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Best of TOL for 2017

Our favorite stories of the year. 22 December 2017

Obituary: Partisanka, Farewell

The most important feminist you probably never heard of died in late October, a brave woman still dreaming of a better future.

by Kristen R. Ghodsee

11 December 2017


She was the youngest female partisan fighting against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy during World War II. She later became a fierce advocate for women’s rights at the United Nations during the Cold War. Тo me, she was just Elena. A woman who made me drink nettle tea and eat raw walnuts because they helped prevent cancer. She loved the marches of John Phillip Sousa and recited the poems of Hristo Botev from memory.   


I first met Elena Lagadinova in 2010 when she was exactly twice my age; she was born in 1930 and I in 1970.  I tracked her down for an interview about her years as president of the Bulgarian Women’s Committee from 1968 to 1990. I knew nothing about her guerilla activities between 1941 and 1944. 



Top of the (Neighbors’) Pops

An interesting communist-era, TV-watching trend in the Balkans has its repercussions – even today. 

by Boyko Vassilev

6 October 2017


It was not surprising that his death last month struck a chord from Maribor, Slovenia to Mavrovo, Macedonia: Serb actor Ljubisa Samardzic was one of the greatest stars of former Yugoslavia. Everybody knew Surda, his hero from the 1980 series “Vruc vetar” (“Hot Wind”). You can still ask any musician performing in a restaurant in Belgrade, Skopje, or Zagreb to sing the theme song, the nostalgic sirtaki (a popular dance of Greek origin) called “A Sad Adio” (“And Now, Adieu). Folks just loved him.


No, all of this was not astonishing. The only surprise was that the Yugo star’s passing made headlines also in Bulgaria, which was not part of Yugoslavia. And yet, Bulgarians loved Ljubisa, and not only him.



Lessons from Lenin

Those advocating for removing historical statues in the U.S. would be well-served to examine the debates in the former Soviet Union about tearing down the figures of the past.

by David Mould

14 September 2017


In my adopted hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, a small but noisy group is campaigning to remove the statue of the Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, from the lawn outside the State Capitol. A small and equally noisy group opposes the removal.


It’s a conflict repeated in communities across the Midwest and the South, particularly in borderland states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana where the Civil War still seems to be going on, at least in local debates over how to deal with history.



Ukraine’s Past Isn’t Going Away Without a Fight

The official “decommunization” drive and conflicting allegiances lead to clashes during wartime commemorations.

by Tatiana Kozak

30 May 2017


KYIV ǀ The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and between Ukraine’s past and present, erupted into clashes and arrests in cities across the country on 9 May, the day chosen by Soviet-era leaders to mark the end of World War II.


The spark was a series of wildcat marches or demonstrations that are ostensibly meant to honor veterans of World War II but in Russia have become coopted by the Kremlin as a show of support for the government in Moscow. Fanning the flames was the marchers’ display of symbols of Russian domination, including the red Soviet flag and the imperial-era, black-and-orange ribbon of St. George, which has been adopted by separatists fighting the Ukrainian army in the east of the country.



Time of the Poisoners  

A thorough account of the killings of Ukrainian nationalists by the KGB brings up parallels between the Russia of the 1950s and today.

by Taras Kuzio

23 May 2017


The Man With the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story, by Serhii Plokhy. New York, Basic Books, 2016.


The Soviet secret police assassinated four Ukrainian nationalist leaders in the West: Symon Petlura in Paris (1926), Yevhen Konovalets in Rotterdam (1938), and Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera in Munich (1957 and 1959).


Of these, the greatest drama is associated with the last two, thanks to the first-hand accounts by the KGB assassin who carried them out, Bogdan Stashinsky, after he defected to the West in 1961.



Back to the Future?

Poland’s conservative government believes a return to the structure of the old educational system can produce smart, modern kids. Many disagree.

by Wojciech Kosc

10 May 2017


WARSAW, Poland – One video shows Franciszek the “motion designer,” who brings graphic elements to life through animation, and Piotr, whose education has propelled him to the position of a CEO of an IT company. The other video features Lidia, a geneticist, and Pawel, a “luxury cars interior stylist.”


These videos, which are available on the website of Poland’s Ministry of Education, promote the ongoing overhaul of the education system. The clips take the viewer to the future, with young people – who would start school this September, when the reform kicks off – talking about their careers in the year 2040.



Cut Loose in Europe

Thousands of Moldovans could find themselves stranded after losing Romanian citizenship in a bureaucratic snafu.

by Diana Frumosu

17 March 2017


I’m Diana, a 23-year-old student enrolled in a master’s program in Italy. After I graduated high school in Moldova, my home country, I decided to continue my studies in Verona. Like many Moldovans, I also have Romanian citizenship, which simplified the admissions procedure for a bachelor’s degree, since that made me a citizen of the European Union (Moldovans now have visa-free travel to the EU, but the country is years away from membership). This is my fifth year of studying in Italy, but in the meantime, I’ve also been on a year-long exchange in Poland, and I’ve worked in Prague for another year, thanks to my Romanian citizenship.


Excited to take my final exams in January, I was planning to look for a job in Italy, but a bureaucratic detail has now turned everything upside down. My Romanian passport expired in October and I cannot be issued a new one because I do not have a certificate of Romanian citizenship to prove my status.



Art in Ruins

Street art speaks to locals in Mostar.

by Bruno Stojcic and Asja Celebic

10 March 2017


Continuing our series this week on street art, we now feature murals and graffiti from the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The site of intense fighting during the Bosnian War, the city is perhaps best known for one of the country’s most stunning landmarks, the Stari Most (Old Bridge), which was destroyed during the conflict and then later rebuilt. Below are images of a different Mostar and reactions from local citizens.


I live near the old bank, so I’m kind of used to seeing graffiti all the time. Anyway, I really like it and I also support these young people that want to express their emotions and thoughts through this type of art. There are a lot of people inspired by their talent and I am definitely one of them. - Andrea, 44



Standing Up For “Parasites”

The anger in Belarus over a tax on the unemployed and other supposed freeloaders can be justified through the absurdity of the law itself.  

by Andrei Yeliseyeu

27 February 2017


Something has clearly been brewing in Belarus. Around 2,000 people protested in Minsk on 17 February in what has come to be known as the “March of Disgruntled Belarusians.” Two days later, the streets in some cities filled with thousands more, all of them united in their discontent over a 2015 decree against so-called social parasites.  And, indicating that such demonstrations might have some staying power, more protests took place on 26 February in four regional cities – the biggest in the northern city of Viciebsk with around 2,000 people.


Though it might be this specific degree that triggered such an unusual outpouring of anger in closely controlled Belarus, the demonstrations are ultimately a reaction to the country’s economic policies and the long-running poor shape of the economy.



Leveling Out

As the new Lithuanian government urges emigres to return home, the education of their children moves center stage, with promising results.

by Linas Jegelevicius

 6 February 2017


Even locals would probably admit that Taurage – a town in the southwestern part of Lithuania, in close proximity to the Russian border – is a pretty tedious place, ridden with social problems and notorious for its bootleg alcohol and tobacco sales.


But one of its secondary schools has offered some rare positive news, thus putting the media’s spotlight on the town for the right reasons. The school in question is called Jovarai, and this academic year it introduced a so-called leveling class for Lithuanian children who returned from emigration. Until now, only major urban centers and towns with abundant ethnic minority groups could boast of such classes – not the ethnically pure hinterlands. 

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Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.

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