HAYDEN BERRY: As an American, what attracted you to Central and Eastern Europe?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: I read a lot of Russian literature when I was a teenager, and got the idea that I wanted to be able to read it in the original. But this was the 1980s, at the height of the “second” Cold War, and Russia started to be interesting for other reasons too: the Soviet Union seemed a menacing and fascinating place. I studied Russian, spent a summer in Leningrad, and then afterwards found myself at Oxford. From there I started making trips to Eastern Europe. The first time I was in Poland was, I think, in 1986. I did a trip on behalf of a group that Roger Scruton used to help run, which smuggled money into Eastern Europe for dissidents.
And did you always plan to write Iron Curtain after writing Gulag?
I didn’t plan Iron Curtain, but in the course of writing Gulag, I became interested in the subject of who the Communists were, why people went along with them, and why their ideology was so powerful. Of course, I could have told the same story writing about the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, but in a way it was more interesting to focus on the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe because it was done so quickly, and by people who by that time had a clear idea of what they were doing. I wanted to understand what the institutional building blocks of totalitarianism were.
In Iron Curtain you seem to argue that apart from the Second World War itself, the defining moment for Eastern Europe was the Yalta Conference. What impact did Yalta have on the region?
Yalta was a moment of clarity, revealing, finally, that Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were not the priority of the Western Allies. When Franklin Roosevelt was at Yalta, he was interested in other things, such as the United Nations and Japan, and his conversations with the Soviet Union were about those issues. Poland just wasn’t a priority. Someone had told Roosevelt that Lviv was a very important city to Poles and that there was some oil around, which is actually true. So he made some noises about including it within Poland, but then got distracted and didn’t pursue it. Winston Churchill was actually more interested in Poland, but was also more doubtful about his own ability to do anything about the Soviet Union. However, the main cause of what happened was the Red Army’s occupation of the region. Once that was a fact on the ground, it was very difficult to change. It was probably politically impossible for the British and Americans to go to war again, right after the Second World War had ended.
In the introduction you also write about “Eastern Europe” essentially being a western historical and political concept rather than a geographical one. To what extent has this concept prevented the West from breaking down these, in some sense, self- imposed barriers and embracing the cultures of the East? In short, how much is the West to blame for the stereotype?
It depends on when you’re talking about. If you had looked at these countries in the 1950s, they did have remarkably similar political systems, and it is correct to define them, politically, as a single group: the countries which had this kind of Stalinist system from 1945 or 1946 until 1956, and then which had a messier post-Stalinist communist system until the 1980s. In that sense, all the countries of this region still have something in common. They have a piece of their history and similar experience.
Of course, it’s not true anymore. The countries of what we used to call Eastern Europe are now as different from one another as the countries of Western Europe, maybe even more so. The differences between Poland and Albania, and Romania and Slovakia are certainly as great as those between England, Italy and Greece. The post- Soviet world, meaning countries such as Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, are different again: they were part of the Soviet Union for 70 years, and not satellite states for 40 years. It’s a very different historical experience. There is a deeper civilisational difference between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, on the one hand, and Poland and Hungary, on the other.
You write quite powerfully in Iron Curtain about the wave of ethnic cleansing which took place after the Second World War, which essentially destroyed multi-ethnicity in the region and left only nostalgia for what had been. To what extent did this nostalgia nurture or drive nationalism?
It depends what you mean by nationalism, and it depends what you mean by nostalgia. There are forms of nationalism, which I would call patriotism, which are quite useful and healthy. There are also people who define themselves by the people they hate, or by the people who they are not. And, yes, for some of those people the loss of territory or the memory of some past mistreatment is a motivating life factor. It’s not just true of this region, you can see it all over the world.
It also varies. Although the Poles lost a good deal of territory in 1939, I don’t think contemporary Poland is particularly nationalistic. There is nostalgia for the formerly Polish cities of Vilnius and Lviv, but I don’t detect mass movements to take them back. Nor is there mass hatred of Ukrainians. Even in Germany, where former German expellees played a role in German postwar politics for many decades, agitating to get land and houses back, the effect they had on mainstream German politics was minimal. So are these important feelings? Yes. But did they cause either Germany or Poland to become raving fascist states? No.
In a radio interview for the BBC1 you discussed how “authoritarianism contains the seeds of its own destruction”. Could you elaborate on this?
I was talking specifically about Soviet- style totalitarianism, and two aspects in particular. Firstly, in their attempt to control and politicise everything, the communist parties of the region made everyone into a potential political enemy: an artist painting in a politically incorrect style was automatically a political dissident, whereas in another culture they might not have been. Boys who didn’t want to join the new youth groups became dissidents too. By politicising ordinary activities, civil society and associations of all kinds, the communists created potential opponents.
Secondly, by constantly presenting the world as it was supposed to be, as opposed to the world as it was, they created a bizarre gap between reality and propaganda. At some point, even the communist parties stopped believing in the propaganda. In the end, the system unravelled because it made no sense; it was based on dishonest promises.
How does this concept apply to regimes which exist today?
All regimes which do not hold power thanks to a democratic process have to legitimise themselves through some other method. This includes, for example, modern China, which is not totalitarian in the Stalinist or Maoist sense: the Chinese no longer make people march in parades or shout slogans they don’t believe in, and they also don’t try to control everything. Nevertheless, it has this in common with the USSR: the Chinese regime’s legitimacy is based on a promise of rapid economic growth, and if they cease to have rapid economic growth, then why should people support them? Propaganda has to match reality.
And in terms of Russia?
It’s very similar. In Russia, Vladimir Putin argues, “I keep the country together. I pay your wages on time. And I’m bringing growth.” However, Putin has done very few of the reforms that he’s promised, and growth is shaky. Clearly, the Russian government knows that it is illegitimate and fears popular challenge: it wouldn’t need to crack down on girls who demonstrate in churches if they weren’t on some level afraid of them. For regimes which are nervous about whether they deserve to be in power or not, criticism will always be a problem.
What comparisons can you see between the Soviet style and Putin’s style of repression?
The Stalin of the 1930s and Putin of the present are not similar in that Putin is not engaging in mass arrests or mass murder. He’s not shooting 20,000 people in the forest within the space of a few weeks as he did at Katyń. And he’s not arresting one million people. But his system does bear a resemblance to Yuri Andropov’s Russia in the 1980s, and not accidentally. Putin was a great admirer of Andropov (General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1982 to 1984, and head of the KGB before that – editor’s note), and has since built statues in his honour all over Moscow and St Petersburg.
Like Andropov, Putin believes in moderating the amount of freedom Russians are allowed. At the moment, you can have freedom of speech, you can say what you want, you can even publish things critical of the authorities – as long as not many people are listening or reading. Nobody’s going to be arrested for saying things in their own houses or telling jokes, like they were in the 1930s. But if you create a political movement, if you attract too much attention, if you appear on national television, then you could lose your job, discover you are under investigation for tax fraud, even be arrested.
Putin also shares with Andropov a fanatical interest in small, civic-minded, independent and not even necessarily opposition groups. He is obsessed with non-governmental organisations, who now face bureaucratic and financial obstacles of all kinds. I met a friend of mine last week who runs a small educational institute in Russia. She gets some money for educational projects from abroad, and she will now have to register as a “foreign agent”, which essentially means as a spy. There is a deliberate stigmatising of self- organised, non-official groups, to keep them from having too much influence. That’s very Soviet.
Many in this region were disappointed by Barack Obama’s first term as president of the United States, but what does his re-election mean to the stability and politics of the region?
I don’t think it means very much at all. On the one hand, yes, there are some justifiable criticisms of Obama. In the first term, there weren’t many people around him, with the exception of Michael McFaul (currently the United States Ambassador to Russia – editor’s note), who knew much about the region. The result of that absence was series of unfortunate mistakes, such as the president’s use of the term “Polish death camps”, a phrase the Poles find offensive. I gather that in the second term the White House hopes to rectify this lack of expertise.
At the same time, please remember the downgrading of Europe and European matters in the United States is not happening because Americans don’t like Europeans, but because the president has limited time and there are other crises: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, the economy, the hurricane. Only after all of those things are dealt with can you worry about Europe, including Eastern Europe. Poles never believe me when I say this, but from the point of view of the United States, everything is fine in Poland. Is there a crisis? No. A war? No. Sometimes you don’t agree with one another, but that’s normal.
Do you see these linguistic gaffes as being particularly damaging?
I thought the “Polish death camp” comment was unfortunate but not disastrous. The Polish foreign ministry had been conducting a campaign against the use of this term for a decade. That nobody in the White House seemed to know that the phrase is considered offensive is rather odd.
In a review of Iron Curtain you’ve been accused of having “a political, as well as a scholarly purpose” and that “as a right-wing cold warrior [you are] anxious to drive another nail into the coffin of the old European and American left, with their residual tendency to find excuses for Soviet communism.” How would you respond?
I really don’t think I had a political agenda as such when writing this book. Do I want to drive a nail into the coffin of the idea that there was something good about Communism and that it was just a much misunderstood system? Yes. But I don’t see why that’s right-wing any more. It’s been a long time since being anti-communist meant that you were a right-wing “cold warrior”.
And finally, what’s next? Will you write a trilogy?
I would like to write a book about the famine in the 1930s in Ukraine, about which there is a lot of information but not an up-to-date popular book, written using archives. I would also like to write about 1989, which I remember very well, but it’s still maybe slightly too early for that.
This interview first appeared in New Eastern Europe Issue 1(VI)/2013 – "Can Russia Really Change". For more from this issue please visit: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/605
Anne Applebaum is Philippe Roman Professor at the London School of Economics for 2012-2013 and a columnist for the Washington Post. Her book Gulag: A History won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and her new book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 was published in 2012. She is married to Radosław Sikorski, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Hayden Berry is an editor with New Eastern Europe.