North Korea is always treated as sui generis, and there are good reasons for doing so; it has proved an outlier even among the surviving Communist regimes. But we are always interested in comparative perspectives that might shed light on what is and is not unique. Anne Applebaum has written a new history of early postwar Eastern Europe that contains interesting detail culled from new archival material and interviews; it also suggests some interesting commonalities in these systems that are relevant today.
Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 has a good, solid polemical intent. Although Applebaum does not believe Stalin had a master plan for the region at the outset of the period she studies, she does want to confront the idea that there was a genuine liberal phase of the early Soviet presence or that the right turn under Truman was responsible for what subsequently transpired in the region. She offers a succinct summary of the argument in The New York Review of Books that begins with a discussion of the YMCA in Warsaw. The YMCA was not a hotbed of politics, but it dispensed aid, presented jazz concerts, and became a magnet for those who simply wanted entertainment and some relief from the deprivations of post-war life. The Communist youth movement, then known as the Union of Fighting Youth (Związek Walki Młodych, or ZWM), couldn’t stand the YMCA, and in 1949 it was dissolved as a tool of bourgeois-fascism. “With bizarre, Orwellian fury, Communist youth activists descended on the club with hammers and smashed all the jazz records.”
Applebaum uses this vignette to point out four things that the Soviets brought quickly to Eastern Europe, even before the united fronts and the creeping coups that brought them to power across the region. First, the Soviet NKVD created secret police in every country, with key personnel already trained in Moscow, and immediately used them to intimidate enemies. Second, they quickly seized control of the main instrument of mass media of the time: the radio. Third, they engaged in ethnic cleansing of any minorities that might maintain cross-border networks, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians.
And finally, back to the YMCA, it is worth quoting Applebaum at length:
“Soviet and local Communists harassed, persecuted, and eventually banned many of the independent organizations of what we would now call civil society, from women’s groups and athletic associations to church organizations and private kindergartens. In particular, they were fixated, from the very first days of the occupation, on youth groups: young social democrats, young Catholic or Protestant organizations, boy scouts and girl scouts. Even before they 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 observations and restraint.”
Recently, we reported on Japanese sources to the effect that Kim Jong Un had expressed concern about the penetration of Western styles, even highlighting the risks in the new Moranbong Troupe. But the point about suppressing and controlling all civil society groups is one that jumped out of our surveys in Witness to Transformation. Andrei Lankov, In-ok Kwak and Choong-bin Cho have perhaps the best introduction to the “organizational life” in a recent issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies. The main point: many components of the North Korean system are not at all sui generis, but stamped from a surprisingly common organizational template.