MAASTRICHT. When we think of the shared Soviet past of Eastern Europe, we tend to see it as a whole. But the fall of communism saw major changes in all countries involved. This is why Eastern Europe no longer exists, according to Anne Applebaum, who delivers this year’s Tans Lecture. “The old lines between who is more ‘East’ than ‘West’ are nonsense.” Below, we interview the American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The title of your lecture is ‘Does Eastern Europe still exist?’ What would your answer be?
Eastern Europe is no longer a single bloc of former communist states. After 1989 they all took different paths; some were able to implement radical reforms, others weren’t. Why? It’s a long story with a long answer, but it clearly has to do with the fact that in some countries it had been possible to preserve some alternative ideas. Poland is a good example. When the communist regime fell, a new elite arose, a group of people who had ideas about economics, about the nation and how to change.
We have to stop thinking in terms of ‘this is East’ and ‘that is West’. For example, people worry about the rise of the far right in Eastern Europe, but this is also an issue in France or the Netherlands. It’s a European phenomenon, not specifically Eastern European. People often talk about the former East as a backwards region, but actually a lot of the former communist countries survived the 2008/09 financial crisis better than some in the West. The most important question is: what changes have they made? Consider Latvia and Greece. They both took different paths after a major economic crisis. The Latvians recovered quite quickly, made changes really fast, but the Greeks didn’t. So you could argue that if someone’s going to lecture the Greeks on how to run their economy, it shouldn’t be Germany but Latvia.
Is it also about having more respect for the former Eastern bloc?
It’s about knowing what they did and understanding that this part of Europe has been unbelievably successful in overcoming its problems in the last few decades.
In 1988 you dropped out of Oxford University to become a freelance journalist in Warsaw. What was your first impression?
Well, I’d been there two years earlier, and the first people I met were architects and artists, friends of mine. On the surface it was a very grey and sad country, but the people were extremely vibrant and interesting. In 1988 I went back as a journalist. It was the first country to break free of the communist system and I saw it collapsing. The Poles held elections in June 1989, not fully democratic ones but at least partly. I still live there most of the time, and the thing I find most exciting nowadays is how my friends’ children – teenagers and young adults – have a real sense of connection to Europe, a sense of possibilities their parents didn’t have. They consider themselves Europeans.
Your recent book Iron Curtain is about the communist regime in the East from 1944 to 1956. Why did you write it?
I wanted to understand how the communist system came to be built in the first place. Where did the collapse come from and what was it? And I think it’s important to know what happened in the forties, to understand what the Soviet Union did. They deliberately took over society. The Russians were very keen from the beginning to eradicate civil society – organisations, independent groups like the scouts, Church, or boys groups. There was the state and nothing but the state. And the process of reconstruction since 1989 has put that civil society back together, partly through democracy, but also through a legal system that allows independent groups to create their own lives without the interference of the state. In order to understand 1989, it helps to understand 1945.
1945 here was a year of liberation and joy, but what about in the East?
In what used to be the East – Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and so on – things weren’t fine. They had a new totalitarian system. The reality for them was that the Germans left and the Russians came. It was a very dark period and most of us don’t even realise it.
The Red Army came through Poland as it headed to Berlin in 1945. As you describe in the book, it was hell. Why were the Russians so brutal?
The Russian soldiers caused a terrible whirlwind of theft, rape and violence. They had been trained to think all the countries they were coming through, not just Germany, were enemy states. The anger was motivated by ideological propaganda: distrust everyone outside Russia. They were very xenophobic. But because they were so brutal, they didn’t do great advertising for the Soviet system. And as the different elements of the takeover were put in place there was a great deal of disappointment. People were tired of being at war and didn’t want to start a new one. It was a very confusing period.
Did Stalin have a master plan to convert a dozen radically different countries to communism in 1945?
It wasn’t like a plan on a piece of paper that you can find. But yes, when you look at was done, the same kinds of decisions were made all across the bloc. He certainly had a strategy; he intended to make these countries into Soviet-style states. The Russians set up a secret police force, they targeted enemies, and they took over the radio in the hope of spreading mass propaganda. They dismantled civil society and the economy and repressed non-communist parties.
Stalin died in 1953; couldn’t the system have been overthrown then?
There were several attempts in Eastern Europe, the most famous and dramatic being the Hungarian uprising that was put down by Soviet tanks. Also later on, the Soviet Union continued to use military authority and violence to re-impose the system by force. The only reason the system ended is because Gorbachev put a stop to this strategy in 1989. If he hadn’t, East Germany would still be standing. But he lost the will to use force.
The Tans Lecture was held on 28 November at 20.00 in the Aula, Tongersestraat 53. This lecture is organised every year to honour Dr J. Tans (1912–1993), the founder of Maastricht University.
Anne Applebaum (1964) was born in Washington DC and studied at Yale University and the London School of Economics. She quit her studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, to become a freelance correspondent for the Economist in Warsaw in 1988. Since then much of her work has focused on social and political transitions in Eastern Europe.
Applebaum has held a range of positions in the world of journalism, including as deputy editor of Spectator magazine, political editor at the Evening Standard and editorial board member of the Washington Post. She is now a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate (an online magazine for news, politics and culture) and Director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute in London.
Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History (2003), on the Soviet prison system, received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction Writing. Her most recent volume, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 (2012) focuses on the Stalinisation of postwar Central Europe, and was recently awarded McGill University’s 2013 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature. Together with American journalist Danielle Crottenden, she also wrote the cook book From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food.
Anne Applebaum is married to Radosław Sikorski, Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs. They have two sons, Alexander and Tadeusz.