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The Soviet Attempt to Export Communism

Discussed in this essay:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum. Doubleday. 608 pages. $35.

One of the twentieth century’s most significant innovations was the concept of world war, and it managed to stage not one but two, as if the first weren’t good enough and had to be perfected. Figures for the death toll in these wars vary widely, but whereas World War I (“the war to end all wars”) notched up something like 20 million deaths, World War II (“the greatest man-made disaster in history,” according to Antony Beevor in his new book, The Second World War) did much better, with 60–70 million deaths. After this Armageddon, Europeans longed for a permanent peace and a chance to recuperate; Western Europe for the most part got both. The eastern half of the continent, however, was forcibly separated from the western half by the forces of the Red Army, who arrived as liberators and stayed as occupiers. Cut off by a military shield that came to be known as the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe was subjected to a raft of both violent and peaceful operations designed to transform the countries of the region into model communist states. This war by other means led to another twentieth-century innovation, the Cold War, and is the subject of Anne Applebaum’s impressive new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956.

Was the eastern half of Europe “sacrificed to the Stalinist maw to save the other half,” as Beevor puts it? Western leaders claimed surprise at Soviet tactics, but they knew much more about the impending changes than they were prepared to reveal. At the Tehran and Yalta conferences of the “Big Three” held in 1943 and 1945 to plan a postwar settlement, Britain and the United States had colluded in this division of the continent. True, Roosevelt and Churchill had extracted from Stalin promises for democratic elections, but Stalin’s idea of democracy was managed democracy, and the results of his planned elections would be determined in advance. The ailing Roosevelt may not have fully realized the implications of the settlement, preoccupied as he was with the continuing war in Asia and with getting the United Nations off the ground. Churchill (who coined the term “Iron Curtain”) certainly did realize — and regret — what was happening, but, all too aware of British and French weakness after the war, he accepted that there was little the West could do short of fighting another war.

The enormity of this sudden loss of half a continent was overlooked at the time by the Western public, whose capacity for horror had been consumed by the newly discovered atrocities of the Holocaust and the scorched-earth policies of the war. The idea that so recent an ally in the struggle to overcome the evil of fascism could so quickly turn into an aggressor and enemy was hard to grasp — especially in Europe, where there was popular disgust with the appeasement policies of prewar governments and, shaped by the rise of the left, widespread sympathy for such progressive ideals as class equality, the creation of a welfare state, and nationalization of the economy. The British Labour Party had won power in 1945; the French Communist Party was the strongest political force in that country.

Meanwhile, Soviet forces lost little time importing key elements of the Soviet system into each of the eight nations they occupied, many of which fiercely resisted the new order. Local communist parties backed by Moscow regularly lost elections in the first two years after the war, and though there were violent revolts well into the 1950s, the Soviets and their collaborators eventually prevailed by force of arms. Hannah Arendt, one of the foremost theorists of totalitarianism, remarked that “it was as though the Russian rulers repeated in great haste all the stages of the October Revolution up to the emergence of totalitarian dictatorship.” She concluded that the story of the Eastern European countries, “while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.”

Applebaum’s book serves as a warning against such oversimplification. It reminds us that the countries of the region had vastly different cultures, political traditions, and economic structures before the war, and that despite the homogenizing pressures of the occupation, their experiences of communism were very different. At the same time, Applebaum acknowledges the need for some sort of synthesis; her solution is to focus her story on three of the eight countries occupied by the Soviet Union — East Germany, Poland, and Hungary — and let them stand in for the whole. Having drawn from the secret-police and government archives of all three countries, she brings clarity and color to her historical analysis by quoting liberally from the many diaries and memoirs she consulted, as well as from personal interviews.

The first chapter, “Zero Hour,” for example, starts with eyewitness accounts of the first days after the war. In Budapest:

The mad orgy of ruins, entangled wires, twisted corpses, dead horses, overturned parts of blown-up bridges, bloody hoofs which had been torn off horses, broken guns, scattered ammunition, chamber pots.

In Warsaw:

It seemed to me that I was walking on corpses, that at any moment I would step into a pool of blood.

In Berlin:

The Russians have the streets entirely to themselves. But under every building people are whispering, quaking. Who could ever imagine such a world, hidden here, so frightened, right in the middle of the big city?

The scale of the destruction visited on Eastern Europe during and after the war was far greater than anything seen in the western part of the continent. Poland alone lost 5.5 million people — including 3 million Jews — amounting to 20 percent of its population; 30 million Europeans were transplanted or deported between 1939 and 1943, another 20 million by 1948. A region so thoroughly plowed and harrowed seemed to offer fertile ground for the planting of a new kind of society, perhaps even of a new kind of civilization. Capitalism and liberal democracy had failed in the 1930s, especially in Eastern Europe, and many people believed it was time to try something different. Most communist leaders in the region, writes Applebaum, “really did think that sooner or later the working-class majority would acquire class consciousness, understand its historical destiny, and vote for a communist regime.” But there were problems from the start. The Russian soldiers, greeted joyously when they arrived, soon started to inspire fear and hatred as they indulged in looting and theft.

Liquor and ladies’ lingerie, furniture and crockery, bicycles and linen were taken from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic and the Balkan states as well as Germany. Wristwatches seemed to have almost mythical significance for Russian soldiers, who would walk around wearing half a dozen at once if they could.

The situation got even grimmer when the soldiers took to murdering civilians and raping women — by the millions, according to later consensus. Nothing illustrates the brutality of these rapes more vividly than an early poem by Solzhenitsyn about what he saw in East Prussia as a lieutenant in the Red Army:

A moaning by the walls, half muffled:
The mother’s wounded, still alive.
The little daughter’s on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it,
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl’s been turned into a woman,
A woman into a corpse.

Applebaum rightly dismisses revisionist theories that blame the “aggressive rhetoric” of Cold Warriors for provoking the Soviet Union and argue that the Cold War was “caused not by communist expansion but by the American drive for open international markets.” She is equally dismissive of the idea that the division of Germany resulted from the failure of the Western powers to “take advantage of Stalin’s peaceful overtures.” And she stoutly defends the idea that Soviet and Eastern European societies were “totalitarian”: these were societies in which, as Mussolini once said of Italy, everything would be “within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Many of these revisionist arguments were the fruit of opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s brand of strident anticommunism and an attendant distaste for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though still current, they hardly stand up to the facts. The Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, for example, began not with the end of World War II but well before, in 1939, after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, when Hitler’s forces occupied western Poland and the Red Army occupied eastern Poland, eastern Finland, the Baltic states, and what is now Moldova. The Soviet authorities immediately set about undermining local power structures; arresting and deporting Polish politicians, businessmen, civil servants, and clergy; and slaughtering more than 20,000 Polish military officers and members of the intelligentsia near Katyn. It was only when Hitler abandoned the pact, invaded the Soviet Union, and sent his armies to the very outskirts of Leningrad that this first experiment in exporting communism was interrupted. By then the Soviet secret police and their local collaborators had gained valuable experience in killing or expelling those who resisted their rule, and they returned with the Red Army after the retreating Germans were pushed out.

Once the secret police were re-entrenched, they resumed their policy of selective arrests and assassinations, the takeover of the mass media, the subversion of political parties, and the remaking of the economy. As for the promised democratic elections, they were held according to the principles laid out by the East German leader Walter Ulbricht in 1946. “We will organize them,” he said, “in such a manner as to ensure that there is a working-class majority in all towns and villages.” In fact, the first round of elections was a disappointment for communist parties throughout the region, and it took a few years to realize Ulbricht’s plan.

The fate of the Polish politician Stanis?aw Miko?ajczyk illustrates the way that plan was carried out. Miko?ajczyk had been the leader of the Polish government-in-exile in London during World War II, had negotiated directly with Churchill and Stalin, and had stubbornly opposed their decision to move Poland’s borders (“We’ll become sick and tired of you if you continue arguing!” shouted Churchill at one point during the talks). After the war ended, Miko?ajczyk was too important to be prevented from returning to Poland, and once there he conducted his political campaigns with a tenacity that made his Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) immensely popular with the electorate. He fought for, among other things, the very right to establish a political opposition, to which the communists responded with arrests, police violence, torture, and the murder of some of his allies. Though the PSL looked poised to win the 1947 parliamentary elections, the communists tampered so brazenly with the results that the falsification was obvious to everyone, and Miko?ajczyk was forced to flee back to England to save his life.

One of the grimmest aspects of the Soviet occupation was the policy of “ethnic cleansing” (a term that fits the process, though it was not in use at the time). The Potsdam Agreement, signed in July 1945 by Truman and Attlee as well as by Stalin, had called for the “transfer to Germany of German populations” living in Eastern Europe and for Poland’s borders to be moved more than a hundred miles to the west, which meant the additional transfer of millions of Ukrainians from Poland to Soviet Ukraine. Similar adjustments of the Czechoslovak and Hungarian borders forced thousands of Hungarians and Slovaks to move between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Hitler, of course, had set the precedent for such huge population shifts not only with his slaughter of the Jews but also by ordering Nazi troopers to kill or deport hundreds of thousands of Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians and replace them with German colonists. When the Nazi armies were defeated, close to 12 million Germans (including both newly arrived colonists and families who had lived there for centuries) were uprooted and driven from their homes.

During the “full-blown ethnic war” that erupted, the Poles launched Operation Vistula, an effort to rid Poland of its ethnic Ukrainians once and for all. It led to scenes like the one a Ukrainian man told Applebaum he had witnessed as a child. In his account, Polish soldiers surround a house where a wedding ceremony is being held and set it on fire.

They killed the groom and several guests who couldn’t escape; they threw the bloodied corpses onto a cart. . . . When they were about to leave, the bride suddenly appeared, in a white dress, with a veil. She begged for them to leave the body of her husband, Ivan. The soldiers laughed, tied her hands together with rope, tied her to the wagon and set off. The girl first ran, then fell, and was dragged through the dirt. The soldiers shot at her, and finally cut the rope and left her dead in the road.

After the first few years of the occupation, once communist forms of government had been imposed on the region by force, Eastern Europe entered a period of what Applebaum calls “High Stalinism.” The “socialist paradise,” she writes, “was still far away” — as was true of communist societies everywhere (not least in the Soviet Union). This paradise could be attained only after the pesky problems of the present — including remnants of the bourgeoisie, religious believers, freewheeling artists and writers, obstinate workers, reluctant collaborators, passive opponents, even recalcitrant children — had been either eliminated or persuaded to conform. The ultimate goal of the Soviet-installed leaders was to create millions of citizens in the mold of Homo sovieticus, “an entirely new type of human being,” and they would begin with the children, who were thought to be “blank slates or lumps of clay.” Applebaum writes that, according to the Soviet educational theorist Anton Makarenko, a particular favorite of Stalin’s, “any child, however unpromising his background and however reactionary his parents, could be transformed into a good Soviet citizen.” Adults, meanwhile, had to be trained (or retrained) in “socialist humanism,” and proletarians and peasants would take precedence over urban intellectuals and professionals. Artists, the “engineers of human souls” in Stalin’s unforgettable definition, were expected to adhere to the fuzzy doctrine of socialist realism, which demanded the “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” and also required “the ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” Eastern Europe soon became littered with specimens of Soviet wedding-cake architecture — think of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, described as a “gift from Stalin” — as well as pompous statues of political leaders and muscled workers.

These educational theories and artistic doctrines were of course barely disguised instruments of political power, designed to break down traditional values and establish new ones in their place. But perhaps the most ambitious of these utopian Soviet endeavors was the attempt to create “ideal cities,” steel-producing towns built from scratch: Nowa Huta in Poland, Sztálinváros in Hungary, and Stalinstadt in East Germany. Their enormous mills were intended to accelerate industrialization, to “draw the peasantry into factories and thus enlarge the working class” while also proving that “central planning could produce more rapid economic growth than capitalism.” Literary works were commissioned to glorify the process. “O my steel mill! Mother of the countless masses/ Who work together for your glory/ You strengthen my heart/ I grew up on your soil,” wrote one aspiring poet. But the new cities proved to be hellish environments, with poor wages, primitive living conditions, and nowhere to go at night or during weekends and holidays. Another poet, Adam Wazyk, recognized the marooned workers of these cities for what they were: a “huge mob, pushed suddenly/ Out of medieval darkness: an inhuman Poland,/ Howling with boredom on December nights . . .”

The promises of High Stalinism proved chimerical, and after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the populations of East Germany, Poland, and Hungary gave their response. A workers’ strike in East Germany quickly escalated into a full-fledged revolt that had to be suppressed by Soviet tanks. Three years after that, in the wake of Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, a workers’ uprising occurred in Poland and was put down by soldiers and tanks; and in the same year, a popular revolution that toppled the communist government in Hungary was ended by another large-scale invasion by Soviet troops. Applebaum ends her story here, noting that these violent rebellions signaled the utter failure of the Soviet attempt to convert Eastern Europe to communism, and that they put an end to what might be termed the “idealistic phase” of the occupation. The puppet regimes maintained thereafter by Soviet arms limped on for another three decades, with varying degrees of success, but were never truly viable or independent. As Applebaum writes:

They lurched from crisis to crisis, not because they were unable to fine-tune their policies but because the communist project itself was flawed. By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.

Applebaum, a journalist by training, has a fine sense of history and is a vivid writer, indefatigable in chasing down sources and mining archives, scrupulous in acknowledging the work of other scholars, and ever astute in pinpointing the motives of her subjects. Unfortunately, the first half of the book, “False Dawn,” which describes the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, is so dense with facts, figures, and dates that it becomes airless and hard to follow; fortunately, part two, “High Stalinism,” is more discursive and animated. In her epilogue, Applebaum concludes that

[I]f enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational, and religious institutions, sometimes for good.

True, but when the Soviet empire finally collapsed, its demise was provoked and hastened by rebellions in Eastern Europe. With hindsight, Applebaum’s book can be read as a cautionary tale: by imposing its system of government on Eastern Europe through cruel and violent means, the Soviet Union sowed the seeds of its own downfall. But the conclusive failure of the Soviet experiment, no matter how satisfying to contemplate in the abstract, is scant comfort when compared with the huge losses of life, freedom, and security suffered by untold millions of the innocent — and the not so innocent — beforehand.

is the author of Solzhenitsyn: A Biography and Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic.

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