The Soviet playbook
The following guest essay was written by my partner, Susan M. Papp, Ph.D
Most people in the western world were shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet, if you examine his mindset and historical perspective, Vladimir Putin’s behaviour is in accordance with the Soviet playbook of expanding and expropriating lands for the empire. It is well known that Putin was a KGB-trained operative. What he has done in Ukraine is similar to the manner in which Joseph Stalin ordered that Transcarpathia, the easternmost region of Czechoslovakia, be expropriated by the Soviet Union in November 1944. This action was taken when the western world’s attention was not on the eastern front but focused instead on ending the Second World War. Russian troops had little opposition in occupying the region.
My grandfather represented Transcarpathia for many years as a Senator in the Czechoslovak parliament. It was an ethnically mixed region of Rusyns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans and a much-diminished Jewish community. Because he was well aware of the brutality of the Soviet regime and what was about to follow, the family left the country and reluctantly became refugees ahead of the Soviet arrival.
One of the first pronouncements of the occupying Soviet forces was to declare “Malenkij Robota” or “little work” — ordering all men between the ages of eighteen and fifty to join work brigades to “clean up streets and bridges, following the destruction of the war.” In fact, they were shipped off to the furthest reaches of the Soviet Union as slave labourers. Many of these thousands of men — and later women — never came back. After up to seven years of working endless hours in some of the most isolated lumber and mining camps in the Soviet Union, those who survived returned home physically and mentally broken.
During the deportation of slave labourers, in order to keep the rest of the populace in a constant state of terror, the occupying Soviet forces organized a meeting for representatives of major organizations: teachers, farmers, health workers, factory workers, etc. At the meeting, on November 26, 1944, the delegates learned that there was only one item on the agenda: “We, the citizens of Transcarpathia petition the Soviet Union that Transcarpathia be re-united with our brothers in Soviet Ukraine.”
Reading the memoirs of some of the individuals who attended this meeting is both troubling and enlightening. The delegates were stunned, looking at each other in total disbelief when they realized they had been ambushed. Because Soviet soldiers armed with Kalashnikov rifles guarded the head table and stood at each exit it was impossible to stand up and leave. There was no choice but to vote yes. This is how Transcarpathia, for hundreds of years part of Austria-Hungary and for the previous twenty years the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia, became incorporated into the Soviet Union. Like Putin’s attack on Ukraine, it followed the classic Soviet playbook of changing borders and usurping territory through power plays and terror tactics.