Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor November 4, 2012

As dictatorships collapsed toward the end of the last century and into this one, many people assumed that history moves in only one direction.

The tide of freedom had lifted East Asia and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Indonesia. In an era of global trade and communications, the rest of the world surely would follow. Academics and think tanks studied democratization, often presuming that it could be observed and predicted like any other natural process — that the democratic West didn’t have to do much but watch and wait.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Anne Applebaum, a historian and Post columnist, remembered that tides drop as well as rise, and set out in a contrary direction. As Vladimir Putin relentlessly tightens the noose on Russia, her definitive study of how totalitarianism can be imposed or reimposed looks sadly, usefully, prescient.

Applebaum’s new book is not at all about Putin and only indirectly about Russia. “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-56” focuses on Poland, Hungary and East Germany. It details the Soviet recipe used to stifle three wildly unalike countries.

The book is richly human, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking and remarkably suspenseful, given that we know how the story ends. It is dedicated “to those Eastern Europeans who tried, as far as was then possible, to think, see, hear and speak the truth,” but it is circumspect in passing judgments. Applebaum respects the impossible moral dilemmas that totalitarianism imposed and the many shapes, short of suicidal rebellion, that resistance could take.

The book lays out in riveting detail how Stalin prepared during World War II to dominate Central Europe, even as he was promising the United States and Britain that the region would be allowed to chart its own course. The Bolshevik subjugation of Russia and the other Soviet republics decades earlier provided a useful template. Applebaum’s terse chapter headings point to the essential tools and pressure points: Policemen. Violence. Ethnic Cleansing. Youth. Radio. Internal Enemies.

They also bring into jarring relief how faithfully Putin has followed the Stalinist recipe. Like Putin, Stalin’s loyalists tolerated, for as long as necessary, certain trappings of democracy. But they made sure from the start to control the security organs — the KGB, by whatever name it took — and they made sure that the organs ultimately controlled everything else.

Like Putin, they also tolerated, for a while, some relatively free media. But the media that mattered — radio, after World War II; the television networks, for Putin — were quickly brought to heel.

Identically to the martinets of Eastern Europe, Putin is quick to blame Western provocations when things go awry, to exploit ethnic prejudices and nationalist bigotry to cement his power, to point darkly toward internal enemies. (“They rummaged through their files and identified twenty-five categories of ‘enemies,’ ” Applebaum writes of the Polish secret police. “Eventually, this list grew to forty-three categories.”) Even the squashing of Pussy Riot is unoriginal; the Communists 60 years ago were panicked by oddly dressed jazz musicians they couldn’t control.

And as in Putin’s Russia, those who resisted might be beaten, imprisoned or murdered. Then as now, it was understood that a few cases of shocking violence could silence a multitude.

“The extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism,” Applebaum writes, “was the system’s ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest… If one person in a group of twenty acquaintances was arrested, that might suffice to keep the other nineteen afraid.”

Unlike Stalin, Putin has not tried, so far, to infuse ideology into every aspect of daily life; he demands acquiescence, not fervor. His bare-chested machismo seems a parody of the personality cult that Stalin enforced with deadly seriousness. He enriches cronies and controls the country’s natural resources, but he doesn’t ban all private commerce.

And one more difference: Poles had reason to feel abandoned as the Iron Curtain descended, but at least the West — beginning with Winston Churchill — acknowledged what was happening. As Putin snuffed one freedom after another, Bush administration officials kept fatuously pointing out that Russia remained freer than it had been in Soviet days. Obama administration officials just as fecklessly beseech Russia for help in promoting Syrian democracy while trying to block Congress from holding Putin’s henchmen accountable for the deaths and imprisonments of dissenters.

For all its tragedy, “Iron Curtain” is in one sense a happy story: The dictators failed to reshape human nature. Europeans rebelled, first in 1956 and again in 1989. Communism crumbled.

But the ending, or at least its timing, might have been different had the West not unequivocally defended freedom, including with the Marshall Plan, NATO, Radio Free Europe and the National Endowment for Democracy. The same kind of determination has yet to be mustered in response to Stalin’s imitators in Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention his star pupil in his old Kremlin stomping grounds.

fredhiatt@washpost.com