As far as celebrity writers go, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum is of a distinctly “global” kind: her fame follows her byline from suburban D.C. to Warsaw; and from Budapest to Fleet St. In covering all these places, she stands out from her colleagues for her formidable grasp of local contexts (though, admittedly, her specific beat is a generic and timeless one).
In her recent book Twilight of Democracy (July 2020), Applebaum’s primary ambition is to chronicle how modern republics can undergo dismantling, from within, through the subversive influence of a rogue faction of the intelligentsia. For Applebaum, national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting. By focusing on countries that are far further down the path to autocracy than the U.S., her journalism reads like a (somewhat more) refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues—the Frums, Rubins, Boots, and Kristols of the world.
Despite sometimes indulging in sour partisanship, Applebaum remains one of her profession’s rare talents, with a parallel claim to fame as a historian. Before earning a Pulitzer for her bestselling history of Stalin’s gulags, she drew in wide plaudits too for her expertly researched works on Ukraine’s Holomodor and the rise of the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. In a number of ways, she seemed predestined to just this kind of writing career. Her great-grandfather fled conscription in the 1880s under then-Russian emperor Alexander III. Her father is one of big law’s star attorneys on matters of antitrust and trade. And, while her mother curated Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, the young Anne read history and literature at Yale, attending Wolfgang Leonhard’s famous course on Soviet history, visiting her forefathers’ Belarus in 1985, and eventually crossing the pond as a post-grad Marshall scholar at the LSE. This distinguished career has acquainted Applebaum with the frontiers between the Old and New Worlds, between our fragile democracies and the dark alternatives to them.
Applebaum’s intellectual vagaries reflect the sensibility of a distinct kind of American descendant of East European émigrés, those who never felt entirely cut off from their distant roots, and seized the opportunity to revisit them after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While writing for several British magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, she went on several reporting trips east of the Iron Curtain, resulting in a travelogue—Between East and West—that forebode some of the region’s present political conundrums.
After going largely suppressed during four decades of Soviet-style authoritarianism, nationalist sentiments across much of the former Eastern bloc reared their head at the onset of pluralism in 1989. Simultaneously, another universalist creed became ascendant just then threatening to overshadow them, this time a political ideology imported from the West. The liberal-democratic model that the region embraced as a condition for membership in the West augured a delicate coexistence with the region’s resurgent nationalism and its attendant emphasis on national sovereignty.