Home > IDEAS > Events > Individual Events > 2012 > True Believers: Collaboration and Opposition under Totalitarian Regimes

True Believers: Collaboration and Opposition under Totalitarian Regimes

Speaker: Anne Applebaum; Chair: Professor Arne Westad 

Wednesday 17 October 2012, 6.30pm, Old Theatre, Old Building

The horrifying genius of Soviet communism – as conceived in the 1920s, perfected in the 1930s and then spread by force to Soviet-occupied Europe– was the system’s ability to get the silent majority in so many countries to play along without much protest. A small proportion of people protested and small proportion collaborated. But carefully targeted violence, propaganda and state’s monopoly on economic and civic institutions persuaded the rest to go along. These techniques were used to great effect in Eastern Europe after 1945; they were the central topic of this lecture. They are as well as central to Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum’s new book.

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The podcast and video can be downloaded from the LSE podcast page.


by Harriet Shone

Anne Applebaum, the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2012-2013, discussed the power of Soviet Communism in post-war Europe as it propagated a system that had most of the population playing along with little outright opposition, despite the undoubted horrors committed against them.

Professor Applebaum opened her lecture with an extract from the East German Communist Party song that states “the Party, the Party, she is always right”. While some, even many, of those people singing this song and others like it, had a firmly rooted belief in the idea of Communism, Professor Applebaum’s focus lay on the other singers. That is, the people singing the song and loudly pronouncing their love for a Party that in reality they tolerated, rather than adored.

These “reluctant collaborators” offered little opposition to the brutalities of Stalinism or the loss of national freedom in newly liberated Europe. Professor Applebaum gave us several explanations for this passive collaboration, the most important of which was the often-underestimated subtlety of the terror employed. Collaboration was won through selective terror, directed specifically at those groups who might lead a future rebellion, rather than through outright war. For this reason, intellectuals were forced into submission, youth groups were the focus of a concerted propaganda regime, the radio, with its great potential for a mass audience, was tightly controlled and the highly effective Russian Red Army built up local secret police forces from the moment of their arrival in European countries.

The power of Soviet Communism then was in its ability to control every aspect of the societies it dominated. Within a remarkably short period, civil society of every kind, even the most innocuous of sports clubs, music groups and others, were either disbanded or taken over by the state. Mussolini once argued for a system that embodied the following principles: “everything within the state, nothing outside the state and nothing against the state”. It is with some irony that this fascist model became the linchpin of east European communism.

Professor Applebaum summed up this coercive power best in her story of the Dresden printer who, when faced not with the loss of his life but rather the loss of his livelihood if he refused to work within new decrees limiting his printing press to regime-approved materials, accepts with little self-reproach his new role printing the works of Marx and Stalin as a means to survive and pay for his family’s food, medicine and housing. After all, is it really ‘collaborating’ simply to survive, under the radar, neither supporting nor opposing?

Professor Applebaum went on to discuss the unintended consequences of this totalitarianism for the Soviet dictatorships. By ensuring that all aspects of society were under state control, they also assured that all non-state activity became political protest. Activities such as playing chess outside of state-clubs or protesting specific economic grievances became political dissidence where there might have been, in a free society, a-political actions.

Perhaps the most interesting effect discussed in the lecture was the deep psychological impact of this total control by the state. By forcing people not only to comply but also to regularly voice their support for the system, Applebaum argued, the regime ingrained a shame and resentment that would mature over time into outright protest. This is a point that resonates today as protests continue to sweep the Middle East and mass action against repression gains momentum in that part of the world.

Soviet Communism was a highly successful export in the aftermath of the Second World War and dominated a remarkable expanse of territory for over forty. What Anne Applebaum was able to explain so eloquently was that this success could not have been achieved without subtly applied force that offered no alternative, at least on the surface, than compliance and, for want of a better word, collaboration.



Anne Applebaum is Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2012-2013




Professor Arne Westad is Director at LSE IDEAS



Old Theatre, Old Building. London School of Economics.  


LSE IDEAS Philippe Roman Chair Inaugural Lecture