Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post and Slate, and runs the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute. 
Her most recent book is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern ­Europe, 1944–1956.

 (December 2014)

How He and His Cronies Stole Russia

Vladimir Putin signing a Gazprom pipeline at an opening ceremony in Vladivostok for the Sakhalin–Khabarovsk–Vladivostok line, which carries natural gas through Russia’s far east and is projected to supply China and other East Asian countries, September 2011
Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy tells the remarkable story of how one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers, horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence, successfully plotted a return to power.

How to Succeed in Business

Sheryl Sandberg is disinclined to talk about luck, and this makes sense: If that’s all it was, then what lessons can she sell to women in Lean In? What will women talk about at Lean In circles? What will they write on the Lean In Facebook page? Her lack of interest in the mechanics of her own career is equally understandable. One can quite see that “Be dishonest about your working hours” or “Be at the right place at the right time” doesn’t have the same ring as “Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.” That sort of advice wouldn’t have made this book into a best seller.

How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life

The East German Communist youth organization Free German Youth electing Erich Honecker (third from right) as chairman, Berlin, 1946
In 1947, Stefan Jędrychowski, a Communist veteran, member of the Polish Politburo, and minister in the government, wrote a memo to his colleagues on a subject close to his heart. Somewhat pompously entitled “Notes on Anglo-Saxon Propaganda,” the memo complained, among other things, that British and American news services were …

In the New World of Spies

Dmitri Bystrolyotov, who was recruited by the Soviet secret services in the 1920s, on a reconnaissance mission in Bellinzona, Switzerland, circa 1934
Nowadays, we tend to place spies into a cold war narrative: East vs. West, intrigue around the Berlin Wall, Graham Greene’s Vienna, and George Smiley’s London. But the first and most successful Soviet spies emerged much earlier. The 1930s, W.H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” were a period of extraordinarily creative skulduggery for Soviet espionage.

Vladimir’s Tale

By his own account, Vladimir Putin was drawn to the KGB’s glamour, secrecy, and power from an early age. “I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot,” he told his official biographers. “A single intelligence officer could rule over the fates of thousands of people. At least, that’s how I saw it.” Putin, Masha Gessen concludes in The Man Without a Face, “wanted to rule the world, or a part of it, from the shadows.”

The Worst of the Madness

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, center, arriving in Berlin to meet with Adolf Hitler, November 12, 1940. At front left are German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
In Bloodlands, a brave and original history of mass killing in the twentieth century, Tim Snyder argues that we still lack any real knowledge of what happened in the eastern half of Europe in the twentieth century. The book’s title is not a metaphor. Snyder’s “bloodlands,” which others have called “borderlands,” run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the East, encompassing modern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia. This is the region that experienced not one but two—and sometimes three—wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction. More to the point, this is the region that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness.

Yesterday’s Man?

He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in …

A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

Baron Ungern-Sternberg, ‘the last khan of Mongolia,’ circa 1920
Like a contemporary reincarnation of Adela Quest, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Palmer was both attracted and repelled by his first encounter with the grotesque, grimacing, wooden gods of Inner Mongolia: I entered the shrine of a gruesome god, his sharp teeth grinning and his …

Laughable and Tragic

Perhaps it was the elaborate court rituals, perhaps it was the stiff manners of the royal family, or perhaps it was the swiftness of the final collapse: for whatever reason, even the most tragic tales of the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire often lapse into black humor. Here, for …

A Movie That Matters

The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a …

How Hitler Could Have Won

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital …

The Real Patriotic War

Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a …

Hero

Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor. His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they …

Album from Hell

Yellowed, dusty, covered in thick cardboard, and held together with string, the Gulag photo albums stored in the Russian State Archive look, at first glance, like nothing more than old family albums kept too long in the attic. But even when opened, their true function isn’t immediately clear. Many have …

Pulling the Rug Out from Under

During the summer just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent several days in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus, in the company of a group of young people who called themselves Belarusian nationalists. One of them had recently converted to Orthodoxy, or rather to a new, …

The Worst of the Terror

On August 7, 1948, Yuri Zhdanov wrote a letter to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Yuri Zhdanov was not only the son of A.A. Zhdanov, a Politburo member and one of Stalin’s “favorites,” he was also Stalin’s son-in-law, and a Central Committee member in his own right. Nevertheless, the letter …

A History of Horror

Contrary to what might be expected, the first recorded use of the expression “concentration camps” did not occur in either Germany or Russia. Nor was the term originally English, as many also mistakenly believe. In fact, as far as it is possible to ascertain, the first person to speak of …

Inside the Gulag

To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Sol-zhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is as much a physical memory—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—as it is one of reading the revelatory text itself. Although nearly three decades …