Free societies crumbled in the decade after World War II, when Stalin took much of Eastern and Central Europe, and in a single-minded fashion, dismantled the existing institutions to build totalitarianism.
This period provides the subject for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain, which she discussed with journalists and columnist for The Times, Oliver Kamm before a sold-out audience at the Frontline Club on Monday 21 January.
“Why did anybody go along with totalitarianism?” she wondered before starting the book.
“Describe the scene for us,” Kamm began.
“It’s hard,” Applebaum answered. After the war, “the level of physical destruction…you had absolutely flat cities…totally destroyed transportation systems…economies that didn’t function – at all.”
“One of my most interesting interviews…was with a Polish writer… He was a Stalinist [at first], and he described that to me… Everything his parents had told him, and everything his schools had taught him, turned out to be wrong… The army failed. The government failed society collapsed… And that caused a kind of break in his mentality… he said…’you know, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe the communists are right’.”
Applebaum described what followed:
“You had no good choices. You couldn’t just decide to be a freedom fighter and stand up for democracy. I mean, you could, then: A. You would be arrested. B. Your wife would be arrested. C. Your child would get kicked out of college. D. Your mother would be thrown out of the hospital. Because the State had control over so many aspects of society, people had really very bad and hard decisions to make.”
But not even Stalin, totalitarianism’s maestro, couldn’t pull it off.
“The idea is that everyone will become convinced. They will be re-educated…and there will be no opposition… But somehow, it never works…[Even] at the very height of Stalinism in 1951 or ’52, they never actually made it.”
Yet for four decades, the Soviet bloc lived, and its unraveling still boggles Applebaum.
“It all seems so implausible to me. I mean: how did it happen? How can you explain it? Why did Gorbachev do what he did? Why did he just give up that enormous empire? Nobody was making him do it… Really, it could have gone on a lot longer.”
In much subtler shades, it has – under Vladimir Putin.
“He does care a lot, pretty inexplicably, in fact, about Pussy Riot,” Applebaum said. “There is a direct line from Putin to [Yuri] Andropov,” Soviet Ambassador to Budapest during Hungary’s rebellion 1956, and head of the KGB in the early 1980s.
“Putin came of age in Andropov’s KGB… He remembers ’89. He was taught by Andropov, who remembers ’56… The kind of treatment that dissidents or artists got in the Soviet Union in the first half of the ‘80s when Andropov was in power was almost as severe as in Stalin’s time… What was the conclusion? … all of these little groups who you thought weren’t important…you can let them go, [but] it can all unravel, and you can have an armed rebellion.”