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In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism, a completely new political and moral system. In Iron Curtain, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated. Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain.
Few books detail the suffering of the Polish people during and after the Second World War. That being the case, I'm grateful that Anne Applebaum researched and wrote this book as the information contained therein is rare and valuable. I found her description of the Eastern European social context at the close of the war to be especially so.
She treats horrors visited upon the Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, Germans, and Jews with incredible clarity and with a rare touch that brings context to those horrors and allows for an appreciation of suffering by one or other group that does not diminish horrors visited upon others.
Her work here is admirable.
Unfortunately, the book does not hang together especially well.
She structures the book in chapters each describing a component of Soviet occupation (Policemen, Violence, Ethnic Cleansing, Radio, Politics...). Each of these components combine to create a context within which Soviet occupation was able to take root, grow in influence, and "flower" into its particular flavor of totalitarianism.
Each chapter then contains a series of anecdotes that describe how the chapter subject was realized in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
In theory, the above structure could work well, but I had trouble with it in this book.
Any overarching thread felt subsumed by anecdotes. Chapters launch into episodes about Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia but without a clear sense of how each anecdote or episode fits into a larger thesis. Some chapters have a closing few sentences that draw back to a central notion, but while reading, I lost a sense of what about a given anecdote was important. And then, without a paragraph to help put the story just heard into a broader framework, another anecdote would follow. So I was left with a collection of stories without a concrete feeling of why each was important or how it fit into a broader picture.
The author has done quite a bit of research and she's eager to demonstrate it through the inclusion of quite a bit of detail. I wish she would have provided more interpretation of that detail to lend the book greater coherence.
I will recommend this book to friends and colleagues because its subject is so important and books about it are so scarce. I will however not recommend it unreservedly.
The narrator is capable and improves after the opening section which is made up of a series of quotes. Unfortunately, her pronunciation of Polish place names is frustratingly mediocre, as though she didn't approach their pronunciation seriously. Aside from that, she improves over the course of the reading and is not unpleasant. This is not an easy book to narrate and the narrator does pretty well to lend shape to text that hasn't much shape on its own.
She deserves 4 stars in general, but her pronunciation mistakes are so careless that I remove a star.
The subject of the book is important enough to lift the "overall" star score though its realization here is imperfect.
It's a worthwhile read.
18 of 19 people found this review helpful
What did you love best about Iron Curtain?
An insightful, well researched book. I grew up in a Siberian "closed" town in 1970s, which was build by Gulag prisoners before I was born. I spent my childhood behind three rows of barbed wires and had a happy childhood in this Soviet version of "gated community", which was not on the map. Interestingly, my home town Zheleznogorsk is still not on the map - Google maps missed it for some reason. My small town produced refined plutonium and spy satellites. In nearly 30 years I lived in the USSR before moving to the USA, I had no idea what was happening outside USSR, not only in the capitalist West, but even in the socialist East. We just never had a chance and thus did not even dream about traveling the world, until Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly everything become possible. Now I am trying to catch up with all the missed opportunities - and travel 30-40 times a year. <br/><br/>Book is a bit single sided though. I wish I could discuss it with the author. I live in Missouri now, not too far from Westminster College in Fulton MO, where the famous "Iron Curtain" speech was delivered by Winston Churchill in 1946. A week later the transcript of this speech was on Stalin's desk and infuriated him. It prompted Stalin to approve plans for building my home town among a network of similar "closed" cities of Siberia and for establishing my Alma mater - Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology - the best STEM school in former Soviet Union, which trained many outstanding physicists. It is impossible to go back in time, but what would have been without this speech? I am far from thinking that Stalin would have been different, but historical dynamics might have been not so dramatic in 1946 and on after the speech. <br/><br/>It is sad that the responsibility for rape of Eastern Europe by Stalin's Soviet Union is not acknowledged by the current Russian government, as it was by Germany. Without such a moral statement there will be no reconciliation.<br/>
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
I had looked forward to listening to this and was a tad disappointed, but my expectations had been in the wrong direction. I had expected a much more detailed discussion of the policies crafted by Stalin and Zhdanov for the overlordship of their new satrapies. Instead this concentrated much more on the puppet governments themselves, and on the social movements that fulminated in their respective countries as the USSR felt its way through the first years of occupation, slowly strengthening its grip.
The book spends a fair amount of time on the backgrounds and policies of the "little Stalins", such as Ulbrecht in the DDR. Their local struggles in implementing the policies handed down by the Kremlin are discussed in depth, particularly in East Germany, Hungary and Poland. Their difficult positions - essentially acting as the local representatives of the USSR - might almost be pitiable were they not typically willing accomplices of the NKVD.
The narration was, to my ear, bland. It may be that I'm used to having my European History read to me by a male with a British accent, but I found the reader to be lacking.
As a companion piece to this, I would highly recommend "Revolution 1989" by Victor Sebestyen. After hearing about the establishment of these dystopias, a few hours listening to the story of their dismantlement will make you feel that some wrongs, in the end, are inevitably reversed.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
Excellent book about a terrible era! When horrors are so pervasive as to become commonplace….what happens to our compass? One Audible review says that the book was confusing, which it wasn’t. The reviewer incorrectly summarizes that the book is about Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. But it’s about Poland, Hungary and EAST GERMANY, which is almost impossible to get wrong if he actually read this book.
I recommend digging into this one…dial back the clock to 1945-1956 and bear witness to goings on behind the Iron Curtain. Socialist societies do not die at the onset of failure…they live on, they limp forward, unable by ideology to see how deformed they have become. Most of our understanding about communism and socialism is waning as The 20th Century drifts into history, along with all its hard fought lessons. We may be forgetting why our free market system is superior to the brutal alternatives.
The book shows us that to ‘free’ humanity, you must first eliminate the enslavers. To eliminate the enslavers, you must have control of the society. To control society, you must have power. To maintain power, you must control the political system. To control the political system, you must control public opinion. To control public opinion, you must control what people think. In order to control what people think, you must control humanity. Such is the paradox of idealism and reality.
But ‘Iron Curtain’ does not discuss this philosophically. (Thank you!). Anne gives us her best effort here…she painstakingly illustrates with documentation, interviews, quotes, facts, figures, raw data, and real stories just what the human experience behind the Iron Curtain was like. Her details come at us like the planes of the Berlin airlift….one after the other in an unbroken chain. She reminds us that Poland, Hungary, and East Germany were once rich and vibrant cultures, as unique and flowering as France and Italy…yet these eastern counterparts have been somehow erased from our thoughts; they are simply ‘Eastern Bloc’ countries or ‘former Soviet satellites.’ Poland, Hungary, and East Germany seem blank and sterile, almost clones of anonymous nations. Not true. They were made that way. Clicking play will show you how, and remember....this all actually happened.
17 of 19 people found this review helpful
Ms. Applebaum has written an excellent book, again. The research is thorough, the story engrossing, and the style reads well. The political history background comes to life through extensive use of memoirs to add human experiences.
Obviously, this book will be most interesting to people who are intrigued by this region: Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, and to a lesser degree Bulgaria and Romania.
The author dreams that people will read her book and understand that Western apologists were wrong to paint rosy pictures of the Eastern socialist countries. However, the sad reality is most people disregard facts and stubbornly cling to bad ideas.
John Christmas, author of "Democracy Society"
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
What did you like best about Iron Curtain? What did you like least?
Originating from central Europe, the history of the central Europe region interests me quite a bit. Unfortunately, at the start of the book the author explains that she concentrated on 3 countries from the region - Germany, Poland and Hungary. None of which is my country of origin.<br/>And despite the fact that it shed some light on what had the people go through in those years, it left a feeling of something missing to a full picture.
Did Iron Curtain inspire you to do anything?
Since the book was more less describing mostly events from 2 central european countries, it inspired me to go and look for more information the country where i was born.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I have read many histories of the USSR and East Europe this book is the best of them all!
Anne Applebaum offers historical perspective about the Iron Curtain and how it separated the west from Russia and set the table for the U.S.S.R. Her story is capsulized by an ancient Turkish saying— “Fish rots from the head”. Her story implies a political lesson for the 21st century.
As Bertrand Russell notes: “War does not determine who is right – only who is left”. There are four renowned leaders and heroes at the end of WWII; e.g. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and yes, Joseph Stalin. Churchill is a hero because he recognized the early threat of Nazi Germany and demanded intervention at the time of the Polish invasion. Roosevelt is a hero because he cleverly supported Churchill when many leaders in American refused to believe in Hitler’s threat to the world. Truman is a hero because he ended the war with Japan without jeopardizing thousands of American troops with an invasion of the Japanese archipelago. And finally, Stalin is a hero for resisting and defeating Hitler’s armies in Europe when America needs time to prepare for war.
Each of the four leaders and heroes of WWII carry a measure of blame for war’s human consequence. One can argue like a sibling with a brother or sister–“he (meaning Hitler) started it”, but no one is absolved from guilt for murdered innocents. Applebaum reflects on a singular consequence of the war in the rise and fall of an Iron Curtain, a curtain that separates Eastern Europe from the west.
Communism is and always has been a dead or dying form of governance. The idea of collective comity has been tried in various forms since the beginning of recorded history. It has never worked as a social or political construct as theorized by Karl Marx, or bastardized before and after Das Kapital’s publication. Each derivation of an economic, social, and political collective has failed or is failing. From the monumental failure of the U.S.S.R., to Kibbutz’s in Israel, to collectivist fringe groups in history, human nature has destroyed collective comity.
Putin notes in a “60 Minutes” interview that the thing he most admires in America is its ability to innovate. With centralized control and top-down management Russia is unlikely to return to the hegemon it became after WWII. Russia will need to break from its history to change. Maybe, with education, that can happen, but it will be a long road. In a totalitarian state, when “fish rots at the head”, its putrification spreads to all levels of society.
Applebaum offers insight to Stalinist Russia and the barriers modern Russia must overcome to return to the status of world power. Bottom-up management is a key component of economic and political strength in modern times. It explains why China is a burgeoning world power and why America, contrary to Trump’s platform, remains great.
fantastic listen, great insight into this dramatic period. A must read. I highly recommend it.
Excellent review with facts interspersed with real, personal stories including some from the author's experience.