It’s hard to read Anne Applebaum’s massive analysis of the Soviet takeover of East Europe without feeling the cold, clammy hand of Soviet communism on your shoulder, to breathe the stifling air of the police state, and feel your chest tighten at descriptions of lives shredded and squandered at the will of a faceless force that was inescapable.
Even those who know little of the era that Applebaum writes about in Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe — the turbulent post-war years of 1945 to 1956 — would shudder at the story of the Ukrainian child who watched as his cousin’s wedding turned to a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing by the Polish communist regime. Or the Hungarian teenagers dragged from their homes and deported to Soviet work camps as part of the geopolitical engineering that overtook millions in the carve-up of Eastern Europe.
More subtle tactics followed, to create the perfect “homo Sovieticus” — Soviet man — from the clay of countries battered and crushed together under the Soviet boot. Even those who opposed the vicious and chaotic capitalism that had beset pre-war Europe, and fostered fascism, found themselves under omnipresent surveillance.
Widespread intimidation, targeted assassination, show trials, arbitrary detention and censorship of every aspect of civil society convinced many to keep their heads down and pay lip service to their new communist masters. Others joined the party with hope for better days.
Applebaum is the ideal author for such a vast project. As a journalist who has worked for newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Economist and The Spectator, and as a columnist for the Washington Post, she gives human texture to the well-documented historic record by giving voice to aging witnesses and illuminating previously buried material.
Her previous book, Gulag: A History, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. But in spite of the dark material she has mined over the past two decades, she is remarkably upbeat. In Toronto recently for a book tour, Applebaum talked about her latest journey through Europe’s post-war past, and what she found there.
A: If you don’t keep some sort of distance, you can’t write it. And the people I’m talking to are survivors who have somehow come through this and are still alive. So speaking to them isn’t really depressing.
Q: This part of history has been widely chronicled. Why did you choose it, and why now?
A: It partly evolved from my previous book. I became fascinated by collaboration — why do people go along with certain things in a totalitarian regime? What are the institutional, psychological and ideological reasons? This is the best period to examine the building blocks of totalitarianism. Archives are now accessible. And it’s the last moment when you can talk to eye witnesses.
Q: You went through huge numbers of German, Hungarian, Polish and Russian archives. Did you read them all yourself?
Q: After your previous gulag book, did anything in the stories surprise you?
A: In terms of how the people adapted, I wouldn’t say it was surprising. It was illuminating and humbling to see how difficult their choices were. There were real good and bad guys. But for most people, I came to understand, the choices were not obvious and the options were not ideal.
Q: Did you get any idea of why the communist regime wanted such a horrific amount of control?
A: The theory was that you could control everything. Not only politics, but culture, social and civic life, every institution could be brought under state control. It was the operating theory of this system and that’s what made it so unique.
Q: Aided by paranoia?
A: It was a side effect. They used targeted violence, arrested leaders, nonconformists and people of stature. It made others afraid. There wasn’t mass murder, as there had been in earlier times. But the paranoia came from not knowing what you could say in public, whether you might be arrested at any time. To destroy civil society was the aim, and to make sure there was no way of organizing outside the system. Youth groups, the church, charities, all were institutions that could provide people with an alternative view of the world. So they had to be brought under control.
Q: How easy was it to stamp out religion?
A: They never eradicated it, but they made it difficult. In some cases they corrupted (religious) people in a very sad way. They tried to turn some into informers and propagandists. They created more severe damage in some places than others. In Poland, the most famous example, the church not only came back but was an organizing force of society. Physically, the buildings were places where people could meet and feel free of surveillance.
Q: What role did ethnic cleansing play in the communist takeover?
A: There were different kinds of ethnic cleansing. The most famous, and largest, was of Germans from western Poland, and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Expelling the Germans was a tremendous boost for the communist parties because it was popular, and meant that the state suddenly owned enormous amounts of empty property. It could be redistributed to people coming from other places. That gave them more state control than in the past. It made those countries more homogeneous than they had ever been. It was geopolitical engineering.
Q: But for all the Soviet efforts, there were still big differences between countries when the Berlin Wall fell.
A: If you looked at the region in 1950, they would have looked very much alike. But after Stalin died they took very different paths, and began to differentiate themselves in various ways. It had to do with the nature of the communist parties, or religion or political traditions. Since 1989 they have become wildly diverse.
Q: What were the lingering effects of those decades of repression?
A: There’s a paranoid strain in politics that does come from the memory of somebody following you. In particular, there’s a memory of a secret cabal of people who control you on behalf of a foreign country. That means there is a strain of xenophobia that comes in different forms — anti-European, anti-foreigner. It isn’t dominant, but it’s there. There is also a feeling that in some ways, the state isn’t “ours.” There are people up there doing something we can’t influence, making decisions that harm or manipulate us.
Q: You’ve been delving into countries where surveillance of every aspect of life was routine. Are you worried about the electronic surveillance that is so widespread now in the West?
A: I’ve become used to the idea that you have much less privacy than you used to. It offers new forms of potential control and manipulation. I now assume anything I post online, in emails, will be read by somebody. But I wouldn’t say that at this moment I feel concerned. Maybe I should.
A: Go on vacation — we have a country place in Poland. But I also cook. By accident of publication, I’ve just published a cookbook (From a Polish Country House Kitchen) with Danielle Crittenden. Cooking and writing go together very well. You start the roast in the morning, work for an hour, come back and adjust the seasonings — and lunch is ready. It’s a very relaxing way to carry on, and besides, you have to feed the children.
Olivia Ward was the Star’s Moscow bureau chief from 1992-1997.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. Signal. $ 39.95