Posts Tagged ‘Anne Applebaum’

Applebaum and Shore: life under communism and its long, bitter aftertaste

Friday, August 2nd, 2013
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Yalta_summit_1945_with_Churchill,_Roosevelt,_Stalin

Decisions, decisions…

I listened to my mother.

I listened to Mummy.

My political education began very young.  When people would praise FDR in my family home, my mother would hiss “Yalta” between her teeth.  The 1945 photograph of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting side by side at the Crimean resort elicited the muttered remark, “a bunch of criminals” (although she read Churchill’s multi-volume series on the war).  “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin,” Churchill naively opined.

Having a mother who was 100% Magyar was a good antidote to political correctness.  And she never forgot nor forgave the conference that forked over most of Eastern Europe to Stalinist rule.  (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that her daughter writes so much about Cold War-era writers from Poland and Russia.)

So I read with interest the Christopher Caldwells discussion of two impressive and recent books in the New Republic, Anne Applebaum‘s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and Marci Shore‘s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  I have endless admiration for both women.  You can read the article, “When Evil Was a Social System: The Moral Burdens of Living under Communist Rule in Eastern Europe,” here.

applebaumbookI pulled out piles of excerpts to cite, but this humble blog post quickly became top-heavy, and I felt the ominous presence of the copyright cops outside my door.  Let me settle instead for citing Caldwell’s concluding paragraphs:

“These two books are a sign that something is changing in our understanding of the twentieth century. Applebaum and Shore, while close in age, are on opposite sides of a generational razor’s edge. Applebaum, born in the 1960s, has adult memories of the Cold War; Shore, born in the 1970s, does not. Applebaum speaks to, and in the idiom of, those who survived totalitarianism. She dedicates her book to ‘those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.’ Her big, resolute book gives us the most authoritative knowledge we have about communism, and only the most authoritative knowledge.

marci“Shore is engaged in a different project. Her book shows what erudition looks like in the Internet Age. Like a blog string, it records every false step she makes on her way to understanding. Shore almost never writes about important matters in her own voice. This means a loss of authority compared with Applebaum’s more classical style, but it allows her to share more with the reader. It frees her of the historian’s superego. The question of whether the reader can handle certain of the explosive things she has to say about Jews and communism appears not to have occurred to her.  …

“Reasonable historians may differ about whether this sort of history-through-memoir is more honest (transparent) or more cowardly (non-
committal) than the standard kind. But it will be clear to any reader of good faith that Shore has chosen historical guilt as her subject in order to deepen our understanding, not to sow discord or rile anyone up. She has found a way to illuminate certain Polish and Jewish ideas about the worst episodes of the twentieth century that is frank, fresh, and gripping. Guilt, after all, is not just self-inflicted injury but productive moral work. At any time, “guilty” will describe almost any conscience functioning as it should.”

Read the whole article here.

milosz

Right on.

Meanwhile, a final anecdote lingers:  “Applebaum mentions a girl sent home from school for saying, ‘my grandfather says Stalin is already burning in Hell’—sent home not because the teacher disapproved, but to protect the girl, her friends, her grandfather, her school, and the people who ran it. In such circumstances, propaganda can be a balm. It provides a way for men to lie to themselves, to rationalize submission to the strong, to save face. ‘I don’t like everything Stalin says,’ you could mutter (quietly!) to your wife, ‘but someone has to do something about the illiterate.’” Do I detect a whiff of Czesław Miłosz‘s  ketman here?

 

Terror’s human face: Women of the Gulag – the book and the movie. Help make it happen.

Saturday, October 27th, 2012
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Marianna Yarovskaya on location

I met Paul Gregory a couple years back, when his Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010) was just out.  I wrote about it, with a video of Paul, here) … well, “writing” might be too strong a word.  His noontime presentation at Stanford was so tight and so compelling that I pretty much presented what he said, as he said it.  I didn’t have to do much more.  (I’ve written about his Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives here).  Since meeting him, he’s become a high-powered economics blogger at Forbes 

Filmmaker Marianna

The Bukharin book was such a great story, I kept seeing it as a film.  Instead, he’s saved the film for his newest book, Women of the Gulag.  He’s teamed with Muscovite documentary filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya.  Paul told me some time ago about his newest effort: I was against several deadlines and didn’t have the extra brain cells to process it then, but given his previous book, I had little doubt that he would knock it out of the ball park.

He has.  From his introduction:

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Writer Gregory

Here’s the deal.  The book will be out early next year with Hoover Institution Press.  But the movie is in limbo until you pitch in over at kickstarter here.  The filmmaker is trying to raise $30,000 to finish the film, and she has 57 more days to raise the money on the kickstarter deal, which ends December 23.  Think of it as a Christmas present to Russia … or better yet, to mankind, because this history is important to record.

Applebaum at Stanford

“Why film a bunch of old babushkas?” Marianna is asked.  According to Washington Post‘s Pulitzer-prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who appears in the film, “Aside from its historic value, a project like this one has special significance in the light of contemporary Russian politics. In recent years, under President Putin, Soviet and Russian history have been re-politicized, and the Stalin period has come to be viewed with ambiguity by politicians, writers, film makers, and regrettably the public. The stories of the victims of the gulag, told by simple people who had little or no understanding of why this was happening to them, make an excellent antidote to creeping historical amnesia. This project is also urgent, of course, because most of their subjects are in their advanced years, and their stories have to be recorded now.”

Filmmaker Marianna explains why she’s passing the hat:  “We are now continuing the campaign and the project and are in post-production. We are also interviewing more women in other parts of Russia. We already have almost 40 hours of footage. These funds will go towards recording more testimonies on HD video and towards editing the footage we have gathered. Clearly the timing is urgent as the survivors and the heroines of the original Stalin gulag are getting very old. This is “the last chance.” (Marcel Krüger has an interview with her here.)

The film below gives a preview of their work.  I hope you find it as riveting as I do – and please do pony up whatever you can over at Kickstarter here.  Time is of the essence.  As always.

Something you didn’t know about WaPo’s Anne Applebaum

Friday, September 16th, 2011
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Last July at Hoover (Photo: My Droid)

Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer prizewinning Gulag: A History and Washington Post columnist, fascinated me a few months ago with her talk during the Hoover Archives Summer Workshop.  She described how the Communist Party coopted and squashed small civic organizations in Eastern Europe as a way to undermine the whole of its society – but who in the West would have given much importance to the suppression of, say, the Boy Scouts?

Applebaum, an American journalist based in London and Warsaw, has been in the limelight for years – she’s married to Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs.

But I didn’t know this about her:  she has donated some of the fruits  of her research to Stanford’s Hoover Institution. It’s the aptly titled Anne Applebaum Collection.

Anne’s collection consists of one box and contains original documents from one of the Gulag camps. The collection is from the Kedrovyi Shor camp, a part of the Vorkutpechlag, a system of camps in Vorkuta-Pechora area in Siberia. The documents include office paper, correspondence memoranda, accounting documents, correspondence, directives, instructions, etc., mostly relating to food and clothing supplies and rations for inmates, as well as the details of  their daily routine.

Now that’s kind of cool.

Applebaum has been a Hoover media fellow.  Her affinity with the institution is obvious, given the institution’s “longstanding interest in the history of totalitarianism.”

“The range and quantity of the material at Hoover is really astonishing, and compares almost to nothing else,” she told me.

While digging through the online material about her, I found this article, “Lest We Forget,” in the Hoover Digest.  The whole piece is worth a read; it ends with this amazing paragraph:

“The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbors and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances that led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the “objective enemy,” as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why—and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we are.”

Naimark, Snyder, and Applebaum: When is murder genocide?

Friday, November 12th, 2010
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An indecently incongruous setting for a discussion of genocide

On one of those legendary California afternoons, full of sunshine and overlooking the magnificent San Francisco Bay, I sat on the patio of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, talking with Norman Naimark about genocide.  It seemed a incongruous way to spend an afternoon in the crisp air and almost oppressive sunlight, but so it was.

Naimark’s contention, in his controversial new book Stalin’s Genocides: We need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Stalin. He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social classes (e.g., the kulaks), as well as the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” were, in fact, genocide.  We miss the big picture when we treat these as discrete episodes.

I had wondered at the time, and still, about the role technology in the last century’s explosion of genocidal episodes. Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.  But mass communication and mass transportation have made it possible to coordinate deportation and organize killing on a scale previously unimaginable (even in Rwanda, where the weapons-of-choice were pre-tech machetes, radio was used to incite mobs and track victims) – hence the proliferation of genocide in the 20th century.  Often official enablers act on a genocidaire’s momentary whim, rather than the determined aim to obliterate a people.  So what does “intent” matter, under such circumstances?

The subject has come up again with Anne Applebaum‘s  provocative article, “The Worst of Madness,” in the current New York Review of Books.  She reviews Timothy Snyder‘s  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin as well as Stalin’s Genocides.  She calls Naimark’s argument “authoritative, clear, and hard to dispute.” Snyder studies the people caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, suffering two and sometimes three wartime occupations: “Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them,” writes Applebaum.

She takes the notion of genocide a step beyond motive, examining how two dictators, Stalin and Hitler, played off each other in their hatred of the people in the “Bloodlands” — Ukrainians, Poles, and the Baltic states. The sum of the parts was more than the whole.  The two genocidaires used a synergy of murder to kill more, and more hideously, than either nation would have done alone:

Applebaum: Complicating memory

“To the people who actually experienced both tyrannies, such definitions hardly mattered. Did the Polish merchant care whether he died because he was a Jew or because he was a capitalist? Did the starving Ukrainian child care whether she had been deprived of food in order to create a Communist paradise or in order to provide calories for the soldiers of the German Reich? Perhaps we need a new word, one that is broader than the current definition of genocide and means, simply, ‘mass murder carried out for political reasons.’ Or perhaps we should simply agree that the word “genocide” includes within its definition the notions of deliberate starvation as well as gas chambers and concentration camps, that it includes the mass murder of social groups as well as ethnic groups and be done with it.”

She finally questions the whole notion of “remembering” genocide — an argument which reveals how powerfully language can shape the way we think about reality.  Genocide has come to mean pretty exclusively the Jewish Holocaust, shaping and carving and in many cases eliminating from memory what happened to millions of others:

“Finally, the arguments of Bloodlands also complicate the modern notion of memory—memory, that is, as opposed to history. It is true, for example, that the modern German state ‘remembers’ the Holocaust—in official documents, in public debates, in monuments, in school textbooks—and is often rightly lauded for doing so. But how comprehensive is this memory? How many Germans ‘remember’ the deaths of three million Soviet POWs? How many know or care that the secret treaty signed between Hitler and Stalin not only condemned the inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in slave labor camps, but also condemned the inhabitants of eastern Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? The Katyn massacre really is, in this sense, partially Germany’s responsibility: without Germany’s collusion with the Soviet Union, it would not have happened. Yet modern Germany’s very real sense of guilt about the Holocaust does not often extend to Soviet soldiers or even to Poles.”

The implications of her reading are many:  For the U.S., World War II was the “good war,” against all the ambiguous or “bad wars” that followed—Vietnam, Iraq, Korea.  For Americans, WWII begins with Pearl Harbor and ends with the atomic bomb.  But Western peace was won by selling out whole nations to our murderous ally. “This does not make us bad,” writes Applebaum, “there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.”

And for Western Europe:  “When considered in isolation, Auschwitz can be easily compartmentalized, characterized as belonging to a specific place and time, or explained away as the result of Germany’s unique history or particular culture. But if Auschwitz was not the only mass atrocity, if mass murder was simultaneously taking place across a multinational landscape and with the support of many different kinds of people, then it is not so easy to compartmentalize or explain away.”

Postscript on 11/15:  Speaking of genocide…  “On Wednesday, al Qaeda militants launch a synchronized bombing attack on 11 Christian communities throughout Iraq, killing six and wounding more than 30. That attack followed on the heels of the ghastly assault last month on Christian worshippers attending a service at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were brutally murdered and another 60 wounded. …  the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing to protect the besieged Christian community from further attack, despite a promise from al Qaeda in Iraq that ‘all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for Mujahedeen wherever they can reach them.’  Americans of all faiths must band together and pressure the State Department to do something about the wanton murder of Iraqi Christians before there are no more Christians in Iraq to protect.”  At the Daily Beast here.

Norm Naimark makes his case in the video below: