In High Stalinist Times

Neal Ascherson

  • Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-56 by Anne Applebaum
    Allen Lane, 512 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7139 9868 9

Anne Applebaum’s book begins with one group of women in the Polish city of Lodz and ends with another. The 45 years between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a free, non-communist Poland separate them. But the younger women have decided to start again at the point where their elders left off – and to avoid their mistakes.

In 1945, the main railway station in Lodz, like most Polish stations, was overrun by desperate refugees. ‘Starving mothers, sick children and sometimes entire families camped on filthy cement floors for days on end, waiting for the next available train. Epidemics and starvation threatened to engulf them.’ But the Liga Kobiet – the Polish Women’s League – came to their rescue. A voluntary organisation, the league set up a shelter with food, medicine and blankets. ‘Everyone who had a free minute helped,’ one member told Applebaum. Five years later, the Women’s League had metamorphosed into a political claque in the new communist state. All over Poland, its members had to march in political parades, sign petitions against Yankee imperialism and celebrate Stalin’s birthday. Even within the regime, the Liga was disliked for its dogmatism; as late as the 1970s, when most Polish communists had grown cynical about their future, its grim leaders clung to a ferro-concrete Stalinism.

When the system finally fell down and died, and democracy stumbled back, the discredited league seemed to be dead too. But then, in the late 1990s, a team of women in Lodz decided to revive it as an independent charity. The transition to capitalism was creating new miseries and new needs; the reborn league offered free legal advice, help for single mothers, and alcohol and drug clinics. Now the league is once more unofficial, autonomous and voluntary, supported not by the state but by private donations, often from the owners of textile mills in the city. Some of the members who had been active in the communist period told Applebaum that without the politics ‘perhaps they could really do something useful.’

If this clever and authoritative book has a main connecting theme, it is not ‘the death of democracy’ or the snares of the secret police as the Soviet Union imposed its satellite regimes on East-Central Europe. Rather, it is the loss of private initiative. While she makes no explicit profession of her lack of faith in ‘big government’, Applebaum can be sensed to nurse a deep neoliberal distrust of welfare states – and not just communist ones. She uses the phrase ‘civil society’ in its Gladstonian meaning: a nation’s web of unofficial associations, from chess clubs to owl fanciers to trade unions, by way of the Women’s League in Lodz. Everywhere in Eastern Europe, once the tide of rape and looting had subsided behind the Red Army, the new authorities began to move against ‘civil activists’ and ‘free associations’, herding them – sometimes rapidly, sometimes with great caution over years – into a few official associations licensed and policed by the state and led by Communist Party nominees.

In Germany’s Soviet Zone, the communist team brought from Moscow by Walter Ulbricht moved at once against an anti-fascist group of young people in Neukölln in Berlin who of their own volition were clearing rubble and organising food and water supplies. Ulbricht claimed that the group was merely a cover for surviving Nazis, and set about the construction of a single unified and regime-controlled youth movement. In Poland, the YMCA was one of many associations whose autonomy gave offence (party yobs smashed its record collection with hammers). In Hungary, the interior minister Laszlo Rajk (later the victim of an infamous show trial) banned 1500 unofficial organisations in July 1946 alone, including the Association of Christian Democratic Tobacco Workers. Applebaum considers that this paranoia was an import from the early Soviet Union, from the Bolshevik and Leninist insistence that all independent associations were in reality political. She asserts that ‘even for orthodox Marxists, free trade was preferable to free association … This was true under Lenin’s rule, under Stalin’s rule, under Khrushchev’s rule and under Brezhnev’s rule. Although many other things changed, the persecution of civil society continued after Stalin’s death, well into the 1970s and 1980s.’

She goes on to argue that this was the supreme power priority for the incoming satellite regimes. ‘As in post-revolutionary Russia, the political persecution of civic activists in Eastern Europe not only preceded the persecution of actual politicians, but also took precedence over other Soviet and communist goals.’ This remark is best taken with a pinch of salt. Applebaum’s book shows that the incoming regimes had to deal with opponents bigger and more dangerous than civic activists, and overcome them before moving on to other ‘goals’. Iron Curtain is divided into two periods, and in the first of them – from 1944 to about 1949 – the new ‘People’s Democracies’ were facing not only angry patriotism and traditional anti-Russian feeling, not only the antagonism of huge Catholic peasantries under Vatican influence, but in the Polish case also the armed resistance of battle-hardened partisans in the forests.

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