Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum: starvation as a weapon
Soviet authorities destroyed and seized food to eliminate Ukrainian identity and independence
1932: carts laden with bread supplies sent by the Bolsheviks from a collective farm leave Alekseyevka in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
Red Famine Stalin’s War on Ukraine
This book centres on the horrific and formative events that occurred in Ukraine from 1932-1934 and resulted in the death of upwards of four million people in a series of politically orchestrated famines perpetrated by Soviet officials on the Ukrainian people.
During this tragic and chaotic period, (which incidentally occurred in one of the most agriculturally productive areas of Europe) Ukraine saw not only the destruction of most of its rural and small urban communities but the systemic eradication of much of its culture, which had been in existence for hundreds if not thousands of years. This event therefore became known as the Great Ukraine Famine or the Holdomar, which loosely translates as “to kill by famine” reflecting a belief among those affected that the Soviet authorities used the destruction and seizure of crops and livestock to eliminate any sense of Ukrainian identity and independence and firmly install communist authority over this fertile and strategic region.
Subsequently, with Ukraine now once again a battleground between Russia and the West, represented by the European Union and Nato, these events find a new relevance as both these factions seek to create a buffer in Ukraine to protect their interests. Moreover, as various factions choose which side to appeal to for support in their campaign for regional power, their disputes over whether to seek support from the West or Russia are directly linked to the political fragmentation of the country after 1933 and the continued disunity between the eastern, Russian-speaking industrial region of the Donbass and the more rural Ukrainian-speaking lands around Kiev.
Set between the rise of communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Russian civil war and second World War, this book covers the shockingly forgotten and overlooked actions of the Soviet Union to exploit and subdue the fertile lands of Ukraine by any means possible. These actions by the Soviet Union, which are often forgotten in western Europe due to the later rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany and the subsequent catastrophic and horrendous second World War, effectively equated to a war of starvation, political division and cultural destruction by communist authorities on the vast majority of the Ukrainian peasantry, especially those unfortunate enough to be labelled as kulaks or moderately comfortable farmers who engaged in low-level capitalist trading and commercial agriculture. Moreover, the communist authorities perceived the kulaks as the theoretical enemy to the advent of a working-class communist society and the industrial development of the Soviet Union.
Seen as the breadbasket for the forthcoming socialist and industrial revolution but still an agrarian society holding onto its unique cultural heritage, which was rooted in a different Slavic language, social hierarchy, customs and religion from its Russian neighbours, the majority Russian Soviets resolved to politically transform Ukraine by dismantling it into a series of competing factions. This divide and rule policy was done through the eradication of popular Ukraine unity by turning less successful farmers and agricultural workers against their kulak neighbours and by branding these supposed class traitors by claiming they were hoarding grain to deny it to the proletariat classes in the rapidly industrialising Soviet cities.
With such an enormous scope, Anne Applebaum has been able for the most part to produce a detailed and extremely well written, accessible book for both academic and non-academic audiences. It is laden with fascinating insights and personal statements from first-hand accounts, the result no doubt of torturous and extensive research from newly opened archives inside the Soviet Union and from other previously inaccessible resources. Utilising these sources , the author is able to adequately explore the traumatic events on the ground during the manmade famine as communities became violently divided along political lines even as widespread hunger began to claim more and more victims.
Moreover, Applebaum is able to capture the various political and military factions at play in Ukraine in this period as well as the significance of events leading up the famine. These influential, complex and confusing developments included the first World War that saw a multitude of bandits and forces including German, Austro-Hungarian, White Russian, Polish, Anarchist, Ukrainian nationalists and the Red Army lay claim to Ukraine before Soviet rule was confirmed.
The author explains how to assert control over the region the Soviets first allowed moderate toleration of local customs but increasingly worked to divide the Ukrainian people against each other by playing up fears of capitalist repression before beginning a crackdown that saw their forces blacklist, execute or deport potentially threatening opponents and begin forcibly removing food from already starving peasants.
Perhaps a chapter dealing with the history of Ukraine, its culture, resources and various ethnic groups and their afflictions, would be useful as an introduction to explain the value the region had to the Soviet Union as well as its fragile political nature and complex history as a frontier zone between east and west. Additionally, it could cover in wider detail the extent to which famine hit other areas of the Soviet Union as well as the finer details of Stalin’s Great Leap Forward plan to industrialise the Soviet Union. Also Stalin’s other atrocities against other ethnic minorities such as his mass deportation of the Volga Germans and Chechens from their homelands to beyond the Ural Mountains could also be examined as an interesting comparison to Soviet policy in the Ukraine. Otherwise, it is an engrossing read detailing a confused and controversial period in European history with remarkable clarity.