[Marxism] Review of Anne Applebaum's "Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 30 07:00:11 MDT 2018

NY Review of Books,AUGUST 16, 2018 ISSUE	
Killing by Hunger
by Serhii Plokhy

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine
by Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, 461 pp., $35.00

On December 14, 1932, Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, the former 
as head of the Communist Party, the latter as premier of the Soviet 
government, signed a decree titled “On the Procurement of Grain in 
Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Western Region.” The country was in 
the midst of a food crisis that had already caused widespread hunger, 
but the decree was not concerned with the famine. Its purpose was to 
mobilize party cadres to continue extracting grain from the countryside 
so that, among other things, it could be sold abroad to pay for Soviet 
industrialization. Procurement quotas were not being fulfilled, and the 
collectivization of agriculture was in trouble, as were the reputation 
of Stalin and his team and ultimately their chances of staying in power.

The Soviet leaders demanded that their underlings in Ukraine and the 
North Caucasus—two of the three main grain-producing areas of the 
USSR—fulfill the grain-procurement quotas for 1932 by January–February 
1933. The decree of December 14 ordered the arrest and, if necessary, 
the execution of collective farm heads and local officials who fell 
short. Some of the “saboteurs” were mentioned by name: fifteen regional 
officials were to be sentenced to hard labor for five or ten years—the 
decree gave the Soviet judiciary a modicum of flexibility in that 
regard. In the Kuban region of the North Caucasus, the inhabitants of 
the Poltavskaia settlement were accused of sabotaging the procurement 
campaign, and the secret police were ordered to deport its entire 
population to the Soviet north. The village would be resettled by Red 
Army veterans from central Russia.

But Stalin was not after grain alone. The decree of December 14 also 
dealt with the politics of culture. All the “saboteurs” listed by name 
were Soviet cadres from Ukraine, and the Poltavskaia villagers happened 
to be overwhelmingly Ukrainian as well. The decree ordered local 
officials in Kuban to change the language of their official 
correspondence and of public education immediately from Ukrainian to 
Russian and to stop publishing Ukrainian-language newspapers and 
journals. It also demanded that the republic’s leaders establish strict 
control over the “Ukrainization” policy instituted in the 1920s to 
promote the development of Ukrainian culture, as well as to purge 
nationalists and agents of foreign powers.

The December 1932 decree turned Stalin’s all-Union grain-extraction 
campaign into a direct assault on the Ukrainian political elite and the 
cultural foundations of Ukrainian nation-building, thereby 
distinguishing the famine in Ukraine from that in other parts of the 
USSR. Now known in Ukraine as the Holodomor (killing by hunger), the 
famine of 1932–1933 claimed the lives of close to four million 
Ukrainians, more than half of all those who starved to death in the 
Soviet Union during that period. It dramatically changed Ukrainian 
society and culture, leaving deep scars in the national memory. It also 
produced a vast literature on the subject, and since the Soviet regime 
refused to admit the very existence of the famine, its recognition was 
hotly contested in the last decades of the cold war. Subsequently it 
became a matter of dispute between Ukraine and Russia, with the 
Ukrainian government defining the famine as an act of genocide against 
the Ukrainian people and the Russian government stressing that the 
disaster affected the entire Soviet Union.

Anne Applebaum walks into the minefields of memory left by Stalin’s 
policies in Ukraine and multiple attempts to conceal, uncover, 
interpret, and reinterpret the Holodomor, bringing a new determination 
to set the record straight and new evidence that has become accessible 
since the fall of the Soviet Union. Red Famine is the most important 
study in English of the famine since Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow 
(1986) and stands out for its persistent focus on Ukraine as the place 
where the history of the famine not only took on its salient 
characteristics and conclusions but also where it began. Applebaum 
recognizes and states repeatedly that the famine was not limited to 
Ukraine and was caused by policies that grew out of considerations and 
circumstances broader than what she defines as Moscow’s “Ukrainian 
Question.” But she is no less persistent in pointing out the uniqueness 
of the Ukrainian situation and the political and cultural factors—the 
strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the stubborn peasant resistance to 
the Communist regime in Moscow, and, last but not least, the fertility 
of the soil—that made the Ukrainian famine the deadliest of the Soviet 
famines of the time.*

The time frame of the book is unusually broad for a history of the Great 
Famine. While the events of 1932–1933 are central, Applebaum presents a 
brief survey of Ukraine’s history before the twentieth century that 
illuminates her approach to the “Ukrainian Question.” She also covers in 
detail the prehistory of the famine, starting with the revolution of 
1917, and her epilogue brings the interpretation of the Holodomor up to 
the present. This broad perspective helps to explain its importance for 
the perennial historical debate on the Russian Revolution, understood in 
the book as comprising a number of national revolutions, for the history 
of Ukraine, and for the history of Russo–Ukrainian relations, which are 
so hostile today.

Ukraine’s rich black soil has produced grain for international markets 
since the days of Herodotus, and the country became known as the 
“breadbasket of Europe” long before Germany occupied it in 1918 to feed 
its army and home front. The Bolsheviks were there before the Germans 
came. Applebaum documents the Bolshevik obsession with Ukrainian grain 
in striking detail. “For God’s sake, use all energy and all 
revolutionary measures to send grain, grain and more grain!” wrote 
Vladimir Lenin to his commanders in Ukraine in January 1918. “Otherwise 
Petrograd may starve to death. Use special trains and special 
detachments. Collect and store. Escort the trains. Inform us every day. 
For God’s sake!” Lenin’s troops were waging war against the socialist 
government of the Ukrainian Central Rada, allegedly to crush 
counterrevolution, but at the top of Lenin’s agenda was grain, without 
which the Bolshevik regime was doomed. The villages, especially the 
Ukrainian villages, were to be robbed and exploited: Communist 
colonialism was taking shape.

The Bolshevik regime survived civil war and economic collapse not only 
by being ruthless but also by making concessions to forces that its 
leaders were initially unprepared to tolerate, including Ukrainian 
nationalism and the Ukrainian peasantry. The first was appeased by the 
policy of Ukrainization, which offered support for the Ukrainian 
language and culture in exchange for giving up aspirations to political 
sovereignty. The second was pacified by the New Economic Policy, which 
allowed the peasants to keep the land they had acquired in the 
revolution and put an end to requisitions, introducing elements of the 

Ukraine, or rather the eastern and central parts of today’s Ukraine that 
comprised the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic during the interwar 
period, benefited from both policies, but the Bolsheviks considered them 
temporary. Their long-term objective was the transformation of the 
peasantry into the working class and the elimination of ethnic and 
national differences. “The national question is purely a peasant 
question,” declared Mikhail Kalinin, the nominal head of the Soviet 
state and one of the very few Bolshevik leaders with a peasant 
background. “The best way to eliminate nationality is a massive factory 
with thousands of workers.” The connection established by the Bolshevik 
rulers between the peasant and nationality questions created policies 
that cost Ukraine millions of lives.

The Soviet Union entered the 1930s with a new sense of insecurity that 
prompted a drive to accelerate the revolutionary transformation of the 
economy and society. The Soviet leaders’ hopes of using the Russian 
Revolution as a spark to ignite world revolution, first in Europe and 
then in the colonial East, never materialized and were replaced by their 
determination to build socialism in one country. The survival of the 
regime in a hostile capitalist environment necessitated a strong 
industrial base to arm and mechanize the military, while mobilizing the 
population in defense of the “socialist motherland” required an ideology 
with deeper local roots than Marxist internationalism. The regime looked 
to the villages to provide human and agricultural resources for 
industrialization and to Russian nationalism as a source of 
legitimization—which promised nothing good for Ukraine.

The villages were the first to feel pressure from Moscow. Stalin’s 
policy of forced collectivization, implemented in the fall of 1929, 
singled out Ukraine for especially rapid conversion to the supposedly 
more efficient model of agriculture. The collectivized farms were to 
produce more grain and sell it to the state for rock-bottom prices, 
providing resources for building industry and the military. Those who 
questioned the new policy were declared to be kulaks (in Russian) or 
kurkuls (in Ukrainian)—a term that meant a wealthy peasant and exploiter 
and cast the most entrepreneurial peasants, who had everything to lose 
from collectivization, as agents of counterrevolution. But eventually 
the regime began to apply the term to almost anyone who opposed it. In 
March 1930 Moscow ordered the arrest of 15,000 kurkuls and the 
deportation to the north of over 30,000 kurkul families from Ukraine 
alone. The goal was to remove the potential opponents of 
collectivization from an important grain-producing area and soften the 
peasant resistance to government policies.

The Ukrainian villages, with their record of armed resistance to the 
Bolsheviks, rebelled. Two thousand “mass” protests were registered by 
the secret police in Ukraine by the end of March 1930. Peasants in the 
Pavlohrad and Kryvyi Rih areas—the home base of the strongest warlord of 
the revolutionary era, Nestor Makhno—formed detachments but were soon 
outnumbered and outgunned by the regime’s security forces. In areas 
neighboring Poland, whole villages marched to the border in a futile 
attempt to cross it and leave the collectivization nightmare behind. 
Stalin sounded a retreat, blaming excesses in collectivization on 
overzealous local cadres. Peasants forcibly enrolled in the collective 
farms were allowed to leave them. That gave them an incentive to work on 
their plots and, coupled with good weather, helped produce in the summer 
and fall of 1930 a record harvest in Ukraine. It was a victory for the 
peasantry and a defeat for collectivization, but Stalin interpreted the 
good harvest differently.

With the harvest in the silos, Stalin moved his shock troops of party 
and Young Communist League activists and secret police officers back 
into the countryside to push once again for collectivization and to 
collect the grain. With rebel leaders of the previous year imprisoned or 
exiled and villages cleansed of kurkuls, the peasants returned to the 
collective farms, but they did not change their attitude toward the 
government and its policies. They were not eager to grow more than was 
needed for themselves and their families. The record harvest of 1930 
would never be equaled again. Stalin and his aides in the Kremlin 
decided that peasants were simply hiding what they had grown. In the 
fall of 1931 they ordered requisitions that brought famine to Ukraine in 
the spring of 1932. Hardest hit were the sugar beet–producing areas 
south of Kyiv, where the authorities tried to collect what was not 
there. The famine, limited at that point to Ukraine, had begun.

As people began dying en masse in central Ukraine in the late spring and 
early summer of 1932, the government in Moscow sent the republic new 
quotas for grain procurement in the fall of 1932. As there was no sowing 
in regions already affected by famine and the rest of the collective 
farms were in disarray, Ukrainian party officials sounded the alarm, 
pleading with Stalin for the reduction of quotas. He refused. Keeping 
the 1932 quotas in place and maintaining pressure on the peasantry, 
Stalin opened a new front in his war on Ukraine. His enemies were the 
Ukrainian party and government officials who were trying to defend the 
peasantry instead of following the party line and extracting grain no 
matter what.

The attack on the Ukrainian political leadership, allegedly for 
colluding with the kurkuls in the countryside, was first conceived in 
the summer of 1932. Doubting the loyalty of the cadres in Ukraine, 
Stalin accused them of sympathizing with Ukrainian nationalism, which he 
associated with Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian leader of the revolutionary 
era. He also suspected them of leanings toward Marshal Józef Piłsudski, 
the leader of Poland and Petliura’s former ally. “If we don’t make an 
effort now to improve the situation in Ukraine, we may lose Ukraine,” 
wrote Stalin to his right-hand man, Lazar Kaganovich.

Keep in mind that Piłsudski is not daydreaming…. Keep in mind that the 
Ukrainian Communist Party includes more than a few rotten elements, 
conscious and unconscious Petliurites as well as direct agents of 
Piłsudski. As soon as things get worse, these elements will not be slow 
in opening a front within (and without) the party against the party.

Stalin wanted to purge the party leadership and top echelons of the 
Ukrainian secret police not only to facilitate increased grain 
requisitions but also to cleanse the party and government apparatus of 
cadres more loyal to their people than to their boss in Moscow. In 
November 1932 he sent into Ukraine as a plenipotentiary a senior secret 
police official, Vsevolod Balytsky, who was experienced in combating 
Ukrainian nationalism. In the following month Stalin opened one more 
front in his Ukrainian war, this time against the cultural elite. The 
decree signed on December 14, 1932, signaled the start of his offensive 
on all three fronts: against the peasantry, the local party elite, and 
the Ukrainian intelligentsia. It linked the failure to fulfill 
grain-requisition plans with kulak resistance to the regime, the alleged 
nationalism of the elites, the subversive activities of foreign 
governments, and policies to promote the Ukrainian language and culture. 
The political conditions under which the Great Famine of 1932–1933 would 
unfold were now fully in place.

On New Year’s Day 1933 Stalin sent a telegram to the Ukrainian party 
bosses ordering them to apply a recently adopted law on the theft of 
collective farm property to prosecute those who did not fulfill grain 
quotas. From now on, all grain found in peasant households could be 
considered stolen from the collective farm and thus from the state. As 
the procurement brigades, composed of party cadres from the cities, 
police officials, and local activists, moved from one peasant household 
to another, confiscating grain and often taking all available food 
supplies as “fines” from the starving peasants, they left in their wake 
a devastated countryside bracing itself for the inevitable new famine.

The first cases of mass death from starvation were recorded that 
January. Especially hard hit were regions of central Ukraine that had 
not recovered from the famine of 1932. They were too weak to do any 
sowing in the spring and had little to harvest in the fall. Peasants 
there died at a higher rate than anywhere else, with the administrative 
zones of Kyiv and Kharkiv accounting for losses of over one million 
each. According to the latest estimates, most of the nearly four million 
people who died from starvation in Ukraine perished between March and 
June 1933, when food supplies were exhausted and early crops turned out 
to be too difficult for shrunken stomachs to digest. Government 
assistance arrived too late and was insufficient to stop the death 
spiral. It was distributed exclusively to the collective farms and 
shipped predominantly to the main grain-producing areas in southern 
Ukraine. People in the most severely afflicted areas of central Ukraine 
were left to die. As in the Gulag, the subject of Applebaum’s earlier 
book, the regime was prepared to feed those still able to work.

As the peasants died of hunger, Stalin intensified his war on Ukraine on 
the two other fronts: against the party elite and the cultural 
intelligentsia. The charge was led by his plenipotentiary Pavel 
Postyshev, who arrived in Ukraine in January 1933. Tens of thousands of 
Ukrainian Communists were purged from the party during Postyshev’s first 
year in Ukraine. In the commissariat of education, close to four 
thousand teachers were dismissed, and repressive measures were taken 
against most school administrators. Ukrainian writers were targeted for 
especially severe persecution. In May 1933, on hearing of the arrest of 
his friend Mykhailo Yalovy, Ukraine’s leading Communist writer, the poet 
and novelist Mykola Khvylovi committed suicide. “The arrest of 
Yalovy—this is the murder of an entire generation…. For what? Because we 
were the most sincere communists?” wrote Khvylovi in his suicide note.

In July 1933 Mykola Skrypnyk, an old Bolshevik and architect of cultural 
policies in Ukraine, committed suicide to avoid imminent arrest. By that 
time, teaching and publishing in Ukrainian in the Kuban and other 
regions of the Russian Federation settled by Ukrainians was already 
banned. The largest ethnic minority in Russia was wiped out culturally. 
In Ukraine itself, the promotion of Ukrainian culture among 
non-Ukrainians was stopped in its tracks, ensuring the dominance of 
Russian culture in the Ukrainian cities. Stalin’s three-pronged assault 
on the Ukrainian peasantry and the country’s political and intellectual 
elite produced a new Ukraine—subdued and silent but refusing to forget.

Applebaum tells the story of the Great Famine not only with compassion 
but also with precision, using a wealth of official documents and oral 
testimony to reconstruct the events and reveal the thoughts, concerns, 
and feelings of those involved, both perpetrators and victims. Analyzing 
the famine from multiple political, economic, ethnic, and cultural 
perspectives, she avoids reducing it to a chronicle of ethnic suffering 
or turning it into something it was not.

“Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians, nor did all Ukrainians 
resist,” writes Applebaum in her conclusions. “But Stalin did seek to 
physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the 
countryside and the cities.” The Holodomor, she suggests, does not 
conform easily to the definition of genocide set forth in the United 
Nations convention of 1948, which “came to mean the physical elimination 
of an entire ethnic group, in a manner similar to the Holocaust.” The UN 
convention, Applebaum explains, was shaped in large part by Soviet 
delegates who were eager to limit the definition of genocide to acts 
committed by proponents of fascist and racist ideologies.

But the Holodomor readily fits the definition produced by no less a 
figure than the father of the concept, the lawyer Raphael Lemkin: 
“Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a 
nation…. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of 
different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of 
the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups 
themselves.” In his unpublished lecture “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine” 
(1953), Lemkin emphasized that the Soviets attacked the Ukrainian 
political and cultural elite because they were “small and easily 
eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full 
force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass 
murder, deportation, and forced labour, exile and starvation.” Applebaum 
leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions on the issue.

Red Famine, a book about an enormous tragedy, ends on a positive note:

In the end, Ukraine was not destroyed. The Ukrainian language did not 
disappear. The desire for independence did not disappear either—and 
neither did the desire for democracy, or for a more just society, or for 
a Ukrainian state that truly represented Ukrainians…. When they were 
allowed to do so, in 1991, they voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Applebaum suggests that Stalin, who succeeded in forcing the Ukrainian 
peasantry into collective farms and crushed the Ukrainian national 
renaissance of the 1920s, failed in the long term: “A generation of 
Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians was murdered in the 1930s, but 
their legacy lived on.” So did the memory of the Holodomor. “As a 
nation, Ukrainians know what happened in the twentieth century, and that 
knowledge can help shape their future,” reads the last sentence of the 
book. Red Famine helps the world at large to understand it as well.

In her acknowledgments, Applebaum graciously thanks my colleagues and me 
at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute for our encouragement, 
advice, and support. While I was happy to introduce Applebaum to many of 
my colleagues in the field of Ukrainian and Soviet history and share 
with her the results of research on the spatial dimensions of the famine 
undertaken at the institute, I had no part in shaping her interpretation 
of events. ↩

More information about the Marxism mailing list