A major new study of one of the most murderous episodes in Joseph Stalin’s time as dictator of Soviet Russia, entitled Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Allen Lane, 2017), offers new perspectives on the still relatively under-researched ‘Holodomor’ (the Ukraine word for ‘death by hunger’).
Written by the award-winning historian Anne Applebaum, whose previous books include Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (2003) – a ground-breaking study which won the Pulitzer prize – Red Famine explores (to use Applebaum’s own words) Stalin’s ‘disastrous decision’ to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms, and the huge and negative impact this policy had on the Ukraine in 1932-33, bringing key parts of the countryside to the brink of mass starvation.
It has been estimated that the decision by Stalin and the Communist Party to force general ‘collectivisation’ on the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934 led to the deaths of at least 5m people across the whole country, and 4m of these were Ukrainians. Moreover, the Communist state sought to cover all this up, preventing foreign journalists reporting on it to the wider world, and altering official census records within the country. In fact, the Communist regime engaged in a blatant attempt to re-write history.
However, despite this, according to Applebaum, thousands of archival records remained in existence, while the Ukrainians themselves kept alive their memory of these horrific times over subsequent generations. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 1985 Chernobyl nuclear accident, a new generation of Ukrainian intellectuals began to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the Soviet system, especially given its toxic industrial policies and notorious secrecy. Part of this involved a ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Holodomor’.
Applebaum’s new study reveals that she first encountered the story of the famine shortly after the Chernobyl events, when the Ukraine’s independence movement was beginning to flourish in the late 1980s and when, as part of the search for a new national identity and a reclamation of Ukraine’s history, a huge national effort was getting underway to collect the memories of famine survivors. Ukraine achieved its sovereignty in 1991, as part of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and this opened up new research possibilities for Western historians to gain access to previously-closed archives and other invaluable primary sources.
What Applebaum’s study also confirms is the long-standing suspicion held by Western scholars that the famine in the Ukraine was not just a result of the stupidity or naive ideological ambitions of the Communist State’s ‘collectivisation’ programme, but was a tool deliberately used by Stalin to stamp on any signs of Ukrainian nationalism. In other words, as Applebaum puts it, the elite leadership of the Communist Party, firmly under the iron grip of Stalin, decided to use the famine in the Ukraine to crush Ukraine’s desire for sovereignty and nip in the bud any future rebellions by Ukrainian peasants, class traitors or ‘counter-revolutionaries’.
As well as decimating the peasant class, this ‘war’ on the Ukraine by Stalin was also underpinned by other harsh and deliberately planned measures: every Ukrainian nationalist leader was executed or imprisoned in labour camps, the Ukrainian language was ruthlessly repressed, and many thousands of Ukrainians and their families were deported to other distant parts of the Soviet Union, many of them dying as a consequence.
All in all, Red Famine will undoubtedly reinforce Anne Applebaum’s reputation as one of the West’s leading historians of Stalinist crimes and, in particular, will introduce the ‘Holodomor’ to a new generation of students and other readers. And, given the recent and worrying revival of interest in Stalin and other ‘strong men’ in some parts of the former Eastern Communist Bloc, it is arguably more important than ever to understand the nature of authoritarianism, and the reasons why dictators always prefer physical force rather than reason and democracy.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)