This was a word reserved for youths and adults who refused to live their lives according to approved state strictures. It was not the worst in the political lexicon. Communist administrations had a still greater hatred for “speculators” and “black marketeers.” They were not alone. In the United Kingdom, as rationing of food and clothes was maintained into 1954, a category of illegal entrepreneurs known as “spivs” traded goods in demand at high prices. But British ministers wanted to end their restrictions on legal retail trade as soon as possible in the difficult circumstances of postwar recovery. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, Communists relished their chance to take up the fight against all private trade. Rothschild’s days were truly numbered.
Iron Curtain traces the campaign against nonstate provision of goods and services in vivid detail. It began in Poland early in 1947 at the command of the economics minister, Hilary Minc, who stated his purposes in Marxist jargon. “The struggle for the conquest of the market,” he declared, “does not mean the elimination of market-capitalist elements; it means only a struggle for control over those elements by the People’s Democratic State.” This sounded gentler than it was in reality. Urban shops and workshops were driven out of activity by clever bureaucratic maneuvers. Owners needed a license to stay in business, and this would be available only on evidence of professional qualification. It was not enough to have run a cobbler’s shop for years. Another of Minc’s dodges was his imposition of severe limits on numbers of employees. Large- and medium-sized enterprises were closed or expropriated. Minc also made it difficult to buy goods and material abroad or to produce for export. Poland willy-nilly became an almost autarkic economy; its only serious trading partner was the USSR, which took possession of some Polish factories—notwithstanding the fact that Poland, as one of Hitler’s victims, was not supposed to be subjected to reparations requirements. The rule of law vanished from the economy. The government in Poland stayed its hand from collectivizing peasant agriculture; the peasantry was not so fortunate in other parts of Eastern Europe. Communist ideology was fundamentally hostile to market economics.
It was also edgy about popular humor, which Applebaum appropriately adduces from the time. One particular Hungarian joke she relates that tickled my fancy goes as follows:
Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other, “What do you think of Rakosi?” The other replies, “I can’t tell you here; follow me.” They disappear down a side street. “Now tell me what you think of Rakosi,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block. “Okay, here then.” “No, not here, it’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. “Okay, now you can tell me what you think of our leader.”
“Well,” says the other, looking around nervously, “actually, I quite like him.”
Needless to say, people could receive harsh punishments for poking fun at “dear leaders.”
THE BOOK’S epilogue summarizes what can be learned from this far-from-comic historical experience. Applebaum muses that once the communizing process was over (and, as she shows, it was completed with remarkable speed and thoroughness), the Communist rulers felt entirely confident about the security of their power over society. This comment took me aback, particularly since I agreed with much of the preceding chapters and learned much from them. The burden of her evidence, I believe, falls on the other side of the weighing scales. No doubt the Ulbrichts and Bieruts were satisfied that they could hardly make their police forces more feared or penetrate any new small group of active resistance more effectively. Applebaum believes that this impeded them from perceiving how unstable their power was. To be sure, these heavy-handed rulers were capable of stupendous self-delusion. Their ideology occluded the disadvantages of the one-party state from their minds, and however much they may have thought Stalin had stepped away from the precepts of Lenin, they maintained a permanent admiration for the Leninist repressive order. To that extent, they slipped into a complacent attitude about the Soviet style of Communism that they had imported from Moscow and implanted with Stalin’s help. But they also were schizophrenic. They keenly understood that the traditions of thought, organization and practice that were hostile to Communism had not vanished. The police could suppress. They could kill people, arrest them and put them to forced labor. Policemen, let us give thanks, were not demiurges of Eastern European history.
This contradictory mentality would seem to be universal in the experience of Communism around the world. It had been like this in the early years of Soviet power in Petrograd, when the families of the mighty Lenin and Trotsky lived by “sitting on their suitcases”—a potent Communist phrase for the knowledge that, however imperious their authority over fellow citizens in the dictatorship of the proletariat, Communist rulers could never afford to overlook the dangers of a sudden explosion of the people’s rage. As Applebaum recounts in this magnificent book, explosions happened in East Berlin soon after the death of Stalin in 1953. There were disturbances in Warsaw as well, and by 1956, all of Hungary was in revolt against the ghastly Rakosi. Time and again, the Communist regimes survived with assistance from Soviet forces. When the Prague Spring of 1968 looked as if it might lead to a ripping down of the Iron Curtain, fraternal tank divisions of the Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia and crushed that hope.
But in the end, Eastern European Communism fell of its own weight in the mostly peaceful revolutions of 1989–1990 (with the bloody exception being the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania). By then it had become obvious to nearly the entire world that the massive project of communization, undertaken with such zeal and thoroughness at the dawn of the Cold War era, had turned into a tattered shambles amid economies that had plunged into the abyss and societies that mocked the Communist ideology, imposed with such force nearly a half century earlier. The wonder is that it took such a long time for this experiment to crumble to pieces, and Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is a very welcome primer on why this was the case.
Robert Service is an author and professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution.Pullquote: The traditions of thought that were hostile to Communism had not vanished. The police could suppress. But policemen, let us give thanks, were not demiurges of Eastern European history.Image: Essay Types: Book Review