Thursday, July 18, 2013


If one were to opine, say, that Communism was one of the "worst ideas of all time", I'd have a hard time countering that statement with a well-formed and persuasive argument to what is nearly a truism at this point. If one were to hone that opinion a bit and say that "Soviet-style Communism", the kind exported to Eastern Europe after World War II, was one of the, if not the worst idea of all time, I'd probably stand up and cheer. Communism's preposterous, dangerous, utopian fantasies on the nature of man, as well as how these command-and-control totalitarian ideas actually played out, were responsible for untold death, misery and suffering in the 20th century, on a global scale that dwarfs even the Nazis' atrocities. It's an irony of history to look back and realize that it was Hitler's stupidity and European domination fantasies that paved the way for the Soviet Union's decades-long crushing of those same countries. One or the other was probably bound to control Eastern Europe in the 1940s, and Jewish residents notwithstanding, it's hard to say under whose boot life would have been worse.

Anne Applebaum is a Sovietologist and writer of the highest order. Her massive book "GULAG: A HISTORY" is the definitive study of the Soviet gulag prison system, though I'll admit its breadth and massiveness is what's kept me from actually reading it (so far). For those weirdos among us who delight in histories of postwar realignments, retributions and the birth of the Cold War, the arrival of her "IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE 1944-1956" late in 2012 was a cause for celebration. I made a decision to dig deep within myself and get through this large tome, and thanks to and my long daily commute, I did so. It was a pleasure to "read" it, and it certainly stiffened my spine with regard to my distaste for Communism and for much of the sordid, depressing 20th century.

Applebaum is an excellent relayer of history, and she uses both primary and secondary source material to advance many personal stories of life under Soviet rule in the countries of Poland, Hungary and East Germany during the 11 years following World War II. She chooses those years because 1956, where the book ends, is the year that is popularly recognized as the first true, crushed anti-Soviet rebellion (in Hungary, and to a lesser extent in Poland). She chooses those 3 countries because, well, there were far better and more cohesive-to-a-theme stories there, than if she'd chosen, say, Yugoslavia (in which Tito carved out a repressive and murderous yet anti-Stalin path) or Albania (now where is that again?). Her style is deft, light and non-ponderous, and she does a great job weaving straight history and intense personal stories into several big chapter-long "subjects".

These subjects, all facets of the Soviets' command-and-control crushing of all spheres of Eastern European civil and economic life, are explained in illuminating but rarely boring detail in each chapter. Examples include "Youth" - how the Soviets co-opted or banned existing youth organizations, like scouts, as part of their paranoid desire to eliminate all traces of activity outside of those that glorified Stalin and the goals of Communism. Another chapter is on the ludicrous show trials, with their forced public confessions; another on entertainment (the Soviets actually cracked down mightily on Polish hepcats who danced to American jazz); another on heinous economic blundering via collectivization schemes, and so on.

What's clear is that in the post-WWII chaos, the only thing that was certain is that the Red Army was in these countries, and that they were putatively in charge. How things were actually going to play out was not exactly known, but the Soviets knew. They started a campaign of looting, plundering and then mass arrests that established both their domination and their ruthlessness, all the while lying to the Americans and British about the free societies they would be overseeing. Elections were in fact held in these countries, and for the first few postwar years, they were somewhat free. Yet they didn't quite go the way Mother Russia wanted them to – too many social democrats or "light" Communists, not enough "Little Stalins" to kowtow to Stalin – and they were essentially vetoed in time, via arrests, terror and wholesale changes in election laws until the right people were in charge.

This ugly period was followed by a worse one, "high Stalinism", the years in which Eastern European countries suffered a complete dismantling of their former selves. Lasting until Stalin's death in 1953 and Kruschev's "secret speech" that followed, it is the societal vision that provided the fodder for George Orwell's 1949 classic "1984". One thing Applebaum illuminates extremely well in this book is the importance of civil society – voluntary organizations, entertainment, charities, sporting clubs – that lie beyond state control. The Soviet Union absolutely destroyed and outlawed every facet of it in Poland, Hungary and Eastern Germany, and made daily life for individuals a life in which everything outside of the immediate family unit was 100% defined by the state: where you worked, how you worked, where and how you were schooled, what you did with your leisure time, and so on.

Due to excessive paranoia, the chance of being arrested and thrown into the Gulag, or even executed for crimes real or imagined, was very high – perhaps even if it was a distant family member whose acts brought suspicion upon you. Woe betide you further if you were Jewish in the era during and after high Stalinism; societies that were already anti-Semitic toward the few Jews not murdered during the previous decades were goaded into more vile acts of Jew-hate by their puppetmasters in Moscow, and by the leaders in their own countries doing their bidding. As we know, even after this era, the Soviet-led tyranny of these countries continued for nearly four more grim decades. The opening of the state archives after 1989 was certainly a great gift to history, and to this book.

If you ask me whether Applebaum has any real nuance toward her subject – meaning, does she provide a "counter-argument" to the Soviet Union's stupidity and hideousness – I'd say no, she definitely does not. Neither do I, as it happens, nor should we. American and British paranoia during the Cold War was based upon fact and reality, if played out a bit strangely and in "un-American" ways at times. Marxist ideology had within it that the great revolutions were at hand and were soon to play out in country after country. Stalin did all he could, through terror and initimidation, to bend history to fit the established Marxist narrative. It's a sad epoch that many of us alive actually lived through, though thankfully in my case in the freedoms of the West, and in the final two decades of Eastern Europe's subjegation. 

This book is an essential overview of just how good people like me and my parents had it, living on the soil that we did when we did, without even talking about the United States nor about the west at all. It also underscores how different life might have been for people like my Jewish wife, or my friends or Polish or German descent, had their parents and their parents' parents not emigrated out of Eastern Europe in the years before World War II, and had they even made it into the late 40s and early 50s after years of slaughter and killing. It's abundantly clear that this was truly a rotten time and place to have been alive, and that we ignore how it all played out to our own ignorance and peril.