This book is a heavy read; that applies to the physical weight of the book as well as the subject matter. It deals with the attempts of the Soviet Union to bring Eastern Europe into subjugation after World War II. When the conflict was nearing its end, the Allied leaders got together and divided up Europe between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Most of Western Europe fell into Allied hands, while Eastern Europe became Stalin’s personal plaything. He decided to grind the Eastern European countries into the image of the Soviet Union and compel their peoples to become part of a race of humans that Applebaum refers to as Homo Sovieticus. To accomplish this, even before the war was officially over the Soviets began taking over politics, economics, churches, organizations, publishers, radio stations, schools, summer camps, factories, shops – in short, they attempted to dominate every aspect of life.
You might wonder what caused me to take up and read such a horrific book. I didn’t choose it for its entertainment value. I wanted to see if there were lessons in it for those of us who are confused by this crazy polarized world we live in today, where people are dividing into opposing camps over whether or not to protect ourselves from a deadly pandemic, where it is difficult to tell truth from falsehood in the media, and where people with unpopular opinions can be effectively ostracized by mob consent. The first time I checked it out of the library, I weighed it in my hands, considered the depressing subject matter, and sent it right back. This second time, though, I knew that I wanted to consider what it had to say, and I persevered.
For one thing, I trust the writer. Anne Applebaum is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History, which is also concerned with a deeply negative aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. She’s a good writer and knows several East European languages, so she is able to conduct research using documents in the original languages. She has a talent for creating verisimilitude by using the individual stories of survivors. In addition, she always maintains a nuanced viewpoint, not condemning those who were unable or unwilling to rise up against this oppressive regime, but instead explaining their motivations for reacting in the ways that they did.
The Soviets wanted to prove that their system of communism was correct and that if people only became enlightened and single-minded, they would see this for themselves. And then there was of course the paranoid madman Stalin sending cruel and sadistic dictates from on high. Applebaum stresses the immediate difference in political and police pressure after Stalin’s death in 1953, although of course the pressure did not ease completely until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
I needed to read this book to get a reality check. A lot of evil is rising in the world nowadays. It is tempting to brush off the warnings and think that everything will fix itself if we ignore it, but that’s not how it works. The people in Eastern Europe were living in democratic societies for the most part until the Nazis swept in from the west and then the Soviets swept in from the east. They were involved in their day-to-day lives just as we are. They never expected to be plunged into a horrific war and then an ongoing occupation that was just as horrific.
The Soviets, with their meticulous planning and propaganda, thought that they would be able to persuade the people of Eastern Europe to joyfully enter a communist utopia. Some of them sincerely thought their way was the best. All they proved was that though it was possible to physically subjugate people by force, they were unable to crush their spirits, which resurrected as soon as their oppressors left.