Wasn't expecting too much from someone married to the Polish foreign minister, but that is simply an ad hominem. Let's get to some meat.
What I liked:
Applebaum's interviews with those who lived it are, of course, fascinating. Some of the discontent with Soviet rule in Poland actually resonates today, what with rich and powerful individuals and businesses evading tax on a massive scale, while the lower orders endure real-terms decline in living standards. On p.256, for example, a Polish communist official records the complaints of a typical worker:
"The Łódź worker cannot accept the fact his children can only gaze at cake from afar, and he is not satisfied that one like himself who works hard earns so little, while some parasite makes big money on the free market and the state gets nothing from him."
The book does an OK job of bringing together the various studies of the Sovietisation of Poland, Hungary and East Germany, so if you're never going to have time to read up on each of those cases yourself, this is an OK comparative compendium. The differences and similarities between the three cases are interesting. What would I most like to read more about having finished the book? Several things, but in particular I'm fascinated by the Hungarian People's Colleges Applebaum mentions (pp.181-5).
I've uploaded a whole bunch of stuff on Scribd if you're interested (change the %, obviously):
And I'll finish with what I didn't:
Three stars is me being generous. Applebaum's interviews with those who lived it aren't just fascinating; they are about the only things that imbue the book with value, as the carefully worded praise from Timothy Garton Ash betrays. She makes John Lewis Gaddis sound like a revisionist.
In the conclusion of his chapter in Vol. I of The Cambridge History of the Cold War
(CHCW), Norman Naimark writes, "From the perspective of more than a half-century later, the Sovietization of Eastern Europe can easily seem to have been designed from the very beginning of the Soviet occupation and even earlier. Appearances can be deceptive, especially when scholarly hindsight is at work". Applebaum, apparently, sees no need for caution.
In his chapter in Vol. I, Svetozar Rajak writes that the "five-year confrontation [during the late 1940s and early 1950s] between Yugoslavia and the USSR and its allies created a schism that destroyed forever any view of the Communist movement as a monolith." Applebaum seems to forget this at times.
In the preface to the first volume
of his trilogy on the Third Reich, Richard J. Evans observes: "Recounting the experience of individuals brings home, as nothing else can, the sheer complexity of the choices they had to make, and the difficult and often opaque nature of the situations they confronted. ... [For this and other] reasons, it seems to me inappropriate that a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment." Indeed, and so Applebaum, having set out to write a book emphasising the human aspect of the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe, deserves (at best) only ridicule for writing this on p.418 (in her chapter called "Reluctant Collaborators"): Every printer who did not take a publish-and-be-damned approach to their work "somehow contributed to the creation of totalitarianism. So did everyone who endured a university course in Marxism-Leninism in order to become a doctor or an engineer; everyone who joined an artists' union in order to become a painter; everyone who put a portrait of Bierut in his office, in order to keep his job; and, of course, everyone who joined the crowd in singing 'the party, the party, the party is always right'." Yes: this is coming from someone who's just researched an ENTIRE BOOK about the "sheer complexity of the choices" and the "often opaque nature of the situations" Soviet Bloc citizens confronted. If it weren't for Gulag
, who would be handing over their hard-earned money for this guff?
And a cynic would say that she chose her three countries wisely: Poland, East Germany, Hungary. And what if she hadn't maintained her tendentious, laser-like focus? Looking even just a bit wider, we have to confront Rajak's words again: "There is no evidence suggesting that Iosif Stalin possessed a blueprint for the establishment of a Soviet sphere of influence in the Balkans."
Here is a nice crisp summary of the state of play after WWII from Melvyn Leffler: "Most scholars looking at Soviet documents now agree that Stalin had no master plan to spread revolution or conquer the world. He was determined to establish a sphere of influence in eastern Europe where his communist minions would rule. But at the same time, Stalin wanted to get along with his wartime allies in order to control the rebirth of German and Japanese power, which he assumed was inevitable. Consequently, he frequently cautioned communist followers in France, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere to avoid provocative actions that might frighten or antagonize his wartime allies. Within his own country and his own sphere, he was cruel, evil, almost genocidal, just as Gaddis and other traditional scholars suggest. Yet U.S. and British officials were initially eager to work with him. They rarely dwelled upon his domestic barbarism. Typically, President Harry S. Truman wrote his wife, Bess, after his first meeting with Stalin: 'I like Stalin. ... He is straightforward. Knows what he wants and will compromise when he can't get it.' Typically, W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, remonstrated that 'If it were possible to see him [Stalin] more frequently, many of our difficulties would be overcome'." (I pinched this from p.65 of the March 2005 issue of the 'OAH Magazine of History').
Applebaum's sardonic tone becomes tedious very, very quickly, and is completely unnecessary. Would any (sane) English-speaking reader not know that, when it comes to allocating resources, markets do a rather better job than central planning? or that the Soviet Union was a ghastly place and made every country it touched ghastly too? Indeed, Applebaum is so over the top that one can read, separated by one sentence, that Bierut was "deeply paranoid" but that "Bierut's paranoia was in a certain sense justified"! This is a historian in control of neither herself nor her material.
If I'm honest, the book seems, in part, like a suck up to Timothy Snyder after his Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
: her introduction, Snyder loves Hannah Arendt, her chapter titles...
Biggest substantive complaint is context. Save for the briefest handful of mentions, no background is provided to give insight into Soviet policy. All you're left with is the kind of analysis you'd expect out of the US National Security Council
, and their academic and journalistic enablers, at the height of the Cold War: big red monster wants to conquer the world; we are the good guys, even though sometimes we make mistakes, have to dirty our hands for the greater good, and cry crocodile tears. Already mentioned, the he Cambridge History of the Cold War will furnish you with the introductory understanding required to marvel at her black-and-white viewpoint. She half-heartedly throws in occasional mention of some similar naughtiness committed by the US-UK (their blithe attitude regarding ethnic cleansing, for example), but others she either overlooks or "overlooks" (I don't know Applebaum; perhaps it's all tendentious omission, perhaps some of it's genuine ignorance).
Anyway, all the Soviet horrors take place within a praise-be-to-America vacuum. There're plenty of Soviet "provocations" and "aggression", though apparently Western politicians were never guilty of such things. The word 'paranoia' appears over and over again, but sadly Applebaum could find no space to mention McCarthyism, let alone make an interesting comparison of it with Soviet actions. Likewise, she condemns the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia and the Secret Police the Soviets used; but what about Iran in August 1953, and where did Iran's SAVAK then come from? There's nothing wrong with not mentioning Iran in a book on Eastern Europe, but she's the one who wants to play the comparison game (see p.8 for details, and, for a laugh, keep in mind the words of Christopher Browning (p.160 of his highly recommended 'Ordinary Men') pertaining to John Dower's 'War without Mercy': "Dower's account of entire American units in the Pacific openly boasting of a take no prisoners' policy and routinely collecting body parts of Japanese soldiers as battlefield souvenirs is chilling reading for anyone who smugly assumes that war atrocities were a monopoly of the Nazi regime." Someone tell the smug Ms Applebaum about Dower's study, she really needs to read less selectively...), and at least spare me the nauseating characterisation of Western politicians as noble, rational Cold Warriors, fighting the good fight against Communism.
Another example: she decries (p.71) the Soviets' unilateral use of 'its' Hungarian Allied Control Commission (ACC), "a body which technically included British and American representatives" but whose commander, Kliment Voroshilov, "regularly failed to consult the other Allies about anything. Read more ›