Red Famine traces the shocking history of Stalin’s war on Ukraine

Anne Applebaum shows beyond doubt that the famine was man-made and ordered for clear political reasons.

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“The starvation of a human body, once it begins, always follows the same course,” Anne Applebaum explains in this harrowing and brilliant book.

In the first phase, the body consumes its stores of glucose… In the second phase, which can last for several weeks, the body begins to consume its own fats and the organism weakens drastically. In the third phase, the body devours its own proteins, cannibalising tissues and muscles. Eventually the skin becomes thin, the eyes become distended, the legs and belly swollen…

The matter-of-fact style Applebaum uses to describe the ghastliest horrors never dulls her compassion or the subtlety of her historical understanding of eastern Europe.

Between 1932 and 1933, around four million people perished in Ukraine in a famine deliberately created by Stalin with the purpose of weakening resistance to collective farming and destroying the sense of national identity. Ukrainians call it the Holodomor – literally “hunger death”.

The crime was barbaric even for the 20th century. Compounding the cruelty, the Soviets tried to cover up their actions, right up to the break-up of the USSR six decades later. They falsified census records so that millions of the dead simply disappeared. Two generations were denied the right to mourn the victims.

The Soviets were so successful in hiding the evidence that little was known of the famine until the story was partially revealed by the British historian Robert Conquest in The Harvest of Sorrow, published in 1986. Applebaum has had the benefit of access to a mass of new material that has become available since Ukraine became independent and some archives were opened in the former Soviet Union. She has used new testimony to produce a book that, like her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag (2003), mixes deep scholarship with vivid storytelling.

There are many people in Russia – including the ultra-nationalists around Vladimir Putin – who deny the fact of the Ukrainian famine as “fake history”. In the Kremlin’s efforts to rehabilitate Stalin as a strongman who kept the Russian empire great, official history states that there was starvation but it was a natural disaster sent by God.

Applebaum shows beyond doubt that the famine was man-made and ordered by Stalin for clear political reasons. He wanted to destroy the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, liquidate the kulaks as a class by evicting them from their homes, force the peasantry into submitting to collectivisation and strangle national demands in the semi-autonomous republics – especially in Ukraine.

The Bolsheviks always distrusted the peasantry, which in 1917 formed around 85 per cent of the population in Russia and Ukraine. They believed – rightly – that peasants had a deeply anti-socialist attachment to the land and, in particular, ownership of land. In 1921, the Bolsheviks’ disastrous policies of forced grain requisitions and class war in the villages caused mass starvation in the fertile “black earth” region of the northern Caucasus, the Volga basin and Ukraine.

A dozen years later, the countryside was again on the brink of mass starvation. Stalin’s drive to form collective farms was failing and was producing less than half the grain ordained by the 1928 “five-year plan”. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s comrades sent him telegrams begging for help. The most urgent came from Ukraine.

Instead of sending aid, the ruthless magnates in the Kremlin reached decisions they knew would worsen the famine. Red Army soldiers seized the borders and stopped Ukrainians moving elsewhere to find food; they stopped people from villages going to cities, so the starvation was confined to remote countryside areas. Organised groups of Communist Party activists, police and officials from the OGPU (the precursor of the KGB) entered peasant households and took everything edible they could find. They took food from tables and in ovens. They took anything in cupboards, any animals they saw, including pets and even the hedgehogs that were being eaten as hunger set in.

This is not a book for the squeamish. Applebaum records how cannibalism was commonplace. At one point in the spring of 1933, police were investigating ten cases a day of parents mad with hunger killing their own sons and daughters either to feed themselves or their other children.

Starving Ukrainian peasants was one part of Stalin’s determination to punish various Ukrainian rebellions during the civil war and to destroy any semblance of a national identity. In cities such as Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkiv, the Soviet secret police began mass arrests of intellectuals. Thousands were shot or sent into the great maw of the Gulag, in a practice run of the Great Terror throughout the USSR a few years later.

The Ukrainian language was banned in schools. Loyal Russian communists were despatched to eastern Ukraine as bureaucrats, and workers from greater Russia were sent to factories around Donetsk and the coal mines of the Donbass, where large numbers of ethnic Russians still live.

The vast majority of Ukrainians have a forebear who died or suffered in the Holodomor. It is a deep wound that invariably opens up when a Russian and a Ukrainian talk of the ghastly passages in their shared history. Nobody should discount the possibility – perhaps probability – that the simmering dispute between Russia and Ukraine will escalate into a dangerous crisis once again. If so, differing historical interpretations of 1932-33 will form the background to the emotional rhetoric on both sides. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in Ukraine and Russia today. 

Victor Sebestyen’s most recent book is “Lenin the Dictator” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine
Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world