By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Anne Applebaum
Narrated by: Cassandra Campbell
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 America 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.
Applebaum reflects on the aftermath of WWII to reveal the reality of Russell’s note about those who are left after war’s end. Countless numbers (reaching an estimated 50 to 80 million) of Allied–Axis military and civilian men, women, and children were dead. Some were killed from famine and disease; others from bullets, bayonets, and crematoriums.
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.
Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain” explains how Stalin cleverly bastardized communism to create a world power, but in that bastardization Stalin became the greatest mass murderer in history. Lenin is the first to take advantage of Marx’s theory but Lenin recognized that Marx’s dialectic of human economic and political evolution would not work without force.
After Lenin’s death, Stalin eliminates rivals who do not understand the necessity of top-down management for Russia’s transition from monarchy to communism. The Russian nation’s history as a monarchy made Stalin’s style of management fertile ground for a collectivist hegemon.
(Though Catherine the Great talked of liberalizing Russia, she recognized centralized power was the only way of avoiding a civil war between serfs and a Russian aristocracy.) Lenin’s, and then Stalin’s, dangling of collectivism hoodwinks serfs into thinking they can escape their historic servitude.
It is Stalin that manages to defeat Hitler in Europe. Applebaum explains how Stalin takes advantage of the end of WWII to expand Russia by creating satellite countries to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
No other leader had the manpower to defeat Nazi advances in Eastern Europe. Unquestionably, Stalin could not have succeeded without material support from the West but it took human beings to fight the Nazi advances in the early years of the war. Britain is consumed by their own defense. Most of Eastern Europe, and France is defeated by the Nazis, and America needs time to prepare the military for war. Only Stalin can marshal the human force needed to defeat Germany in Eastern Europe. With an iron hand, no moral conscience, personal paranoia, and Russia’s history of totalitarian command, Stalin creates a totalitarian hegemon that stalls and then defeats Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. In one sense, Stalin liberates Eastern Europe; in another, he destroys their independence and freedom.
Stalin approaches his ambition for totalitarian rule systematically. At the end of the war, Applebaum notes that Stalin focuses on training a cadre of secret agents to infiltrate the governments of future Soviet satellites. He coops religion by replacing devout church leaders with communist sympathizers. Stalin uses a combination of threat, violence, and education to subvert Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian leaders. He does the same with clandestine freedom fighting organizations that try to resist Soviet occupation.
The immediate impact of Stalin’s plan is unseen because of time needed to train a secret service and infiltrate non-communist factions. Within two years of the war’s end, the table is set for a planned economy based on artificially manufactured five-year plans that ignore reality but create a mythological sense of progress.
With the death of Stalin, the myth of progress is exposed. The result is a transition of former communist countries to capitalist wannabes. For the U.S.S.R., centralized control and top-down management remain, but self-interest is unleashed. There is a difference from American capitalist self-interest. Russian self-interest is limited because it is based on who is favored by leaders in government.
One might argue that is true in America but the truth is not that black or white. Subsidization is a qualified difference but explanation is tied to an extended review of the meaning of democracy in America.
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.