Anne Applebaum dropped out of Oxford University to become a journalist in Poland in 1988. The rest, quite literally, is history. After a distinguished career as a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her history of the Gulag. In 2012 she published Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, an archival history of the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe after the Second World War. She is currently Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics. Interview by Josh Black.
What led you to become interested in Eastern Europe and what was it like being a journalist in 1989?
It started with an interest in Russian literature that led me to study the Russian language. Then I left Oxford to work as a freelance journalist. I thought I would be there for one year but I wound up spending three years in Poland between Autumn 1988 and 1992, working for the Economist and the Independent, amongst others.
You started with journalism and are now producing works of history. How do you find the crossover?
Actually, part of what it takes to be a historian is not that different from what it takes to be a journalist. You are essentially putting together a story from different points of view, which is what you do when you write an article. The way I write history, you piece together archives with memoirs and you try to come up with a narrative which reflects the points of view of people who were alive at a particular moment. To figure out the best sources, you interview eyewitness and experts, such as other historians to find out how the archives work. I don’t think anyone who writes journalism feels like their work will be the definitive version because you have greater access to sources as a historian.
Your latest book, Iron Curtain, is about the communist takeover of Eastern Europe after the Second World War. What was your rationale behind writing that book now?
The gap in the literature was that there wasn’t a book in English and using the archives dealing with several countries at once. I became interested in why people went along with Soviet-style regimes while writing Gulag. When the Red Army occupied countries which had little to do with each other previously, how did they become so apparently similar in a short period of time? I was interested in the institutions and the psychology of it, whether there was a manual.
How important were the initial Postwar conditions in Eastern Europe, or was Sovietisation done in a ‘text-book’ manner?
The initial conditions were very important; the War and the devastation that followed are absolutely necessary to understanding what followed. Not accidentally, I open the book with a description of what the region was like in 1945. People weren’t starting from scratch – the War was a violent and disorienting experience, so they reacted to the Red Army in a different way to what they might have five years earlier.
Reading memoirs from the time, it seems that many people didn’t wake up to the reality of communism until much later. Was that your sense?
It was less openly and aggressively violent than the Nazi occupation had been, so for many people, 1948-9 was still better than what life had been like in terms of security and stability. It certainly took longer for people to feel that it was awful.
How useful is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for explaining what happened?
Hannah Arendt was the first person to see the Nazi and Soviet regimes as part of a single phenomenon and therefore she is very influential and her work is important. She assumed what she was seeing was real – that once the state took over the media and aesthetic life, that they would be able to mould people and that there would be no dissent. She was wrong that it was a one-way process and that you could mould a totalitarian personality. That was why she was so surprised by the Hungarian revolution, as were many others.
Talk of a ‘totalitarian’ or ‘authoritarian personality’ is still used as shorthand for explaining politics, particularly in Russia. Is there a long shadow?
I think the ‘authoritarian personality’ is misleading; sometimes people may prefer what they perceive to be a secure government, as opposed to violence and chaos. But it doesn’t mean that they will prefer it forever. I don’t believe in inevitability – I’ve seen nations change in my lifetime.
Why do you see Putinism as an ideology in and of itself, and not a replication of authoritarian regimes elsewhere?
It’s not a complete ideology, but Putin has his own theory of history. his way of describing Russia’s place in the world, his own legitimacy. It may be inconsistent, but it can be considered an ideology.
What do you see coming after Putin?
Putin is not going anywhere at the moment, although he is less popular and less powerful. He isn’t the only person running Russia, so it is conceivable that there could be moves by insiders to remove him. I wouldn’t necessarily predict that happening soon, however.