A Pulitzer Prize–winning author returns with the story of those dark decades in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union slammed the prison doors on people, cultures and countries.
Realizing she could not tell the whole story in one volume, Washington Post and Slate columnist Applebaum (Gulag: A History, 2003, etc.) focuses on Poland, East Germany and Hungary and shows how their stories were representative. She begins as World War II was ending. The Russians were plowing through Eastern Europe on their way to Berlin. While many of the Allies were thinking of home, the Soviets had grander and grimmer ideas. Applebaum shows how the communists gained political control of individual countries (they were sometimes surprised in “elections” how unpopular they were), then charts how—in the service of their iron ideology—they systematically destroyed economies, organizations, the arts, education, the press, the judiciary, the church, the entertainment industries and every other social institution. Internment camps and prisons became the true growth industries. Applebaum also explores the tactics employed to keep people in line: fear and intimidation, of course, but also a massive propaganda industry that sought to convince everyone that things were better than they were, but not nearly as good as they would be in five years or so. They invested much hope in education, believing they could indoctrinate an entire generation. It didn’t work. Periodically, the author chronicles what was happening in the West (the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift). Beginning with the death of Stalin, Applebaum shows how and why things slowly began to change. The emerging youth culture, the resurgence of religious belief, the rise of a new generation of writers and artists—these were among the factors that energized the 1956 uprisings, which, of course, the Soviets temporarily crushed.
A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity’s worst can fracture and fall.