would not come true. It is known that leader Stepan Bandera was arrested in June 1941 and was thrown into a camp. During the next months, it became clear that this insurrection movement, national Ukrainian movement, would fight also against Germany. So, it fought on a number of fronts. One front was Hitler’s Germany, one front was against Poland and another front was against the Soviet Union and the groups of Soviet partisans. So, this organization evidently accumulated rich experience in that period that wasn’t at all easy. By 1960, its active phase stopped and it took other forms. This was inevitable. Practically, towards 1962, all the armed resistance movements existing in this region, I mean Eastern Europe, were annihilated, with particular survivors. If we speak about Romania, there was Ion Gavrilă Ogoranu, who survived this repression.

IPN:  The resistance in the current Baltic States was considered powerful in the Soviet time. Why was it slightly different in their case?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
This phenomenon determines also the attitude of the current Baltic States, which are very active. They have a very clear attitude to Russia’s attack against Ukraine too. I would refer to the example of Lithuania, where a situation similar to that in Bessarabia was witnessed in 1944. The Soviet power was reestablished together with what it mean – repression, collectivization, inspections and raids, enrollment into the Soviet army against the will of the local population and all kinds of nationalization, conversion of private property into state property, which was a very painful process and led to bitter resistance. At that stage, 4% of Lithuania’s population decided to take arms in their hands and defend their freedom. They hid in the woods, turning into groups of partisans. That was the first stage of resistance process that until 1946 and those groups became involved in frontal fights against the Red Army. Large units attacked the occupation armed units and Soviet institutions and destroyed archives, lists of persons with debts, lists of those who were to be conscripted, lists of those who were to enter kolkhozes. They acted in different directions. I would like to note the organization spirit. If we compare with other republics, in Lithuania these units had a uniform, had discussions, had well-structured organization by regions and had a common command center of these armed units that gave sensible bows to the Soviet regime established in Lithuania. The losses in the frontal battles were large and the commanders abandoned them in 1946. However, the attacks on the bodies of the Soviet power continued. Then the Lithuanians decided that they would respond with another form of resistance, the armed one, as a lot of Lithuanian partisans were killed in battle. In 1948 -1953, they switched to other forms, namely cultural resistance. We remember that if one went to Lithuania or to the Baltic republics in general, or to the western Ukraine and spoke Russian, this person wasn’t welcomed. When the person said that he/she was from the Republic of Moldova, they changed their attitude. This attitude was also determined by the experience of the previous period about which we spoke. Evidently, the Lithuanians were ready for the events of 1989. They were the first who took to the streets. Lithuanians told me a thing that surprised me: “We didn’t expect that the Soviet Union will fall so easily, but we were ready to fight”.

In this connection, I want to note that the Atlantic Charter announced by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the President of the U.S. Franklin Roosevelt, which in 1941 proclaimed the right of the nations under occupation to restore the own states. The governments and movements that appeared in states under Soviet occupation repeatedly resorted to this principle. They often disseminated the idea that after World War II, when they found themselves in that occupation zone, American assistance will come. It was believed that time will come when the Soviet Union would enter a confrontation with the Western states. Many societies, many groups of intellectuals and of former officers lived with the hope that they would be liberated by the Americans. In interviewed we conducted, including in Bessarabia, we often heard that the people regarded the coming of the Americans as a solution to that situation. The voice of the Western people on the radio was omnipresent and they listened to it with the hope that the moment would come.

IPN: What do they know about resistance on the current territory of the Republic of Moldova?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu: Speaking about Bessarabia, I must say that the resistance here had its own particularities and stages. We didn’t have resistance groups, as it happened in Ukraine and Romania, as we were a fragment of a country and a nation. We had resistance groups formed spontaneously. They consisted of ordinary people who rose against the regime in different ways. I refer to the armed resistance group called the Black Army in Ungheni region. We can also speak about the anti-Soviet group of Philemon Bodiu or Stephan’s Archers. Even if Stephan’s Archers were oriented more to an anti-Soviet propaganda fight and was less violent, this was the particularity of this group. We had resistance groups that were constituted in ethnic communities, also spontaneously, like the Răciula Rebellion of 1959. The case of Răciula is relevant. The people went out with pitchforks in their hands to defend their right to have a house of culture in their village. That was the spirit of the revolting people. The Constitution formally provided that the citizens have the right to freedom and conscience and they resorted to this point all the time. They argued they have the right to read the bible and asked why this right of theirs was restricted.

IPN:  If we refer to intellectual resistance, to what extent did it influence the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
In time, the resistance was moved to speech, to anti-Soviet and anti-communist narrative, primarily by engaging the intellectuals through the works they wrote. That literature circulated in society and caused internal antagonism. Besides literature, we can also mention the folklore. At the level of daily culture, a form of resistance appeared. The anti-Soviet jokes were a form of urban folklore that actually convened messages that could not be presented officially. There is information that the party leaders themselves said such jokes as at the last stage of the Soviet Union, in 1970-1980, the officials from the communist nomenclature weren’t so attached to the communist values. Evidently, this category of nomenclaturists started to have other values, another attitude. The crisis of the system had different particularities. The circulation of clandestine, subversive literature was one of the realities of that time, while Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The Gulag Archipelago” was among those that could shake the system, in terms of realities in camps, anti-communist resistance. The author was among those who said that the Ukrainian insurrection movement gave a new tone to this resistance and the atmosphere there changed when those combatants entered the Stalinist camps. It is not a secret that universal criminals in the Stalinist camps were held together with political prisoners and this was a big problem, a big pressure on the intellectuals.

IPN: Indeed, the political, anti-Soviet factor was massive, attractive. Why did it disappear? Why don’t the nostalgic for the former regime, for the Soviet Union remember those jokes?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
Because this literary genre, urban folklore, the jokes lost their purpose. It was a clack for the people to be able to tell the truth. When a new epoch came, with glasnost and perestroika, those jokes started to fade away. They didn’t disappear for good, but lost their purpose in time. There are yet political jokes for a particular niche, but they are no longer as widespread as in the Soviet period.

IPN: Did the forms and methods of repression against anti-Soviet resistance evolve somehow, if we can speak about evolution in this case?

The methods changed and evolved, depending on the particularities of the regime. They started with the political repression, repression in the form of jail or camps, deportations. Until 1953, they massively used beating. In jails and camps, it was very easy to make a person disappear. In the communities of deportees, they kept records of the persons who died and disappeared. A lot of people froze to death in woods, died from hunger. After 1953, the people were again sent to jails. The person could be easily arrested and tried. Different pressure methods were applied. If the person was arrested, this was beaten less. They also used chemical, medical methods to induce a particular state and make them speak, provide particular information.

IPN: Could someone imagine that this resistance movement can lead to the disappearance of a colossal empire that seemed to be eternal? What were the goals of the resistance movements?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
Surely, they didn’t know that it will disappear, but they didn’t lose hope. Many of the rebellions were occasional, depending on the arising provocations or the created situation. A series of revolts were staged in 1953 -1954. Tyrant Stalin died and the people in a number of concentration camps rose to obtain freedom. Movements were created among workers due to the difficult economic situation, as it happened in Brasov, where the people took to the streets to ask for better conditions. The spontaneous revolts showed that the claimed Soviet wellbeing didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. Maybe a particular category of nomenclaturists enjoyed that welfare, not yet the largest part of the population. The salaries were very low. In the 1990s, the people staged a revolt against the injustice of the state that created a special situation for nomenklaturists and this became suffocating for society, which no longer accepted the social injustice.

IPN: The Soviet Union disappeared for a number of reasons. What place does the anti-Soviet resistance occupy in this series and how much did it influence the fall of the regime?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu: If we speak about the states and societies that were in the vanguard of the anti-communist resistance movement, you should know that this was the platform that ensured the change. In Lithuania, where this collective memory existed, where there was continuous cultural resistance, the people were ready for the dismemberment of the Soviet Union when this occurred. Their attitude was already formed and the people who became involved did it consciously, being from among intellectuals, not from among nomenclaturists. Regrettably, we were unable to keep this national renaissance and society democratization tendency and the national nomenclature in 1994 returned to power. Evidently, this marked us and we didn’t pass the exam of democratization and transformation of the economic and social society and we lost three decades. I say this with absolute certitude.

IPN: Why don’t the currently known facts about the anti-communist resistance influence the people who are nostalgic for the then regime that committed many wrongdoings? Why is there this discrepancy between real facts and a myth about someone’ expected return?

Virgiliu Bîrlădeanu:
This is how the governments were. We do not have what to say about the time of Voronin and the subsequent period, when the people were preoccupied and tried to introduce another historical narrative. We, the historians, always tried to speak. Society should know these historical truths. We must come and insist on these themes we consider important. Regrettably, the government is not always receptive to historians’ messages. Sometimes it does not understand why an institute of history or well-grounded synthesis studies are necessary. We experienced such problems. Problems also exist with regard to memorial and history policies. I can name one of them. In Chisinau city, there is no place, square, monument or at least something where to commemorate such a tragic history page as the famine of 1946-1947.

Recently, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova recognized the Ukrainian Holodomor as national genocide, but what do they do at the local level? In Kyiv, there is an extraordinary memorial that reminds the Ukrainians of this tragic page in their history, which mobilizes them and motivates them somehow. In our country, if this does not happen, who should come and do this instead of our government? So, the attitude of society is also like syncope. When particular events are commemorated, the people are more receptive, while on the rest of the days they detach themselves from these problems, including the government. The government considers that until the next commemoration date, it is free from taking consistent measures that would bring about results in society, would cause an echo.

The attitude of those who are nostalgic could also change if the government had another attitude. If you talk to them now and tell them about things we are discussing now, they retort, do not admit and say that something like this didn’t happen. This is so because we don’t speak about this every day and if attempts are made to persuade them, it is easier for them to disagree. Until recently, we had spoken about the “liberation” of Moldova. In the official messages, the spoke about the liberation of Bessarabia and Moldova by the Soviet Union. Only after 2009, society started to more clearly speak about an occupation. Or the liberation was followed by another occupation established by an army that could not bring freedom.

In many cases, this depends on the elite, the intellectual elite and the political class, which were indifferent to these problems. In the center of the city, we have a memorial complex dedicated to the Great Patriotic War and the 1941-1945 dates there are indicated incorrectly as the war for the Bessarabians started in 1940, while World War II began in 1939. Why don’t we have a memorial to the German-Soviet war? It does not match the historical realities and it is evidently a process that lasts and society should realize it, while the political class should have political will to change this narrative that is incorrect and is under the influence of Soviet propaganda as this memorial was built in the 1970s.

We also have a memorial in Șerpeni. Not many people know what happened in Șerpeni in 1944. It was a mass tragedy. The truth wasn’t revealed even in the time of Voronin, when this monument was reinvigorated. They didn’t say what happened there. They didn’t say that most of the persons who died on the battlefield in Șerpeni aren’t on the territory of the memorial. They were buried with pitchforks elsewhere in half a year of those battles. History repeats itself and is very tragic, while the war is not a triumphal walk to Berlin and back. The current war is also a big tragedy. It is a war that brings a lot of problems and sorrows to the people.

The interview is part of the series “100 years of USSR and 31 years without USSR: Nostalgia for Chimeras”. IPN News Agency holds this series with support from the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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