Interview with Anne Applebaum, author of Pushkin Prize 2013 shortlisted book 'The Iron Curtain'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

How did you become interested in Russia?

It comes out of teenage love of Nabakov, who remains my favourite writer and writes in unbelievably hard Russian. I studied Russian in the 1980s and went to Leningrad. In 1988, I worked as a freelance journalist in Poland, stayed and learned Polish in addition to Russian. I remain fascinated by the region and its relationship with Russia. All of my three books are trying to understand that relationship. 

What gave you the idea to write Iron Curtain?

This book is making sense of my experience in 1989. I saw the system fall apart. I lived in Warsaw in 1988-92 and still live part-time there. I watched the system unpick itself. I retained an interest in how it was built up in the first place. The way Polish memory works – and it’s true in Germany, the Czech Republic and others too – is that people like to remember the heroic bits of their history. The conversation is much vaguer on 1950 and how they became Communist in the first place. This was about putting that together.

What was the most surprising event you unearthed?

What I didn’t expect was the order in which the USSR did things. If you read Marx, you would imagine they would first destroy churches and nationalise industry. But by 1945, the Soviet Union already had experience in imposing Communism, in Central Asia, Eastern Poland and the Baltic states. It was much more carefully calibrated and smarter. They tried to work with the churches and undermine them. They went after youth groups first, before the economy. Their ideological priorities were always higher than their economic priorities. It wasn’t as Hannah Arendt wrote. 1945 was not a repeat of the Russian revolution.

What was the reaction to your book in Russia?

In Russia, it has not been published so far. It’s being translated into German, Polish, Hungarian, Czech. I had wondered whether the Poles would like it. So far they do. I’m an insider-foreigner but not everyone likes reading an outsider’s view of your own history including Russian, Americans and the British. But a lot of historical debates are now pretty sophisticated. People are open to a more nuanced picture of their history. There’s now a generation of young adults that don’t remember Communism at all. That makes for different kinds of history.

What is the state of current Western understanding about Russia?

It’s very complicated. Putin has gone out of his way to be disliked by the west, by making very aggressively critical comments. He’s not trying to win friends. London has had a particular experience of Russia and Russians, to do with the vast amount of money here. They have not brought for the most part Chekov and contemporary Russian avant-garde painters here. There’s more to Russia and Russian history. It would be nice to have a broader understanding of what came before Putin and the oligarchs and what else there is in Russia.

Is there a temptation for people in Eastern Europe to shift too much blame to their life under Communism onto Russia? 

They put a lot of the criticism on Russia, and rightly so. It would not have happened without the Red Army. On the other hand, they don’t tend to talk much about their own complicity, the people who collaborated with Russians and why. I developed a greater understanding for why people at that moment went along with it: because of what they went through, nature of the system. 

Do you have plans to write another Russia-related book?

I want to two more books, both Soviet Union related. One will deal with the earlier period of Soviet History, looking at Ukraine in the 1930s; the other on the region in 1989. It’s a great subject for historians. A lot of this hasn’t been done. The archives were not open till a few years ago, and that completely changes everything. There has been re-closure in Russia. People I know especially working on World War II have had difficulties getting into army archives. I’m haven’t been affected because I didn’t need to work in Russia. I think I can get around it because of the nature of the subject.