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Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

Anne Applebaum's new book tells of an atrocity and cover-up that shape today's politics.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

History is a battleground, perennially fought over, endlessly contested. Nowhere does this aphorism hold true more than in Russia. A majority of Russians recently voted Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history (followed, naturally, by current President Vladimir Putin). No longer the monster of the gulags and purges that killed millions, Stalin now looms in the national consciousness as the giant who defeated the Nazis in World War II. Meanwhile, not only has Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Ukraine’s eastern regions, its military adventurism has also extended to Syria. Putin, who once described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, looks determined to avenge the humiliations of Russia’s post-Soviet implosion. Integral to this endeavor is not just to flex the country’s geopolitical might in the present but to re-write its past.

Doubleday, 496pp., $35.00

It is this point that makes the historiography of the USSR—a subject worthy of deep study in itself—so relevant today. Pulitzer-prize winning historian Anne Applebaum is one of the world’s pre-eminent chroniclers of the crimes of the Soviet Union. Her previous works, notably Gulag: A History, which detailed the horrors of the Soviet prison system, and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, which analyzed the USSR’s imposition of communism in Eastern Europe, have played their part in bringing to light the full extent of Soviet oppression. Her new book Red Famine—a masterpiece of scholarship, a ground-breaking history, and a heart-wrenching story—turns to the horrors of Soviet policy in Ukraine, specifically Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. Such was the famine’s devastation that Ukrainian émigré publications coined a new word to describe its barbarity: “Holodomor,” a combination of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). 

At least 5 million people died from starvation in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934—including 3.9 million Ukrainians. And, despite the contentions of certain historians of the Soviet Union, Applebaum argues that these deaths were no accident. As she notes at the beginning of the book, “The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed”—these policies were “all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.” 

Moreover, they were—along with the persecution of intellectuals and officials who had even the flimsiest connection to Ukrainian nationalism—part of a systematic assault not just on Ukraine, but on the very idea of Ukraine.

Collectivization of the farmlands of Ukraine began in 1929. Stalin wanted the country, with its hugely fertile black soil, to be the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. He wanted to feed the important party officials and to export its grain abroad to fund his vast industrialization projects. It was an unmitigated disaster. Farmers were no longer paid for their produce but worked according to a ration system based on their productivity. In reality it made them beholden to the party, which, controlling their finances, was able to control all aspects of their lives. And they were no longer able to buy food. 

From there it only got worse, peaking during 1932 and 33 when starvation struck Ukraine. Applebaum recounts in visceral and stomach-churning detail: 

The starvation of a human body once it begins always follows the same course. In the first phase the body consumes its stores of glucose. Feelings of extreme hunger set in… In the second phase, which can last 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 distended, the legs and belly swollen as extreme imbalances lead the body to retain water. Small amounts of effort lead to exhaustion. Along the way, different kinds of diseases can hasten death: scurvy, kwashiorkor, marasmus, pneumonia, typhus, diphtheria, and a wide range of infections and skin diseases caused, directly or indirectly, by lack of food.

As with all Applebaum books, Red Famine places personal anecdote in the context of broader history, showing through an alternately widening and narrowing lens both the political context and personal tragedy of the Holodomor. The book benefits from large troves of previously unavailable sources, as Applebaum has taken advantage of the extensive Ukrainian archives that have opened up since the collapse of the USSR.  Thus do we learn of the starving Tamara, with her “large, swollen stomach, and her neck…long and thin like a bird’s neck.” Another survivor remembers his mother as looking like “a glass jar, filled with clear spring water. All her body that could be seen…was see-through and filled with water like a plastic bag.” Yet another remembers his brother “alive but completely swollen, his body shining as if it were made of glass.” Such was the spectacle that words in themselves were no longer sufficient, only metaphor could convey the horror of what was happening.

People crawled into wheat fields to eat ears of wheat before dropping dead. They died from hunger in the act of eating. Children collapsed and died during lessons. A mother took the bread from her offspring to feed her husband (she could, she said, always have more kids, but she could only ever have one husband). A couple put their children in a deep hole and left them there, in order not to watch them die. A father strangled his own children rather than watch them perish from hunger. Communities that had once been kind and welcoming became mistrustful and violent; lynch mobs tortured people. And in the end, most horrifically of all, people began to eat each other.

And they pleaded to their government, above all to the man responsible for the suffering: Joseph Stalin. As one bereft Ukrainian wrote in a plangent letter:

Honourable Comrade Stalin, is there a Soviet government law stating that villagers should go hungry? Because we, collective farm workers, have not had a slice of bread in our farm since January 1… How can we build a socialist people’s economy when we are condemned to starving to death, as the harvest is still four months away? What did we die for on the battlefields? To go hungry, to see our children die in pangs of hunger?

But they were appealing to the wrong man, because it wasn’t just collectivization that was to blame. It was the combination of failed policy and brutality that caused the genocide of Ukrainians during those horrific two years. As Stalin’s collectivization bit, the peasants began, naturally, to resist, hiding food anywhere they could. This infuriated Stalin who saw these desperate measures as acts of rebellion and sabotage—from a perennially rebellious people no less—against the Communist ideal. 

The result was inevitable. “Long before collectivization began, the phenomenon of the violent expropriator—a man who brandished a gun, spouted slogans and demanded food—was familiar in Soviet Ukraine,” Applebaum tells us. Ukrainians had been subject to the plunder of grain by soldiers in 1918 and 1919, and by the Bolsheviks in 1920. And it was only to get worse. Under the leadership of the Stalin’s close associate, the barbarous Lazar Kaganovich, teams of policemen and party officials smashed and stole their way through the Ukrainian countryside, entering houses and “confiscating” all available food, livestock and even pets. 

They left nothing edible behind.

Non-Ukrainian Soviet citizens had been taught to distrust Ukrainians ever since the country had attempted to mould its own destiny in June 1917 by setting up a Ukrainian People’s Republic. This independent state, which resisted the armies of Vladimir Lenin during the Russian civil war, was to last only a few months. After several years of civil war, Ukraine became a Soviet Republic ruled from Moscow in December 1922. Ukrainian nationalism was seen from the beginning as a threat to the Bolshevik ideal, and was to be stamped out—at all costs.

During the famine of the 1930s, as peasants lay dying, the Soviet secret police began to repress all manner of Ukrainian intellectuals and officials who had tried to promote Ukraine’s language or history. Anyone with even the flimsiest connection to Ukrainian nationalism was liable to be vilified, arrested and sent to a labor camp or executed. It was a systematic assault not just on Ukraine, but on the idea of Ukraine. And it worked. The famine and repression of the Ukrainian intellectual classes eventually brought about “the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet Unity.”

And so silence marked the years that followed the famine. Ukrainians were prohibited from speaking of or writing on it: Soviet authorities expunged all traces of it from official accounts. Moscow’s destruction of all institutions of the Ukrainian countryside meant that the people lacked even tombstones to mourn over or churches to pray in. The Politburo wrote the official history of 1932 to 33. It was, so the version went, a history of some accidental but inevitable starvation due to Kulak corruption and problems with the climate and harvest. But alongside this an alternative history arose—an oral tradition in which parents passed on the details of what really happened to their children; the horrors of the famine would, they vowed, never be forgotten. 

Ironically, the Nazi invasion of Ukraine in 1941, and the propaganda assault against Moscow that accompanied it, allowed S. Sosnovyi, an agricultural economist, to publish the first quasi-scholarly study of the famine in a Ukrainian newspaper. The famine, he concluded, had been designed to destroy Ukrainian peasant opposition to Soviet power; it was not the result of “natural causes” but was deliberate and imposed. The new climate made it acceptable—in this area at least—for the truth to finally begin to emerge. 

But even as the decades wore on—even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech condemning many of Stalin’s actions after the latter’s death in 1953—the truth of the famine was missing from official Soviet narratives. In fact, in an ironic twist, the German invaders’ use of this history as propaganda against Stalin during the war made it easy for Soviet officials and historians to label anyone talking of a deliberate famine against Ukraine as “fascists” and “Nazis” spreading “Hitlerite propaganda.”

This trend reached its apex in 1987, in which a “Douglas Tottle” (who appears to have written little if anything before or after) published a book entitled Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth From Hitler to Harvard. His thesis was that the famine was a hoax propagated by a combination of Ukrainians fascists abroad and western intelligence agencies. It was a technique that would come to dominate all Soviet and Russian responses to the “Ukraine question.”

The Soviets’ anti-nationalist policy in Ukraine took a new form with the Holodomor, but the attitude itself was deep rooted. Ukraine has long been central to the Russian national consciousness. Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians all claim to descend from Kievan Rus,’ a group of East Slavic tribes that lived from the ninth to mid-thirteenth centuries. Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, the “mother of Rus’ cities,” was at the heart of this region. With the emergence of the Romanov dynasty in the seventeeth century, Ukraine began to be considered as an integral part of the Russian empire. In 1764, Catherine the Great created a new frontier territory called Novorossiya, in south and eastern Ukraine.

Today, Putin has revived the term to give legitimacy to Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and simultaneous backing of Ukrainian separatists fighting Kiev. On 27 February, 2014, masked Russians soldiers wearing no identifying insignia appeared on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and took over its parliament. The following month, after a referendum that much of the world deemed illegal, Russia formally annexed the territory. Moscow had simply stolen a large part of its much weaker neighbor. 

The move attests to the continuing inability of Russian leaders to accept the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state. When Putin revived the idea of Novorussiya to justify military action in southeastern Ukraine, his message was clear: the region was not Ukraine—a largely make-believe country—but an integral part of Russia. And Russian intervention, he argued, was badly needed. The 2014 EuroMaidan revolution in which Ukrainians rose up to overthrow their Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, was a CIA-backed “coup.” The government that replaced him was a “fascist junta” determined to persecute Russian-speakers in Ukraine and stamp out the speaking of Russian across the country. It was Douglas Tottle-style revisionism for the twenty-first century.

As Russia and Ukraine continue to fight on the battlefield, the Holodomor—central to the question of an independent Ukrainian identity—hovers over the conflict. In August 2015, Ukrainian Russian-backed separatists destroyed a monument to the victims of the famine in the occupied eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. Also that month, Sputnik, a Russian state website published an article in English entitled “Holodomor Hoax.”

One (unintended) effect of Russia’s assault on Ukraine has been to galvanize Ukrainian national feeling. And this resurgence has refocused attention on the Holodomor. This is why Red Famine, as the most complete exploration to date of one of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities, stands both as a work of huge historical importance and contemporary relevance. But above all it is a book of great emotional power, which stems directly from Applebaum’s willingness to give space to Ukrainian voices. As the poet Oleksa Veretenchenko wrote in 1943:

What has happened to the laughter,
To the bonfires girls used to light on Midsummer’s Eve?
Where are the Ukrainian villages
And the cherry orchards by the houses?
Everything has vanished in ravenous fire
Mothers are devouring their children,
Madmen are selling human flesh
At the markets.