When it comes to Anne Applebaum I’m a huge fan. I fell in love with her writing in 2013 after reading Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. A few years later finally read her 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winner Gulag: A History. Recently, just like other specialists in Russian and East European affairs and history like Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder she’s become a vocal critic of the rising global tide of authoritarianism. Right before I read her most recent offering Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism I decided to read her 2017 follow-up to Iron Curtain Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Detailed as hell and incredibly well researched Applebaum’s book did not disappoint me.
To understand not just how approximately 4 million Ukrainians starved to death during the 1930s but also why like any decent historian Applebaum looks to the past for answers. For centuries the rulers of Russia and many of their subjects saw Ukraine not as a separate entity but an integral part of Russia. The Ukrainian language and culture was denigrated and suppressed by Russian overlords and the Ukrainian speaking peasantry looked down upon. In Ukraine’s cities Russian was the dominant language of commerce and government along with Polish in Western cities like Lviv while urban-dwelling Jews preferring Yiddish and Russian. So ingrained was this anti-Ukrainian prejudice after the Bolshevik Revolution Russia’s new rulers refused to see Ukraine as a separate country, even after a group of Communists seized power in Kiev and declared Ukraine an independent socialist nation.
No, the ruling Communists believed, and with good reason the USSR could not survive without Ukraine. Long seen as Russia’s gateway to the West, any foreign power like Poland or any political rival be they anti-Bolshevik Whites or Ukrainian Nationalists could use Ukraine as a base of operations to challenge Russia. Traditionally, Ukraine had also been Russia’s breadbasket, a boundless supplier of wheat. Interrupting this flow would be catastrophic for the young Soviet Union. The Communists depended upon Ukrainian wheat to feed factory workers and urban dwellers across Russia, whose support the Communist regime desperately needed. Grain exports could also provide the Soviet Union with capital needed to finance its rapid industrialization. After solidifying its rule the Communists ruthlessly squashed Ukrainian independence and reincorporated it into the Russian-dominated USSR.
Under Stalin the USSR underwent not only rapid industrialization but also forced collectivization. Originally promised land redistribution by Lenin and the Bolsheviks peasants across the USSR were horrified after being remanded to government owned farming operations. Denied the fruits of their labors and thus any incentives to produce the collectives were a failure resulting in poor crop yields and food shortages. To make matters worse Stalin’s goons exported excessive amounts of grain to the West, in order to generate both hard currency and political good will. (Or as an act of economic sabotage, dumping it on the international market on the cheap in hopes of destabilizing the capitalist world.)
By 1933 things in Ukraine were grim. Food was scarce and needless to say, people were starving. Any reasonable head of state would have realized both forced collectivization and the USSR’s policy of massive grain exports were failures. But Stalin was no reasonable man. A bloodthirsty autocrat prone to paranoid delusions, he was hellbent on eliminating any and all perceived threats to his rule, realistic or not. Naturally since it was his idea, collectivization could never fail. Unless of course if it was sabotaged by treasonous Ukrainian apparatchiks, or more likely bourgeoisie-capitalist peasants loosely referred to as Kulaks. The more doctrinaire ruling Communists were more than willing to distrust Ukraine’s peasantry, since according to classical Marxism it was the working proletariat, not the ground-tilling peasants who would help usher in the age of utopian socialism.
Therefore, no matter how many people starved to death there would be no assistance from Moscow. Reports of mass starvation, hungry masses wandering the cities and countryside in search of food and even cannibalism were either fabrications or just examples of treasonous Ukrainian Kulaks suffering due to their own clumsy attempts to undermine the system. So-called underperforming collectives were blacklisted and denied material assistance. Produce and livestock were actually confiscated from impoverished families, hugely accelerating the Ukraine’s slide towards famine. The USSR’s public relations machine worked overtime to coverup the disaster, even enlisting credulous Western journalists including one from the New York Times. Outgoing mail to Ukrainian conscripts serving in the Red Army was intercepted, less they learn the scope of the tragedy. Later, the USSR allowed Ukrainians to write relatives living abroad to request hard currency with which they could purchase foodstuffs at special government run stores.
The human cost to Ukraine boggles the mind. A minimum of 4 million dead, with countless others wrecked physically and mentally, some permanently. During the famine’s reign there were few births and millions of children died in infancy or childhood. In just a few years Ukraine would loose an entire generation. After the official Soviet census later confirmed the demographic implosion Stalin executed its director. In response cowered bureaucrats issued a falsified final tally designed to cover-up the famine’s horrific impact.
Red Famine is a grim book, but a powerful one. To say it’s well researched is an understatement. It should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider Red Famine highly recommended.