"That's the great thing about computers," Anne Applebaum says with a laugh. She is explaining how it is that she can be a columnist for the Washington Post while living outside the Beltway. Far outside – as in Warsaw, Poland, where she is the wife of the minister of national defence. Or rather, her husband, Radek Sikorski, was the minister until last Monday, when "ongoing issues" with the Polish prime minister persuaded him to resign. Sikorski, a former Solidarity activist, remains a senator, however, and Applebaum, 42, recently committed to living there full time with their two young sons.
Though Washington-born and bred, Applebaum has spent most of her working life in Europe, starting as Warsaw correspondent for The Economist in 1989. The Byzantine workings of the former Soviet Union and its six Eastern Europe satellites have riveted her ever since. Which isn't to say she doesn't range further afield on occasion, there being "a limited appetite," as she puts it, "for Eastern European coverage in Washington." She recently attacked the Kyoto Treaty as "absurd" for exempting so-called developing countries China and India. Likewise the futile war against poppy growing in Afghanistan. Cultivation for medical use should be legalized, she argues, as was done with Turkey.
Last week, Applebaum was briefly back on this side of the Atlantic to speak at the Grano dinner, the high-profile speakers series that this year is focusing on Europe's future. Europe and its giant bear of a neighbour, Russia. On that subject, few can compete with Applebaum. Her 2003 book, Gulag: A History, six years in the making, is now considered the gold standard, winning a Pulitzer Prize and eliciting rave international reviews. "Magisterial," applauded the Times Literary Supplement. "A book whose importance is impossible to exaggerate." Meticulously researched in the Kremlin's newly opened Gulag archives, the book was a full-on condemnation of the Soviet Union's use of isolated labour camps and colonies to suppress political dissent. Between 1918 and 1991, 18 million "enemies of the state" passed though them. Another 7 million were exiled.
But in post-Communist Russia, it is often as if they never existed. As Applebaum wrote: "The past does not haunt Russia's secret police, Russia's judges, Russia's politicians, or Russia's business elite." It should, she says. It must, if there is ever to be a clean break with the Soviet past. "I don't say there has to be trials but perhaps a truth commission like in South Africa. A public investigation, a formal inquiry, a public debate. One in every six people went through the Gulag system – everybody knew someone, was related to someone who had."
Attention was briefly paid by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, Applebaum says, but after the Cold War ended in 1991, Russia changed radically. Capitalism at its crudest led to the emergence of oligarchs and gangsters and the glaring fact that the scoundrels of the Communist era had gone unpunished, were still safe in their state-supplied apartments and country dachas.
As the book noted, it seemed to most Russians "as if the more you collaborated in the past, the wiser you were. By analogy, the more you cheat and lie in the present, the wiser you are."
In the 1990s, "people suddenly had other things to do," she says. "They also had to get used to the idea that `we were a great superpower, and now we are not.'" She points out that the post-Communist political elite, including "very disturbing" President Vladimir Putin, are all former KGB officers who don't want their own, or the secret police's, past revealed. During Putin's seven years in power, Russia has become more repressive. It isn't a totalitarian system or a police state "yet," she says, but it is highly controlled and often paranoid. She describes it as a "managed democracy" that gives the appearance but not the reality of political freedom: "You can't cross certain lines."
As the veteran journalist Anna Politkovskaya knew full well. The searing critic of the Kremlin's policies in Chechnya was shot dead in her Moscow apartment last October, a murder that remains unsolved. "No one but the Kremlin had a motive to kill her," says Applebaum, shaking her head. "She was an extremely brave person, but she was aware of the risks."
Similarly Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB defector and Kremlin critic who died a month later in London from polonium-210 radiation poisoning. Another unsolved killing. "It's like a Cold War novel, isn't it?" But she has no doubt Putin was responsible. Not that he gave an "actual order to an actual thug," but in the sense that he presides over a web of former intelligence operatives and approves of their methods.
Then too there is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once head of the YUKOS oil giant and Russia's wealthiest citizen, he's been in a Siberian prison cell since 2005, serving eight years for tax evasion. He was further charged last week with money-laundering and faces another 10 years. The Kremlin has fabricated the charges, he says.
Applebaum wouldn't be surprised. "I'm not saying he didn't launder money or evade tax, but he was imprisoned as an example to the others. He was a guy who had Western contacts, who gave money to pro-democracy groups. One of the lines you don't cross in Russia is getting involved in politics." That Khodorkovsky is imprisoned in a Gulag-style Siberian jail when the Gulag system of political repression is supposedly long gone "is creepy," she says. "It's scary." With his term of office limited to eight years, Putin must resign the presidency next year. Theoretically. "But will he leave or will he arrange it so he controls his successor? Nobody knows because the succession process in Russia is still a mystery. A lot of people are interested in keeping things the way they are."
Applebaum will be back in Moscow this year to research a new book on how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created "on the ground" after World War II. It will focus on individual stories of people struggling with radical changes and the dilemma they faced – to flee, fight, or join the new political order. She intends to return to the Gulag archives. There was no problem accessing them a decade ago. But that was before her book turned a glaring spotlight on the full horror and tragedy of the system. "I don't know if they'll let me in," she says with a sigh. "I'm not overly optimistic."