How did a criminal trial in the Soviet Union work after World War 2?

How did a criminal trial in the Soviet Union work after World War 2?


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There are many historical accounts of "trials" in the Soviet Union. However, they tend to center around trials which are political trials. For example, a government agent accused of treason.

How did a criminal trial in the Soviet Union work? Specifically I am interested in the time immediately after World War 2.


Criminal justice in USSR in the post war period was performed by "People's Courts" (they existed in 1937-1989). They consisted of judges and "people's jury". The judges were elected by popular vote for the term of 5 years. The jurors were elected for 2 years by meetings of "labor collectives" (factories an other enterprises). All elections in Soviet Union were strictly controlled by the Communist party, so usually 99.9% voted for a single candidate proposed by CPSU. There was no such notion as "independent court", even in theory. The system of justice was "a branch of the government". In addition to this, aspects of life, all institutions in USSR, including the government and justice were strictly controlled by CPSU, and this was written into the constitution.

Superficially, the process looked as in democratic courts: there was an accuser and a defender, the judge presided and the jurors made decision by vote. In some cases the jurors were not used and the judge made the decision him/her self.

There was also a variety of other courts, "Camarade's courts", tribunals, etc. But the usual criminal cases were handled by the People's courts. In the period immediately after WWII, enormous number of people were imprisoned in camps or exiled without any court hearings, for alleged "collaboration with enemy", or waging war against Soviet power. (Whole nations were deported, and other nations decimated). In most cases, the armed resistance against Soviet power was qualified simply as "banditism", but it was not handled by any courts. Most of the camps population in the late 40s consisted of these people, though the ordinary crime rates were also very high.

Torture was not officially permitted after WWII, but in fact it was widely used. Even in 1980s, beating by police was a routine "investigation procedure". Very few people dared to complain.

Death penalty was abolished in 1947, but in 1950 it was re-introduced for "spying and high treason". 10 years later people were sentenced to death for "illegal currency transactions". So the state did not respect its own laws. But in any case, death penalty was very rare in comparison with 1930s.

See, for example, http://lawbook.online/gosudarstva-prava/organyi-yustitsii-sud-prokuratura-29805.html Sorry, in Russian.


The indictment against 24 major war criminals and seven organizations was filed on October 18, 1945 by the four chief prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal. On November 20, the trial began with 21 defendants appearing before the court. The United States held 12 additional trials in Nuremberg after the initial International Military Tribunal. In all, 199 defendants were tried, 161 were convicted, and 37 were sentenced to death.

In the days before Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, President Harry S Truman appointed Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert H Jackson to be the chief prosecutor representing the United States in the proposed trials for the European Axis powers. Jackson helped lead the Allies—American, British, French, and Soviet governments—to an agreement called the London Charter, setting the procedures for the Nuremberg Trials. The London Agreement created the International Military Tribunal (IMT) on August 8, 1945, where each of the four Allied nations appointed a judge and a prosecution team.

List of Judges
  • Francis Biddle (American)
  • John J Parker (American)
  • Edward Francis Carter (American)
  • Colonel Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, Lord Justice (British, President of the Tribunal)
  • Sir Norman Birkett (British)
  • Henri Donnedieu de Vabres (French)
  • Robert Falco (French)
  • Major General Iona Nikitchenko (Soviet)
  • Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Volchkov (Soviet)
List of Chief Prosecutors
  • Associate Justice Robert H Jackson (United States)
  • Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross (United Kingdom)
  • Francois de Menthon, later replaced by Auguste Champetier de Ribes (France)
  • Lieutenant General Roman Andreyevich Rudenko (Soviet Union)

Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence of Great Britain would serve as the court's presiding judge. The proceedings would be simultaneously translated into English, French, German, and Russian. The trial would make history being the first of its kind with judges from four countries.

Nazi Germany's Last Leader: Admiral Karl Dönitz

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What did the USSR actually get right?

Even before the formation of the USSR, the early Russian Soviet republic became the world leader in terms of regulating work and vacation time. The June 14, 1918 Decree of the Council of People&rsquos Commissars &ldquoOn vacations'' established an annual two-week vacation for all workers. What is important, the workers were still paid. Meanwhile in Europe, far from every country had state-regulated paid vacations for its workers. The 1936 International Labour Organization Convention &ldquoOn paid vacations&rdquo proposed only an annual six-day vacation.

The 1918 Labor Code installed a strict eight-hour work day and a 48-hour work week with a weekly holiday. According to 1922 Labor Code, all workers who worked continuously for at least six months were guaranteed a two-week vacation. Overtime was to be paid double &ndash and total overtime couldn&rsquot exceed 120 hours a year. At that time, these were the most extensive guarantees of rest time around - ones that employees of any Western country did not enjoy.

And although in the immediate aftermath of the 1918 decree and the 1922 Labor Code, not all of these norms were observed, they were kept and improved in subsequent labor legislation. In 1936, the right of vacations and holidays was secured by the Constitution of the USSR. The Soviet state needed its officially registered workers to be in (relatively) good health, as well as possess a sense of security, and, most importantly, dependence on their places of work.

2. Women&rsquos rights

'Welder Lyuba Tsyganok," by Mikhail Kuleshov. Taken during the construction of Kyiv Hydroelectric Power Plant (1964-1968)

Early Bolsheviks sought to level the rights of men and women in their new state. In 1918, according to the new legislation, Soviet women formally had the right to choose their occupation, place of living, gain education, marry and divorce, and have equal salary with male workers. The 1918 Labor Code also banned overtime for women and gave them paid vacations for two months before and after childbirth. For feeding mothers, regular work breaks were instituted, which was crucial for a country where masses of feeding mothers were put to work &ndash in the fields or in industries.

The 1936 Constitution of the USSR guaranteed women equal rights &ldquoin all areas of economic, state and socio-political life.&rdquo This meant that women had the right to vote and be elected &ndash in other words, they could become Soviet politicians. In Soviets of People&rsquos deputies, up to 50 percent of members actually were women (however, these Soviets were lower political bodies that only formally approved the Communist Party&rsquos decisions). The state also offered assistance for mothers of multiple children, pregnant women and young mothers. However, in 1936 abortions were banned in the USSR &ndash a controversial measure employed by the state at a time of demographic crisis. Rates of criminal abortions rose, along with maternal death rates, and the practice were legalized again in 1955.

In 1967, alimonies were introduced for women who divorced their husbands &ndash minimum 25 percent of the income of the family she left and in 1968, paid pregnancy and childbirth leave followed, as well as &lsquochild benefit pay&rsquo for single mothers and divorced women. What&rsquos very important is that all these laws were applied to female populations of all Soviet republics &ndash including the Central Asian, North Caucasus, Siberian and Far East territories, where, in largely traditional societies, women had far less rights and opportunities than women in the Central Russian region. But with the formation of the USSR, all women were granted equal rights.

3. Free healthcare

Pediatrician in a Russian village.

Unlike the Beveridge healthcare model, where national healthcare is funded straight from a special tax paid by the population, the Semashko model, named after its creator Nikolay Semashko (1874-1949), the first People&rsquos Commissar (Minister) for Healthcare of the USSR, ensured that healthcare was free for everyone.

Under this system, medical services are provided by a hierarchical system of state institutions under the control of the Ministry of Healthcare and financed from the national budget. For the citizens of the country, medical services are equal and free, with a special emphasis on social hygiene and infectious disease prevention. This became the first national healthcare system in the world, and it was studied and borrowed from by Sweden, Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy and others.

This system didn&rsquot allow private medical practices. All doctors became state employees, all medical institutions were organized hierarchically and geographically. All of the country's territory was divided into districts, with outpatient hospitals and local physicians assigned to each of them. These doctors were wide-ranged specialists able to treat most common diseases, while more complicated cases were referred to regional hospitals.

Again, all these positive changes took effect in all regions of the country, and although the Soviet medical industry had major supply problems, the availability of free medical help for all citizens was a great milestone in the USSR&rsquos history.

4. Access to education

Schoolchildren in Almaty, Kazakh SSR

The same can be said about mass education in the USSR. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, Russia was largely an illiterate country. The Central Russian population was only 25 percent literate, while in Siberia, only 10-15 percent of people had some education, and in Central Asia over 97 percent of people couldn&rsquot write and read.

The expenses for education went up, now comprising 13 percent of USSR&rsquos budget &ndash apparently, it was crucial for building an industrialized state. In 1917-1927, over 10 million people were taught to read and write. By 1926, about 80 percent of the urban population could read and write. National schools and educational institutions also developed.

During the first decades after the Revolution, written native languages were created for dozens of previously non-written peoples (Abazins, Laks, Nogais, Balkars, Tuvans, Adygeans etc.). For the first time in history, children of dozens of nationalities received textbooks in their native language. In December 1922, a specialized publishing house was established, which produced textbooks in Tatar, Chuvash, Kyrgyz, Adyghe and other languages. Russian was also taught in national schools as a &lsquouniversal&rsquo language of the USSR.

In the 1930s, the policy of mass compulsory education came into effect, but its development was hindered by World War II. Universal seven-year education was introduced in the USSR in 1949. By the end of the 1950s, the country&rsquos population was literate, there were over 100 higher educational institutions in different areas of science. In 1958, 10-year full secondary school education was introduced. As of 1975, there were 856 higher educational institutions in the USSR (including 65 universities), where more than 4.9 million students studied, and this number continued to grow.

The USSR made primary and secondary education, as well as a career in science, available to anyone of its citizens.

5. Mass housing construction

Constructing a circle-shaped house on Nezhinskaya street, Moscow.

80 percent of the population of the Russian Empire lived in the countryside. With the formation of the Soviet state and industrialization of the economy, vast numbers of people migrated to the cities. But after WWI and the Civil War in Russia, housing construction was impossible, so at first, the Bolsheviks employed uplotnenie (&lsquocompaction&rsquo) &ndash the families who lived in apartments with more than 9 sq. meters available per person, were obliged to accept new tenants in their apartments. Usually, the former wealthy classes (former nobility, merchants, wealthy townsfolk) had to share their flats with working-class families.

Housing construction started in the 1920s in big cities, but a great part of the urban population was still living in barracks, dug-out shelters and, at the very best, communal flats. In 1924, the average living area per urban resident was 5.8 square meters, while in some industrial areas, the situation was so dire that a person barely had 1.5 square meters as living quarters. By 1927, over 12 million square meters of new housing were built, but it didn&rsquot solve the problem in a rapidly urbanizing country with over 140 million citizens. The situation only worsened during the 1930s and towards WWII. The housing problem was solved only under Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1946-1952 (right after the war), 78 million square meters of housing were restored or built, and 45 million individual houses were constructed by citizens &ndash the Soviet people tried to solve the problem on their own. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 ordered to find a solution in 20 years, and so began the mass construction of khrushchyovkas.

First panel khrushchyovkas, designed by engineer Vitaliy Lagutenko, could be constructed in just 12 days. They were five-storeyed buildings that had one, two, and three-room apartments, 80 in total. Although these apartment buildings had many drawbacks (low ceilings, small kitchens and restrooms, poor heat insulation), the opportunity for a Soviet family to live in a separate apartment was priceless.

From 1956 to 1963, the national housing stock grew almost twice &mdash from 640 to 1,184 million square meters. More housing was built in the USSR during that period than in the previous 40 years. The housing crisis was still not solved completely &ndash there were communal apartments, dormitories, and other forms of co-living, but since the 1970s, the majority of the population lived in individual apartments, leased to them by the state. Later during the post-Soviet years, most of the occupied housing fund was privatized by Russians and became their private property.

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The Horrible Laws that Blocked Jews from the US after World War 2 but Let Nazis in

The current refugee crisis mirrors the divisive political debate over welcoming World War II refugees under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. This series of articles views today’s crisis in the historical perspective of World War II and its aftermath. The series is adapted from the author’s book, Useful Enemies: America’s Open-door Policy for Nazi War Criminals.

In 1945, President Harry Truman went behind the back of an anti-immigrant Congress and xenophobic country and issued “The Truman Directive.” Twenty-three thousand unwanted Jewish refugees entered America in 1946 under that executive order. Three years later, after constant pressure from the White House, Congress finally passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. It wasn’t what it seemed.

The 1948 act stipulated that the Departments of State and Justice could issue up to 200,000 visas to war refugees over a two-year period. Truman had asked originally for 400,000 over four years. By 1948, 90 percent of European war refugees had already been settled or returned to their homelands. Given that only one to two million were still in displaced persons camps, the number 200,000 appeared to be generous. Hiding behind those statistics, however, was a systemic bias against Jews and Catholics, making the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 more an act of exclusion than inclusion.

The bias began with what looked like a random cutoff date of December 22, l945—any person who entered a refugee camp after that date was not eligible for a U.S. visa. In reality, the date was a slap in the face of President Truman because it rendered ineligible more than 90 percent of the mostly Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Greeted with pogroms in postwar Poland, they sought safety in neighboring Germany after December 22, 1945.

In the end, the congressional cutoff date wasn’t random at all. Truman had signed his directive on December 22, 1945. Whereas he intended it to bring unwanted Jews to America, Congress subsequently used it to keep unwanted Jews out. As the President put it in his June 22, l948, statement criticizing the congressional act: “It must frankly be recognized that this bill excludes Jewish displaced persons, rather than accepting a fair proportion of them along with other faiths.”

Then, to make it nearly impossible for the eligible remaining 10 percent of mostly Polish Jews to secure U.S. visas, the 1948 bill also added a list of financial, occupational, and good conduct restrictions. Just as the United States had, under an old immigration law, blocked the entry of more than nine hundred Jewish refugees stranded on the ship St. Louis, it now blocked the entry of Jewish refugees under the new 1948 law. The reason for the bigotry was obvious—1948 was an election year and anti-Semitism was part of the fabric of American society.

The Eightieth Congress didn’t stop with Jews. It used the same “device” to block the entry of Catholics from Iron Curtain countries, who made up 70 percent of the refugees living in DP camps. The Allies had liberated thousands of these refugees who, as a matter of conscience, refused to return home to live under atheistic communist regimes. Others had fled West after 1945, when it was clear that they would have to live under a communist government. The reason for the congressional bigotry was clear. Postwar America was not only anti-black and anti-Semitic, it was also anti-papist.

Once again, Truman voiced his concern in his critique of the Displaced Persons Act: “I know what a bitter disappointment this bill is to the many displaced victims of persecution who banked on the United States for hope.”

The 1948 law went on to stipulate that 30 percent of the 200,000 refugees who would be granted visas under the act (60,000) had to be farmers, a regulation that further discriminated against Jews, who couldn’t own land, and favored Ukrainians and Belarussians, who could and did. The bill also reserved 50,000 slots for Volksdeutsche, who were mostly descendants of seventeenth-century German settlers in Eastern Europe and who had maintained cultural and emotional ties to Germany. The Nazi SS zealously recruited Volksdeutsche to help find, round up, and kill Jews. The SS also recruited Volksdeutsche, most of whom were fluent in both German and Eastern European languages, to be SS camp guards and their unit leaders.

The 1948 act also mandated that 40 percent of the refugees (80,000) admitted to the United States had to come from the Soviet annexed countries of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

It was generally known by 1946 that more than a million mayors and governors, police officers, Quislings, partisans, and ordinary civilians in those annexed countries had volunteered for service in Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and the Wafffen SS (armed SS). Their job was to help the SS and Gestapo identify and exterminate more than two million Jews in Eastern Europe. The SS called them “trusted people” (Vertrauensmänner or V-Leute). They were more than eager to help. As one German officer put it: “We were frightened at the bloodthirstiness of these people.”

Joseph Stalin had no love for Nazi collaborators. As a consequence, an estimated two hundred thousand of them fled West with the retreating German army, according to German historian Dieter Pohl. After the war, the displaced persons camps were bulging with Eastern European Nazi collaborator-refugees, including approximately 5,000 SS guards like John Demjanjuk and members of the three most vicious anti-Semitic fascist groups in the Balkans—Arrow Cross (Hungary), Iron Guard (Romania), and Ustascha (Croatia).

The FBI and the CIA welcomed Nazi collaborators like pennies from heaven. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover used them as Cold War spies, informants, and anti-communist leaders in their respective émigré communities. There is no evidence that he ever reported a Nazi collaborator to the Department of Justice or the Immigration and Naturalization Service for investigation of visa fraud. For its part, the CIA both encouraged and secretly funded the collaborators’ governments-in-exile that were taking root in America. These government councils helped former Nazi collaborators get visas and, once safe in the United States, protected them.

Finally, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 not only made it extremely difficult for Jews and Catholics to obtain visas, it also made it easy for the Nazis and their collaborators hiding in displaced persons camps to get visas. Although the bill blocked the entry of communists into the United States, it had deliberately neglected to make Nazis and collaborators ineligible for U.S. visas, unless they had already been convicted of a war crime.

In effect, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 had a not-so-hidden agenda. More than 70 percent of the refugees eventually admitted under the act were born in countries occupied or dominated by the Soviet Union. By disproportionately favoring Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Baltic citizens, the bill made it relatively easy for the Nazi collaborators among them to get visas to the United States, while paradoxically making it extremely difficult for their Jewish victims to get visas. As a result, an estimated three to five thousand Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe entered the United Sates. (Some have raised that estimate to ten thousand.)

President Truman had hoped that Jewish and Catholic opposition to the Displaced Persons Act of l948 would shame lawmakers into approving a series of corrective amendments. He was disappointed. Although nine Jewish organizations challenged the act, not a single Catholic organization denounced it. Then, when outside pressure didn’t work, Truman—known more for stubbornness than patience—called a special session of Congress a month after passage of the bill. He demanded a series of amendments to eliminate the discriminatory regulations.

“The Displaced Persons Act in its present form discriminates unfairly against some displaced persons because of their religion, land of origin, or occupation,” Truman told Congress. “These provisions are contrary to all American ideals. This act should be promptly amended to wipe out these discriminations.”

Congress failed to act for two years.

Finally, in 1950, Congress extended the Displaced Persons Act for two more years. The amended law gave Truman almost everything he had asked for. It would admit another 200,000 war refugees over the next two years, bringing the total to 400,000. It also eliminated the anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic “device,” and erased the preference for farmers, Volksdeutsche, and Baltic immigrants. By that time, however, more than one hundred thousand Belorussian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian refugees—and the Nazi collaborators hiding among them—had already entered the country.

The Displaced Persons Act of 1950 also corrected a deficiency in the 1948 act. Although the revised bill did not exclude former Nazis and Nazi collaborators by name, it barred “any person who advocated or assisted in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, or national origin.” To guide U.S. consuls and their investigators in enforcing the ban, the Displaced Persons Commission compiled a country-by-country “Inimical List” of more than 275 organizations which it deemed to be criminal. Any applicant who had belonged to any of those organizations would be ineligible for a visa.

The Department of State, however, made it easy for war criminals such as Bishop Valerian Trifa (Romania) and Andrija Artukovic (Croatia) to remain U.S. citizens in spite of being identified. When Moscow or a Soviet bloc country asked the United States to extradite a former Nazi collaborator for trial—or punishment if he or she had been convicted in absentia—Washington refused. The United States did not recognize the courts of the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries.

When the Displaced Persons Act of 1950 expired, President Truman asked for a new immigration law that would admit an additional 300,000 war refugees into America. Rebuffing him once again, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act (Public Law 414) without granting the visas. Egregiously missing from section 212 of the new law, which dealt with who should be excluded from the United States, was the critical prohibition in the old law that rendered suspected war criminals ineligible for U.S. visas.

The omission slipped through Congress with hardly a ripple of protest or public debate. The implications of the deliberate deletion, however, were far-reaching. A Nazi war criminal could only be refused admission to the United States—or deported if living in America—if he or she had already beenconvicted of a war crime. In so ruling, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of l954 killed the Inimical List and set a new immigration policy. The door to America was now wide open to every stripe and brand of former Nazi and Nazi collaborator, but cracked narrowly for their victims.

In l978, more than thirty years after the passage of the l952 Public Law 414, New York Representative Elizabeth Holtzman corrected the deliberate omission in a controversial congressional amendment designed to facilitate the prosecution, deportation and extradition of Nazi war criminals and their collaborators hiding in America. The retroactive Holtzman Amendment declared as inadmissible to the United States “participants in Nazi persecution, genocide, or the commission of any act of torture or extrajudicial killing.”

In sum, Washington sent a clear message to the world with the passage and enactment of the Displaced Persons Acts of 1948 and 1950, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of l952: The United States was passionate about keeping Jews and communists out of America, but welcomed Nazi war criminals and their collaborators.


Samizdat: How did people in the Soviet Union circumvent state censorship

Russian samizdat: photo negatives of unofficial literature / Nkrita (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What unites the novels Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Today, they are among the most important books of the 20th century, with millions of copies sold, as well as studied by students in universities on five continents. Soviet readers, however, first saw these classic novels not on shelves in bookstores, but as handmade, 'underground' carbon copies that readers clandestinely passed along to each other. Thanks to samizdat (which literally means "self-published") did works by Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn &ndash and many other novels, poems and songs &ndash gain wide popularity in the Soviet Union.

Ministry of Truth

The USSR always had severe censorship, and the rare period of relaxations, for example, during the Second World War, did not change the overall situation. But while in Stalin's time no one even thought of illegally distributing books and magazines, with the coming of Nikita Khrushchev's 'thaw' and the emergence of the dissident movement the demand for a truthful interpretation of current events and interest in uncensored literature only increased.

In the USSR, the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (Glavlit) was responsible for censorship, and it carried out preliminary censorship of all books and publications and controlled imported literature. Everything that, in the opinion of the directorate's censors, disparaged the Soviet order or appeared as anti-Soviet propaganda was not published.

Carbon copy literature

The interest in prohibited books and the possibility of reading them after receiving a copy from the author, or from abroad, not only stimulated the development of samizdat but also made it incredibly popular.

Typed copy of Bulgakov's 'Heart of a Dog' / Kirill Lagutko

"My dad and his friends distributed samizdat that they probably got when it came from abroad," remembers Ekaterina Poleschuk. "That's how we read Bukovsky, Solonevich, and Voinovich's Ivan Chonkin&hellip Dad did the bookbinding. I often remember the smell of glue boiling on our stove. He would clamp the photocopied or printed pages, place glue on them and then after some time place them into the cover, which he also made. That's how the samizdat book was produced."

Vladimir Voinovich's novel, The Life and the Unusual Adventures of Soldier Ivan Chonkin was officially published only in 1988, but readers had already familiarized themselves with it much earlier.

"Once dad took the pages of Ivan Chonkin to make the samizdat book, put them in his sports bag and went to work," said Ekaterina. "It was evening. Dad was approached by a policeman and asked to show his ID. Dad always dressed simply, was unshaven, wore a sweater and pants and never carried his ID. That&rsquos why he was taken to the precinct. The policeman searched through his bag and did not release him. Dad was obviously very scared and began thinking how many years he'd get for distributing prohibited literature. He's sitting sadly and watching how the officer on duty is immersed in Chonkin. He read it all night and at daybreak finished reading, sighed, carefully placed the pages back into the bag and shook my dad's hand, wishing him success and advising him to be more cautious in the future."

Exhibition '200 bites in a minute. Typewriter and the mind of the 20th century' and its curator Anna Narinskaya. Source: The Polytechnic Museum

Usually, the samizdat works were available as manuscripts and as typewritten copies. Copy paper was used to facilitate the production process. Using a ballpoint pen to manually copy the text on newsprint, copyists could make three clear copies, and if they used a typewriter then as much as five. In the 1970s, there were copies printed with printers, and xeroxed copies with the help of photocopying. Musical works in the beginning were cut with the needle of a homemade phonograph onto old X-rays, and later they were recorded onto a tape recorder and rerecorded until music could be heard through the noise.

Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda

Paradoxically, even Nikita Khrushchev's speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which signified the end of Stalin&rsquos personality cult and the beginning of the Thaw, was fully printed and widely distributed on samizdat because Soviet newspapers did not publish it in full.

Dissidents who wanted to attract attention to political issues distributed samizdat magazines. The most famous was The Chronicle of Current Events, which was published with intervals over the course of 15 years because more than half of the managing editors were convicted at one time or another and sent to internal exile. "Tamizdat" ("published there"), which were uncensored works sent abroad for publication and then sent back to the USSR, was also widely distributed among Soviet readers.

Yuli Daniel (L) and Andrei Sinyavsky on the trial / Archive Photo

One of the most infamous tamizdat criminal cases was the trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, whose stories and novellas were published abroad. The two writers were convicted in accordance with Article 70 of the Criminal Code, "On Anti-Soviet Agitation and Propaganda," which was often used to arrest and convict people for distributing samizdat and tamizdat, although they maintained their innocence. In total, between 1956 and 1987 more than 8,000 people were convicted under this law, as well as Article 190-1, "On The Distribution of Deliberately False Fabrications Defaming The Soviet Order."

Not only politics, but also culture

Thanks to samizdat, Soviet readers not only gained access to forbidden novels and novellas and had the chance to learn about political issues, but they also read the Silver Age poets for the first time, because many of them were also banned in the USSR or simply not published by the state-owned publishing companies.

Samizdat copies / Kirill Lagutko

"We republished Tsvetaeva by hand, bound the pages together and gave it to others to read," remembers Mikhail Seregin. Samizdat was designed not only for the printed word - musical notes were also prepared by hand.

"We printed the musical lines with a typewriter and wrote the notes and signs by hand. Then we copied the pages and sewed them together," explained Seregin. That&rsquos how poems and songs by bards Bulat Okudzhava, Yuri Vizbor and others were distributed.

In the 1970s-1980s, not only dissidents busied themselves with samizdat, but it was also distributed among students and lovers of fine literature and music. Bulgakov, Tolkien, Akhmatova and Vysotsky are just a few of the names on the sundry list of authors that samizdat made accessible to the public.

Read more: Soviet censorship: How did the USSR control the public?

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.


The Nuremberg Trials

BACKGROUND

In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany. Soon after, he made efforts to expand the role of the position, including the ability to introduce any law without the consent of Parliament. In 1934, after the death of the German President, Hitler used his unchecked legislative power to combine his role with that of the president.

While pushing an aggressive foreign policy, Hitler and his government institutionalized discrimination against groups considered “undesirable” based on their ethnicity, religion, politics, or sexual orientation. Throughout World War II, Hitler and his Nazi regime escalated beyond discrimination, facilitating the unlawful incarceration, forced labor, medical experimentation, and genocide of these “undesirables.” During this time, Hitler’s regime murdered a total of 17 million people, including 6 million Jews.

Immediately following World War II, a series of thirteen trials were held, bringing to justice those responsible for these war crimes and others.

ORIGIN OF THE IDEA

In 1943, the major Allies of World War II (the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and United States) met at the Third Moscow Conference to discuss their cooperative war efforts. The Conference resulted in the Moscow Declarations, one of which was the Declaration on German Atrocities. Largely drafted by Winston Churchill, the declaration issued a “full warning” that the Allies would do everything in their power to punish the Nazis for their war crimes.

Later that year, the Allies met again at the Tehran Conference, where Soviet leader Joseph Stalin proposed the simple execution of the responsible German parties. While U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt entertained the idea, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested a trial in the location that the crime was committed. In 1945, the major Allies met again at the Yalta Conference where they reiterated that the punishment of Nazis would be imminent, regardless of the method.

In the same year, President Roosevelt died and Harry S. Truman assumed office. President Truman favored the judicial approach for bringing major members of the Nazi government to justice, and thus the Nuremberg trials were born. In August 1945, the European Advisory Commission issued the London Charter, outlining the rules and procedures for the Nuremberg trials.

The international military tribunal

The first of 13 Nuremberg trials commenced on November 20, 1945 with the International Military Tribunal. Twenty-four individuals and seven organizations were brought before the Tribunal, each with four charges:

  • Conspiracy toward crimes against peace
  • Committing crimes against peace, such as waging wars of aggression
  • War crimes
  • Crimes against humanity

Each of the four major Allied powers (United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and France) contributed a judge, an alternate judge, and a prosecutor to the Tribunal. For the United States, these members were Francis Biddle, John J. Parker, and Justice Robert H. Jackson respectively.

Users may look to the 42-volume official record of the International Military Tribunal as a comprehensive compilation of documents and transcripts relating to the trial. Within this record, discover some of its most critical moments.

Important Moments from the Trial:

  • The first day of the trial begins.
  • The second day of the trial opens with Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson’s speech lasting for several hours.
  • The Hossbach Memorandum is presented, a document requested by Adolf Hitler to be considered his last will and testament.
  • Otto Ohlendorf (commander of a Nazi death squad) is questioned, and he admits to the murder of 90,000 Jews. Read Ohlendorf’s chilling description of his squad’s mass executions, as well.
  • The first testimony of a Holocaust survivor is heard.
  • The first witness for the defense takes the stand.
  • Hermann Goring, the second most powerful Nazi after Hitler, takes the stand.
  • Rudolf Hoss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, admits to mass murder. , including protocol for dividing Eastern Europe between the two.
  • Albert Speer, the only defendant to take responsibility for his actions, takes the stand. Known as “the good Nazi” due to his plausible deniability, it was revealed decades later that his statements in this record were almost entirely false.

On October 1, 1946, the tribunal handed down its judgment for each organization and individual involved, with the following outcomes:

  • Four out of the seven organizations were found guilty and declared “criminal,” including the Nazi party, the Hitler Cabinet, and the Gestapo (the secret police of Nazi Germany).
  • Of the 24 individuals accused, 12 were sentenced to death, seven were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, three were acquitted, and two were not charged.
  • Of the 12 sentenced to death, 10 were hanged. One was sentenced in absentia (he had died before the trial), and Hermann Goring, Hitler’s right-hand man, committed suicide the night before his hanging.
Subsequent nuremberg trials

The following Nuremberg trials were held between 1946 and 1949. Though 3,887 cases were considered, only 489 went to trial. The cases were grouped into 12 trials according to their alleged area of criminal activity—medical, legal, economic, political, etc. The first of these—the Doctor’s Trial—is well known for bringing justice to those who participated in Nazi human experimentation and euthanasia. Of the 23 medical professionals accused, seven were sentenced to death and nine received prison sentences of varying lengths. Learn more about the infamous Nazi doctors and their medical crimes.

Of the 1,672 defendants throughout all 12 trials, 1,416 were found guilty. By the end of the trials, nearly 200 German war criminals had been executed, and nearly 300 were sentenced to life in prison.


Postwar Trials in Germany

In 1949, Germany was formally divided into two separate countries. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was established in the zones occupied by Britain, France, and the United States and was allied to those countries. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was established in the Soviet occupation zone and was allied with the Soviet Union. Both countries continued to hold trials against Nazi-era defendants in the following decades.

Since 1949, over 900 proceedings trying defendants of National Socialist era crimes have been conducted by the Federal Republic of Germany (meaning, West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and united Germany afterwards). These proceedings have been criticized because most defendants were acquitted or received light sentences. In addition, thousands of Nazi officials and perpetrators never faced trial, and many returned to the professions they had practiced under the Third Reich. For example, former Nazi officials comprised the majority of judges in West Germany for several decades after the war.


The most OUTRAGEOUS laws people were jailed for in the USSR

In the 1930s-40s, it was not safe to tell jokes about the leaders of the Communist Party or, God forbid, about Stalin himself. Such jokes were regarded as a crime under a provision of &ldquoAnti-Soviet propaganda and counterrevolutionary jokes&rdquo and could land the joker in a prison camp for between six and 10 years (!) and, in time of war, he or she could pay with their life.

For instance, a certain Sergei Popovich was imprisoned for 10 years for telling the following joke:

&ldquoAn old lady sees a camel for the first time in her life and starts to cry. &lsquoOh, poor horsey, what did Soviet power do to you&hellip!&rsquo&rdquo

Those who listened to anti-Soviet jokes could also be punished, unless they reported it to the security authorities. Otherwise, they faced up to five years in a prison camp under the provision, &ldquoFor failure to inform the authorities&rdquo.

Karate coaching

In the USSR from the late 1930s, almost all martial arts were strictly prohibited (apart from sambo, wrestling and boxing) and their adherents were declared to be &ldquospies&rdquo, usually Japanese ones. But, karate enthusiasts were particularly unlucky. In 1981, a special article regarding them even appeared in the Criminal Code - under it, those who coached karate were subject to five years behind bars! The reason was given as follows: &ldquoKarate is a form of hand-to-hand combat which has nothing in common with sport, which cultivates cruelty and violence, which inflicts severe injuries on its practitioners and which is permeated with an ideology that is alien to us.&rdquo

True, only one person was ever convicted under this provision - it was decided to make an example of 33-year-old Valery Gusev, a famous Soviet coach who, according to investigators, secretly coached students in urban woodlands for a fee. In actual fact, he taught kung fu, not karate, but the law-enforcers didn&rsquot see much difference between the two. Later, in an interview with the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily newspaper, Gusev would say: &ldquoIt was really a show trial - they had been specially looking for a well-known person <. >. Or it might all have happened to me because, shortly before my arrest, I had flatly refused an offer (albeit, unofficial) to work as a coach for the KGB. There might have been some ill-wishers in high places, or perhaps I had crossed someone&rsquos path.&rdquo

The danger of being convicted for karate didn&rsquot last long, however - with the advent of perestroika in 1989, the law was abolished.

Homosexual relationships

In 1922, the Soviet state decriminalized homosexual relationships. The law imposed punishments only for rape, corruption of minors, procurement and enlistment into prostitution, regardless of gender. But, in 1933, People&rsquos Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR Genrikh Yagoda, in a report to Stalin, linked homosexual proclivities to counterrevolution - gays had allegedly turned their clubs into centers for &ldquocorrupting young people&rdquo and were leading them astray (including in the political sense).

So, a year later, a new article was added to the Criminal Code prescribing imprisonment of up to five years for homosexual relations. Furthermore, only men were prosecuted under the provision, which didn&rsquot apply to women. As far as is known from the archival research of Professor Vladimir Volodin, starting from the 1960s, about 1,000 men were convicted under this provision in the USSR every year and guilty verdicts reached their peak in 1985 (there are no openly available statistics on those convicted - Ed.).

Quitting a job without authorization, lateness and failing to turn up for work

At the height of the Third Five-Year Plan, in 1940, volumes of industrial production needed to be sharply boosted and the war that had started in Europe made it necessary to optimize military supplies. To give a spur to output, authorities brought in a seven-day working week, made it illegal for workers to leave the premises without a manager&rsquos permission, to fail to turn up for work or to be late.

Quitting a job without permission could attract a custodial sentence of 2-4 months. Coming in 20 minutes late, returning late from a lunch break or not turning up for work at all could be punished by corrective work [at the place of employment] and, if repeated, by a custodial sentence. In less than three months after the new regulations came into force, almost one million people were sentenced in this way across the country.

No job or fixed abode

Thomas Taylor Hammond (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Soviet propaganda described the USSR as a state of social equality and justice - consequently, the existence of beggars, the homeless or the unemployed was completely incompatible with this basic premise. Such people did, of course, exist, but they were simply removed from the streets. A decree &ldquoOn measures to counter anti-social and parasitic elements&rdquo was promulgated in 1951, under which anyone homeless had to be sent for special resettlement in distant parts of the USSR for five years. It meant banishment, for all intents and purposes.

Ten years later, things became even stricter and criminal prosecutions for &ldquosponging&rdquo (ie. not having an official job, also referred to as &ldquosocial parasitism&rdquo) were brought in. It wasn&rsquot just the homeless who fell victim to this campaign, but also anyone with unofficial income. For the absence of a roof over your head or of official employment, you could be thrown into jail at any moment - for up to two years. A term in prison was an occupational hazard for private taxi drivers, builders, musicians and so on. The well-known poet Joseph Brodsky was charged under the &ldquosocial parasitism&rdquo provision, while Viktor Tsoi, a popular singer in the 1980s, found work as a boiler attendant just to be able to declare it as his &ldquoofficial job&rdquo.

Black marketeering

Black marketeering - the process of acquiring and reselling foreign goods - was also outlawed, even though, in the 1980s, it was a thriving business. If Soviet citizens wanted to obtain something foreign made - something &ldquochic&rdquo, as it was known - there were only ever two ways of going about it: traveling abroad (something only rare individuals were allowed to do) or buying it from a black marketeer.

Black marketeers were mainly enterprising young people and also those who came into regular contact with foreigners through their line of work: guides, translators, taxi drivers, prostitutes plying their trade for hard currency in hotels for foreigners, etc. They might negotiate a couple of spare packs of Marlboro cigarettes or a pair of Levi&rsquos jeans from foreigners, which they then sold on to their fellow citizens with a large mark-up. Despite the secrecy in which such deals were conducted and the clandestine meetings held behind garages, black marketeers were sometimes caught and sentenced to up to seven years. Penalties for this sort of activity were, however, also abolished in 1991.

Exchange of hard currency

Soviet citizens were &ldquocut off&rdquo from foreign currency in 1927, when the Bolsheviks banned the private exchange market and imposed a state monopoly for foreign exchange (you can read about the reasons for this here). Ten years later, under Stalin, selling currency privately became a potentially lethal activity: A new criminal charge equating currency transactions with crimes against the state was brought in. And in 1961, Article 88 came in, prescribing penalties from three years imprisonment to the death penalty (by shooting) if the scale of the &ldquooffence&rdquo was particularly large.

The Stalinist ban and the &ldquodeath by shooting article&rdquo for illegal possession of hard currency remained in place until 1994.

Distilling moonshine

Many households in the Soviet Union knew how to make alcohol at home, even in small apartments in urban high-rises and not just in the countryside. But, the anti-drinking campaigns regularly mounted by the authorities always took a heavy toll on home distillers. For instance, 52,143 people were convicted of making or selling moonshine in 1958 alone. There were sentences of 6-7 years for anyone making money out of the sale of this kind of alcohol and 1-2 years in prison for those who made it for personal use. Just for being caught with a still for making alcohol at home people faced six months of corrective labor or a hefty fine.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, home distilling ceased to be a criminal offence and, since 2002, it hasn&rsquot even been an administrative one.

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U.S. Capture, Trial and Release

In 1948, Fisher slipped into the United States illegally by way of Canada. He served as a case officer for the "Volunteer" spy network, which was tasked with relaying atomic secrets, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1949.

During this period, Fisher posed as a photographer and painter named Emil R. Goldfus and immersed himself in a Brooklyn artistic community. He occasionally met with Reino Häyhänen, another Soviet agent residing in New York. However, Häyhänen performed his duties poorly, and when he was recalled to the Soviet Union in 1957, he instead fled to the U.S. Embassy in Paris and revealed his secrets.

Thanks to information offered by Häyhänen, Fisher was tracked down and arrested at the Latham Hotel in Manhattan. A search of his Brooklyn studio uncovered a hollow pencil used for concealing messages, a code book, radio transmitting equipment and phony identifications. Charged with espionage, he confessed to being a Soviet spy named "Rudolf Ivanovich Abel" -- believed to be a signal to his superiors that he had been captured.

Fisher was assigned New York lawyer James B. Donovan, and the two developed a strong rapport. Donovan successfully argued against the death penalty for "Colonel Abel" by suggesting he could be used for a future prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. The lawyer even appealed Fisher’s 45-year prison sentence on the grounds that the search of his studio had been unconstitutional, though the Supreme Court upheld the original ruling in 1960.

Shortly afterward, when U.S. jet pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured in Soviet territory, the idea of swapping Powers for Fisher gained steam. Donovan traveled to the Soviet embassy in East Berlin to negotiate the exchange, and on February 10, 1962, the two prisoners crossed paths as they were released on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany. Afterward, Fisher sent Donovan two rare manuscripts as a show of his appreciation.


Double Genocide

Nazi officers and Lithuanian locals look on as a synagogue burns, Lithuania, June 1941.

Photo courtesy German Federal Archives

I met Yitzhak Arad in the cafeteria of his upscale retirement home outside Tel Aviv. To his enemies, this short man, softened by age and bundled in long sleeves against the facility’s overzealous air conditioning, is a kind of Jewish Kurt Waldheim: a brutal war criminal who deftly covered his tracks and went on to run one of the world’s leading human rights institutions. Waldheim, a former Nazi officer, famously became secretary-general of the United Nations before the truth came out. Arad allegedly committed atrocities against Lithuanian anti-Communists on behalf of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, before moving to Israel and becoming the director of Yad Vashem, the nation’s holocaust museum.

Sitting near a table of wheelchair-bound women Arad, who is 88, recounted blowing up trains in Nazi-occupied Europe. With his blunt fingers and lupine eyes, I could still sense the fearsome fighter he’d been as a teenaged partisan in the frozen Baltic forests and later as an IDF desert tank commander. As a teenager, Arad lost his parents and most of his family in the Holocaust. He insisted to me that he has nothing to apologize for. “I am proud that I fought the Nazi Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators,” he said. “That fate made it possible for me to fight against the murderers of my family, the murderers of my people.”

At my request, Arad went upstairs to the room he shares with his wife and fetched a war medal he received for his service fighting the Nazis behind enemy lines. It had been issued by the Soviet Union, which backed the partisans in their struggle against the Germans. “This is the Partisan Medal, First Degree,” Arad explained. “The most important medal for partisans.” Cast seven decades ago, the tarnished medal had outlived the state that issued it, but the profile of Stalin proudly staring off into the distance, upstaging a profile of Lenin behind it, remained clear.

Yitzhak Arad’s Partisan Medal, First Degree, received for his service fighting the Nazis, issued by the Soviet Union. Photos courtesy of Daniel Brook.

Although Arad claims no sympathy for communism, he held onto the medal when he abandoned Stalin’s Lithuania at the end of the war and made his way to Palestine. “I hid it in bread,” he told me, explaining how he’d hollowed out a loaf and stuck the medal inside. “If I’d been caught by the Soviets, they would have—if not killed me—sent me to Siberia for fleeing. I deserted.” Keeping the medal was a risk, he said, but it was important to him because it was the only recognition of his service during the war. “Look, I was fighting a few years, I wanted it, of course,” he said. “Maybe it was a stupid thing.”

Arad also kept the award’s accompanying certificate acknowledging his service to the Soviets under his birth name, Itzik Rudnicki. When he showed it to me, I saw that it was hand-signed by Justus Paleckis, the brutal puppet president who ran Lithuania for Stalin.

Yitzhak Arad’s certificate acknowledging his service to the Soviets. Photo courtesy of Daniel Brook.

These days, Arad, and others like him, are no longer lauded for their wartime efforts on behalf of Lithuania. In a new party line, institutions of the contemporary Lithuanian government now portray Nazi-aligned nationalists as anti-Soviet heroes and anti-Nazi partisans—in particular the Jewish ones—as traitors. Arad lives under the cloud of an open-ended investigation by Lithuanian prosecutors for crimes against humanity committed in the final days of World War II, when he allegedly executed Lithuanian anti-Communists, including civilians, for Stalin’s secret police. After decades of being hailed as a war hero, the old man sitting across the table from me had, in the eyes of his homeland, become a war criminal.

The Lithuania where Yitzhak Arad was born, in 1926, was much like the Israel where he lives today: a center of gravity for the global Jewish community. Given the perpetually shifting borders of the Eastern European lowlands over the centuries, the Lithuanian capital, now called Vilnius, found itself at times part of Russia and Poland as well as Lithuania, but to its Jews, the city was always “Vilna” and they were always “Litvaks”—a Yiddish word that literally means “Lithuanians.”

Though fewer than 5,000 Jews live in the country today, from the 14 th through mid-20 th centuries, Lithuania was a hub of Jewish life. The initial influx arrived in the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague swept through Western Europe killing thousands of Jews—many from the plague itself, but many others at the hands of Christian neighbors who blamed them for the disease. Jews fled to the east and thrived in the culture of tolerance they found there. By 1750 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included parts of modern-day Poland, Latvia, and Belarus, had become the world’s largest Jewish community. By the early 20 th century, Vilna, “the Jerusalem of the North,” boasted more than 100 synagogues and a thriving secular Jewish life, replete with Yiddish newspapers and theaters and civic groups. Economically, Jews dominated trade and the learned professions, provoking the ire of Catholic Lithuanian ultra-nationalists who urged Lithuanian society to break free from the supposed stranglehold of its Jewish minority. Before World War II, about 60,000 Jews lived in Vilnius, constituting roughly one-third of the city’s population.

In 1939, Hitler and Stalin secretly divided Eastern Europe between them. Lithuania, pressed up against the Russian border, was allotted to Stalin and was absorbed into the USSR in 1940 after a sham election in which the Stalin-backed party was the only one on the ballot. Jews suffered under Soviet occupation. Since they ran a disproportionate number of businesses, newspapers, and civic organizations—the civil society institutions with no future in a Soviet utopia—they were natural targets for the Stalinists and thousands were deported to Siberia. At the same time, since there were also many Lithuanian-Jewish communists, Jews were blamed by their countrymen for the Soviet takeover. That Russian Jews had been wildly overrepresented in the generation that led the Bolshevik Revolution is indisputable. But by the time World War II broke out, Stalin had long since purged most Jewish Communists from the Soviet elite in Moscow. After the war, Jews would have only a minor role in running Soviet Lithuania, in part because of Soviet anti-Semitism but, more crucially, because nearly all of them would be dead.

In hindsight, the Lithuanian Jews who got sent to the gulags were the lucky ones—they were much more likely to survive World War II than those they left behind. In June 1941, Hitler launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, overrunning the Baltics in a few weeks. As documented by eyewitness testimony, photographs, and Nazi records, the Christian majority welcomed the Germans as liberators and right-wing paramilitary groups began massacring their Jewish neighbors before German rule had even been firmly established. Over the next three years of German occupation, around 200,000 Jews, more than 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population, were murdered—a more complete destruction than befell any other European country. In an of inversion of Denmark, the nation where massive local resistance to the Nazi occupiers saved the lives of most Danish Jews, in Lithuania, zealous local collaboration ensured near-complete extermination. One of the only ways for a Jew to survive the Holocaust in Lithuania—the deadliest place on a deadly continent—was the way Yitzhak Arad did: as a partisan fighting the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests.

After the war, Lithuania was reincorporated into the USSR and Soviet authorities suppressed the truth about the significant Jewish role in the partisan resistance and the remarkable degree of local Christian collaboration with the Nazis. The myth that Soviet citizens of all ethnicities had united to valiantly resist the Germans became the official party line. In Soviet Holocaust memorials, the victims were typically referred to as “Soviet citizens” and the murderers as “fascists,” obscuring the facts that Soviet Jews had been singled out for extermination because of their ethnicity and that many of the murderers were also Soviet citizens, albeit disloyal ones. The closest the Soviet authorities would ever come to acknowledging the important role Jews played as partisans was the placement of the official partisans memorial, erected in 1983, in a park on Vilnius’ Pylimo Street, the main thoroughfare of the city’s pre-War Jewish neighborhood.

When Lithuania broke free of Soviet rule in 1991, the roughly 12,000 Jewish Lithuanians then remaining in the country were anxious to set the record straight. “We hoped that when Lithuania gained its independence, it would be possible for the Jews to find their place in the consciousness of the society,” said Rachel Kostanian, who helped re-establish Vilnius’ Jewish museum, which I visited in a tiny house that had previously been part of the pro-Soviet Revolutionary Museum. The museum’s first exhibition portrayed the Jewish experience in Lithuania during the Holocaust using horrific historical photographs to unflinchingly document the local collaboration that made it so lethal. “During Soviet times there was no possibility to talk about or explore these questions, so we were burning with a desire to show what happened,” Kostanian told me.

Photo courtesy Daniel Brook

With Soviet archives now opened, international academics also embarked on new research into Lithuania’s Holocaust. Long-suppressed eyewitness accounts of local collaboration compiled at the conclusion of the war by Soviet Jewish journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman were declassified and published. Rachel Margolis, an elderly Jewish former partisan in Vilnius, found and published an eyewitness account of the execution of the city’s Jews penned by a Polish Catholic journalist who lived near the killing fields. His chilling diary fingered Lithuanian volunteers as the triggermen. In the face of these additional sources, the central question that has preoccupied mainstream historians of the Holocaust since the end of the Cold War is not whether there was massive local collaboration in Lithuania but why. A 1993 academic paper on the subject was titled simply, “Why Lithuania?”

With independence, the remnants of the Lithuanian-born Jewish community abroad saw an opportunity to finally prosecute the Nazi collaborators who had escaped punishment in Soviet times. This should have been relatively easy in Lithuania, since what is generally considered the archetypal depravity of the Holocaust—the anonymity of tattooed prisoner numbers and transcontinental deportations to death factories—was unknown in the country. Most Lithuanian Jews were shot near their hometowns. And, according to Lithuanian historian Alfonas Eidintas, the majority of them were shot by other Lithuanians, not by Germans. In Lithuania, the murderers and the murdered were sometimes even neighbors—your dentist, your customer, your daughter’s middle school crush. This lack of anonymity was a survivor’s nightmare, but a prosecutor’s dream.

One veteran Jewish partisan, Joseph Melamed, had begun compiling a list of names of collaborators from his fellow survivors in 1944. He had been born in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, and remembers the vigilante killing squads that swept through the streets when the Red Army fell back in the face of the Nazi attack. “The Germans were not there the Lithuanians did it themselves,” said Melamed when we spoke in Tel Aviv (by phone the elderly war veteran had just been admitted to a local hospital). “I saw them carrying off Jews and Lithuanians standing on the sidewalks were giving them ovations, shouting ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ ”

Melamed, who became a prominent attorney and art dealer as well as head of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, redoubled his research efforts when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1999, he published a volume titled, Crime and Punishment that listed the names of more than 4,000 Lithuanian volunteer executioners, nicknamed zydsaudys (“Jew-Shooters”) during the war. “After Lithuanians got independence,” he told me, “we hoped that Lithuania would give us help.”

But it was not to be. In one of its very first independent actions, before even fully breaking free of Moscow, Lithuania’s parliament formally exonerated several Lithuanian nationalists who had collaborated in the Holocaust and had been convicted by Soviet military courts after the war. The right-wing paramilitaries who had carried out the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews were now hailed as national heroes on account of their anti-Soviet bona fides. Among many now-glorified leaders was Jonas Noreika, a paramilitary fighter who was executed for his anti-Soviet activities in 1947. According to a Holocaust survivor’s account published in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Noreika led the extermination of the Jews in the Lithuanian city of Plunge. Since independence, however, Lithuania’s prosecutor general has restricted access to Noreika’s wartime files. Meanwhile, the state body charged with investigating and memorializing Nazi- and Soviet-era atrocities, the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, turned the former guerrilla leader into a national hero. In 1997, Noreika was posthumously awarded one of the state’s highest honors, the Order of the Cross of Vytis, First Degree in 2010, a primary school was named after him. At the same time, the new authorities have denigrated the anti-Nazi partisans: the Partisans Memorial from Pylimo Street now sits in a countryside park where the despised Lenins and Stalins that once stood in every Lithuanian town are left to collect dust and bird droppings. Its Genocide Centre–provided plaque says that partisans committed atrocities and were “mostly of Jewish nationality [since] native people didn’t support Soviet partisans.”

Photo courtesy Daniel Brook

With independence, the grand Gestapo-turned-KGB headquarters on the central avenue in the heart of Vilnius was converted into the Museum of Genocide Victims. Initially begun in a makeshift manner by activists who occupied the local KGB headquarters when Gorbachev evacuated the Red Army in 1991, the museum became an official institution of the Lithuanian state by order of the minister of culture and education in 1992. Since 1997, it has been run by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre. Despite its name, the institution is emphatically not a Holocaust museum. In what became a model for post-Soviet Lithuania’s new party line, the museum recasts the human rights abuses of the Soviets as the “genocide,” while the Holocaust is brushed under the rug, downgraded to what the permanent exhibit calls Gestapo “repression against Jewish and other populations of Lithuania.” Among the names carved into the museum’s stone facade is Jonas Noreika’s.

To Lithuania’s remaining Jews, half of whom would leave the country in the 1990s, the new nation’s new history was an ominous sign. But few beyond the borders of Lithuania were aware of what was happening. In public diplomacy, Lithuanian authorities made a great show—and still do—of a German-style reckoning with their troubled past. It wasn’t until Lithuania had safely joined the European Union and NATO, in 2004, that state prosecutors began publicly tarring the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as betrayers of the nation.

Yitzhak Arad defected from Soviet Lithuania in 1945 and wasn’t permitted to return until the Glasnost era. When Gorbachev legalized independent Jewish cultural institutions in the Soviet Union, Arad flew to Vilnius for the opening of a community center. As the thaw continued and the Soviet Union unraveled, Arad, now chairman of Yad Vashem, became a frequent visitor to Moscow where he worked to gain access for Holocaust researchers to the Soviet wartime archives that had long hidden the truth about local collaboration.

In 1998, the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel showed up on Arad’s doorstep outside Tel Aviv and invited him to participate in the new state’s truth and reconciliation commission: The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. The young republic hoped to look honestly at the crimes of its past, the ambassador explained, and he hoped Arad, who had published extensively on the Holocaust in Lithuania would agree to serve.

Arad recalled that some of his fellow Lithuanian-born Jews urged him not to join arguing that the purpose of the commission was simply “to whitewash the crimes the Lithuanians committed.” To some, its very name presupposed a conclusion that the crimes were all committed by German and Russian occupiers rather than by Lithuanian collaborators.

But at the urging of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Arad signed on. Arad promptly directed the commission to research some of the most uncomfortable aspects of the Holocaust in Lithuania. “We decided one subject was Lithuanian anti-Semitism before the war,” he recalled. “Secondly, the [role of] the Jews during the first period of the Soviet occupation and how this influenced the relationship of Lithuanians to Jews. … And then we started a third subject, the wave of pogroms initiated by Lithuanians, then we decided about the organized murder of the Jews [and finally, the relationship between] the Lithuanian church and the Holocaust.” Over the next eight years, relying heavily on documents that before the collapse of the Soviet Union had been unavailable to scholars, the commission published hard-hitting research under the imprimatur of the new state, revealing that the Holocaust in Lithuania was not simply the work of bloodthirsty German invaders but was, to a remarkable degree, a local production.

Photo courtesy Daniel Brook

Prosecutors, however, were reluctant to take action against surviving Nazi collaborators. “Instead of giving up the murderers,” Melamed recounted, they “started saying they didn’t do anything at all.” Under international pressure, three Lithuanian collaborators were eventually prosecuted, but all were deemed unfit for incarceration—two on account of ill health, the third on account of his wife’s ill health. “Not a single Lithuanian war criminal has sat one day—not one minute!—in a Lithuanian prison since independence,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi hunter, Ephraim Zuroff, told me in his office in Jerusalem.

Instead, Lithuanian prosecutors were soon investigating Jewish partisans for alleged war crimes—starting with Yitzhak Arad. On April 22, 2006, Respublika, an openly anti-Semitic newspaper that is one of Lithuania’s highest-circulation dailies, published a story headlined, “The Expert With Blood on His Hands.” The article used passages of Arad’s memoir, The Partisan, published in English in 1979, to smear him. In the Respublika article, what Arad’s memoir terms a 1944 “mopping-up operation” against “armed Lithuanians” after the Nazi withdrawal becomes an “ethnic cleansing of Lithuanians” that was part of a larger Soviet genocide. Arad, who was a teenager during the Holocaust, is referred to as an “NKVD storm trooper.” The anti-Communist convictions that are evident throughout Arad’s Brezhnev-era book—his recounting of how Stalin crushed the organized Jewish community of Lithuania during the annexation of 1940 his description of his hometown’s market turned scraggly and abandoned in the fallout from disastrous Communist economic policies—go unmentioned. As for the defection of this supposedly rabid Communist from Soviet Lithuania, the article seems genuinely puzzled: “It is not evident why, but right after the war Y. Arad decided to run to the West.”

In the article, Vytautas Bogusis, an anti-Soviet dissident turned ultra-nationalist member of the Lithuanian parliament, argues for a new history that posits moral equivalence between the Nazi invaders and the partisans who resisted them. “The red partisans were exactly the same occupiers as the Hitlerists,” Bogusis says, “therefore I do not wonder why the inhabitants of Lithuania fought against them.” The head of the Genocide Centre at the time, Arvydas Anusauskas, contends that Arad’s partisan past should preclude him from being considered an impartial historian. As for bringing alleged partisan war criminals to justice, Anusauskas laments, “There is no statute of limitation for the Jewish genocide, because this is approved at the international level. The genocide of Lithuanians has no such status, and for the physical extermination of our nation essentially nobody is accountable.”

Photo courtesy Daniel Brook

A year later, however, Anusauskas succeeded in getting a criminal investigation of Arad under way. In September 2007, Lithuanian prosecutors announced they had opened a formal inquiry into Arad after receiving evidence of war crimes from the director of the Genocide Centre. Prosecutors publicly stated that they suspected Arad of “crimes against humanity in respect of Lithuanian residents (murder of civilians, prisoners of war, murders of Lithuanian [anti-Soviet] partisans) which were allegedly committed during … the service of said person in the Soviet NKVD in the years of World War II in Nazi occupied Lithuania and the post-war years.”

In May 2008, plainclothes policemen fanned out through Lithuania looking for other Jewish partisans to interview as part of their widening war crimes investigation. The local television news announced that Vilnius police were searching for two former partisans to interview regarding Arad (though, strangely, neither of them had fought in the same region of Lithuania he had). One was Fania Brantsovsky, who worked as librarian at the Vilnius University Yiddish library. The other was Rachel Margolis, who had irked local nationalists by uncovering the eyewitness account of Lithuanian volunteers executing 70,000 Jews outside Vilnius. The prosecutors refused to guarantee that the women would not be charged. At the time, it was well known in Vilnius that Brantsovsky could be found any weekday at the university library and that Margolis spent most of the year in Israel, where her daughter had settled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, returning to Lithuania each summer to work at the city’s tiny Jewish museum. But the authorities made it sound as if there might be killers on the loose, sending armed police to search for the women and notifying the media of the urgent manhunt as if armed-and-dangerous babushkas were roaming the streets of the capital.

Brantsovsky was soon found and interviewed. She denied being present at the scene of any war crimes, let alone participating in them, and was released. Margolis reacted to the news from Vilnius by canceling her annual trip to Lithuania. She suffered a heart attack that summer and has never returned to her homeland.

At the retirement home near Tel Aviv, Arad observed how bizarre it was that he was targeted by the Lithuanian prosecutor, considering that “the [non-Jewish] Lithuanians in our unit became the whole government of Soviet Lithuania. They became mayors of the [major] cities, the ‘people’s commissars.’ ” The leader of Arad’s partisan unit, Motiejus Sumauskas, became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. “But I was an ordinary partisan. In Lithuania, even today, there are still [non-Jewish] Lithuanians who commanded me. My commanders are there. [The government] didn’t come out against them. They picked me.” (The Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.)

The allegations against Arad never made it to court—in September 2008, the prosecutor’s office announced that it had failed, as yet, to collect adequate evidence for a trial and appealed to the public for help in unearthing the crimes of Arad and his partisan unit. The investigation succeeded, however, in calling into question Arad’s impartiality and moral authority. From 2006 until 2013, the international body was essentially frozen, as international scholars ceased to participate in solidarity with the embattled Arad. Though it officially relaunched in 2013 with a majority of members sending a letter to Arad “express[ing] our sorrow and anger at the unwarranted attacks on you, which led to the suspension of the meetings of the Commission,” it has yet to resume publishing the type of no-holds-barred historical research Arad had overseen. It has not held a single session since its 2013 relaunch.

The investigation also succeeded in muddling the historical narrative by positing a moral equivalence: Lithuanian paramilitaries may have paved the way for the Nazi’s Holocaust, but Jewish partisans had committed atrocities that helped pave the way for the Soviet “genocide.” Even Ronaldas Racinskas, the executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, who signed the letter calling the attacks on Arad “unwarranted,” told me that during the 1940s “in one situation [the same person] was a victim and in another a perpetrator.” While there is “no excuse for killing innocent people, during these times ordinary people tried to survive and some chose the Soviets and some chose the Nazis.” Racinskas told me that the notion that “if someone is fighting the Nazis, they’re automatically given a plus—I think this is a problem. … For some people the bigger evil were the Soviets.”

Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Anne Derse, who served as U.S. ambassador to Lithuania from 2009 to 2012, believes the accusations against Arad were a calculated attempt to undermine the International Commission. “There’s no question that someone was politically motivated,” she told me. “The historical commission was doing some absolutely excellent work.”

The Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Zygmantas Pavilionis, sees things more conspiratorially. He claims the accusation against Arad was not the work of Lithuanian anti-Semites but rather the work of a Russian conspiracy to make Lithuania look anti-Semitic in the eyes of the world. “I suspect personally that it was a nice KGB-type operation” orchestrated by the “Kremlin-based KGB regime,” the ambassador told me by phone. “Whenever you have different kinds of big steps from Lithuania with rapprochement with the Jewish community, something is happening. And in this particular case, the Arad case happened when we are preparing big visit of my president to America. I see that clearly … you have some third party involved, somewhere in the East … trying to destroy the dialogue.” I was taken aback at the sitting ambassador from an EU and NATO member state weaving conspiracy theories on the record. I told the ambassador that my understanding was that the attack on Arad initially came from a Lithuanian ultra-nationalist who read Arad’s memoir and contacted Respublika. Pavilionis then insinuated that I, too, might be part of the Russian conspiracy albeit more as a dupe than an agent. “They [the Russians] do it in a very professional way with American journalists,” he told me, with “one from Chicago, one from L.A., one from Washington, in a very Hollywood style, a very professional way.”

Whoever is responsible for the drumbeat of investigations coming out of Lithuania, they have not stopped. Shortly after speaking with the ambassador last March, news broke that the non-Jewish Lithuanian documentary filmmaker, Saulius Berzinis, who built a video archive of Holocaust survivors’ and collaborators’ testimony, has received a letter from the Criminal Division of the Vilnius Police. The letter notified him that he was under investigation for slandering Lithuanian nationalist paramilitary fighters, including Jonas Noreika, as Holocaust collaborators.

I met Dovid Katz, the leading Western Jewish activist monitoring and protesting Lithuania’s new approach to its history, at his apartment in Vilnius. Situated in a hilly neighborhood of stately fin-de-siecle apartment buildings, Katz’s home is lined with leather-bound volumes of pre-war Yiddish books. A framed, antiquarian Yiddish parchment map of the region hangs on the living room wall. By coincidence, Katz learned after moving in, this very living room had been the main meeting space of the city’s Yiddish writers’ circle before the war. The musty flat has an air of mystery to it, perhaps enhanced by the fact that Katz looks like a disheveled wizard: Tall yet portly, with long black hair and a bushy black beard, Katz cuts a strikingly eccentric figure.

Photo courtesy Daniel Brook

In 1999, Katz began teaching Yiddish at Vilnius University and he has been living part-time in Vilnius ever since. As the Lithuanian government moved away from an honest reckoning with the past, Katz began to spar with the authorities. In 2009, he launched his cluttered, scrappy website, DefendingHistory.com, which keeps the world informed on the latest developments from Vilnius. The following year, he lost his university post, he says because of his activism. He remains in the city and now calls himself “a dissident.”

In present-day Eastern Europe, Katz explained in his Brooklyn accent, “Holocaust denial” is being replaced by a seemingly respectable “Holocaust obfuscation.” Lithuania and other Eastern European countries are embracing a “double genocide” theory that posits that both the Nazis and Soviets committed genocide. What the hypothesis lacks in intellectual honesty, it makes up for in political expediency. By positing twin genocides, Lithuanians become victims—and “Judeo-Bolsheviks” become perpetrators—in a second, mirror-image holocaust. As Ephraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center summarized, “If everyone is guilty, then no one is guilty.” To Leonidas Donskis, a part-Jewish Lithuanian intellectual who has served in the European Parliament in Brussels where he has opposed official Nazi/Soviet equivalence resolutions, the ultimate purpose of the “double genocide” theory is to allow Eastern European ultra-nationalists to “portray the people who were killing the Jews as people who fought the Soviet regime. [It is] dangerous nonsense.” As an added bonus, this historical narrative nicely fits the present moment in which Lithuania is (justifiably) more worried about Putin’s Russia than Merkel’s Germany.

Jewish leaders who rarely visit Lithuania are likely unaware of how Lithuania’s history is presented in Lithuania. The nation’s diplomats very publicly celebrate their historic Jewish community when abroad. In Israel, the Lithuanian ambassador told the Jerusalem Post that it’s “cool” to be Jewish in modern-day Lithuania in the U.S., Ambassador Pavilionis has pushed for links between Christian Lithuanian-Americans and the Litvak diaspora, acknowledging only obliquely that such links are “not always possible in Lithuania.” When well-to-do Litvak descendants visit Vilnius each summer, they travel on tour buses that stop at the city’s peripheral Jewish sites, avoiding the Museum of Genocide Victims in the city’s heart.

I visited the Museum of Genocide Victims, on the 75 th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The museum’s chief guide told me that the museum’s name, which baldly posits that the genocide perpetrated here was committed by Russians against Lithuanians, would be changed in two to three weeks. But when I later asked the museum director what the new name would be, he seemed caught off-guard. “Maybe the Terror and Resistance Museum,” he offered while the chief guide backtracked, telling me that the name-change could take months and, later, that the director was “only thinking about it.” The museum’s name remains the same.

With Arad and his international commission sidelined, the full responsibility for telling the story of the nation’s horrific 20 th century has fallen to Lithuanian officials. During my time in the country, I was interested to learn what the government is teaching its people about their history. I made an appointment to speak with one of the key officials, the current general director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. The center’s official emblem is a crucifix sharpened into a dagger.

The day of the interview, I walked to the center’s headquarters on the edge of Vilnius’ World War II–era Jewish ghetto. Before my meeting with the director, her secretary eagerly showed off the winning entry of a national middle school art of remembrance competition the center had organized. It was a handmade cardboard model of a cattle car with an oaktag-mounted montage behind it. The mixed-media work was headlined with the simple math equation: swastika equals hammer plus sickle. It was the essence of “double genocide” broken down into an aphorism even a child could master.

Photo by Virgis Usinavicius/AFP/Getty Images

When I met general director Terese Birute Burauskaite, she explained to me why Soviet repressions of Lithuanian nationalists constitute genocide. “[In] the human rights conventions’ definition of genocide,” she said, “there is no place for political groups or social groups, only for ethnic and racial groups.” Under the center’s broadened definition, by contrast, Stalin’s targeting of social groups—the intelligentsia, for example, or the capitalists—can be considered genocide. (Shortly after our interview, in November 2013, Lithuania’s Constitutional Court officially embraced this redefinition.) An academic paper published on the Genocide and Resistance Research Center’s website went even further than Burauskaite or the court, questioning whether the Holocaust meets the standard for genocide since “although an impressive percentage of the Jews were killed by the Nazis, their ethnic group survived” and later flourished. The Soviet repression, it argues, was indisputably genocide since the Lithuanian intelligentsia, eliminated by Stalin, has never regenerated.

Perhaps one reason Lithuania’s intelligentsia remains so stunted today is that despite the fall of Communism, open debates about the nation’s history remain illegal. A 2010 law criminalized minimizing Soviet crimes, making it punishable by up to two years in prison—the same term mandated for Holocaust denial. (The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine have similar laws.) Anyone who officially questions the government’s official history in public risks jail time, as in Soviet times.

Photo by Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images

The Genocide Centre’s easy moral equivalency of swastika equals hammer plus sickle would have been even more shocking had it not been for my experience the previous day touring a partisan fort outside Vilnius with a young Lithuanian couple. I had bartered a full tank of gas—nearly twice what a typical Lithuanian earns in a day—for a few hours of services from a couple working as a translator and driver. Born in the late Soviet period, the underemployed artist and architect were the kind of worldly youth that should be the hope of the new Lithuania. The architect took on freelance design projects for Western European firms at Eastern European rates. The artist made ends meet creating Internet video ads for local beer brands that he was too sophisticated to drink. He was perplexed by my request to drive into the woods to see the remains of an anti-Nazi partisan fort. “Why go to a Soviet fort?” he asked. “That has nothing to do with us.”

We drove down a smooth, wide, EU-funded expressway for a stretch before exiting onto a narrow local street and then turning down a dirt road muddied by the Baltics’ perpetual precipitation. For the partisans who escaped the Vilnius ghetto to fight here, this was a three-day walk. For us, it was a 45-minute drive. After a few minutes of sloshing down the dirt road, we came upon a clearing in the woods. I had been prepared to find a foxhole or two—all my sources, both in print and in person, had called it a “fort”—but this was much bigger, a bona fide base. Seven different rooms, arrayed in an approximate circle, had been dug out of the ground, lined with logs, and covered with crude roofs of wood, dirt, and moss. Two of the structures appeared to be in imminent danger of collapse. Inside another, the trash strewn about the floor suggested its use by local teens for parties.

The decay was, of course, the result of intentional neglect. Since it is not an official Lithuanian historic site—indeed, according to the new party line, it was a hive of traitors to Lithuania—the fort is not protected. It will soon be gone, much like the elderly partisans who fought in it.

Heading back into Vilnius, the young couple mulled their nation’s bloody history. “The Nazis were bad the Soviets were worse,” the artist offered matter-of-factly. “My grandmother remembered the war,” the architect added. “She always said the Germans were polite and the Russians weren’t.” When I pressed her on her Soviets-were-worse-than-the-Nazis assumptions, the most she would concede was a post-modern gloss that it was all a matter of perspective. “It depends who you were: the Nazis were worse for Jews, the Soviets were worse for Lithuanians.” The blithe, implicit assumption was that Lithuanian Jews were not Lithuanians.

I had wanted Fania Brantsovsky to show me around her old partisan fort but she declined to make the trip. Instead, I met her with my translator at the Vilnius University Yiddish library where she still works. Though in her 90s and dwarfed behind the bookshelves of aging Yiddish volumes and an old aleph-to-tav card catalog, she was a hummingbird of a woman, petite with a bright smile and a pixie cut. She repeatedly jumped up on her chair to pull down books from the top shelf that were relevant to her activities as a partisan.

One of the volumes she grabbed was Rachel Margolis’ memoir, A Partisan From Vilna. I had read the book, which included a description of a partisan attack on a town called Kanyuki, and knew that, according to Margolis, Brantsovsky was present at that battle. On Page 484, Margolis wrote: “A Nazi garrison was stationed in Kanyuki village. It blocked the partisans’ way into the region and was very dangerous for us. The brigade high command decided to attack the garrison and send all our detachments there. Fania went on this operation with a group from Avenger Detachment.”

“I’m not in this book,” Brantsovsky told me in decent English—a surprise since we had been communicating in Russian through a translator and because I knew she was mentioned in the book. Later Brantsovsky backtracked, telling my translator in Russian, “She [Margolis] wrote in the book that I was in the battle but I have documents that I was in the hospital.”

Kanyuki is an example of a battle where war crimes were likely committed though sorting out the facts today is difficult. In her memoir, Margolis portrays the battle at Kanyuki as an act of self-defense and a great partisan victory, but there were certainly civilian casualties there. Another Jewish partisan, Paul Bagriansky, has described outright atrocities, including one Jewish partisan “holding the head of a middle-aged woman against a big stone and hitting her head with another stone. Each blow was accompanied by sentences like: this is for my murdered mother, this if for my killed father, this is for my dead brother.” The Kanyuki Massacre, as they term it, is a central wartime event for double genocide theorists. Even Dovid Katz admits, “Kanyuki was definitely a Soviet partisan excess.”

No one has the right to bash a woman’s head in with a rock. And fighting for the right side in a war does not permit those fighters to commit war crimes. But the point of the Lithuanian media and prosecutorial allegations against Jewish partisans is not impartial justice. The Lithuanian nationalist interest in people like Arad and places like Kanyuki, when there are sites like Paneriai, outside Vilnius, where 70,000 Jews were murdered by Lithuanian volunteers who can’t claim self-defense suggests a desperation to recast the war as a violent chaos of armed Lithuanian Christians killing unarmed Lithuanian Jews and armed Lithuanian Jews killing unarmed Lithuanian Christians when it was nothing of the sort.

If Lithuanian prosecutors were interested in impartial justice, they would be investigating war criminals of all ethnicities and holding trials with firm rules of evidence in which the accused could defend themselves in open court on the basis of an alibi or a claim of self-defense. The real point of the investigations of Jewish partisans is to overturn the narrative that the anti-Nazi partisans were fighting on the right side of the war. At the extremes, this is to claim that, in post-Cold War hindsight, the Nazis were the right side—at least for Lithuanians. Even in the softer version that is taught to Lithuanian schoolchildren, it claims that was there was no right side. Swastika equals hammer plus sickle.

Prejudice and conspiracy theories are often born of a desire to blame others for one’s own faults or bad luck. Spending time in Lithuania, I came to comprehend the nation’s urge for its current condition to be someone else’s fault. While similarly situated countries like Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Poland have leapt ahead socially, politically, and economically since the end of the Cold War, Lithuania lags. Even a college education guarantees little the maximum salary for a secondary school teacher is under $8,000 a year. With the exception of a few choice parts of central Vilnius, Lithuania still looks like a post-Soviet backwater of crumbling slab apartments. The shiny fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and chain stores that occasionally enliven some of the old storefronts are less signs that Lithuania has joined Europe than reminders that a prosperous continent lies just beyond the nation’s borders. For Lithuanians, the main benefit of EU membership has been the freedom to leave the country tens of thousands of Lithuanians now work in the more successful countries to its west. Those who remain are often underemployed. Since 1991, the chief guide at the Museum of Genocide Victims told me, 700,000 people have left the country seeking greater opportunities in the West. “In a country of 3 million people,” he asserted, “that is a genocide.”


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