Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine
- By Anne Applebaum
- 496 pp.
- Reviewed by Eric Ciaramella
- October 21, 2017
Recalling the Soviet dictator’s intentional starvation of the masses.
As mass starvation tore through the Ukrainian countryside in the winter of 1932-1933, few things inspired more dread among the peasantry than the arrival of the requisitioners. These roving bands of Communist Party loyalists invaded homes and seized every last seed, ounce of grain, and bread crust they could find.
One survivor recalled how they ripped a beaded necklace from her mother’s neck because they suspected something edible was hidden inside. Another spoke of how the food brigades “watched chimneys from a hill: when they saw smoke, they went to that house and took whatever was being cooked.”
All told, some 5 million Soviet peasants — the vast majority of them Ukrainian — perished in the manmade famine that Ukrainians would come to call the “Holodomor” (literally, death by starvation). In this riveting and well-researched new work, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum provides a vivid account of the chain of events and calculated political decisions that led to one of the largest, but relatively understudied, mass atrocities of the 20th century.
With exacting detail, Applebaum shows how the early Soviet leadership’s two greatest insecurities — its inability to properly feed the industrial working base that brought it to power, and the Ukrainian people’s yearning for an independent state — drove its radical push to forcibly rearrange the Soviet economy and society.
Applebaum’s main storyline begins in early 1917, when the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II touched off a period of upheaval throughout the newly defunct Russian Empire. Nowhere was this chaos more pronounced than in Ukraine, whose short-lived experiment in democratic rule collapsed under the weight of foreign-backed coups, invasions, and peasant rebellions.
As she leads her reader through this dizzyingly complex period, Applebaum argues that these events taught the early Bolshevik leadership — and Joseph Stalin in particular — to “see Ukraine as potentially dangerous and explosive, and Ukrainian peasants and intellectuals as threats to Soviet power.”
Desperate for grain, the infant Bolshevik regime in Moscow embarked on a policy of forced requisition throughout the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian agricultural heartland that contributed to the first major Soviet famine in 1921-1922. Applebaum explains how the unexpected severity of this famine shook the Bolsheviks’ confidence, leading them to pursue more liberal economic and nationalities policies, under which the Ukrainian language and culture experienced a brief state-sponsored revival.
By the end of the 1920s, this more lenient approach gave way to darker trends. To hasten the Soviet Union’s industrialization, Stalin made the case for a radical rearrangement of the Soviet economy: the forced collectivization of the agricultural sector. Mass arrests and property seizures plunged rural Ukraine into chaos as Stalin sought to eliminate land-owning peasants as a social class. All the while, grain production plummeted. The countryside began to go hungry.
Applebaum convincingly illustrates how Stalin and his top aides had plenty of warnings from lower-level officials about the problems with the harvest during 1930 and 1931. Yet Ukrainian officials’ requests for food aid and a reprieve from the quotas only enraged Stalin, who accused them of incompetence and deceit.
Applebaum dissects the fascinating communications between Stalin and his closest advisers to paint a picture of a leader gripped by paranoid visions of his enemies — the Ukrainians chief among them — conspiring to sabotage the grain-production effort. Recalling Ukraine’s insubordination after the Bolsheviks seized power, Stalin wrote to a colleague that, without urgent changes, “we could lose Ukraine.”
Leading up to the fall of 1932, Stalin could have taken any number of off-ramps to ease the crisis. Instead, he directed a series of measures that, according to Applebaum, “launched a famine within a famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.” These cruel tactics included stricter food requisitions, trade sanctions against entire villages, and population-movement controls so that starving Ukrainian villagers could not escape their fates.
In tandem, Stalin reversed the earlier Soviet policy of supporting the development of Ukraine’s national identity. Ukrainian party officials were purged for questioning the draconian requisition orders. Ukrainian history and language courses were abolished from universities. Within a few years, Applebaum writes, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian teachers, writers, artists, librarians, scientists, publishers, and religious figures — an “entire generation of educated, patriotic Ukrainians” — were fired, jailed, or executed.
The chapters about the famine itself are at once breathtaking and deeply distressing. Applebaum has mined a vast trove of memoirs and oral histories, much of it material that has not been available to researchers until recently, to chronicle the physical, psychological, and societal impacts of mass starvation. She stitches together a rich set of firsthand accounts of the blood-curdling tactics the state used to enforce the requisitions, as well as the consequences of the breakdown in basic human emotions and common decency.
Applebaum devotes an entire chapter to addressing the lengths to which Stalin’s regime went to hide the deaths of millions of people. Practically overnight, statisticians and village registrars who produced inconvenient — albeit accurate — population figures were branded as traitors and jailed or, in the case of the official responsible for the 1937 census, executed by firing squad.
Applebaum continually returns to the themes of collective complicity and the impossible choices individuals had to make. Many neighbors, lifelong friends, and family members turned on each other simply to stay alive. Bureaucrats carried out orders from on high because retaining their official positions meant they could keep their families fed.
There is no doubt that Stalin was responsible for creating the famine, but he would never have been successful without the pliant human machinery that obeyed his commands.
The book concludes with a critical examination of the debates on whether the Holodomor should be classified as a genocide, and how these debates have shaped the political landscape between post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia. Although Applebaum judges that the actions Stalin took against Ukrainians would have fit the earliest scholarly definitions of genocide, she ultimately decides that the Holodomor does not meet the strict definition in international law — in large part because the Soviet Union helped draft the language to exclude it.
In the end, not even Stalin’s brutality could extinguish the Ukrainian people’s drive for a sovereign, independent state. If anything, the collective memory of Stalin’s betrayal reinforced Ukrainians’ conviction that they deserved to chart their own destiny.
Eric Ciaramella is a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council. He previously served on the staff of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for U.S. policy toward Ukraine. The views expressed in this review belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the United States Government.