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The people versus the People's Republic: A young freedom fighter in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (credit: Getty)

Nineteen forty-five was a good year for Britain. We had beaten Hitler in Europe (and Japan in Asia) and could get on with our lives. Peace, justice and freedom went together. That perspective — largely shared in Western Europe, America and the Commonwealth — still shapes our view of history today. 

Anne Applebaum's masterly book gives, for the first time, a systematic explanation of the other, largely untold, side of the story, from the half of the European continent that sees 1945 differently. For the countries that fell into Soviet hands-most of Central Europe, plus the Baltic states and the Balkans — the defeat of Nazism marked the beginning of a new torment: Communist rule. 

It was not bad in the same way as under the Nazis. They had banned higher education in Poland, for example, hoping to create a nation of helots; Communists by contrast prized university education, so long as it taught the subjects they valued, in the way they wanted. Class and religious persecution replaced, with a few exceptions, oppression on grounds of ethnicity. 

Nor did events take the same course everywhere, not least because the starting points were so different. As Applebaum notes, the countries that the Red Army occupied-or "liberated" as they believed-differed wildly. They included big countries and small ones, monarchies and republics, autocracies and law-governed states, prosperous places and dirt-poor ones, states that had been independent for centuries and places such as East Germany (as it was to become) that had never been independent. Some had deep historic ties with Russia; for others the new Soviet overlords might as well have been from Mars.

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