[A]lthough the very idea of "total control" may now seem ludicrous, ridiculous, exaggerated, or silly, and although the word itself may have lost its capacity to shock, it is important to remember that "totalitarianism" is more than an ill-defined insult. Historically, there were regimes that aspired to total control. If we are to understand them — if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century — we need to understand how totalitarianism worked, both in theory and in practice. Nor is the notion of total control completely old-fashioned. The North Korean regime, set up along Stalin's lines, has changed little in seventy years. Though new technology now seems to make the notion of total control harder to aim for, let alone achieve, we can't be certain that mobile phones, the Internet, and satellite photographs won't eventually become tools of control in the hands of regimes that also aspire to be "all-embracing." "Totalitarianism" remains a useful and necessary empirical description. It is long overdue for a revival.
One regime in particular understood the methods and techniques of totalitarian control so well that it successfully exported them: following the end of the Second World War and the Red Army's march to Berlin, the leadership of the Soviet Union did try very hard to impose a totalitarian system of government on the very different European countries they then occupied, just as they had already tried to impose a totalitarian system on the many different regions of the USSR itself. Their efforts were in lethal earnest. Stalin, his military officers and his secret policemen — known from 1934 to 1946 as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komisssariat Vnutrenikh Del or NKVD) and only later as the KGB — and his local allies were not trying to make a point about Ayn Rand or progressive liberals when they created the totalitarian states of Eastern Europe. To paraphrase Mussolini, they wanted very much to create societies where everything was within the state, nothing was outside the state, and nothing was against the state — and they wanted to do it quickly.
From Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum. Copyright 2012 by Anne Applebaum. Excerpted with permission of Doubleday.