Amid Putin’s Mobilization, Citizens Flee, Protesters Arrested

calling up reservists to join fighting in ukraine sparks backlash

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Vladimir Putin called for partial mobilization of Russian reservists. Up to 300,000 members of the armed forces could be drafted to fight in Ukraine. Eastern European dissent spiked during the Cold War.

Flag of the former Soviet Union
The flag of the former Soviet Union featured a red field with a crossed gold hammer and sickle underneath a gold-bordered red star. Photo by diy13 / Shutterstock

On Wednesday, September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a partial military mobilization to help him turn the tide on Russia’s struggling invasion of Ukraine. Most reservists are men under the age of 35. Within hours of his speech, flights out of the country were sold out and Google search trends about fleeing the country spiked. Likewise, protests in the street began, and they were met with force and hundreds were arrested.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been popular among Russian citizens. Immediately after the invasion, protests erupted across Russia, with waves of arrests following. As the Cold War continued on, dissidents emerged in Eastern European countries as proletarian workers revolted against the policies and practices of the Soviet Union. In his video series A History of Eastern Europe, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explores how the dissidents voiced their criticism of the Soviet’s oppressive power that challenged the revolts by suppressing demonstrations.

Voice of the Voiceless

Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, an uprising occurred in East Germany. What began as a workers’ strike became a full-fledged revolt of half a million workers, many of whom occupied 140 government buildings. According to Dr. Liulevicius, the East German state asked the Soviet Union for help, who in turn arrested 6,000 people. The workers had revolted against the same Leninist party that had prided itself as their savior.

“But the Soviets were determined to hold the line in the Cold War,” he said. “And in 1955, they engineered the so-called Warsaw Pact, as an Eastern counterpart to NATO in the West. The Warsaw Pact included Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Albania, and the Soviet Union. The Pact made vividly clear that the Soviet Union was the big brother, ready to reimpose order in a fraternal way.”

Building a Wall

On August 13, 1961, without warning, construction began on the Berlin Wall. East Germany had already closed its land border with West Germany, but millions still fled to the open city of Berlin. After obtaining permission from the Soviets, the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, ordered the wall to be built in order to keep foreign agents out of the country.

“Its real aim was to keep people in, rather than spies or provocateurs out,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Border troops guarded this wall with orders to shoot to kill because flight from the republic, as it was called, was a crime.”

Much like the current situation in Russia where citizens are realizing they need to flee before it’s too late to leave, many German citizens began to put the pieces together and sought to act before it was too late. Only 11 days after the wall’s construction, the first fatality occurred. Günter Litfin was killed while he tried crossing the wall to freedom. While seeking to escape the oppressive regime, 900 others died along the border.

In 1968, the Soviet Union produced the Brezhnev Doctrine, essentially saying that once a country became communist, there was no leaving. Protests not only arose, but spread from nation to nation, often ending in violence and mass arrests.

Person Vs. Society

“In 1972, in Soviet Lithuania, a young man named Romas Kalanta burned himself to death on the central street in Kaunas in a desperate protest,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Illegal underground publications proliferated. Many of them were laboriously typed out or handwritten. Dissidents drew inspiration from one another, as for example, Eastern Europeans who admired the Russian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his revealing of the realities of the gulags.”

Author Milian Kundera wrote the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being about Czechoslovakia’s quelled uprising, the so-called Prague Spring of 1968. A secret organization in Lithuania published The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, which was simply a list of police brutality against believers. The ethnic German population in Romania faced discrimination, which was brought to the public eye in the art of Herta Müller, who experienced it first-hand.

The Berlin Wall, like the Iron Curtain, eventually fell, but the spirit of activism remains. As arrests in—and exodus from—Russia proliferate, the images of both Putin and the Russian people are changing and, it seems, increasingly contrasting.

A History of Eastern Europe is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily