Nearly 40 years ago, I met the parents of a graduate-school friend. They were exiles, Ukrainians, a people said not to exist, not really. Their son had told them that I took an unfriendly interest in Soviet history, and that I knew a little about their lost homeland.
The father asked if I’d heard about a famine there in the early 1930s. I had: something to do with collectivization.
“There was more to it than that.”
In Red Famine, Anne Applebaum, a prominent journalist and the author of fine histories of the Gulag and the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe, recounts just how much more there was. Red Famine is powerfully written, extensively researched, and, frequently, painful reading. It tells of a meticulous annihilation that tore a nation away from its traditions, its language, its morality, its past, its future, its everything: “A woman whose six children died over three days in May 1933 lost her mind, stopped wearing clothes, unbraided her hair, and told everyone that the ‘red broom’ had taken her family away.”
Her life had unraveled, her culture had unraveled — there’s accidental symbolism in that unbraiding — and she unraveled. The land around her unraveled too: once a breadbasket, now a wasteland, a domain of the dead and those waiting to die, Muselmänner, as they were known in Auschwitz.
Neighbor was set against neighbor, cannibalism was far from rare (yes, you read that right).
By the time — it took less than a year — the red broom had completed its 1932–33 sweep (there were smaller sweeps before and after), roughly 3.9 million Ukrainians were dead: a decimation, and more. Countless others were deported, many to a Gulag that had plenty of demand for slave labor. Large numbers never returned.
Some of this came with collectivization, Stalin’s decision to impose larger collective or state-owned farming across the USSR. Even Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent and a reliable shill for the Soviet dictator, admitted that collectivization had been a “mess”; still, he said, while there had been casualties, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” And quite often those casualties were not unwelcome to the regime. Communism, like the millenarian movements it succeeded, rested on the notion of a great sorting between sinners and saved. Collectivization could be used to weed out enterprising, more successful private farmers, the relentlessly demonized “kulaks” (a category regularly expanded to include peasants who owned, say, a cow or a pig more than their fellow villagers), who were too smart to be won over by deceptive promises of the bounty that Communism would bring to agriculture: They were another of the Soviet Union’s disposable classes, “former people” in the sinister and, all too often, prophetic terminology of that era.
In Ukraine, the noose was drawn far tighter than anywhere else — a fact still denied by today’s Kremlin and its apologists. The millions who starved to death there, like those who died in famines elsewhere in the USSR at that time, were, it is maintained, the victims of a reckless agricultural experiment, nothing more. Applebaum agrees that the “chaos of collectivization helped create the conditions that led to famine,” but rightly goes on to argue that neither chaos, nor the weather, nor crop failure can account for the death toll in Ukraine, and especially that terrible spike in the spring of 1933. For that, the better explanation is a series of measures enacted by the regime that can only have been intended to kill. There’s a reason this famine is known to Ukrainians as the “Holodomor,” a term, Applebaum explains, derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination.
Stalin, writes Applebaum, “launched a famine within the famine, . . . specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.” It was not enough to hit the region’s faltering farms with grain-production targets they had no chance of meeting and then to requisition what they had managed to grow. Seed corn was often seized too, as were livestock, potatoes, and, eventually, just about anything else that someone might have hoped to eat. Houses were repeatedly ransacked in hunts for any hidden scraps. Cooking utensils (and other goods) might well be taken, too. Tight controls were imposed to restrict movement out of the countryside into hungry cities (which were often unable or unwilling to help in any case), let alone out of Ukraine. Exports of grain, however, continued. Millions in hard currency were worth more than millions of lives.
Traveling to find work elsewhere was out of the question. Farms and villages judged to have fallen particularly short of production quotas — no small number — were “blacklisted”: burdened with yet more restrictions, confiscations, and prohibitions, and denied credit, essential services, and the right to barter or trade. The peasants were trapped, cut off. Not to be starving was a sign of guilt, inviting another search.
Applebaum records how a Polish diplomat crossing the border from rural Ukraine into an adjacent Russian province in May 1933 was left with the impression that he had crossed into “Western Europe,” so great was the contrast. Ukraine had, quite clearly, been singled out.
And the reason for that was Stalin’s recognition that Ukrainians’ belief that they were a people distinct from their Russian neighbors was authentic and thus potentially dangerous. The confused period that followed the Bolshevik Revolution had seen two attempts to establish a separate Ukrainian state as well as a massive peasant uprising that had evolved into a war of all against all — and a serious threat to the nascent Soviet regime. When the Bolsheviks finally secured their hold over the country, they first played, by their dismal standards, nice. Ukrainians were led to believe that their Soviet Republic would, in a real sense, be Ukrainian and, often, run by Ukrainians.
That was never likely to be a solution acceptable to Stalin, that paradoxical Georgian enforcer of Russian imperial control, a man who knew a thing or two about nations — and how to break them. When, in 1925, Stalin declared that “the peasant question is the basis, the quintessence, of the national question,” it was Ukraine that was on his mind. If Ukraine was to become “a true fortress of the USSR, a truly model republic,” which Stalin had said that he wanted, the uncomfortably large, uncomfortably independent peasantry, the repository of so much of Ukrainian tradition and, in some sense, Ukraine’s soul, would have to be ground down.
But Ukraine would have to be decapitated, too. Applebaum details the silencing and, often, destruction of much of Ukraine’s intelligentsia, and the purge of a Ukrainian Communist Party with a membership too prone, the Kremlin suspected, to go its own way.
The Holodomor is properly understood only when it is understood as part of a broader, deeper assault on the Ukrainian national idea. Applebaum records how, even as “the famine was raging, . . . Stalin’s de facto spokesman in Ukraine forced through a decree eliminating Ukrainian textbooks as well as school lessons tailored to Ukrainian children” — another warning that Moscow had not finished with Ukraine. Taken as a whole, Stalin’s multifaceted onslaught on Ukrainians as a people would (as Applebaum points out) “certainly” pass the test established for genocide by Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who coined the term. Indeed, Lemkin acknowledged as much. Whether it would meet the narrower definition of genocide set out in the U.N. Convention on Genocide is, Applebaum contends (perhaps too cautiously), a different matter, but, as she notes, that convention was heavily influenced by a Soviet Union that had no interest in being asked to answer for its crimes.
The final stage of genocide or ethnic cleansing — call it what you will — is usually the replacement of the old population with a new one. Russian peasants started to move into the emptied villages, the beginning of what Applebaum describes as a “slow-motion movement of Russians into a depopulated Ukraine” that was to last for decades, further blurring the idea of a Ukrainian Ukraine in a way that helped the Soviets then, and helps Vladimir Putin now.
The Holodomor was unmentionable in the Soviet Union until just before the USSR’s collapse. And shamefully, indifference in the West played a part in greasing its transformation from a topic that was forbidden into one that came close to being forgotten. Applebaum rightly highlights the role played in the original Soviet cover-up by Times man Duranty, not least the way he so effectively smothered the reporting of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who stepped off a train at a place he wasn’t meant to, walked for three days through the hell the Holodomor was creating, and told the world what he had seen.
Memory can sometimes outlast efforts to repress it. When, in the late 1980s, it finally became possible to talk about the Holodomor in the USSR, the long-buried memories of those years played their part in paving the way to Ukrainian independence in 1991. This was perversely acknowledged by the “Russian-backed separatists” who (Applebaum relates) destroyed a Holodomor memorial in the occupied eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne in 2015. It was a desecration that also echoed the Kremlin’s attempts to escape the consequences of the past by evasion and denial, a would-be rewriting of history that makes this compelling book all the more timely — and all the more necessary.