(Book Review) Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

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Author: Anne Applebaum
Publisher: Doubleday, New York
Price: AU$37 from Book Depository
Edition: 1st Hardback edition. Paperback edition releases in mid 2018.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is a stunning and compelling work on the famine that struck Ukraine between 1932-1934. The central thesis of the book is this: that the famine in this time was not a normal famine and was instead created and intensified as deliberate policy on the part of Stalin to crush the vestiges of the national movement in Ukraine and for the liquidation of the kulaks.

The trajectory of the work begins us with the significance of Ukrainian national identity and the independence movement  and peasant rebellions that marked the country, which had long felt the pressures of Tsarist Russification policies, as a hotbed of anti-bolshevik resistance from the very beginning of their regime. After this, we get an overview of the civil war period, of how the countryside was brutalized by both the recently formed Red Army, as well as the White Army’s habit of requisitioning grain from peasants. A particular sub-point I found here was that Applebaum ascribes Denikin, a White general, as being too blinded by the dismissive attitudes towards Ukrainians, to properly utilise the local populations in the fight against Bolshevism and thus as one of the reasons the Whites lost the civil war.  Another faction of the civil war that I had previously not known about, known as the Black army under Makhno, who were essentially anarchists, provided interesting reading.

From here,we move on to the famine of the civil war. This is a fundamental and important part of the text to understand Anne’s central thesis as it lays the groundwork for the distinction between genuine famine caused by war, bad weather and disastrous economic policies versus one created with the intent to weaken or destroy the population. Here we see how the nascent Bolshevik regime under Lenin, tried to squeeze Ukraine for all it’s grain, but as anyone who has studied the bolshevik revolution will know, international aid was allowed and indeed requested by the government to aid at risk populations. However much of it could have still been avoided without the disastrous set of policies known as ‘War Communism’ and the continued export of grain whilst the countryside was starving, a policy that would continue well into the Stalinist era, for the purposes of purchasing industrial equipment from abroad. We also see how the organs of the regime, primarily the Chekists, engineered class warfare and pushed the concept of the kulaks as the class enemy, but as Applebaum explains, the definition of kulak deliberately became a very loose word, liberally used to describe any peasant who might not have been well off, but might have had two cows instead of one or simply disagreed with or resisted bolshevik ideology.

Further on, we have multiple chapters dedicated to collectivization policies and resistance (and compliance) with them. In these chapters especially we are shown how brutal and coercive the bolsheviks were in implementing their policies towards the peasantry. We see the paranoia, the arrests, how the secret police (known at this time as the OGPU) worked and presented their findings to the party. We see how neighbours were often turned against each other, and also how the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who were not communist approved, or were at least under suspicion by them, were often targeted, harassed and liquidated. But Anne presents a nuanced account of events, especially in the following chapters about the Holodomor itself, where there were people at various levels in the Ukrainian Communist Party, as well as the party in Moscow, who showed dissent, especially towards collectivization and the unrealistic grain fulfilment quotas. While this book focuses on, and is generally sympathetic to Ukrainians, those who suffered in other regions of the USSR, such as those in Kazakhstan and the Russian heartland are given mention, this book isn’t Russophobic and the blame is firmly assigned to Stalin himself and the Bolshevik regime more generally, although it is noted that the peasantry often viewed those committing the crimes against them as foreigners, typically Russians or Jews in their eyes. Moreover, we see how people actively collaborated with the bolshevik policy, those in Ukraine and how people were incentivized to turn against each other. The line between perpetrator and victim is shown to at times be a blurry and difficult distinction to make, as the same person can often be both.

These chapters on the collectivization process, and the famine itself are incredibly harrowing even though they are presented in an un sentimental fashion, especially when it talks about the process of starvation and how the soviet authorities created the situation. Roads were blocked, villages were blacklisted, aid was denied, peasants were not allowed to trade, especially if you were not on a collective farm. At first there was resistance but the population was starved into submission. Activist brigades regularly raided homes and searched thoroughly for every last morsel of food. This is why the early chapters on previous famines were so important: the character of famines were clearly different and no genuine famine has representatives of the state actively taking away food from those in need of it. The crisis, engineered as it was, continued to worsen, lead to chaos in the cities, the absolute devastation of the Ukrainian countryside and the degradation of the population into emaciated husks, driven to madness and some to the point of cannibalism. These parts are particularly horrifying and distressing, but crucial, to understanding the absolute horror of this time. The book as a whole is a very depressing read and is not for the faint of heart.

After these chapters, we see the aftermath of the famine and how the authorities covered up the famine, both abroad and domestically. But the cover up abroad couldn’t have succeeded without a press corp in Moscow at the time that is shy of being outright accused of cowardice by the author, as it is said that they were generally aware of what was happening but kept their mouths shut because of coercion. As well as statesmen in Western European countries and America who were mislead or kept quiet, especially British and American authorities, who wanted to maintain positive diplomatic ties with the USSR to keep Hitler in check. These statesmen, especially the Stalin fanboy, Roosevelt, should be utterly condemned by posterity for their cowardice and refusal to simply speak up about this.

The final chapters of the book conclude with a solid discussion and overview of the historiography of the Holodomor and how it is remembered in Ukraine, Russia and abroad during the Second World War and after, being utilised propagandistically in Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and as a part of modern Ukrainian national identity that helps justify it’s grievances towards Russia as well as sovereignty. And like Solzhenitsyn said about Bolshevism and gulag breaking “the back of Russia”, Bolshevism did the same to Ukraine and it explains the current state of things in that country. The final chapter, an epilogue is primarily about this, helping to summarise the text and place in the context on contemporary Russo-Ukrainian relations, offering a fairly pointed and convincing criticism of the Russian Federation’s attitude towards the Holodomor and current policy towards Ukraine. This must be the chapter that fires up negative amazon reviews of the book that claim it is a conspiracy made to subvert Russia in the same way the excellent film, The Death of Stalin, was accused of by Russian government officials, which are honestly laughable accusations that miss the point.

Now that I have given a brief, but nowhere near extensive overview of some of the main points of the book, what did I think overall? As you can probably tell, I found Red Famine compelling, convincing and worthy of praise. Applebaum’s prose, while some might find dry, is generally excellent as it is uncluttered, readable and perfectly structured, with social, political and economic history seamlessly woven together. Events, individuals, institutions are described and analysed well, without excessive editorialising or moralizing and everything is very easy to follow. The central thesis is well supported by rigorous research that pulls from plenty of primary sources, such as diaries and memoirs, OGPU archives, Soviet archives, cultural works and the most up to date scholarship from Ukrainian sources from inside Ukraine itself or research institutes in the West, as well as pulling from many scholarly works on Soviet history. Familiar names like Richard Pipes pop up from time to time and Robert Conquest, something of a pioneer on the subject whose work Harvest of Sorrow (1986) was one of the early works on the subject in english, is given it’s just due. I actually considered purchasing Harvest of Sorrow, but decided on Red Famine instead, given it is more up to date, being released in 2017.

The subject of the Holodomor, in the English speaking world at least, is semi obscure. At least, as far as I’m aware, the general public lacks awareness of the subject beyond vague and ephemeral anti-communism. It definitely doesn’t have the traction and imprint in the mainstream anglophone consciousness that holocaust narratives do, especially since I have yet to see a major hollywood film on the subject. IMDB lists about 10 films that deal with the subject, all of them obscure. Indeed, the general public is typically ignorant of Soviet history and the region in general. One occasionally comes across those that still believe that Russia is communist, or don’t know who Stalin was, for instance. Hopefully works like Red Famine can generate more awareness of this terrible tragedy and improve understanding of Russia and Ukraine, as well as how states, in the past as well as now, deal with dissent.

That said, considering the academic tone of the work, I do not think this will have wide appeal to the general public in Anglophone countries, but it should appeal to anyone with an interest in Soviet history, international relation, as well as students studying the Bolshevik revolution in high school or any study on the Soviet Union more generally. The first 100 pages or so would be especially useful for those studying the Bolshevik revolution and civil war up to 1924 and would be of great interest for history teachers to include in their lesson plans, class discussions or as suggested reading to curious students. Additionally, those who study genocides might find this work valuable. But my hope is that awareness of this tragedy isn’t relegated to the relative obscurity of academia or students simply looking to impress their teachers and examiners, but for a genuine understanding of the past and present state of Ukraine and Russia, as well as the capacity for human suffering and cruelty. It would definitely make a great companion to The Gulag Archipelago, despite the different focus. Red Famine is a brilliant work of scholarship that is presented perfectly. It is essential reading.


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