Four Burning Questions for Anne Applebaum, finalist for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature
By Cynthia Lee
Anne Applebaum is a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post and Slate and contributor to the PostPartisan blog. A finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for her work, “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956” Applebaum is also the Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London. In 2004, she received the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her book “Gulag: A History.” The Cundill Prize, now in its sixth year features a $75, 000 U.S. grand prize, the most lucrative international award for a nonfiction book. The winning title will be announced on Nov. 20.
What first sparked your interest in Eastern Europe and this particular period in history?
I’ve been fascinated by the history of communism ever since, as a student, I spent a month studying Russian in Leningrad. To go to the Soviet Union at that time, before glasnost, felt like walking into a mirror: everything was backwards. Even the colors had vanished, replaced by black and white.
After the course was over I left the Soviet Union by train. We went out through Ukraine and crossed the border into Hungary. It was utterly different – fields of sunflowers, poppyseed cake at the Budapest train station – and I was captivated. At that time, we all thought that “Siberia starts at Checkpoint Charlie,” but Hungary, though still then a communist country, was clearly very, very different.
A few years later, I talked an editor at the Economist into sending me as a freelance journalist to Poland. I arrived in late 1988, just as real changes were starting to take place. In the following years, I watched communism collapse in Poland, I saw the Berlin wall fall. I travelled all over the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. At that time, it seemed obvious to everyone why the system had to collapse. It was absurd, it made no sense.
But two decades later, I began to ask myself: if it was so absurd, how did it get built in the first place? How did the grim Russia I saw in the 1980s come to be? How did it spread its system into the heart of central Europe? What was the appeal of Soviet-style communism, if any? That line of thinking led me to the research which led to this book.
Please describe what level of dedication it takes to produce such a comprehensive piece of historical literature? What type of regime do you employ?
Writing a history book really involves two separate and very different kinds of work. First there is the research, which I truly love. In my mind it isn’t that different from journalism, or maybe detective work: You start with an institution or a person or an idea, and you follow the trail. I also love archives: you never know exactly what you will find, what wonderful quotation or amusing anecdote lies buried in the files of the cultural department of the East German Central Committee. For this book, I also conducted about 100 interviews, because I felt that even speaking to people who were very young at the time would give me a sense of what life was like in that time which wouldn’t be available to me in any other way.
Much harder is the process of writing: choosing what to include, how to structure the book, which chapters need to come first, which are the best quotes to use. When writing Iron Curtain I usually worked early in the mornings, and then used the afternoons for other things: journalism, or some of the work I’ve done for a London think-tank in the last few years. I like spending time with my teenage children too, especially as they also seem to be interested in history… I’m unfortunately not able to write 8 hours a day.
What lessons can be learned by examining post-WWII Soviet Union and how can they be applied to our understanding of our world?
Many of the twentieth-century’s worst dictators held power using the methods described in this book, and consciously so. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Moammar Qadaffi’s Libya adopted elements of the Soviet system, including a Soviet-style secret police force, with direct Soviet and East German assistance. But many didn’t need explicit advice in order to imitate the Soviet Union’s drive to control economic, social, cultural, legal and educational institutions as well as political opposition. Until 1989, the Soviet Union’s regime in Eastern Europe seemed an excellent model for would-be dictators in Asia, Africa and the Arab world.
Understanding the kind of damage done by such regimes is absolutely critical, especially when they unravel – as so many did in 2011 during the “Arab Spring.” The repair of such damage, whether in Poland or in Egypt, requires far more than just “democracy.” Post-totalitarian societies also have to create or re-create independent media, private enterprise and a legal system to support it, an educational system free of propaganda. They have to find ways of talking about society and the economy which are free of obfuscating jargon. The more we understand about the nature of totalitarian societies, the more we can help those trying to change them.
How important is the Cundill Prize and literary awards in general? What kind of effect would winning one have on your work?
Literary awards are wonderful because they can draw attention to books which might be otherwise overlooked, especially as space for reviews and criticism continues to shrink. Also – though I know it’s hard to believe – even the most successful and well-reviewed history books rarely make much money for their authors. It takes years and years to research and write a book like the ones that have been recognized by the Cundill Prize committee. My friend Christian Caryl, whose “Strange Rebels” was on the shortlist this year, was talking and thinking about that book for a decade.
So it’s wonderful that there is now a prize which focuses especially on well-written history, which is one of the most difficult and time-consuming literary forms that exists. And it’s wonderful that there is real prize money attached. If I were to win that would help give me the space and time I need to start working on my next book.