Eastern Bloc emigration and defection

Eastern Bloc emigration and defection was a point of controversy during the Cold War. After World War II, emigration restrictions were imposed by countries in the Eastern Bloc, which consisted of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Legal emigration was in most cases only possible in order to reunite families or to allow members of minority ethnic groups to return to their homelands.

Eastern Bloc governments argued that strict limits to emigration were necessary to prevent a brain drain. The United States and Western European governments argued that they represented a violation of human rights. Despite the restrictions, defections to the West occurred.

After East Germany tightened its zonal occupation border with West Germany, the city sector border between East Berlin and West Berlin became a loophole through which defection could occur. This was closed with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Thereafter, emigration from the Eastern Bloc was effectively limited to illegal defections, ethnic emigration under bilateral agreements, and a small number of other cases.


Creation of the Eastern Bloc

Map of Eastern Bloc countries in Central Europe

Bolsheviks took power in Russia following the Russian Revolution of 1917. During the Russian Civil War that followed, coinciding with the Red Army's entry into Minsk in 1919, Belarus was declared the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. After more conflict, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared in 1920. With the defeat of Ukraine in the Polish-Ukrainian War, after the March 1921 Peace of Riga following the Polish-Soviet War, central and eastern Ukraine were annexed into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1922, the Russian SFSR, Ukraine SSR, Byelorussian SSR and Transcaucasian SFSR were officially merged as republics creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union.

During the final stages of World War II, the Soviet Union began the creation of the Eastern Bloc by directly annexing several countries as Soviet Socialist Republics that were originally effectively ceded to it by Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

These included Eastern Poland (incorporated into three different SSRs),[2] Latvia (became Latvia SSR),[3][4] Estonia (became Estonian SSR),[3][4] Lithuania (became Lithuania SSR),[3][4] part of eastern Finland (became Karelo-Finnish SSR, and later merged into the Russian SFSR)[5] and northern Romania (became the Moldavian SSR).[6][7] By 1945, these additional annexed countries totaled approximately 465,000 additional square kilometers (180,000 square miles), or slightly more than the area of West Germany, East Germany and Austria combined.[8]

Other states were converted into Soviet Satellite states, such as the People's Republic of Poland, the People's Republic of Hungary,[9] the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic,[10] the People's Republic of Romania, the People's Republic of Albania,[11] and later East Germany from the Soviet zone of German occupation.[12] The Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia was also considered part of the Bloc,[13][14] though a Tito-Stalin split occurred in 1948[15] followed by the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Conditions in the Eastern Bloc

A line for the distribution of cooking oil in Bucharest, Romania in May 1986

Throughout the Eastern Bloc, both in the Soviet Union and the rest of the Bloc, the Russian SFSR was given prominence, and referred to as the naibolee vydajuščajasja nacija (the most prominent nation) and the rukovodjaščij narod (the leading people).[8] The Soviets promoted the reverence of Russian actions and characteristics, and the construction of Soviet Communist structural hierarchies in the other countries of the Eastern Bloc.[8]

The defining characteristic of communism implemented in the Eastern Bloc was the unique symbiosis of the state with society and the economy, resulting in politics and economics losing their distinctive features as autonomous and distinguishable spheres.[16] Initially, Stalin directed systems that rejected Western institutional characteristics of market economies, democratic governance (dubbed "bourgeois democracy" in Soviet parlance) and the rule of law subduing discretional intervention by the state.[17] The Soviets mandated expropriation and estatization of private property.[18]

The Soviet-style "replica regimes" that arose in the Bloc not only reproduced Soviet command economies, but also adopted the brutal methods employed by Joseph Stalin and Soviet secret police to suppress real and potential opposition.[18] Communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc saw even marginal groups of opposition intellectuals as a potential threat because of the bases underlying Communist power therein.[19] The suppression of dissidence and opposition was a central prerequisite for the security of Communist power within the Eastern Bloc, though the degree of opposition and dissident suppression varied by country and time throughout the Bloc.[19]

In addition, media in the Eastern Bloc served as an organ of the state, completely reliant on, and subservient to, the ruling Communist parties, with radio and television organizations being state-owned, while print media was usually owned by political organizations, mostly by the ruling Communist party.[20] Furthermore, the Eastern Bloc experienced economic mis-development by central planners resulting in those countries following a path of extensive rather than intensive development, and lagged far behind their western European counterparts in per capita Gross Domestic Product.[21] Empty shelves in shops even in East Germany provided an open reminder of the inaccuracy of propaganda regarding purported magnificent and uninterrupted economic progress.[22]