Anne Applebaum's Red Famine puts Ukraine's Holodomor in context

Applebaum argues that the Holodomor was not just a humanitarian disaster—it was a systematic attack on the country itself.
September 14, 2017

The 1932-33 famine precipitated by forced collectivisation is Ukraine’s principal national tragedy. Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine draws on an impressive range of published primary sources and recent secondary literature to put the Holodomor, as it is known, in context as well as evoking the terrible months during which around 4.5m people died. Already in 1920, Soviet procurements commissars requisitioning grain decided that “state interests must always come first.” A decade later, such callousness, plus grotesque over-estimates of grain supposedly hidden, made Stalin and his henchmen dismiss evidence of mass starvation.

Applebaum argues that the Holodomor was not just a humanitarian disaster. It was a systematic attack on the country itself. For many Russians, the country was a kind of comical province, “Little Russia.” Support was briefly given to Ukrainian language and culture in the 1920s, but was withdrawn after Stalin took power. Yet terror of national separatism persisted. Thus starvation followed by mass arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals implemented Sovietisation through repression.

Red Famine will not end debates about whether famine in Ukraine was a unique cataclysm or one among many state crimes perpetrated during collectivisation. And some might question the book’s straightforward identification of perpetrators as Russian-speaking: after all, speakers of Surzhyk patois and Ukrainian also signed up to the new political faith. All the same, this lucid and judicious account skilfully provides readers with a grasp of the Holodomor’s significance in the politics of memory, as a unifying tragedy where recollections of war are divisive, conveying the disaster’s place in the tormented history of one of modern Europe’s most conflict-torn regions.

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraineby Anne Applebaum is published by Allen Lane (£25)