First off, how cool. Author Applebaum, who did a fabulous job with Gulag, hung out with Antony Beevor, Artemis Cooper, and Andrew Solomon while researching Iron Curtain. I would have loved to have been a dinner guest at that table. But I digress.
This is a fascinating and disturbing period in history. Specifically, 1944-46. The psychological trauma of the entire Second World War is clear but last year's impact is astounding. The number of German troops and civilians killed in the last six months was greater than the 5.5 years. The Soviet military steamrolled over friend and foe. Applebaum writes, "Constant, daily violence shaped the human psyche in countless ways, not all of which are easy to articulate."
This was the "disintegration of one's entire civilization". And in it, she rightly argues, was not a vacuum waiting to be filled by another ideology but a stunned populace exhausted and traumatized. Too tired to even formulate an opinion. All they wanted was the guns to stop, a roof over their head, and food.
No one saw the Soviets as benevolent heroes. Certainly not Poles, Ukrainians and Germans. Poland has already been divvied up between Stalin and Hitler. Ukraine was going to, once again, fall under a heavy hand. And Germans knew they were going to pay. In the last months of the war, the rape and murder of German civilians was extensive. Looting and destruction by an angry army was ugly. The famous photo of a Soviet soldier flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag had to be touched up. In the original, it showed his wrist full of many watches looted from Germans.
And battles continued while the Soviets strangled Eastern Europe. Partisans, bandits, freedom fighters, ethnic cleansers waged individual wars. Poles fought Ukrainians. Ukrainians fought the Soviets. There is evidence of regiment-sized battles between Ukrainians and the Soviet army as late as 1955.
This chaos allowed The Iron Curtain (as did Western powers). And that is where this book gets interesting. The author's organization of the material is smart and the writing style, though rich, entertaining and compelling.
I was struck by three things. The first is how utterly one-dimensional the Soviet's brand of communism was...it had blinders on and a silly goal. One hundred percent adherence to a flawed doctrine will either invite dissent or implode (the Soviet Union did both). Second, how hilariously they bungled so many things from architecture to planning to culture. In this area, Applebaum truly shines by illuminating grand hypocrisies. Third, I have read a ton on the Soviet Union, yet never visited while it held sway. Still, I have this image of grey, monolithic structures, people queuing for staples, hushed whispers of dissent. Resignation, defeat. Applebaum's research supports this contention.
She speaks of citizens having to split themselves into multiple personalities to survive. How you acted in public, at school, at work, at home...were all different. And yet, the fat cats lived large. The Soviet Union was, at once, both unique and something history has shown often. A flawed, repressive society devoid of debate and diversity that eventually becomes a sad caricature.