Brendan Humphreys gave invited talk in Vienna

Brendan Humphreys was invited to address staff and students in the Department of Slavonic Studies, Vienna University on October 13. The department is one of the worlds’s largest department dedicated Slavic languages, literatures, and cultures. The department is especially strong on South Slav studies, and Humphreys was invited to give a paper entitled, The War on Ukraine and its implications for the Balkans. He was hosted by Professor Miranda Jakiša (pictured). Many of the students and staff are of South Slav origin, and the question and answer session was very lively and challenging.

Dr. Olga Kantokoski returns from the Center for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz

Dr. Olga Kantokoski returned from Austria, where she spent three months as a visiting researcher at the Center for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz. The visit was of benefit to the project “The Yugoslavian Penal Nationalism” due to multiple opportunities that the vibrant academic community of the University of Graz offers to the invited scholars. During her visit, in addition to accomplishing her immediate research tasks, Dr. Kantokoski participated in the conference dedicated to Europe’s future in the light of war in Ukraine, partook in the Center’s brownbag seminars, also with her presentation entitled “Is Southeast European Model of Punishment Too Harsh? The Carceral System of the Western Balkans in the Context of Western European Prison Reform”. Dr. Kantokoski also availed herself of the rich library collections of the University of Graz, including in the native Balkan languages, and established contacts with the leading researchers in the field (Prof. Florian Bieber, Prof. Emma Lantschner, and others). Currently, Olga finalizes her paper “The Modernity and the Evolution of Punishment in Europe’s Periphery: A Longue Duree of the Ebbs and Flows of Penal Liberalization in the Western Balkans” (tentative title). Dr. Kantokoski wishes to cordially thank all those who contributed to her academically fruitful visit to Austria, including – last but not least – Prof. Florian Bieber and Secretary Tanja Bilaver – for their generosity and hospitality.

Professor Judith Pallot’s Gulagechoes project held a 3-day seminar with invited international guests.

Pictured above are (left to right) Vakhtang Kekoshvili, Mikhail Nakonechnyi, Judith Pallot, Lili Di Puppo, Olga Zeveleva, Elena Omel’chenko, Brendan Humphreys, and Costanza Curro. Not pictured here is Albina Garifzyanova. Unfortunately, Sofya Gavrilova was unable to attend.

Dr. Olga Kantokoski awarded Visiting Fellowship

Dr. Olga Kantokoski awarded a visting fellowship in Graz

The Center for Southeast European Studies and the University of Graz, Austria, is unique in terms of being concerned solely with the analysis of the Western Balkans. It provides high-quality knowledge on the region, which is utilized by the academic community and policy makers. Olga Kantokoski, post doctoral researcher in the project “Yugoslav Penal Nationalism” is currently spending her three months’ term in the Center working on the journal article “Is the Southeast European Penal System Harsh? The Western Balkan Model of Carceral Punishment in the Context of Western European Prison Reform”.

BASEES conference, Cambridge

Unsurprisingly, the ongoing war in Ukraine dominated the BASEES (British Association of Slavonic and East European Studies) conference, held in Robinson College, Cambridge, UK on April 8-10, 2022. Professor Judith Pallot, herself vice president of BASEES was ubiquitous at the conference. Pictured below interviewing a BBC foreign correspondent about the Ukraine conflict, she also managed to organize and chair two round-tables based on her Aleksanteri Institute projects, GulagEchoes and Yugoslav Prison Nationalism, the Politics of Punishment.

Judith Pallot interviews BBS foreign correspondent Sarah Rainsford at the BASEES conference in Cambridge. The interview can be viewed here:

Registration is now open at the Registration page

The British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) is holding its 2022 annual conference, BASEES 2022, from 8th April to 10th April and will be hosted at Robinson College, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Panels, roundtables and papers will be held in the following areas: : Politics; History; Sociology and Geography; Film and Media, Languages and Linguistics; Literatures and Cultures; and Economics. The conference especially welcomes participation by postgraduate research students and early career scholars. .

As usual the annual conference will provide a platform to present and discuss research on all subjects covered by the association. The last pre-Covid conference in 2019 welcomed over 500 delegates from over 40 countries around the world.

BASEES will allow a limited number of remote presentations. Registering for a remote access ticket entitles you to join only the panel in which you are presenting your paper and present your contribution remotely.

Dr Matthias Neumann (

A Balkan Archipelago? Part 2

Another island prison in the Balkans in not located at sea. Rather, Belene is on an island in the Danube, the island belongs to Bulgaria, but the river constitutes the actual border at that location, the north bank is Romania.

(A lost Danubian world – an interface of crumbling Habsburg and Ottoman empires – is beautifully captured in Elias Canetti’s memoir of childhood, The Tongue Set Free.[1] Canetti was from a Ladino-speaking Sephardic family from Ruse/ Ruschuk, a town that was home to Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Roma, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians and their various languages.)

This island was the site of a notorious communist prison, which was used mostly in the repressive years of 1949–1959, when for example, several religious figures were imprisoned there.

After years of disuse, it was re-opened in the 1980s, when Bulgaria underwent a brutal assimilation program of the country’s Muslim population – the Turkish minority and the Pomaks (Slavonic Muslims). This so called ‘rebirth process’ (vazroditelen protses) was a manifestation of nativist populism that was against the ideology of international socialism. Later, in 1989, the year of miracles in Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian government suddenly expelled 360,000 Turks and Pomaks, driving them over the border into Turkey. This later episode was called the Big Excursion (goliamata ekskurziia) and was an exercise in ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a term soon to enter the world’s lexicon due to the conflict across the Yugoslav border.

This understudied episode has finally been given a book-length treatment in Tomasz Kamusella’s Ethnic Cleansing During the Cold War, The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of the Turks From Communist Bulgaria[2].

As for the Belene camp, as Kamusella states, “In the good Stalinist manner, with snow and rain falling on their heads, the first contingent of inmates actually had to re-build the camp for themselves.”[3] He argues that statistics were falsified and that many people who officially died by suicide or illness during the 1980s, were in fact victims of beatings and summary executions.

There is still a prison in operation on Belene Island – the island also hosts a nature reserve.


The mass expulsion was seen as an immediate disaster by the Bulgarian state; not on humane grounds, rather they belatedly realized that they had lost a vital workforce. After only months, the expelled started to move back to Bulgaria. Subsequent Bulgarian regimes have apologized for the episode.

[1] Granta Books, 1979 (1977).

[2] Routledge Studies in Modern European History, London, 2019.

[3] Ibid., 42.

“You can’t blame buildings”: A manor house with a dark past

The castle of the Keglević in Lobor, Croatia (pictured) , is some three hundred years old. It was the manor house of a prominent family, but was abandoned by the early 20th century. The Keglević family – of Croatian Hungarian nobility – had some association with Vienna’s musical culture in the era of Beethoven and Schubert (one family member has a Beethoven sonata dedicated to her, another wrote music published by Diabelli).

According to its website, the castle was used as hospital from 1920 until 1923, being then staffed by Russian doctors, who had been captured at the Eastern front in the First Word War.

Today, with new annexes added, it is a home for mentally ill adults. Successfully repurposed, as one likes to see with older buildings, the website of the home give a brief mention to the history of the castle. In the 1930s, the building was run by a religious charity, and was used as a poorhouse (ubožnicu). During the Second World War, the website tells us, it “continued its function”.

Unfortunately, its function during the Second World War was radically different. The castle was converted into an Ustasa concentration camp, one specifically for Jewish and Serbian women and children.

The camp was run by two Volksdeutsche brothers Karl and Valdemar Heger – apparently watchmakers by profession – and most of the guards were also Volksdeutsche gendarmes. “Sadistic treatment, including rape, was meted out to the women and children.[1] According to the American Holocaust museum;

“Of the approximately 2,000 women and children who were imprisoned at one time in the camp, probably 200 died. Most died from typhoid, and others from illness caused by the depleted food supplies, mistreatment by guards, and the indescribably unhygienic conditions, due principally to the extreme overcrowding in the barracks, which were completely lacking in sanitation facilities.”[2]

The camp and its function was not a secret in its day; on the contrary, the Jewish community of Zagreb sent materials to the prisoners (typically stolen by the guards) and even had a representative visit the premises. The camp operated in 1941 and 1942. An auxiliary camp was built to ease overcrowding. Some of the prisoners were sent on to the notorious Jasenovac complex; other children were transferred to other camps or hospitals, which may have saved their lives. In August 1942, the remaining women and children were given over to Nazi custody, and sent to Auschwitz. None survived.

Should there not be some sign of acknowledgment by the present administrators of the building, which now has a positive, caring function?

A similar issue was raised, in a better know case, by the continued use of the spa hotel Vilina Vlas in Višegrad, Bosnia. The hotel was a site of multiple atrocities – most especially the rape and murder of women – during the war of 1992-95. The hotel still functions as a ‘rehabilition center’ and there is no acknowledgment, by its custodians, of the horrors that took place there.

Bilal Memišević is the only Muslim member of the regional assemble, indeed, one of the few Muslims remaining in Višegrad. In 1991, it was a two/thirds Muslim majority town, but post-Dayton it is located in the Republika Srbska. Both of his parents died in the war. He wishes acknowledgment for the suffering of his family and community, but would not want the Vilian Vlas closed down. He nonetheless considers it “a terrible kind of place”. “Rationally, you can’t blame buildings. It’s the ideology that needs to be changed. If you say we have to destroy the spa, by that logic you have to destroy half of Bosnia.”[3]

True, the town is known to readers all over the world as the site of Ivo Andric’s The Bridge of the Drina, where the history of three centuries happens around the immobile bridge as the river flows like time beneath it.

It is a dilemma. Should a hotel actually broadcast the fact that thirty years ago, it was as place of systematic rape and murder? (“How was your stay Madame? Was your bed comfortable?”)

It is somewhat easier for a psychological hospital to admit that eighty years ago it was a site of crimes against humanity, (although it has not done so). Time is a factor certainly; so many victims and perpetrators of Bosnia’s tragedy are still alive, in trauma or in denial.


Never tried for their crimes, the watchmaking bothers Heger died in 1996 and 2007 respectively, in the sleepy Austrian towns of Mariazell and Tillmitsch.

Brendan Humphreys

[1] Francine Friedman, Bread for Salt, the Jews of Bosnia and Hertzegovina, 467

[2] Lohse, Alexandra, ‘Croatia’ in Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, American Holocaust Museum, Washington

[3] ”Back on the tourist trail: the hotel where women were raped and tortured”, Emma Graham-Harrison, Observer, 28 Jan, 2018

New publication

Conservatism and Memory Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe
Edited by Katalin Miklossy and Markku Kangaspuro, Routledge, 2021,
ISBN 9781003251743
Chapter: Brendan Humphreys, Serbia and Russia: between piety and politics 

A Balkan Archipelago? Part 1

In three different parts of the Balkan Peninsula, one can find the remnants of island prisons.

Perhaps the best-known prison island is Goli Otok (naked island, pictured) off the Croatian coast. This island hosts a prison that was established in the early days of Socialist Yugoslavia.

The island had no other inhabitants. It has been used a prison previously, during the First World War, Austrians kept captured Russian prisoner of war there.

Following the dramatic Tito-Stalin ‘split’ of 1948, a prison camp was established for political prisoner suspected of loyalty to the USSR. However, a broad category of political prisoners were incarcerated there; veterans of the Spanish civil War, even of the October Revolution. Some were losers in power struggles within the Yugoslav Communist Party, and were feared as potential rivals by Tito.

The camp was in use from 1949 until 1956, when tensions with the USSR eased. The camp was thereafter used as an ordinary prison, and closed in the 1980s.

There was a smaller prison island nearby called Sveti Grgur (Saint Gregory), which housed female prisoners.

In a grim way, the Goli Otok camp was an exercise in Tito’s vaunted workers’ self-management (radničko samoupravljanje). In this particular case, it meant that the first prisoners on the island had to build the facilities – barracks and workshops – but also the inmates themselves would run the camp, though supervised by exterior guards. This led to a brutal hierarchy with the camp. The supposed idea behind the camp was ideological re-education, and the collective beating that greeted new arrivals (‘running the line’) was to impose conformity. The prisoners that cooperated rose in rank.

The term ‘camp’ (logor) was forbidden, as it would associate the site with Nazi or Soviet camps, which it, of course, resembled.

The camp’s existence was kept a secret for many years. Secretive too is whose idea it was to establish it. According to historian Martin Previšić, who has published a book on the history of the camp, it seems that no one individual can be identified. Its location was surely a factor; there was both a port and a railway close by on the mainland.

Goli Otok is now a tourist destination – day trippers on the coast can organize boat trips to see the “Croatian Alcatraz”. Unlike the famous site off San Francisco, nobody – despite rumors that cling to all prisons – ever escaped from the naked island.

By Brendan Humphreys