Applebaum was born in Washington, D.C. Her parents are Harvey M. Applebaum, a partner in the Covington and Burling law firm, and Elizabeth (Bloom) Applebaum, of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Applebaum has stated that she was brought up in a "very reformed" Jewish family. She graduated from the Sidwell Friends School (1982). She earned a BA (summa cum laude) at Yale University (1986), where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. As a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics she earned a master's degree in international relations (1987). She studied at St Antony's College, Oxford, before moving to Warsaw, Poland, in 1988 as a correspondent for The Economist.
From 1988, Applebaum wrote about the collapse of communism from Warsaw. Working for The Economist and The Independent, she provided front-page and cover stories of important social and political transitions in Eastern Europe, both before and after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1994 she published her first book, Between East and West, a travelogue describing the rise of nationalism in the Western republics of the Soviet Union. The book was awarded an Adolph Bentinck Prize in 1996.
Applebaum worked briefly as the Africa editor of The Economist in 1992. In 1993, she left the paper and became the foreign editor and then the deputy editor at The Spectator where she wrote about British and international politics, writing cover stories from Brussels, Moscow, Washington and Milan as well as London. She contributed to the Spectator’s exposure of a KGB agent at the Guardian newspaper. She also wrote regular columns for both The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in London. In 1996 and 1997 Applebaum wrote exclusively about Britain, and in particular the victory of Tony Blair’s Labour Party, as the political columnist for London's Evening Standard newspaper.
Applebaum returned to Poland in 1998, where she continued to write for the Sunday Telegraph and other newspapers. In 2001 she did a major interview with prime minister Tony Blair. She also began doing historical research for her book Gulag: A History (2003), on the Soviet concentration camp system, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It was also nominated for a National Book Award, for the LA Times book award and for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was eventually translated into more than 25 languages.
From 2001 to 2005, Applebaum lived in Washington where she was a member of The Washington Post editorial board. She wrote about a wide range of US policy issues, including healthcare, social security and education. [links] She also began writing a column for The Washington Post, which continues to the present. Applebaum was also briefly an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank.
Returning to Europe in 2005, Applebaum was a George Herbert Walker Bush/Axel Springer Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany, in 2006.
Her second history book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–56, was published in 2012 by Doubleday in the USA and Allen Lane in the UK; it was nominated for a National Book Award, shortlisted for the 2013 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award and won the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature as well as the Duke of Westminster Medal.
From 2011 to 2016, she created and ran the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute, an international think tank and educational charity based in London. Among other projects, she ran a two-year program examining the relationship between democracy and growth in Brazil, India and South Africa, created the Future of Syria and Future of Iran projects, on future institutional change in those two countries; commissioned a series of papers on corruption in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Together with Foreign Policy magazine she created Democracy Lab, a website which focused on countries in transition to, or away from, democracy and which has since become Democracy Post at The Washington Post. She also ran Beyond Propaganda a program examining 21st century propaganda and disinformation. Started in 2014, the program anticipated later debates about “fake news.”
At the end of 2016, she left Legatum and joined the London School of Economics as a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Global Affairs. At the LSE she runs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda.
On February 21, 2014, Applebaum wrote in The Daily Telegraph, documenting the breakdown in law and order in Ukraine over the previous fortnight. She concluded that it "is not a war, or even a conflict which either side can win with weapons. It will have to be solved through negotiations, elections, political debate; by civic organisations, political parties and political leaders, both charismatic and otherwise; with the participation of other European states and Ukraine's other neighbors".
Applebaum has been a vocal critic of Western conduct regarding the 2014 Crimean crisis. In an article in The Washington Post on March 5, she maintained that the US and its allies should not continue to enable "the existence of a corrupt Russian regime that is destabilizing Europe," noting that the actions of Putin had violated "a series of international treaties".
On March 7, in another Telegraph article, discussing an information war, Applebaum argued that "a robust campaign to tell the truth about Crimea is needed to counter Moscow's lies". At the end of August she asked whether Ukraine should prepare for "total war" with Russia and whether central Europeans should join them.
In March 2016, six months before the election of President Trump, she wrote a column asking, “Is this the end of the West as we know it?” which argued that “we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order”. Considered unduly gloomy at the time, the column inspired the Swiss magazine Tagesanzeiger and the German magazine Der Spiegel to interview Applebaum in December 2016 and January 2017. She argued very early on that the movement had an international dimension, that populist groups in Europe share “ideas and ideology, friends and founders,” and that, unlike Burkean conservatives, they seek to “overthrow the institutions of the present to bring back things that existed in the past—or that they believe existed in the past—by force.”
Applebaum has been writing about Russia since the early 1990s. In 2000, she described the links between the then-new president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, with the former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and the old KGB. In 2008 she began speaking about “Putinism” as an anti-democratic ideology, though most at the time still considered the Russian president to be a pro-Western pragmatist. Applebaum has also focused on Russia’s failure to come to terms with the legacy of the USSR and of Stalin, both in her Gulag book and in other writing and speeches. In 2014, she asked whether “the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism." She has described the “myth of Russian humiliation” and argued that Nato and EU expansion have been a “phenomenal success.” In July 2016, before the US election, she was one of the first American journalists to write about the significance of Russia’s ties to Donald Trump and to point out that Russian support for Trump is part of a wider Russian political campaign, designed to destabilize the West. She has also written that a summer spent as a student in Leningrad in 1985 has helped shape her views.
Applebaum has written extensively about the history of central Europe, Poland in particular. In the conclusion to her book Iron Curtain, Applebaum argued that the reconstruction of civil society was the most important and most difficult challenge for the post-communist states of central Europe; in another essay, she argued that the modern authoritarian obsession with civil society repression dates back to Lenin. More broadly, she has written essays on the Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda, on the dual Nazi-Soviet occupation of central Europe, and on why it is inaccurate to define “Eastern Europe” as a single entity.
In 2014, Applebaum and Peter Pomerantzev launched Beyond Propaganda, a program examining disinformation and propaganda, at the Legatum Institute. In 2016, they expanded the program, renamed it Arena, moved it to the LSE and began piloting solutions to the problem. Applebaum has written that a 2014 Russian smear campaign, aimed at her, first taught her the techniques of modern Russian propaganda. That campaign was promoted by Wikileaks. Applebaum argued in 2015 that Facebook should take responsibility for spreading false stories and help “undo the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.”
Applebaum is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. She was a member of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's International Board of Directors. She is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) where she co-leads a major initiative aimed at countering Russian disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). She is on the editorial board for the American Interest and the Journal of Democracy.
Applebaum married former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski in 1992. They have two sons: Aleksander and Tadeusz. She became a Polish citizen in 2013. She speaks Polish and Russian in addition to English. Her assistants translate from German and Hungarian.1992 Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust Award
2003 National Book Award Nonfiction, finalist, "Gulag: A History"
2004 Pulitzer Prize (General Non-Fiction), Gulag: A History
2008 Estonian Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana third class
2008 Lithuanian Millenium Star
2010 Petőfi Prize
2012 Polish Officers’ Cross
2012 National Book Award (Nonfiction), finalist, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956
2013 Cundill Prize, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956
2013 Duke of Westminster's Medal for Military Literature, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956
2017 Doctor of Humane Letter Honoris Causa, Georgetown University
2008 American Academy in Berlin lecture: Putinism, the Ideology
2012-2013 Applebaum held the Phillip Roman chair at the London School of Economics and gave four major lectures on the history and contemporary politics of eastern Europe and Russia
2015 Munk debates
2016 Intelligence Squared
Sam Harris: The Russian Connection
Jay Nordlinger: Putin and the Present Danger
2017 Georgetown School of Foreign Service Commencement Speech
Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, Pantheon Books, 1994, ISBN 0-679-42150-5, and Random House, 1995, ISBN 0-517-15906-6, and Penguin Books 2015
Gulag: A History, Doubleday, 2003, 677 pages, ISBN 0-7679-0056-1; paperback, Bantam Dell, 2004, 736 pages, ISBN 1-4000-3409-4
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, Allen Lane, 2012, 614 pages, ISBN 978-0-713-99868-9 / Doubleday ISBN 978-0-385-51569-6
Gulag Voices : An Anthology, Yale University Press, 2011, 224 pages, ISBN 9780300177831; hardback
From a Polish Country House Kitchen, Chronicle Books, 2012, 288 pages, ISBN 1-452-11055-7; hardback
Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, Penguin Randomhouse, 2017