After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Soviet Communist ideologues dreamed of creating a new kind of total state, which would encompass and control all aspects of social, political and economic life.
What was envisioned was not merely a new society, but a new kind of person, who would be so conformed to the system that they could not even conceive of alternatives to Communist rule.
This was the type of society that dictator Joseph Stalin attempted to realize in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. And it was this totalitarian system that the Soviets attempted to impose on the diverse nations of Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army in the wake of the Second World War.
This process of Sovietization is analyzed by American journalist Anne Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her previous study of Soviet forced labour camps.
Applebaum evokes the tragic plight of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. She brilliantly reconstructs what life was like in the various totalitarian states; she has produced a superb historical narrative.
Applebaum focuses on the experiences of Poland, Hungary and East Germany.
Her study is divided into two parts. In the first, she explains the steps through which the Soviets consolidated their hegemony over the societies of Eastern Europe.
They installed a secret police force, usually trained in Moscow, which immediately began to target perceived enemies of the regime. They also took control of the region's interior ministries, and sometimes the defence ministries.
The Soviets ensured that local Communists ran the national radio stations; the radio, which was then the most important form of mass media, was integral to Soviet plans for the creation of new totalitarian societies through propaganda and "education."
Furthermore, the Soviets sought to co-opt or eliminate non-state institutions like churches. They were particularly concerned with youth groups. As Applebaum observes, "Even before [the Soviets] banned independent political parties for adults, and even before they outlawed church organizations and independent trade unions, they put young people's organizations under the strictest possible organization and restraint."
Finally, another hallmark of Soviet rule was the implementation of mass ethnic cleansing. Millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were forcibly removed from towns and villages where they had been present for centuries.
Initially, the Soviets and their local Communist acolytes were amenable to free elections because they thought they would win. When elections were held and the Communists failed to win power through the ballot box, they resorted to even harsher tactics to impose their ascendancy -- tactics that Applebaum describes in the second part of her book.
These included the destruction of all non-Communist political parties, arrests and murders, the expansion of labour camps and much tighter controls over the media, intellectuals and the arts.
The extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism, Applebaum writes, was its ability to get so many apolitical people to accept Soviet rule without much protest. Applebaum explores the factors that contributed to this acceptance.
For example, Eastern European populations had been devastated by the Second World War. They were too exhausted to resist.
Moreover, the ubiquity of Soviet propaganda, and the threat of violence from the secret police, made resistance seem futile.
And there was a carrot as well as a stick: at least some who conformed became functionaries of the system and enjoyed higher living standards than their compatriots.
From the outside, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe appeared solid in the early 1950s. But the moment of what Applebaum calls "High Stalinism" was to be fleeting.
Communism, she argues, proved to be inherently unstable. By attempting to control every aspect of society, the Communists made every aspect of society a potential source of protest and defiance.
Applebaum depicts the rise and fall of a massive project of social engineering, a project that may have seemed invincible, but which nevertheless contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
As Applebaum writes, "Human beings do not acquire totalitarian personalities with such ease... [T]he spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken."
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.