Implementation and Export of the Soviet Border Regime in Eastern Europe
Professor in contemporary history, University of Lille (France)
Prison metaphors are often used to describe the situation imposed on the peoples
of Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to the term “Iron Curtain” used by
Winston Churchill as early as March 1946, the idea of “captive nations”, used
by various emigrant groups and taken up by leading Cold War players in the
West, was developed after the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were
turned into satellites. Seen from the “free world”, one defining characteristic of
Soviet totalitarianism was this prohibition of the free movement of people and
ideas that present-day historiography now seeks to examine1.
They were defined as a border between value systems, described as totally
closed borders materialised by barbed wire and walls, but were these borders
actually new borders? What did they inherit from Russian tradition and Imperial
practice? Were these borders the result of the ideological experience of
Communism after the Russian Revolution in 1917 or the product of Stalinist
autocracy in the 1930s? To what extent may we see in this kind of border regime
the practices of control, the social and ethnic engineering that have dominated
the modern governance of Europe since World War I2?
The forms of border surveillance adopted by the Soviet Union even before
World War II and exported to the “peoples’ democracies” in the late 1940s have
only recently begun to be studied3. An examination of the border along the line
of contact between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and then the dividing
I will mention just two multi-author books that list the links that survived or were created
between the two Europes despite the Iron Curtain: Antoine Fleury, Lubor Jilek (eds.), Une
Europe malgré tout, 1945-1990. Contacts et réseaux culturels, intellectuels et scientifiques
entre Européens dans la guerre froide, Peter Lang, Brussels, 2009; Jean-François Sirinelli,
Georges-Henri Soutou (eds.), Culture et Guerre froide, Presses de l’université Paris-
For a first attempt to place the Soviet experience in the global context of modernisation of
European societies, see Stephen Kotkin, “Modern Times: The Soviet Union and the Interwar
Conjuncture”, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol.2/1, pp. 111-164.
See in particular Andrea Chandler, Institutions of Isolation. Border Controls in the Soviet
Union and its Successor States, 1917-1993, Montreal, Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University
Press, 1998; Sophie Cœuré, Sabine Dullin (n.d.), Frontières du communisme. Mythologies et
réalités de la division de l’Europe, de la révolution d’octobre au mur de Berlin, 1917-1961,
Paris, La Découverte, 2007 and papers to be delivered at this conference.
line between the two Europes is crucial to our understanding of the Cold War,
by adding social practice and local realities to the diplomatic and political levels.
Closing the border was tried in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 1930s,
but was not so easy to implement on the ground. The population flows brought
about by World War II, the modernisation of international communications and
the habits of communities in the border areas, all resisted this freezing of
mobility at local, regional and international levels. How did the new geo-
ideological reality that led first to the break and then confrontation between the
two parts of Europe establish itself on the ground and in people’s minds?
I intend this presentation to be a general introduction and shall focus on two
points for discussion. The first is how new and how distinctive this closed
border model really was. For that I need to go back to its origins in the inter-war
period. The second point is how in practice this model was exported to the
countries of the Eastern bloc.
Various approaches can be taken to border issues.
My perspective here is to consider the border as a social, political and cultural
construct4. Clearly a border doesn’t exist by itself. It’s a product of
administrative practices both at the central level of the State and at local level.
Discourse about the border precedes its implementation on the ground. By
changing the scale of analysis, using archival materials and conducting
interviews we improve our practical knowledge of borders. The border is not the
same for local resident whose day-to-day space is delineated by the prohibited
zone or first zone, for an illegal migrant or a border guard obsessed by the
borderline and its violation, for an administrative agent whose area of action
corresponds to the border district or border region, for the diplomats who signed
the special and technical agreements delineating the border zone where cross-
border activities are authorised (shepherds, sailors, railway workers, etc.)5, for
the activists, smugglers or intelligence agents who consider the border as a
transnational space with cross-border networks and activities. The field research
I would like to mention the importance in this respect of the works of Peter Sahlins,
Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, University of California Press,
1991 and Daniel Nordman, Frontières de France. De l’espace au territoire, XVIe-XIXe
siècles, Paris, Gallimard, 1998. These two historians inspired my book to be published:
L’URSS à la frontière (1920-1940). Le politique, l’imaginaire et le quotidien d’un Etat neuf.
Some largely forgotten works written by jurists in the interwar period are really insightful in
their comprehensive description of the border as a transnational technical space with features
of cooperation and blurring territorialities, see for example Paul Geouffroy de Lapradelle, La
frontière, Paris, Editions internationales, 1928. See also the geographer Camille Vallaux,
“Nouveaux aspects du problème des frontières”, Scientia, November 1924.
trip first used by anthropologists6, sociologists and geographers is now common
practice for historians too.
This approach may well challenge the geopolitical approach that is traditionally
used to address border issues7, and even the more fashionable geo-cultural one8.
Among historians of the Russian and Soviet Empire, this last approach is
widespread. In their narrative, the border is rarely discussed in itself, it’s a fact
that imposes certain political behaviours on the State leaders, whatever they
might believe and hope. The aim is to detect the source of Russian expansionism
and this source is insecurity. The borders are described as shapeless, contested
by neighbouring powerful states, porous and dangerous. The main Russian
narrative from the 18th to the 20th century is the impossible quest for a buffer
that would protect the borders even in the face of encirclement and defeat.
Questioning the border through the issue of expansionism is of course
necessary, but it remains a “top-down” view far from the real border. The main
objective in my work, as in many papers to be presented here at our conference,
is to focus the study of the border on the administrative realities and the political
culture. The people concerned by the border are of course the state leadership at
every level but also the inhabitants. Border affairs involve many administrative
bodies in totality or in part (the border guards, the Red Army, the NKVD units
and kommandatura, agencies of Foreign Trade, departments of Foreign Affairs,
GRU agents, Communists, etc.).
First of all, I shall stress the importance of the foundational moments from
World War I to World War II for understanding the Cold War period. Then I
shall dwell on the new challenges of the construction of the border within the
Soviet bloc, in particular the emergence after 1949 of two kinds of Communist
border: internal and external. In a way, the European construction from the
1950s to the 1980s, characterised by a border-free internal space and a strong
external border, was a twofold experience, eastern (Socialist bloc) and western
(European Community) and we can detect a mirror game between them.
For example, the anthropologist Mathijs Pelkmans has written a good “bottom-up”
analysis of the Georgian-Turkish border, Defending the border. Identity, religion and
modernity in the Republic of Georgia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, London, 2006; see
also the article on the Ukrainian-Slovak border written by the sociologist Jessica Allina-
Pisano, “From Iron Curtain to Golden Curtain: Remaking Identity in the European Union
Borderlands”, East European Politics & Societies, May 2009, 23: 266-290.
Nevertheless, Michel Foucher’s work is an invitation to pay attention to cartography at
different scales and to the players in border construction.
I wrote a critical review essay on this geo-cultural approach: “Understanding Russian and
Soviet Foreign Policy in a Geo-Cultural Perspective”, Kritika, Explorations in Russian and
Eurasian History, vol. 12, n°1, 2011, p.161-181.
Ideological matrix : A Cold War history before the Cold War.
Bolshevik Revolution and ideological pioneer front
Returning to the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik dreams of a unified
Socialist world without bourgeois state borders means first that we take
seriously Bolshevik discourse9.
For in a contemporary Europe where the historical moment was one of
constructing new states with strong national identities on the remains of
Empires, the Bolshevik discourse of a world free of borders and open to the
solidarity of workers and peasants was unique and upset those neighbouring
states that had fought so hard to create a coherent self-portrait of their
The revolutionary dynamism that was characteristic of pan-Soviet Bolshevik
plans did not harmonise well with any particular territorial status quo.
Revolutionary legitimacy was based first of all on the denunciation of the
Czarist empire as the “people’s prison”, and a critique of previously established
international borders, the fruit of deals between great imperialist powers. The
borders imposed by enemies during World War I and later the Civil War (the
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 and the Treaty of Riga in March 1921)
appeared to be temporary concessions, following Lenin’s famous motto: yield
ground in order to gain time.
The Decree on Nationalities of November 1917 recognised the independence of
“foreign” republics founded on the principles of nationality, leading to a
proliferation of borders; but Bolshevik actions in the course of the Civil War
followed the class pattern, since the October Revolution implied an ideological
pioneer front. The new borders were interpreted as limits to national sovereignty
internal to an expanding revolutionary space even before the creation of the
USSR in 1922. The Revolution needed to be extended gradually by means of the
establishment of friendly Soviet republics whose only acceptable form of
sovereignty was to be exercised by the working classes. Territory remained
undefined in the first constitutions of the Russian Soviet Republic and later the
Ukrainian (1918-1919), since sovereignty belonged to all workers and peasants,
whatever their nationality. Even prisoners of war could become citizens. These
new ideological motherlands were symbolised by their emblems and flags: a red
In the recent historiography of the Soviet Union, the importance of ideology or rather of
political culture and rhetoric has been upgraded.
We find this expression in Ansii Paasi, Territories, Boundaries and Consciousness. The
Changing Geographies of the Finnish-Russian Border, Toronto, Chichester, New York, John
background lit by the sun’s rays, or a hammer and sickle framed by ears of
grain. Into the Bolshevik legislative corpus was introduced the right of political
asylum for revolutionaries from all countries and peasants and workers
persecuted as members of the lower class11.
Naturally this proletarian solidarity justified conquest. It was frequently
intervention by the Red Army, arriving to support local minority worker
governments (such as its entry into Tbilisi in February 1921), which led to the
republics joining the Soviet space. The establishment of the USSR did not end
To expand the territory of the Revolution, the Soviets also exploited nationalist
aspirations on their borders. The autonomous republics of Moldavia (1924) and
Eastern Karelia (1923) sought to become the “Piedmonts”13 of the 20th century
for the Moldavian and Karelian causes, targeting the populations of Romania
and Finland. Similarly, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan adopted policies supporting
the abortive experiments of the republics of northern Iran and East Turkestan
after the end of World War II. The Soviet regime then, from the outset, utilised
both class and nationality to change its internal and external borders.
The idea of a pioneer front, whose revolutionary content is attenuated without
jeopardizing its founding principle, presupposes territorial contiguity. In
justifying the timidity of its support for some revolutionary causes, Soviet
discourse pointed to the absence of common borders (e.g., Lazar Kaganovich in
October 1936 discussing Republican Spain and Mikhail Suslov in October 1959
talking about the Algerian National Liberation Front).
From border-free utopia to the sacralisation of the sealed border
How did this ideological pioneer front lead to a gradual closing and sacralisation
of the border? The closing and sacralisation were achieved during the Stalinist
period in the latter half of the 1930s.
To explain these developments, two arguments were often advanced by
contemporaries as well as historians.
First, sacralisation and closing allegedly proved Stalin’s betrayal of
internationalism by defending Socialism in one country against Trotsky’s ideas.
Current historiography on Stalinism does not support this. The available archival
Yuri Felshtinski, K istorii nashei zakrytosti. Zakonodatel’nye osnovy sovetskoi
immigratsionnoi i emigratsionnoi politiki, Moscow, Terra, 1991.
For all this section I refer to my “Border” article in Silvio Pons, Robert Service (n.d.),
A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.65-68
(translated from Dizionario del comunismo nel XX secolo, Einaudi, Turin, 2006).
Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union,
1923-1939, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001.
material shows on the contrary how much, despite his pragmatism, his skill at
managing people around him and his statist tendencies, Stalin remained a man
of conviction anxious to export his own conception of revolution at any cost.
The Soviet regime under Stalin’s yoke utilised both class and nationality to
change its external borders. This was obvious in the territorial annexations of
1939-1940 when the Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Moldavian causes
were used by the Stalinist authorities as well as the rhetoric of the emancipation
of the lower class from large landowners symbolised by the Polish pan. Stalin
could embrace a variety of geo-ideological positions as Silvio Pons has
demonstrated quite convincingly in his work14. The dream of a “secure total
state” implied a totally closed border.
Second, it was said to demonstrate the victory of old Russian behaviour over
Bolshevik innovation. Hadn’t Nicholas I controlled the borders of the Empire?
However, that had hardly resembled the sealed borders under Stalin and the
export of this practice to Central and Eastern Europe after 1949. Nowhere other
than in the USSR, and after 1948-1949 Eastern bloc countries (except perhaps in
Israel), has the figure of the border guard ever occupied so important a place in
It seems more justified to see in these trends a reactive policy to the events of
the Civil War and foreign intervention combined with elements of Bolshevik
political culture. Two camps were delineated: capitalism outside, the road to
Socialism inside. In the class war political culture of the Soviet Union during the
interwar period, the narrative of foreign intervention in 1918-1920 established
the figure of the fatherland of the proletariat surrounded by capitalist
encirclement. The anti-Communist mood in Europe was strong, especially in the
neighbouring states and their mentors that treated them as a cordon sanitaire
and from this perspective, the Soviet border before 1939 could be viewed as the
forerunner of the Cold War border that divided Europe after 1949.
Protectionism at the borders became a central focus of Bolshevik policy. It gave
a political function to the border guard service re-established in 1918 and
placed, after November 1920, under the supervision of the Cheka (and its
successors): to protect the security and economic well-being of Soviet territory,
which was to remain both inviolate and impenetrable to capitalist infiltration.
Since the state had a monopoly on foreign trade, smuggling (which continued to
Silvio Pons, Stalin and the Inevitable War: 1936-1941, London, Frank Cass, 2002.
Sabine Dullin, “Les protecteurs. Le rôle des gardes-frontières dans la surveillance des
frontières occidentales de l’URSS (1917-1939)”, in Sophie Cœuré, Sabine Dullin (eds.),
Frontières du communisme, Paris, la Découverte, 2007, p.379-405; “L’image de l’espion dans
la culture populaire soviétique des années 1950: entre affirmation patriotique et valeurs de
guerre froide”, in Jean-François Sirinelli, Georges-Henri Soutou (eds.), Culture et Guerre
froide, Paris, Presses de l’Université Paris Sorbonne, 2008, p. 89-102.
grow right up to the USSR’s collapse as a result of the scarcity of consumer
goods) became a crime against Socialist property. With the constant fear of
capitalist encirclement (a scar of the Civil War described by Alfred Rieber in
one of his articles16), political categories were superimposed by the relevant
Soviet institutions on forms of behaviour that were not political, especially from
the end of the 1920s: crossing the border without the proper authorisation was
almost espionage; an act of looting carried out by bandits could be transformed
into a capitalist provocation.
This predominance of protectionist attitudes was nevertheless associated with
attempts to demonstrate the gap between old and new worlds that led to the
sacralisation of the frontline between them. From 1924, the Soviets developed
an architecture for border checkpoints. The arches bore the inscription
“Proletarians of the world unite!” with the intention of showing the traveller the
transition not just from one country to another but rather from the present to the
future. The Socialist advantage had to be economic, social and cultural. In 1925
a commission was created for the western border areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and
around Leningrad; it was given the impossible task of developing these desolate
peripheral areas and transforming them into showcases for the building of
The third feature that emerged at the same time was tight control of the border
and its inhabitants, the predominant role of the border guards and finally the
closure of the border. The first checklists of unreliable elements (criminals, anti-
Soviet activists, socially alien elements) and operations of identity control and
the requirement for passports were tested in the border zone17. In the mid-1930s,
special and prohibited zones were created and special passports were distributed
to inhabitants authorised to live there. The idea was to break the human links
between the two sides of the border. National minorities such as Germans,
Poles, Finns, Balts and, two years later, Koreans, Iranians and Turks who lived
in the border regions were deported far from the border, as well as Belarusians
or Ukrainians who had relatives on the other side. The border became a “bout
du monde” and crossing the border illegally became highly dangerous.
At all events, by means of border closure, repression and priority allocation of
resources, through demographic, economic and social transformation, it is
undeniable that by the end of the 1930s, there was an ideological and systemic
Alfred Rieber, “Civil Wars in the Soviet Union”, Kritika 4, 1 (2003): 129–62.
For the passport requirement in the USSR, see Nathalie Moine, “Le système des passeports
à l’époque stalinienne. De la purge des grandes villes au morcellement du territoire, 1932-
1953”, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 50/1, 2000, pp.145-169; David Shearer,
Policing Stalin’s Socialism. Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953,
New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 2009.
gap between the two sides of the western border. The process of differentiation
separated what had still been similar and closely connected in the 1920s.
The mood of the time : the Bolsheviks, men of an age of modernity and
Yet it would distort reality to see the Soviet border only through the prism of
Communist ideology and class war values. Indeed, the Bolsheviks, like other
leaders in Eastern Europe were confronted in the aftermath of World War I with
post-war phenomena such as the management of refugee flows18, banditry in the
borderlands, and the need to secure the new borders. They had to find a
compromise with strong national identities in republics such as Ukraine. So
administrative practices at the border revealed the daily work of a state and
especially practices of control: control of immigration19, work of customs
officers, battle against foreign intelligence services. They also revealed the
transnational or international mood of the time. Thus, the institutional
organisation of the border guards that was effective in 1923-24 in the Soviet
Union was paralleled by the creation by Warsaw of the KOP (border guard
corps) on the Polish eastern border20. Committees to improve the health of the
borderlands and integrate them into the fatherland also operated in Eastern
European countries. After the peace treaties, NKID diplomats signed many
agreements with their counterparts in Finland, the Baltic countries, Poland and
Romania (although diplomatic relations were not resumed with Bucharest
because of the Bessarabia dispute). These bilateral agreements were attempts to
reorganise new neighbourly relations between counties that had all been located
within the Russian Empire until its collapse and so were economically and
socially connected. For example, the Finnish fishermen were used to fishing in
Lake Ladoga, which was reachable only via Leningrad and the Neva. After the
independence of Finland, that implied a special agreement and daily boat
circulation between Finland and the Soviet Union under police control. Trade
fairs were maintained on the Soviet southern border and commercial networks
with Turkey and Iran. These bilateral agreements were also attempts to secure
Nick Baron, Peter Gatrell, ed., Homelands. War, Population and Statehood in Eastern
Europe and Russia, 1918-1924, Anthem Press, London, 2004.
For the general European context, see Gérard Noiriel, La Tyrannie du national. Le droit
d’asile en Europe (1793-1993), Paris, Calmann-Levy, 1991; also John Torpey, The Invention
of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
M. Jabłonowski, J. Prochwicz, Wywiad Korpusu Ochrony Pogranicza 1924-1939, Warsaw,
ASPRA-JR, 2004; J. Prochwicz, “Wywiad Korpusu Ochrony Pogranicza 1924-1939”,
the borderlands. On the border, demilitarised buffer zones were delineated in
order to pacify territories infested by gangs. At the demarcation line with
Romania on the Dniester, a bilateral commission was created to address local
cases of looting, livestock theft or attacks on officials. So Soviet policy and
Eastern European countries’ policies at the border were sometimes very similar.
Nevertheless, nowhere else in the 1930s were the security obsession, the
expulsion and deportation of undesirable persons, death sentences for espionage
so widespread or reach such high levels.
The national question was also a challenge for both Soviets and Europeans
during the interwar period21. The Soviet Union did not join the League of
Nations until 1934 but acted as challenger of this body in protecting the rights of
eastern national minorities that had not received a territory and a state at the
peace conferences. Using linguistic and ethnological criteria, they fought for the
Ukrainian cause in eastern Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania22, while
repressing their own Ukrainian population, and for the Belarusian and
Moldavian causes. When the Red Army intervened in eastern Poland in
September 1939, the rhetoric of emancipation of the Ukrainian and Belarusian
“blood brothers” was predominant. The incorporation on 29 June 1945 of sub-
Carpathian Ruthenia as the last “piece of Ukraine” into the Soviet Socialist
Republic of Ukraine was portrayed as democratic, a realisation of the people's
wishes, a plebiscite based on the desire to live together23. If these Soviet
territorial annexations encountered few protests from Western countries (with
the exception of the annexation of the Baltic countries), it was because of the
might of the Red Army and the prestige of the victor against Nazism, and also
because Stalin was implementing, in an odd and violent but practical manner,
Wilson’s promise after World War I: the right to national self-determination.
After the nightmare of World War II, Stalin and the Soviet leaders shared with
their European counterparts common convictions of the necessity to homogenise
and ethnicise the borders. Before Beneš and the Polish post-war leaders, Stalin
was the first leader to organise the deportation or forced transfer of ethnically
alien elements. During the Soviet-German pact the departure of all Germans
from eastern Poland and the Baltic countries was organised. After the war, the
Martin Scheuermann, Minderheitenschutz contra Konfliktverhütung? Die
Minderheitenpolitik des Völkerbundes in den zwanziger Jahren, Marburg: Verl. Herder-
Institute, 2000; Sava Mikhaïlovitch, La Protection des minorités nationales et la souveraineté
de l’État, doctoral thesis, Faculté de droit de Paris, Paris, Librairie Rodstein, 1933.
Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations. Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet
Union, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2005; Pawel Korzec, “The Ukrainian Problem in
Interwar Poland”, in P. Smith (ed.), Ethnic Groups in International Relations, New York,
New York University Press, 1991, p.187-209.
Valentina Mar’ina, Zakarpatskaâ Ukraina (Podkarpatskaâ Rus’) v politike Beneša i
Stalina, Novyj Hronograf, Moscow, 2003.
forced exchange of Ukrainians and Poles at the Polish-Soviet border (1944-
1946)24 was paralleled by the expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenland by the
Beneš Decrees and similar massive operations from Poland to Germany, from
Kaliningrad to Germany25.
The definitive nature of borders in Eastern Europe is largely due to the forced
ethnic redistribution of population, particularly along the Polish borders. The
Stalinist regime made a decisive contribution to this redistribution. It thereby
defined the state borders of the USSR and helped to define those of Eastern
Europe, in a major shift from the idea of the pioneer front born with the
Revolution. A moving line became a well-guarded showcase (as in East Berlin).
This sacralisation of the border was now joined by a sacralisation of territory.
Stalin firmly believed in state borders. His political and ideological interference
in the Eastern European satellite states did not involve moving the border of the
USSR, whose sovereign territory was now considered to be complete, finished
and based upon history and geography. The People’s Republic of Poland never
became the 17th Soviet republic of the USSR, as some had feared in the late
In 1949, three borders coexisted that enveloped the Socialist heart of the USSR
in a succession of “protective shells”. The first was the border constructed after
the Civil War and the peace treaties of 1920-1921. In 1939, this boundary
delineating the first Socialist motherland was a firm border both in
administrative practice and mental maps. It persisted in Soviet representation,
because the partisans in Belarus, for example, fighting against the Germans
during the war knew very well when they were at home (i.e. behind the Riga
Treaty border) or abroad (i.e. in western Belarus annexed in 1939). When in the
1980s Soviet people visited Tallinn or Lviv (cities of the Soviet Union since
1939-1940), they thought that they were travelling abroad, in Europe.
Catherine Gousseff, “Des confins aux régions frontalières soviétiques. Le rôle de l’URSS
dans la destruction des Kresy”, Cultures d’Europe centrale, n° 5, 2005.
Philip Ther, “L’ethnicisation de l’espace en Europe centrale et orientale après la Seconde
Guerre mondiale », Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, n°76, October-December 2004,
p.20-26; Detlef Brandes, Der Weg zur Vertreibung. Pläne und Entscheidungen zum
„Transfer“ der Deutschen aus der Tschechoslowakei und aus Polen, Munich, Oldenburg,
2001; Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations. Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus,
1569-1999, Yale University Press, New Haven, London, 2003.
From 1940 to 1956, the USSR comprised 16 republics, since during that period the
Republic of Karelia had the status of a federated republic of Russia.
The second border was that of the 1939-1940 annexations with some
modifications in 1944-1945. After the war, this new Soviet state border was
perceived by Moscow as totally legitimate, for ethnic reasons in particular. In
1949, on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the October Revolution, after a
series of treaties had been signed with the Eastern European countries during the
previous two years, Georgy Malenkov declared, “Never in the entire course of
our history has our Motherland had such well-defined and legitimate national
borders”. This Soviet border was not yet perceived as an internal border within
the Socialist bloc in construction.
The third border was the external one, the border of the Cold War, the Iron
Curtain that was created between 1944 and 1949 along the borders of the new
In the post-war arrangements, it can be seen how experience gained between the
wars in police management of the border was immediately put to use again and
within a few years exported to the entire Eastern bloc.
Each displacement of the border towards the west led to the export and
implementation of the Soviet-style border regime in new territories. Following
the 1939-1940 annexations of eastern Poland, a zone 7.5 km wide was
delineated at the new border between German-occupied Poland and Western
Ukraine and Belarus newly integrated into the USSR; after World War II, by the
decree of 29 June 1946, a prohibited zone was created once more along the new
western border from Moldavia to Murmansk region, including Kaliningrad
(former East Prussia). This prohibited area was in general 800 metres to 2
kilometres deep, and sometimes up to 50 km. To enter the zone from the inward
territory required an invitation and a special permit. These zones were forbidden
for foreigners. These strips were isolated from both sides, from within and from
abroad. The number of the border guards on the western border was increased:
in 1944, 55,420 (34 regiments, each of 1,630 men), at the beginning of 1949,
77,840 (political police calculations established that there were 10 border guards
for each kilometre). At the beginning of 1949, Kruglov, the Minister of Internal
Affairs in Moscow, welcomed the results obtained in the construction of the
border that was now visible in the landscape: a control strip 10-15 metres wide
raked over to check for footprints over 2,855 km (70% of the western land
border length), 1,410 km of barbed wire fences, 1,337 watchtowers, 1,217
blockhouses, 63 km of trenches.
A programme was also implemented to involve border residents in border
surveillance and encourage their loyalty; at the same time a medal was created
for the “best border guard”.
It must be said that these new border regions and republics, annexed in 1939-40,
occupied by the Germans from 1941 and reconquered by the Red Army in 1944-
45 were in general hostile to Moscow control and represented a kind of Wild
West27 that, for the Soviet authorities, had to be pacified and transformed into
reliable border zones.
Thus the problems faced by the Soviets echoed, with a gain in complexity, those
faced by the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of World War I. However, the solutions
found were those implemented at the end of the 1930s: border closure, illegal
border crossings harshly punished, life in a prohibited zone, inhabitants deported
or transferred, reliable elements settled28. The new Soviet border in 1946-47
appeared to be as closed as the former border before 1939.
The new inhabitants had quickly to learn what a closed border meant. Whereas
those who lived in the borderlands in the early 1920s had had fifteen or so years
to get used to the new political and ideological border before losing all contact
with the outside world, those living on the border in 1945 had barely a year.
Border closure was particularly hard to take where the border cut across
communities, villages and towns. On the Finnish border, the geographer Anssi
Paasi has studied the partition of the small town of Värtsilä, which between the
wars lay 100 km west of the Soviet border and had a population of 6,00029.
Värtsilä was cut in two by the border demarcation of 8 August 1940 following
the Soviet-Finnish peace treaty of March that year. One-third of the population
remained in Finland; the working-class, industrial part was now in the USSR.
Between the two parts of the town a no man’s land 400 to 1,000 metres wide
was established and barbed wire along a 10 metre wide strip. So it was on the
USSR border that the first iron curtain was erected, with a series of prophetic
little Berlins. In Transcarpathia, the Hungarian-speaking village of Szelmenc
(Slovak Slemence), along with others, was split in the autumn following the
bilateral Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty of 29 June 1945. People exchanged news
by shouting over the palisade when the border guards had their backs turned:
news of weddings or deaths, or they sang hymns across the border when the
church bell rang30. The same phenomenon occurred at the borders between the
The expression is from Amir Weiner, specialist of the war and post-war western
borderlands and the nationalist resistance partisans against Sovietisation.
See Sabine Dullin, “L’invention d’une frontière de guerre froide à l’Ouest de l’Union
soviétique (1945-1949)”, Vingtième siècle. Revue d’histoire, n°102, 2009, p.48-63.
Anssi Paasi, Territories, Boundaries and Consciousness. The Changing Geographies of the
Finnish-Russian Border, Toronto, Chichester, New York, John Wiley, 1996.
Interviews conducted in the village of Kisszelmenc, Ukraine, with Tatiana Zhurzhenko,
October 2007 and July 2008; Miklos Zelei, “Et le rideau de fer tomba le 23 décembre
2005...Réunification aux confins de l’Union européenne”, Courrier international, n°799, 23
February-1 March 2006.
Eastern bloc countries: Frankfurt an der Oder/Słubice, Görlitz/Zgorzelec on the
Polish-German border, České Velenice/Gmünd on the Czech-Austrian border31.
So Stalin’s border, seen from Moscow as right and legitimate from a state and
ethnic point of view, was seen in the border towns as an absurd and unfair
military and police border. Some families split by the border did not see or
correspond with their relatives for more than ten years.
Furthermore, this drastic separation on the ground was not the result of some
differentiation of political identity, as might have been the case with the 1939
border. The Socialist showcase policies followed for more than ten years
between the wars, facing the political systems of Eastern Europe, as mentioned
above, had created otherness and differentiated identities. To this day, pre-1939
Ukraine and Belarus are culturally and politically turned towards the East,
unlike eastern Galicia, Transcarpathia and western Belarus. Other long-term
factors, however, also play a role.
But the construction of a hermetic Soviet state border after World War II only
produced frustration. On the other side of the border were fraternal countries on
the way to becoming Socialist. There was no political otherness to be stressed.
The broadening of Communism’s territorial demarcation to the entire Eurasian
continent, from Maoist China to the German Democratic Republic, although it
did not entail the extension of the USSR’s federal experience and rather
enforced nation-state borders in Eastern Europe and Asia, nevertheless produced
Socialist forms of cooperation in the 1950s at Moscow’s request. Political and
military communities were created that restricted the individual countries’
sovereignty (by means of the Cominform, Comecon and Warsaw Pact). So the
existence of closed borders between Socialist states lacked any convincing
Although the establishment of people’s democracies in the neighbouring states
initially had no impact on the hermetically closed nature of the border between
them and the USSR, a major change occurred on their western boundaries that
became the ideological as well as the strategic and military border of the Eastern
As Vostnej Mastny has shown, the buffer the Soviets built after the war thanks
to the Red Army’s conquest of Central and Eastern Europe was intended to
avoid the return of an anti-Soviet cordon sanitaire32. And the Soviets, in contrast
with the weakness of Bolshevik Russia in the 1920s, were now so powerful that
Elzbieta Opilowska, Stella Pfeiffer, Görlitz/Zgorzelec. Zwei Seiten einer Stadt/Dwie strony
miasta. Dresden 2005; Muriel Blaive and Berthold Molden, Grenzfälle. Österreischische und
tschechische Erfahrungen am Eisernen Vorhang, Weitra, Bibliothek der Provinz, 2009.
Vojtech Mastny, Cold War and Soviet Insecurity. The Stalin years, New York, Oxford
University Press, 1996.
they had all the tools to implement this buffer. They could count on the Red
Army units and obtain territorial gains (East Prussia in particular), impose
military bases perceived by Moscow as necessary for Soviet security in Finland
and Romania, and control the mouth of the Danube. Each state in the Soviet
occupation zone now had common borders with the USSR. They could count
also on a new legitimacy acquired by their victory against Nazism. The hopes
for social change and the fear of German revanchism helped the Soviets
transform the social and political order in the Eastern bloc countries.
With these elements of convergence, the Communist leaders in the people’s
democracies and their mentors in Moscow agreed that contacts and ties with the
West were dangerous for the ideological purity of the bloc that, from a Stalinist
point of view, was a synonym for security. The radio waves were jammed, mail
from the West censored33, and cultural ties broken.
From 1949 and in the wake of NATO’s foundation, the Soviet model with its
militarised and politicised border guards, demarcation of a prohibited zone and
so on, was imported to the people’s democracies. It applied to the new front line
with capitalism, i.e. the Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech and Polish borders, and
then extended to Albania and East Germany. After 1948, the borders between
the Socialist states and Yugoslavia, which had meanwhile become a personal
foe, were controlled like the capitalist borders. Training courses for Eastern
border guard services were held by the Soviet political police. Among other
similar decrees, the law for protection of the state borders was promulgated in
Czechoslovakia on 12 July 1951 and it included the principle of each citizen’s
responsibility in guarding the state border and the size of the prohibited zone at
the Czech borders. In the GDR, a specific force for the protection of the borders
was created in 1952 and soon became an army with close relations to the
political police. The Iron Curtain as a physical barrier was thus achieved by the
beginning of the 1950s. The first major campaigns from the West to denounce
this Iron Curtain with photo reporting were launched in 1952-1955. They were
funded and organised by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
In many papers to be delivered at this conference, the export after 1948-1949 of
these methods to the “new people’s democracies” is described in detail, as well
as internal factors that may have helped and fostered the direction taken.
For example, 40,000 letters per day arrived at the mail office Prague-120 where they were
In conclusion, I’d like to launch some ideas regarding the post-Stalinist period
and the Khrushchev Thaw. During this period, circulation was resumed within
the Eastern bloc as well as between the two Europes. Signs of these changes
were numerous: development of tourism34, cultural exchanges, family visits and
labour migration. However a clear difference was made, immediately after
Stalin’s death, between what was allowed at the bloc’s internal borders and what
was possible at the external borders35. As early as spring 1953, the Soviet
leaders argued for differentiating between borders, those with capitalist
countries and those between Socialist countries, and for cooperation with the
people’s democracies, then hampered by border closure on the ground.
However, the more the inter-Socialist borders opened in the early 1960s, the
more effective surveillance needed to be at the external border. There is the
example of the Polish authorities, who only opened their border to the GDR and
dismantled nearly 500 km of barbed wire once the Berlin Wall had been
completed36. Moscow then gave an impetus for the modernisation of the
infrastructure in the Eastern bloc countries. On the Austrian-Czech border,
particularly at the České Velenice railway station and the Šumava (Bohemian
Forest) mountain range, “border communities” and auxiliary units were set up,
associating locals with the green-capped border guards in order to identify
illegal border crossers. The MVD advisors in the Eastern bloc countries were
ordered to check the work of national border police forces, usually placed under
the army, with an increasing role for each national political police. Only military
counter-espionage remained almost entirely in the hands of the Soviets37. The
future would involve police coordination to “solve surveillance questions
together” and prevent illegal crossing. In 1956, and even more in 1968, the
world of Socialism became more obviously the world of collective repression of
deviance and borders were disregarded. After the decision to put down the
Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia served as a
rear base. The collective area of repression was even more obvious in 1968
when Warsaw Pact troops marched into Czechoslovakia. It was the GDR and
Anne E. Gorsuch, Diane P. Koenker, ed., Turizm: The Russian and East European Tourist
under Capitalism and Socialism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2006; Anne E. Gorsuch, All
this is your World. Soviet tourism at home and abroad after Stalin, Oxford, Oxford University
See my article, “Des frontières s’ouvrent et se ferment. La mise en place d’un espace
socialiste derrière le rideau de fer, 1953-1970”, Relations Internationales, 2011/3, n°147.
Dominik Trutkowski, Der geteilte Ostblock. Die Grenzen der SBZ/DDR zu Polen und der
Tschechoslowakei, Cologne, Weimar, Vienna, Böhlau Verlag, 2011, p.77.
Nikita Petrov, Po stsenariu Stalina: rol’ organov NKVD-MGB SSSR v sovetizatsii stran
Tsentral’noi i Vostočnoi Evropy 1945-1953 gg., Moscow, Rosspen, 2011.
Ukrainian leaders, fearful of possible contagion from the Prague Spring, who
pushed hardest for repression38.
This Socialist world behind the Iron Curtain was undermined by the effects of
the post-Stalin Thaw. The relaxation of the inter-Socialist border regime and the
resumption of trade with the West decided by the Kremlin took on generous
proportions in some Eastern bloc countries, and in places helped to undermine
the only recently built Iron Curtain. The Hungarians dismantled the fences along
the Austrian border in 1956. From 1964 the Czechoslovaks began to open up
their borders: abolition of the prohibited areas, rapid issue of weekend visas by
the consulate in Vienna for Austrian tourists, and, not least, liberalisation of
travel to the West for their own nationals. Whereas in 1963 the average monthly
figure for entry visas for West Germany issued in Prague was 250, by February
1964 it was 1,518, in June 6,513 and in July 8,366, two-thirds of them for family
visits. Czechoslovakia became the main destination for GDR citizens crossing to
the West, since they could enter the country without a visa after 15 July 1967.
The suppression of the Prague Spring, much more than that of the Hungarian
autumn twelve years earlier, put a temporary stop to this opening-up to the
West, while establishing a diaspora of some size. However, it did not stop
internal movement within the Eastern bloc, which increased in the 1970s.
Underneath the imposition of the Soviet model, it is possible to discern in the
post-Stalin years a variety of national adaptations. This was particularly true for
the détente period of the 1960-1980s, when many exchanges resumed39. In 1989
the series of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the
Soviet bloc began by a breach in the Iron Curtain near the Hungarian village of
Hegyeshalom on the road from Budapest to Vienna, through which East
Germans and Romanians rushed, evidence of movement within the bloc.
When one interviews local people who lived along the borders of the USSR, a
single fact recurs: during the Communist period the border was always closed
and only opened in the years 1989-1991. This history is unlike any other, with
its taboos and traumatic experiences. Crossing the border was forbidden:
impossible under Stalin, hampered by red tape and police checks under
Khrushchev and Brezhnev. And yet from these stories emerges the turning point
of the 1950s-1960s when the first trips took placed to neighbouring Socialist
countries, often to see relatives living on the other side.
“Ukraine and the Soviet-Czechoslovak Crisis of 1968, New Evidence from the Ukrainian
Archives”, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 14/15, p. 273-368.
See in particular the recent book by Dariusz Stola, Kraj bez wyjścia? Migracje z Polski
1949–1989, Warsaw, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2010. Much research remains to be done
in this area.
Border police, visas, official invitations and family reunions, dreams of travel,
all these ingredients of a history of everyday life in the Soviet bloc that largely
remains to be written are also common features of contemporary societies. What
are the similarities and what are the differences? Many people living along the
former Communist borders experience these things, often with disillusionment,
at the gateways to the Schengen Area.