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Interview with Anne Applebaum

Anne ApplebaumAnne Applebaum (born 25 July 1964) is a journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written extensively about communism and the development of civil society in Eastern Europe and the USSR/ Russia. Her second book, Gulag: A History, was published in 2003 and was awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction writing

Journalist Justin Petrone caught up with Anne following her October visit to Estonia.

What are you doing living in Poland?

I live in Poland for two reasons. One is personal; my husband is a Polish politician. His name is Radek Sikorski. So we were living in Washington after his party lost an election a few years ago and we came back. I am also writing a book about the Sovietization of Central Europe after the war.

What did you learn from your visit to Estonia?

Well, I knew something about Estonia before I got there, but Estonia is justifiably famous for the efficiency of its economic reforms and I am impressed how the population is so unified and focused on what it needs to do in order to become more Western and integrate better into the West and what needs to be done in the economy and the political system. It's a very great piece of luck in some ways to be such a small country and relatively homogenous.

The Western-Eastern discourse is a bit interesting here. I noticed when I was in New York that people would make fun of eastern Europeans after viewing the film Borat [Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan], but when I came to Estonia, they were imitating Borat to make fun of eastern Europeans too.

I actually thought that movie was incredibly offensive, partially because I didn't think it was really about Kazakhstan, I thought it was really supposed to be a caricature about Eastern Europe. It wasn't about Kazakhstan at all, a lot of the time they were speaking Polish, I noticed. They were either speaking Polish or Hebrew, both of which are offensive in certain ways. So I disliked it a lot.

But Estonia remains a post-Soviet country and has lots of post-Soviet problems. It is also very much a part of central Europe, but yes it is civilizationally different from Russia or Kazakhstan.

You have been discussing the intricacies of 20th Century Soviet life for some time now. Do you think the Western audience learned more about this during that time, and do you think they have familiarized themselves with the right things?

I think that people know a lot more than they used to, definitely. I don't think people had even heard of Estonia before 1989-90. I know that Estonians have a chip on their shoulder that nobody knows about them, but actually it gets better every year. Now that you can go to Estonia and Estonians can go everywhere else, people have a lot more interaction.

I don't think it is nearly quite as bad as it was.I mean, what do Estonians know about Switzerland? I don't think you can expect people to have an intimate knowledge of the politics of a small, faraway country. I don't think Estonians know much about Switzerland, I doubt they know much about Portugal. And so to expect the Portuguese to know about them ... well, that's life. But I do think generally speaking that people are more aware of Central Europe and its history than they were.

The way it appears when reading through recent history, formerly communist states have a lot in common. But why is it so difficult for them to cooperate all the time? If you read some articles you'd believe that the political relationship, say, between Poland and Lithuania is not as easy as it should/could be. Given your experience, why are all these countries so given to bickering?

I do think that all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe could achieve a lot more if they acted in concert more often. It is also true that all of these countries have been for the past 10 to 15 years about reviving a sense of national identity, and reviving the national economy. There hasn't been a lot of thought given to neighbors and their experiences and I hope that will change.

There are some examples of countries that have managed to develop better relationships. I mean for years and years the Poles and Ukrainians really hated each other and had a lot of historical issues to do with the border and to do with expulsions after the war and partisan fighting. And a lot of that has been resolved because the two countries worked on that in a targeted way. They sent historians back and forth, they sent delegations back and forth, they had joint expeditions to their national cemeteries and in many ways relations have improved.

It takes a very clear political will to make that happen, it doesn't happen automatically. But I think the region would do better as a whole and certainly better within Europe if these countries worked more closely together. I mean the recovery of national identity was important for everybody and now that these countries are self-confident and achieved a certain amount of success I do think it is time for them to start interacting more and working together.

There is a lot of concern about political developments in Russia today. Sometimes, living here on the border, one can smell a faint whiff of paranoia. My question is: are our discussions and policies being guided too much by this fear of a new Cold War?

It's not just post-Cold War paranoia. Nobody was paranoid about Russia five years ago. There has been a change in a policy in Russia; the Russians are behaving differently than they were behaving even at the beginning of Putin's time in office. The question is how we deal with that. There is a conversation that is going on in Washington and elsewhere but it is not really straightforward. Nobody wants to isolate Russia, nobody wants a new Cold War with Russia, because we have one war already in Iraq and we don't need anymore.

On the other hand Russia is behaving in ways that are deliberately provocative towards the US and towards neighbors. Yes it is a problem and many people think it's a big problem. In the United States at the moment this is not a great time to be dealing with anything because a) most people are more interested in Iraq than anything else and b) we are about to start the real part of our election campaign and every issue is up for grabs. Western Europe is also unfortunately not united yet to deal with anything in a coherent way. But absolutely Russia is a problem but there's no answer yet.

But when Western countries tell Russia to reform, Russia often responds by pointing out Western hypocrisy.

That's their way of deflecting criticism and the Iranians do it too. And I think it's very Soviet. The Soviets used to say, "We believe in peace and you are hypocritical because you are at war." These are very old tactics, there's really nothing new about it. They can say what they want and we can say what we want. I don't think at the moment what is written in the Western press has very much influence in Russia, so I wouldn't get too worked up about it.

Is there enough news about Central and Eastern Europe in Western English-language media?

I am biased because I think there isn't enough news. On the other hand nothing that terrible is happening right now. You can understand why Americans right now are more interested in the elections and in the Iraqi war than they are in Eastern Europe. That is just a fact of life. It is too bad and of course it might change, but think about it, do you really want things to be so bad that the English press is worked up and writing about it? I mean, again, we don't write about Switzerland either, ever. And that is because nothing happens there that is so terrible and that's fine. Do you really want to be a subject of world attention, I don't think so.

By Justine Petrone